John Donne and the Sonnet Problem


What makes a sonnet? For most early modern examples, the answer is clear: a 14-line rhyming poem, its form either Shakespearean (three quatrains and a couplet) or Petrarchan (an octave and a sestet). There are exceptions to those formal rules, but most sonnets meet them.

Formal rules are the conventional answer. And that answer works for conventional sonnets, which are the vast majority of sonnets.

But if you enforce formal rules too rigorously, you encounter a few interesting problems. These are the problems that my project is investigating. Moments’ Monuments: The ACL Database is collecting as many sonnets as possible, so I can get a more definitive answer to this question: Is the sonnet a form or a genre? The trouble is, you need to decide first what qualifies as a sonnet.

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The OED maketh an exact man

“Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” So writes Sir Francis Bacon in his essay “Of Studies” (1597). What exactly he means by this three-part aphorism is unclear, so let’s focus just on the middle part: “conference [maketh] a ready man.” We’ll have to determine the meanings of at least two words: ‘conference’ and ‘ready.’

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”The Past is a Foreign Country…”

“… they do things differently there.” So goes a very quotable aphorism by the otherwise obscure novelist named L. P. Hartley. There are things about its people, their mindsets and habits, that seem utterly foreign: like alchemy, or absolute monarchy. But we measure their distance also by things they did that we can’t do, like building temples or writing epic poetry.

Their poetry is also, paradoxically, where we can find familiarity. Sure, past writers use antique formulations and words, but their underlying emotions can be human in a transcendent, trans-historical way. We can feel their urgency.

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