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Working within certain limits — whether self-imposed or not — can often be liberating. This is especially true when it comes to creativity. A specific material, a defined word count, a time limit.
The most famous among modern writers who embrace limits are the members of Oulipo. And possibly the most well-known of their creations is La Disparition (The Void) by Georges Perec. This is a novel written without a single use of the letter ‘e’. That’s hard enough in English; in French a task only a madman (or genius) would attempt. The purpose, of course, is not only to have fun and solve some sort of puzzle but to create works that, well, work.
Self-imposed limits have been around for as long as writing.
Shakespeare worked well with constraints. He also worked well with others, according to some accounts but that’s neither here nor there. Constraints. The most obvious place to look at those constraints is in the Sonnets. A sonnet is, by definition, a poem written to a particular format and Shakespeare’s Sonnets have a format that he made very much his own. In his own way, Shakespeare is an Elizabethan Oulipoist. Oulipotary? Oulipont?
So, what’s with the sonnet?
The sonnet’s origin lies with Petrarch, an Italian poet of the 14th century who decided to give up the priesthood after gazing upon the beauty of a young woman called Laura. (I like that name but I have yet to write any poetry dedicated to my wife.) The sonnet then came to England through translations of Petrarch by Thomas Wyatt in the 16th century. It quickly found popularity, not just in its original Petrarchan form of two quatrains followed by a sestet in the rhyming pattern of ABBA ABBA CDCDCD but in many variations.
So, basically, what we have is a poem of fourteen lines adhering to a strict rhyming pattern.
Variations are the life-blood of literary games — and development. This was Oulipo before Oulipo. Poets reading sonnets grasped how the constraints of the form could liberate their creativity. As could changing the constraints.
The constraints lie not just in the rhyming pattern but in the length of the poem and even in the line length. By the time Shakespeare started using the sonnet, he had refined the structure. Shakespeare’s self-imposed constraints are a rhyme pattern of ABABCDCDEFEFGG, lines of ten syllables, and the use of iambic pentameter. The iambic pentameter is the sound an actor with a wooden leg makes crossing the stage. Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum. It is the sound of the great speeches from Shakespeare’s plays, too.
So, Shakespeare gives us three quatrains and a rhyming couplet and it is in the couplet that the magic — the turn — usually happens. This is where the poet resolves the problem posed in the first twelve lines or reveals that the meaning is subtly different to what was first thought. Petrarch set his turn nearer the middle. Shakespeare holds it back for more effect. It becomes the pay-off.
Let’s look at Sonnet 29 — if only because I read that this morning. It’s what got me thinking about sonnets and constraints in the first place.
In Sonnet 29, “the poet” spends lines 1 to 9 describing how he compares his life to others and finds it wanting. Lines 10, 11, and 12 give us a sort of pre-turn, a relief from self-pity. The poet remembers that he is in love and his mood changes. Sonnet 29 is more like Petrarch in this respect because the turn starts earlier in the poem. The full turn in the final couplet is simple reinforcement. His love allows him to realise he would not change a thing:
“For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”
As I said at the top, the work needs to pay its way if it’s not going to be just another throwaway collection of words. With Shakespeare, there’s a good chance that the words will be so good that you even forget the constraints under which he was working.
What better way to wrap up the whole thing by simply laying out the text here?
Sonnet 29 – William Shakespeare
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy counted least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Beautiful. One full stop only in the whole poem. And from first to last line it carries you, in a single breath, from despair to acceptance.