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This is the electronic edition of Jørn Erslev Andersen: "Sonnetian Poetics". Working Paper no. 44-97, Center for Cultural Research, University of Aarhus.

The pagination of the printed edition is indicated by red numbers marking the beginning of the page.

ISBN: 87-7725-224-1

Published electronically: February 18, 1998

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Jørn Erslev Andersen:

Sonnetian Poetics

When a poet chooses a specific genre for his poetic efforts there should be at least two reasons for this choice, especially if the genre is as specific as the sonnet. Either he uses the form as an excercise to demonstrate his poetic mastership in a technical sense. As John Donne writes: "He is a fool which cannot make one sonnet, and he is mad which makes two" (it is of course a well-known fact that Donne wrote a very famous sequence of sonnets on religious topics). Or his effort is to encounter, to challenge in order to overcome or renew what we after Adorno could call a specific poetical material.

Sometimes it can be very difficult to make divisions between these two reasons for using a specific genre on the level of a particular poem. They are often mixed. But it is of course, at least in my opinion, the second reason which calls for reflections according to the topic I call 'Sonnetian Poetics'. I simply find it fascinating to investigate how formal patterns in a very restrictive way open for poetic imagination and surprising innovations, and I think this fascination also bears some valid perspectives concerning the field normally called literary history. The topic calls upon at least one major suggestion: it is necessary for both poet and reader to take seriously the small and beautiful and somewhat bizarre form or matrix called 'a sonnet' as an open poetical choice as well as a 'systemic' limitation. A limitation which can afford innovations, ex-  


periments, and, say, ruptures with a broader poetical effect, but only so far as the effort is grounded on a serious work with or within the matrix itself. The details must be mastered to perfection if an unbecoming behaviour concerning formal topics should succeed in an interpretative significant and anything but casual way.

The sonnet is by no means a new invention, but seen in the light of for instance the Archaic dithyrambs, hymns, and odes the sonnet could be considered as a relatively new or even modern lyric form. Paul Oppenheimer does not hesitate calling the sonnet the medium - per se, so to say - for the birth of the modern mind due to its 'syllogistic' form outlining the first major possibility for the reflexitivity of the self in a written medium, and that more than 4 centuries before Descartes' famous dictum "Cogito, ergo sum" (The Birth of the Modern Mind, 1989). In his major work on the history of the European sonnet, Das Sonett from 1955, Walter Mönch states the sonnet and its vitality to be linked to the force of a secret fascination in the form itself.

The invention of the sonnet is dated to the 1220's where among others the Sicilian poet, lawyer, and notary by the name Ciacomo de Lentino conceived it, probably inspired by the Italian-Provencal canzone or the Sicilian strambotto. They called the small form of 14 lines a sonnet after the Italian "sonetto" (a little sound or a little sound-movement). In this paper I will concentrate only on this form, and not for instance the Shakespearean sonnet.

Dante taunted the sonnet in "De vulgari eloquentia"; he found it too small and belonging to the "low" or "comic" style (but none the less he wrote beautiful sonnets to Beatrice). The most famous sonneteer is of course Petrarca. In his "Canzoniere"  


(published in 1470) there are 317 elegant and perfect sonnets, and the most influential and used form of the sonnet is as you all know named after him; the Petrarchan sonnet.

It consists of fourteen iambic pentameter lines linked by an octave in two quatrains rhyming abba abba and a sestet in two tercets rhyming cde cde or some variant, such as cdc cdc. This is the matrix which in the following more than 5 centuries of European literary history calls for experiments and a vast amount of variations. I do not intend to exhaust the story about the invention of the sonnet and its complex tour de force through European literary history. I just want to open a discussion according to this complex material by presenting two very preliminary perspectives:

First, I will do a sketchy draft of this - maybe a little odd - thing I call 'sonnetian poetics' (or better: 'sonnetian analytic')

Second, I will present an exemplary reading of two sonnets by Baudelaire, and Rimbaud. Sonnetian poetics

The sonnets of this seminar[1] contain an amount of variations from the Petrarchan sonnet on the level of the formal patterns. Quevedo  


is very consistent by following the Petrarchan sonnet in the use of rhyme, the stable amount of syllables, and the caesura between the octave and the sestet. Keats, Nerval, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and Rilke differ in many ways from a more dogmatic Petrarchan form; these scathing sonneteers use other rhyme structures as well as other metric features (the French are for instance using alexandrines due to the French tradition from les Pléiades (Ronsard)). They also allow for small but significant ruptures in the different ways they adopt the laws of the canonized form of the sonnet. On the other hand we are beyond any doubt dealing with sonnets using the basic system, that is the sonnetian matrix. They obey, at least to a certain point, the laws of the octave and the sestet. They obey to a certain point metrical or rhythmical patterns. They observe specific - often quite common - traditions in their use of rhyme structures. And they obey to a certain point the idea of the characteristic 'syllogistic' or 'caesural' rupture or 'turning point' between the octave and the sestet located in the last line of the octave and the first of the sestet. That is, technically speaking, between the picture or event presented in the octave and the reflection upon it in the sestet. The conjunction between these two periods of the sonnet is normally either a simile in an ""  


structure, where the exemplum (the concetto) syntactically flows through the whole sonnet with an energeia breaking through all the formal and retarding patterns (catalexis, rhyme, metre). Or the conjunction takes place in the shape of a negation, a denial of the elements in the octave.

So, our sonneteers are not consistent in their use of the Petrarchan sonnet-form, but one can without any problems locate a consistency in their use of some of its basic rules with Keats as a very peculiar exception (his reflection upon the sonnet in his rather stanzaic sonnet "If by dull rhymes our english must be chained" is an example of how experiments within the sonnet form can lead to innovations within another form, in this case Keats' odes). By rules I rather mean rules of the sonnetian concept than the more formal rules concerning rhymes, metre, and so on. It is due to this clash I propose the following tentative or preliminary model for opening a reading of sonnetian lyrics. This model - and I stress this now once and for all - should in no ways be taken as a dogmatic model, but rather as a reminder when observing some phenomena in a vast poetical use of canonical forms across the boundaries of specific historical literary environments and individual sentiments.

As mentioned one can make a division between a sonnetian concept and the more specific technical rules. The concept, as I here understand it, concerns the use of the turning point between the octave and the sestet, that is, the center of the composition. It also deals with the idea, that the sonnet should be consistently build up according to the above-mentioned formal or technical rules. From that follows the evident conclusion that the single word in the sonnet bears its signification not only as being in itself a figure or part  


of a figure as such. The signification of the single word or the single figure is also influenced by the structure of the sonnet whether it is proper or improper, that is, the placing of (at least parts) of the particular word or figure as stressed or unstressed, the placing in the rhyme structure, and so on. Another element in the concept of the sonnet concerns the delicate breaking of significant rules. If they are to have any acceptable signification they must be considered as interpretative significant, and not for instance as arbitrary. If they are to be considered as arbitrary they are no longer interesting as part of the 'sonnetian poetics'. And the interest in the phenomenon should, at least in my opinion, be related to interpretation, and not just description, philology, technical examination, and so on.

Elsewhere[2] I have suggested that these more or less formal aspects of the concept of the sonnet could result in the following areas of observation concerning the interactions between the metre, the syntax, and the semantics. The metre is often being challenged by catalexis or hypercatalexis (Rilke could in this context be the major example on this as well as could Mallarmé, but only if one allows for a minor speculative remark; I shall later return to this, which meanwhile can remain an enigmatic promise for speculation). Also the metre is often being challenged by the syntax resulting in a conflict between an easy or rough syntax of the versification, which we may call the rhythm, and a mechanical (dead-like) metre; many genres contain this conflict; Hölderlin as well as his masterpoet Pindarus are masters in using this poetic  


skill.[3] The placing of the words in the metre as well as the conflict between syntax and metre are elements which I consider as significant for the interpretation of the semantic function of the single word or figure, that is, the metaphoric level avant la lettre. This could to some degree be considered a rather obvious statement. But I am afraid it is not so obvious as it seems. I hope the examples I shall now present will show why. Baudelaire, and Rimbaud Two examples

In Hugo Friedrich's well-known Die Struktur der modernen Lyrik from 1956 there are some smaller comments on two sonnets by Baudelaire, and Rimbaud. As you all probably know the sonnet is a dominant genre in French nineteenth century poetry.[4] We have already been listening to exciting readings of sonnets by Nerval, and Mallarmé. The Parnessians had it as a favourite genre but in a very dogmatic and restricted way which called for subversion. Mallarmé used the form to perfection but in a way that totally destroyed the socalled 'content' of the skilled form he used whereby he subverted the dogmaticism of the Parnessians. Hugo Friedrich does not emphasize this in his readings of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé. His readings are among many other readings in for instance sonnetian lyrics examples of an astonishing lack of interest in the lyric form. In spite of that I still place Friedrich's book as one of the ma-  


jor books on poetry from this century; you may bear this in mind when listening to the following comments.


    Que le soleil est beau quand tout frais il se lève,

    Comme une explosion nous lançant son bonjour!

    - Bienhereux celui-là qui peut avec amour

    Saluer son coucher plus glorieux qu'un rêve!

    Je me souviens!... J'ai vu tout, fleur, source, sillon,

    Se pâmer sous son æil comme un cæur qui palpite...

    - Courons vers l'horizon, il est tard, courons vite,

    Pour attraper au moins un oblique rayon!

    Mais je poursuis en vain le Dieu qui se retire;

    L'irrésistible Nuit établit son empire,

    Noire, humide, funeste et pleine de frissons;

    Une odeur de tombeau dans les ténèbres nage,

    Et mon pied peureux froisse, au bord du marécage,

    Des crapauds imprévus et de froids limaçons*.    

* Le mot Genus irritabile vatum date de bien des siècles avant la querelle des Classiques, des Romantiques, des Réalistes, des Euphuistes, etc... Il est évident que par l'irrésistible Nuit M. Charles Baudelaire a voulu caractériser l'état actuel de la littérature, et que les crapauds imprévus et les froids limaçons sont les écrivains qui ne sont pas de son école (Baudelaire's own note).


    C'EST un trou de verdure où chante une rivière

    Accrochant follement aux herbes des haillons

    D'argent; où le soleil, de la montagne fière,

    Luit: c'est un petit val qui mousse de rayons.


    Un soldat jeune, bouche ouverte, tête nue,

    Et la nuque baignant dans le frais cresson bleu,

    Dort; il est étendu dans l'herbe, sous la nue,

    Pâle dans son lit vert où la lumière pleut.

    Les pieds dans les glaïeuls, il dort. Souriant comme

    Sourirait un enfant malade, il fait un somme:

    Nature, berce-le chaudement: il a froid.

    Les parfums ne font pas frissoner sa narine;

    Il dort dans le soleil, la main sur sa poitrine

    Tranquille. Il a deux trous rouges au côté droit.

The two sonnets are as you can see "Le Coucher du soleil romantique" by Baudelaire, and "Le Dormeur du val" by Rimbaud. Baudelaire's sonnet is dated 1862 and was published in December 1866 as the epilogue of a book called Mélanges tirés d'une petite bibliothéque romantique which was edited by Charles Asselineau. The comparison, in Baudelaire's note, of the creepy animals in the sonnet to contemporary writers, which of course must be the realists, is somewhat mysterious according to the comments of the Pléiade-edition. Rimbaud's sonnet was written in Douai in October 1870.

Friedrich's comments on these two sonnets are of course closely linked to the dominant perspective of his book, that is his categories of negativity: deformation, dehumanizing and depersonalizing figures, enigma, dissonance, and empty ideality. He reads the lyrics strictly as poems, not as sonnets. His rare comments upon the use of the sonnet form in for instance Baudelaire only consider the fact that the forms of his poems often are cool, some-  


what classic, and beautiful while the 'content' of the same poems is rude, obscene, and so on. His presentation of Baudelaire's well-known figure of redemption through the form is very precise, and he quotes Baudelaire's famous remark where he states, that (and I quote in my own English translation) "it is obvious that metrical rules are not an arbitrary invented tyranny. They are rules demanded by the organism of the spirit itself, and they have never prevented the originality from realizing itself. Quite on the contrary they have always helped maturing originality" (Friedrich, German edition p. 29). Such observations in Friedrich's own text, which could call for a reflection on why Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé all wrote sonnets, are remarkably absent in his comments upon for instance "Le Coucher du soleil romantique", "Le Dormeur du val" as well as other sonnets. Baudelaire's sonnet, he writes, contains a play of the contrast between light and joy vanishing through the poem, ending in a totally reversed image: the cold night, the swamp, and the creepy animals. "Le Dormeur du val" he considers as an example of dehumanizing. He talks explicitly about the 'content' of a poem ("Der Inhalt eines Gedichtes", p. 53), which he in Rimbaud's sonnet states as being the unveiling of the sleeping soldier as dead. He also states the movement in the figures and epithets as going from light to dark, which he sees as a slow descent to the point of death. I do, at least to a certain point, agree with his observations, but one can easily subvert them, with reference to the above-mentioned Baudelaire quotation, simply by asking why Baudelaire and Rimbaud used the sonnet-form for these movements, these figures? I shall try to investigate this question by leaving Friedrich and by following in -11-

the wake of Baudelaire's above-mentioned remarks about the metrical rules.

Let's shortly investigate the forms of the two sonnets:

They are both typical French in using alexandrines following the tradition after Les Pléiades, that is, Ronsard who introduced the sonnet in French literary history and suggested the alexandrine instead of the iambic pentameter as the most proper line of the sonnet. They both use typical rhyme structures. On nearly all other levels their formal use of the sonnet form differ remarkably. Baudelaire

All the rhymes in Baudelaire's sonet are beautifully related or mirroring each other as well as all words in the rhyme structure are significant for the figures of the poem. The semantics of the words in his sonnet correspond word to word with the formal significations, all stressed words or syllables are significant, most of the unstressed words have a minor grammatical or syntactical function. The alexandrines elegantly divide each line up into two periods. And he is in a very traditionel manner using a "Mais" in the shift from octave to sestet. The "Mais" introduces the negation of the images in the octave. A negation in which the sonnet in the sestet retires these somewhat romantic images signified by the last word of the first line in the first sestet. The retirement opens to another empire. Also, in English retire and empire is a rhyme.

There is, as far as I can see, only one unbecoming line in Baudelaire's sonnet, namely the fifth. The metre is here broken by  


the syntax and by the use of what we may consider as an aposiopesis.[5] Now why is that so? Maybe because we here have an "I", that is the "I" of the poem, hesitating for a short moment: "Je me souviens!..." The remembrance of the "I" has to be forced, it seems, which may be signified through the use of what one, with Hölderlin, could call a contra-rhythmical (gegenrhythmisch) event in the conflict between the metre and the syntax. The "I" marks itself as destabilized or a little uneasy - or maybe more precisely: unbecoming - in the placing of the metaphorial environment of the surrounding lines, that is, in the octave, whereby the line, the little contra-rhythmical event, anticipates the turning point of the ninth line. In that way the little unbecoming event in the fifth line is consequently a formal demarcation of the figurative flow in the sonnet; it signals how to understand the role of the "I" of the sonnet, namely as being situated in a conflict with the figurations, that is, the romantic image. Due to the skilled use of the sonnetian rules throughout the sonnet the small unbecoming event points out how to understand, how to make an interpretation, of the before and after, of the before in the octave where the "I" hesitates, and the now in the sestet where the romantic sun has vanished leaving a dead-like night. For a further investigation of this shift, the vanishing romantic sun and the consequences af this vanishing event, one could simply read Baudelaire's own note or one could understand the cruel night as an acrid critique of romantic images  


or even as an image of the state of the mind or the contemporary civilization as dead-like, and so on. Which ever choice you pick, the placing of the destabilized "I" in the fifth line should be considered as significant due to its anything but arbitrary breaking of formal patterns and its influence on the semantics of the sonnet.


The amount of breaking formal rules in Rimbaud's sonnet is quite vast. First of all the sonnet contains a very significant conflict between the metre and the syntax, that is, the alexandrines are more than once being challenged by the syntax. It results in improper enjambements with two significant consequences: the metre is being challenged by a syntactically defined contra-rhythm, and the rhymes are not placed at the end of a periodically finished line.

The figurations of the sonnet flows directly from the octave to the sestet without any similizing or any negative caesura. The turning point of the sonnet, that is, the unveiling of the dead soldier, is to be found in the last line. Here the metre also could be considered as a little puzzled. In what we may call a rhythmetrical reading of the line, that is, in combining the prosodic and the semantic flow of the line, the three shocking words "deux trous rouges" could all be read as stressed (as well as, of course, iambic) - a kind of rhythmical sound-stressing which in itself - by using a sound which could be compared with the sound of firing arms - underlines the shocking statement of the figure.

Now, all these forced events on the formal level of Rimbaud's sonnet could easily be considered as pure malfunctions or as part of what Atle Kittang once called the interaction between discours et  


jeu in Rimbaud where the unbecoming behaviour of course could signal Rimbaud's sense for le jeu. Affiliation

It is also possible to consider the unbecoming matter of Rimbaud's sonnet as a kind of destruction of the canonized sonnet form from within itself, so to say. The unveiling of the dead soldier could be called a dehumanizing figurative movement following Friedrich. The use of the bizarre figure "cresson bleu" could be read as an opening towards impressionism. And the cool play with the form could then be considered as a cool destruction of a canonized sonnet form, and that again could be seen as a demonstration of the canonized sonnet form as no longer valid for contemporary, anti-Parnessian poetry. It then also subverts the poetics of Baudelaire and signals a turn from modern classicism to negative modernism in the most radical sense of the word. If we read Rimbaud's strikingly perfect sonnet as being destructed from within we have the possibility of sketching a literary history outlined by such ruptural innovations of a canonized form. One could read Baudelaire's sonnet and its uneasy "I" as a farewell to that kind of Romanticism Baudelaire despised (according to his well-known double-bind relation to Romanticism). Rimbaud's sonnet could be read as a farewell to Baudelaire's modern classicism signified first of all by its destruction of the classic form of the sonnet from within, that is, on the level of formal patterns which then again corresponds with the cool descriptive and somewhat impressionistic figures of the sonnet.  


One could add Mallarmé as well as, I suppose, Rilke, and Nerval to this line. Mallarmé's late sonnets are, with rare exceptions, perfect in the shaping of the form. Perhaps "Ses purs ongles" belongs to the rare exceptions. There are two versions of the sonnet.


    Ses purs ongles très haut dédiant leur onyx,

    L'Angoisse, ce minuit, soutient lampadophore,

    Maint rêve vespéral brûlé par le Phénix

    Que ne recueille pas de cinéraire amphore.

    Sur les crédences, au salon vide: nul ptyx,

    Aboli bibelot d'inanité sonore,

    (Car le Maître est allé puiser des pleurs au Styx

    Avec ce seul objet dont le Néant s'honore).

    Mais proche la croisée au nord vacante, un or

    Agonise selon peut-être le décor

    Des licornes ruant du feu contre une nixe,

    Elle, défunte nue en le miroir, encor

    Que, dans l'oubli fermé par le cadre, se fixe

    De scintillations sitôt le septuor.


    La nuit approbatrice allume les onyx

    De ses ongles au pur Crime lampadophore,

    Du Soir aboli par le vespéral Phænix

    De qui la cendre n'a de cinéraire amphore

    Sur des consoles, en le noir Salon: nul ptyx,

    Insolite vaisseau d'inanité sonore,

    Car le Maître est allé puiser l'eau du Styx  


    Avec tous ses objets dont le réve s'honore.

    Et selon la croisée au nord vacante, un or

    Néfaste incite pour son beau cadre une rixe

    Faite d'un dieu que croit emporter une nixe

    En l'obscurcissement de la glace, Décor

    De l'abscence, sinon que sur la glace encor

    De scintillation le septuor se fixe.


To the odd rhyme of the fifth line, the "ptyx", Mallarmé himself has this comment: "on m'assure qu'il n'existe dans aucune langue, ce que je préférerais de beaucoup à fin de me donner le charme de le créer par la magie de la rime". Here he explicitly refers to "the magic of the rhyme", that is, to the sound and not the socalled 'content' of the word (as a curiosity I could mention that Victor Hugo earlier than Mallarmé used the same word in le Satyre). The catalexis of the seventh line in the first edition of the sonnet dated 1868 is a rare event in Mallarmé: he counts three syllables in the word "puiser", but there are only two according to its pronunciation, that is, according to French prosody. But on the other hand: in this sonnet at this particular place this particular prosodic event may be quit puzzling and not just an error. If we accept to transport - and this may be the promised speculation mentioned before - this minor error to the 1887 edition of the sonnet, we can suddenly observe a turn from catalexis to hypercatalexis in the seventh line (that is, if we read the one line in the shape of the other; it is of course obvious that Mallarmé himself may have corrected the error from the 68-edition of the sonnet, now counting two syllables of the  


word "puiser"). That would at least correspond with the prosodic tricky word "puiser" and its semantics; the "puisage" is not just a puisage but a puisage of a rather significant kind: it is a "puisage" of tears from the "Styx" - a dead-like overflow from the ultimate line between life and death which could correspond with the formal overflow in using hypercatalexis.

But anyway, Mallarmé's late sonnets are, as Horace Engdahl once said it, perfect in their form but also very difficult when it comes to an interpretation of their figures. One could then say that the three French sonneteers use the form of the sonnet in the most skilled and perfect way to subvert every dead tradition and every kind of Parnessian dullness. One could name such poetical enforcements genealogical ruptures in the use of the canonical sonnet form which then could be considered as a poetic effort using - sonnetian poetics.

Bergen/Oslo 14.-15.3. 1996. I have not revised the paper. Thanks to Lars Sætre, Atle Kittang, Per Buvik, Arne Melberg, Anders Cullhed, and Christopher Prendergast for inspiring discussions and responses.  

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1 the paper was given at a conference on literary theory, University of Bergen, Dpt. of Comparative Literature, 13.-14.3. 1996. Programme: 13.3.: Prof. Anders Cullhed, Stockholm, "Figurer och imitation i en barocksonett: Om Quevedos dikt 465 ('En breve cárcel traigo aprisionado')"; NFR-stip. Torgeir Skorgen, Bergen, "Avgrunn og ekko: Tragisk tidstydning og inversjon i Hölderlins hymne 'Menmosyne'"; Vik.aman. Kjersti Bale, Oslo, "Orfeus i underverdenen. Gérard de Nerval: 'El Desdichado'". 14.3.: Prof. Christopher Prendergast, Cambridge, "Star-struck by Seven: Mallarmé's 'Ses purs ongles'": Prof. Arne Melberg, Oslo, "Rilke's Breath. Orpheus-sonnet II:1". Jørn Erslev Andersen, århus, "Sonnetian Poetics". The 'sonnetian circus' then went to Oslo and delivered 15.3. their papers on The Aesthetic Seminar, Dpt. of Comparative Literature, Oslo University: Anders Cullhed, "Figures and Imitation in a Baroque Sonnet: on Quevedo's poem 465", Christopher Prendergast, same titel as in Bergen, Arne Melberg, same titel as in Bergen, Jørn Erslev Andersen, same titel as in Bergen. The sonnets discussed in Bergen were, beside the ones mentioned in the titles, Rilke, Orpheus-sonnet II:29; William Wordsworth, "Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802", John Keats, "If by dull rhymes our English must be chained"; Shakespeare, Sonnet CV; Paul Celan's translation of Shakespeare's sonnet CV.

2 "Sonetinske Digressioner". Arbejdspapirer 4, Institut for Litteraturhistorie Aarhus Universitet, 1995.

3 Jørn Erslev Andersen, Poetik und Fragment - Hölderlin-Studien, Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 1997.

4 see a.o. Cristopher Prendergast (ed.), Nineteenth Century French Poetry, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.

5 the line could be read as an intrusion of a trimètre into the tétramètre - a kind of 'romantic' alexandrine following Hugo, which would be a beautiful event thinking of the romantic topic of the sonnet, but the line does not consist of three regular measures according to the French romantic 4 + 4 + 4 trimètre.

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