Thursday, 27 November 2008


I bought this wee anthology (on a whim) some twelve years ago - and since then it has crept up on me and is now a strong contender to be my Desert Island book choice.

I'm a bit of a fan of the sonnet - too short to be boring, but long enough to give the writer space to express a thought, a mood, a challenge - and to do so with economy, drama, precision, flair.

Compiler Don Paterson clearly loves the form as well - and, a poet himself, is strongly aware of the challenge and opportunity of having a mere fourteen lines in which to pull the poetic rabbit from the formulaic hat.

His selection included a handful of poems that were familar to me - and over the years I've come to love many of the sonnets (and poets) which he has introduced to me.

My thumbed copy has been with me to Greece, Spain, France, the USA and New Zealand. And, very selectively, I'm memorising my favourites.

As someone remarked, it's possible to appreciate all sorts of works of art. But a poem is the only masterpiece that you can 'download' into your head and take with you wherever you go for the rest of your life.

There's one sonnet per page, which means that apart from sonnets 1 and 101, each opening of the book places two poems to the eye. Paterson has a neat trick of pairing poems in ways that are, by turns, illuminating, intriguing and, occasionally, deliciously naughty.

For example, he pairs this sonnet of William Alabaster (1567-1640) with John Donne's famously forthright prayer-poem 'Batter my heart, three-personed God':

Upon the Crucifix
Now I have found thee I will evermore
Embrace this standard where thou sitst above,
Feed greedy eyes and from hence never rove;
Suck hungry soul of this eternal store;
Issue my heart from thy two-leaved door,

And let my lips from kissing not remove.
O that I were transformed into love,
And as a plant might spring upon this flower,
Like wandering ivy or sweet honeysuckle:
How would I with my twine about it buckle,
And kiss his feet with my ambitious boughs,
And climb along upon his sacred breast,
And make a garland for his wounded brows:
Lord so I
am, if here my thoughts may rest.

As Paterson remarks: 'Phew!'


brett jordan said...

brings a whole new meaning to the word 'meta-phwoah'

Mr Gnome said...

Yes indeed! I guess a huge area for literary / thrological study - the overlap between religious devotion and eroticism. Bernini's 'Ecstasy of St Teresa' for example - and all those pictures of St Sebastian....