Selections from "The Sonnet"

From Forms of English Poetry (1904)

C. F. Johnson

The sonnet is in every regard different from the ballad. It is of a fixed length and meter,--fourteen iambic pentameters. It is a foreign importation and has been used exclusively by the literary class; the ballad is indigenous and belongs primarily to the people. The sonnet is never recited or sung, though its Italian original, "sonnetto," means little song, and there are no anonymous sonnets. But as the sonnet form has been used with brief intermissions in our language since the sixteenth century and since the thirteenth century in Italy, it, too, has stood the test of time, and if it does not contain any popular quality, must have in itself an element of artistic perfection.

. . . The modern tendency to avoid sonorousness and volume of sound, to repress the force of the accent beat in any one line, to reduce poetic diction to the simplicity of prose, and to keep emotional expression within decorous, conventional bounds seems to prevent the production of sonnets of the highest class. The sonnet is well adapted to the presentation of two related thoughts, whether the relation be that of contrast or of parallelism, but it is so short that the body of thought must be very condensed and striking, lucidly presented and yet of far-reaching suggestiveness. The technical difficulties of the form are also very great, which, indeed, makes the perfect ones more satisfying. Sonnet beauty depends on symmetry and asymmetry both, for the parts are unequal in length and different in form and meloldy. In this it resembles things of organic beauty as opposed to things of geometric beauty. It involves the principle of balanced yet dissimilar masses, of formality and freedom, like a tree which has developed under the rigorous law of its growth and yet is shaped by the chance of wind and sunshine into something individual. The sonnet form could not have endured the test of time for so many years did it not embody some of the underlying principles of beauty. . .