Robert Hillyer’s Sonnet Thought

10 07 2017

A number of thinkers, including DanteChristina Pugh, and I (building off of the other two), have argued for the primacy of the sonnet as structure over the sonnet as form. (For more on the structure-form distinction, click here.) It turns out, poet-critic Robert Hillyer does, as well. Here’s Hillyer, 4 pages into his 25-page discussion of the sonnet (pp. 88-114) in In Pursuit of Poetry (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc., 1960):

Before speaking of the sonnet in England, I should like to describe the thought-form of the sonnet, which is, in fact, more important than the rhyme-scheme, so important that both Spenser and Keats wrote sonnets in blank verse which are still recognizable as sonnets. All that follows is normal usage; many exceptions may be found, and in most of Milton’s sonnets and many of Wordsworth’s the divisions between the parts are not observed.

These divisions are one major and two minor, the major break being between the octave and the sestet. The two other breaks are usually observed, though sometimes no more than by a pause which a comma would indicate. The Italian sonnet divides thus: a b b a / a b b a // c d e / c d e (or c d c’ d c d). The Italian sonnet, too, often has a monumental and sounding last line which, by its very rhetoric, sets it off as a single unit. This last line is important in the Italian form, and I shall give examples of it shortly. In the English sonnet, the breaks occur naturally between the quatrains and before the couplet: a b a b / c d c d // e f e f / g g. Instead of the sounding last line of the Italian sonnet, the terminal couplet of the English tends toward an epigrammatic illustration of what has gone before. (91)

Hillyer then maps out how a few poems (the sixty-first sonnet of Michael Drayton’s sequence, Idea; Shakespeare’s sonnet 87; Shakespeare’s sonnet 18; and some others) engage the English sonnet’s thought-structure. He then directs attention to the Italian sonnet: “When we turn to the Petrarchan sonnet, we find the same thought-structure with the addition of the high-sounding last line” (94). Hillyer demonstrates how Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” and George Santayana’s “As in the midst of battle there is room” exemplify this structure.

The case for sonnet thought, it seems, is developing.

Check out some of Hillyer’s own sonnets here.