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This review is taken from PN Review 149, Volume 29 Number 3, January - February 2003.

SONNETS OLD AND NEW The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English, edited by Phillis Levin (Penguin Books)
MICHAEL SPILLER, Early Modern Sonnetteers: From Wyatt to Milton (Northcote House, Horndon)

As soon as I sat down to read this book I saw that it would be a mistake to try to read it through. Too many sonnets, one after another, constitute a form of self-indulgence. Before very long, they begin to merge and swim together until all one hears is the abstract music of the sonnet form itself and not, as one should, the way every good sonnet subtly re-invents that form in its own way. The glory of the form is to admit of an infinite variety within a severely circumscribed compass. A personal music plays a duet with the music of the form as a whole.

This means that, although the onus is on the sonneteer's own originality, that originality is easily subsumed into the form itself so that it becomes more than simply personal. Thus, many good sonnets seem to speak more from the form than the individual, transcending authorship by the strength of convention. The sonnets may be distinct but the sonneteers themselves can seem interchangeable. This may be off-putting at a time when poets cherish the individuality of their own voices but it has not put modern poets off writing sonnets for all that. They have still found the communal discipline of the form salutary, even when it has seemed at odds with self-expression. Probably, this tension is as old as the sonnet itself. Yet the form also carries inherent dangers. Both poet and reader need a strategy to defend themselves against ...


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