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When I was in high school, writing dreadful poetry, when I thought of sonnets as 14-line rhymed poems with ten syllables per line, I used to develop odd rhyme schemes. I wasn’t going to be constrained by Shakespeare and Petrarch, damnit. This is an embodiment of my younger self’s unserious attitude toward poetry, seeking greatness through pointless invention rather than simply learning my craft.

Happily, Washington Allston’s sonnets marry a similar playfulness about rhyme schemes with a level of craft my younger self wholly lacked. The Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry includes nine of his sonnets (plus one 15-line pseudo-sonnet). Here are their rhyme schemes:

ABABCCDDEFFEGG
ABBACCDEDEFFGG
ABCBCADDEFEGFG
ABBACDCDEFEFGG
AABCBCDDEEFFGG
AABBCCDDEEFFGG
AABBCDCDEFFEGG
ABBACDDCEEEFFC
ABBACDDCEEFGGF
ABABBCCDDEFEFGG

They are mostly variants on the Shakespearean sonnet (at least insofar as they end with a couplet), only with the occasional Petrarchan quatrain or heroic couplet. But the third is basically two Petrarchan sestets bridged by a heroic couplet, and the eighth is a Petrarchan octave with a sestet of Allston’s own devising.

But enough about the rhyme schemes—are the poems any good? I think so. Most are reactions to various works of art that he admired (think Keats on Chapman). Here, for instance, is Allston on Peligrino Tibaldi’s Aeolus:

On Seeing the Picture of Æolus by Peligrino Tibaldi, in the Institute at Bologna

Full well, Tibaldi, did thy kindred mind
The mighty spell of Bonarroti own.
Like one who, reading magic words, receives
The gift of intercourse with worlds unknown,
’Twas thine, decyph’ring Nature’s mystic leaves,
To hold strange converse with the viewless wind;
To see the spirits, in embodied forms
Of gales and whirlwinds, hurricanes and storms.
For, lo! obedient to thy bidding, teems
Fierce into shape their stern, relentless lord;
His form of motion ever-restless seems;
Or, if to rest inclined his turbid soul,
On Hecla’s top to stretch, and give the word
To subject winds that sweep the desert pole.

Allston praises Tibaldi for the way in which he captures Aeolus’ motion even in rest, and suggests that Tibaldi is able to do so because of a heightened perception of the “viewless wind” that lies behind the visible motion of leaves. (On this point, the poem pairs well with “Project” by A.R. Ammons.)

The octave sets this up nicely. It is not overly impressive on its own, though it reads well. Where the poem really succeeds is in the sestet, for here, to make his praise of Tibaldi believable, Allston must himself capture Aeolus. I think he succeeds, starting with his bold decision to enjamb line nine (“teems”) and then begin line ten with a trochaic substitution (“fierce into shape”). Aeolus is thus thrust abruptly into our “view”. The metrical substitution serves to make “teems” believable.

The sestet continues to impress from there. I find the move from “relentless” to “restless” evocative. And describing his soul as “turbid” plays nicely off the earlier description of the wind as “viewless,” suggesting that invisibility need not imply a lack of complexity. No, Aeolus’ inner life is as murky and unmanageable as anyone’s.

All in all, then, it is a fine sonnet, and one I have come to enjoy even more through writing this.

His other appreciations of specific paintings similarly succeed. I’ll look at just one other:

On the Group of the Three Angels Before the Tent of Abraham, by Raffaelle, in the Vatican

Oh, now I feel as though another sense
From Heaven descending had inform’d my soul;
I feel the pleasurable, full control
Of Grace, harmonious, boundless, and intense.
In thee, celestial Group, embodied lives
The subtle mystery; that speaking gives
Itself resolv’d; the essences combin’d
Of Motion ceaseless, Unity complete.
Borne like a leaf by some soft eddying wind,
Mine eyes, impell’d as by enchantment sweet,
From part to part with circling motion rove,
Yet seem unconscious of the power to move;
From line to line through endless changes run,
O’er countless shapes, yet seem to gaze on One.

Here is a case where I think the unconventional rhyme scheme aids the meaning of the poem. Specifically, I think it replicates in the experience of reading this poem something like Allston’s experience of seeing the painting, namely the combination “Of Motion ceaseless, Unity complete.” The first four lines are set apart, both a complete rhyme unit (ABBA) and a complete sentence. But, the next four lines, though also a complete sentence, introduce two unresolved rhymed (CCDE). This leads us past the period onward into the next part of the poem. Moreover, within these four lines, all but the last are enjambed, meaning that the heroic couplet does not stand as a compact unit, but bleeds into the rest of the quatrain. The final six lines are then a single sentence, carrying us onward to the end. The whole poem (except a little bit the first quatrain) feels like a complete unity, yet a unity that moves ceaselessly, over which our eyes “From part to part with circling motion rove, / Yet seem unconscious of the power to move.”

And I will end by leaving, without further comment, Allston’s 15 line pseudo-sonnet:

A Word: Man

How vast a world is figured by a word!
A little word, a very point of sound,
Breathed by a breath, and in an instant heard;
Yet leaving that may well the soul astound,—
To sense a shape, to thought without a bound.
For who shall hope the mystery to scan
Of that dark being symbolized in man?
His outward form seems but a speck in space:
But what far star shall check the eternal race
Of one small thought that rays out from his mind?
For evil, or for good, still, still must travel on
His every thought, though worlds are left behind,
Nor backward can the race be ever run.
How fearful, then, that the first evil ray,
Still red with Abel’s blood, is on its way!

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Title: Project
Poet: A.R. Ammons


My subject’s
still the wind still
difficult to
present
being invisible:
nevertheless should I
presume it not
I’d be compelled
to say
how the honeysuckle bushlimbs
wave themselves:
difficult
beyond presumption

Ammons, above, is no stranger to inference to the best explanation: the wind, unseen, may be inferred to exist, not because it is felt but because without such an invocation we are left powerless to explain the movement of the honeysuckle bushlimbs. This is a routine idea – what makes Ammons’ portrayal of it so compelling?

There is, first of all, the connection to Ammons’ other poems, in which the wind is a frequent character. “So I said I am Ezra,” where the wind games for the sounds of Ezra’s voice. “I came upon a plateau,” in which a pious person wears a windy cloak hiding whirls of dust. “The wide land,” where we see the wind plead for understanding even as it destroys. In these and other poems the wind is felt, directly perceived; it is no ethereal inference to an unknown cause. Yet when Ammons comes to explain himself and his project, his need to present the wind, he does not take these stark perceptions as his motivation, but something more distant: the waving of the honeysuckle bushlimbs. In this way his relation to the wind takes on an especially poignant serenity, and perhaps also an objective distance.

Despite this separation, however, the struggle comes through. The poem lilts along in iambs for the first few lines, up to “difficult,” but then Ammons stumbles over himself, throwing in a jolting anapest (“to present”), only to immediately be caught up by another stressed syllable at the start of “being.” The colon after “invisible” allows us to catch our breath, and from there the poem again trots iambically for a time (from “nevertheless” to “to say”). The remainder of the poem is basically a string of trochees, though the line breaks disguise this somewhat. Here the switch is not so jarring: it is controlled, in keeping with the increasing confidence the poet shows.

A further formal feature that brings out this shift between stuttering and confidence concerns the two lines featuring “difficult.” The first occurrence marks the start of the metrical irregularity, with the unwieldy “to” forced by grammatical necessity to intrude between the metrically proper “still / difficult / present.” (This is, by the way, a fine example of how the poet, imprisoned by the hardened whimsy of language, may yet manufacture some little freedom.) In contrast, the second instance finds “difficult” isolated, a line by itself. It is compact, and stark. This repetition of a line, with two differences – the extra, awkward word, and the switch from iambic to trochaic meter – captures in astonishingly few syllables the overarching tonal shift of the poem, as we come to fight through the poet’s difficulty with our tongues. In that way, Ammons turns the routine act of inference to the best explanation into an affecting deed.

I hope these reflections shed some light on Ammons’ delightful poem, as well as correct the sometimes-encountered misunderstanding that what is called “free verse” (the best of it, at least) does not tolerate metrical analysis.