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Poetry's sonnet form is subject of exhibit

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP   |   July 8, 2003 at 2:27 PM
NEW YORK, July 8 (UPI) -- The art of the sonnet as practiced by British and American poets from William Shakespeare to Jack Kerouac is the subject of an unusual exhibition at the New York Public Library, at a time when poetry confined to a formal structure is a languishing literary practice.

The show, titled "Passion's Discipline," will run through Aug. 2 in the Gottesman Hall of the main library on Fifth Avenue. It traces the origins of the sonnet to Italy in the 13th century where court poets in Sicily developed the 14-line lyric poem with a formal rhyme scheme that has challenged the talents of schoolchildren and poets ever since.

The more than 250 displays drawn primarily from the library's collection include a 1576 printed book of poems by Dante written in the 14th century and a brilliantly illuminated 15th century manuscript of poetry by Dante's younger contemporary, Petrarch, that illustrate the early development of the sonnet form.

Petrarch brought the sonnet to its highest expression in 317 sonnets addressed to his lover, Laura. The exhibit includes a first edition of Petrarch's "Vita Nuova," printed in 1576. The format of the Petrarchian sonnet remains one of the most widely used sonnet forms, although the English or Shakespearean sonnet form, adapted to the demands of the English language, is also popular with poets.

The Petrarchian sonnet's first eight lines states a problem or poses a question and has a set rhyme scheme, and the final six lines resolves the problem or answers the question and has a varied rhyme scheme. The English sonnet has three quatrains with three sets of rhymes and ends with a rhyming couplet. Shakespeare was the greatest of the Elizabethan sonneteers, and the exhibition includes the first, second, and third folios of his plays.

Although the English sonnet was at first devoted to themes of idealized love, by the 17th century when John Donne wrote his puzzle-posing metaphysical sonnets and John Milton wrote sonnets on political and religious subjects or on personal themes such as his blindness, the sonnet embraced a wide range of subjects.

Three of Donne's "Holy Sonnets" are on display from the 1605 Westmoreland Manuscript, the earliest known representation of these poems possibly transcribed from the poet's own manuscript, along with American poet Sylvia Plath's annotated copy of a 1950s paperback edition of Donne's poems. Milton's "Poems, Both English and Latin" is on display in the form of a 1645 printed edition that once belonged to Alexander Pope.

Sonnets went out of style in the 18th century but the form was resurrected by William Wordsworth, who favored the Petrarchian format, and other Romantic writers in the 19th century. On view are early editions of Wordsworth's Lake District sonnets together with his copy of a guide to the district with a map, an autograph manuscript by Percy Bysshe Shelley, and a manuscipt of John Keat's" Sonnet to Sleep," one of his few poems in that form.

The Victorians continued to write sonnets influenced by the Romantics' love of nature, but Elizabeth Barrett Browning returned to the theme of love in her much admired "Sonnets from the Portuguese," which memorializes her love for her poet husband, Robert Browning. Several of her manuscript sonnets including "The Sketch" are displayed along with an edition of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "The House of Life," a sonnet sequence, and manuscript sonnets by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Oscar Wilde.

Twentieth century poets expanded the subject matter of the sonnet to include the horrors of war, personal alienation, and sexual love. On view are W. H. Auden's typescript copy of "In Time of War," W.B. Yeats' classical "Leda and the Swan," and the boldly sexual sonnets of American poet e.e. cummings' represented by "XLI Poems," on display in its first (1925 ) edition.

The show concludes with one of the library's most recent acquisitions, the autograph manuscript of Jack Kerouac's 1943 sonnet, "The Moor of Myself." It was included in the Kerouac literary archive acquired by the library last year from the family of the poet laureate of the Beat movement. Among other American poets represented in the show are Emma Lazarus, Richard Wilbur, and Elizabeth Bishop.

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