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Carolyn Devonshire and the Traditional Sonnet (aka Essay 3)
Written by: Maya Zauberman
December 1, 2014
Being short, I was asked to play an elf
For a mall Santa who had his own beard
The elf suit I’d not have picked for myself
Spock ears, curled shoes and red tights – I looked weird
The regular elf had caught a bad flu
While jolly Saint Nick downed too much eggnog
Rascal Rudolph, sans the eight-reindeer crew,
Grazed on manger hay like a “boarish” hog
Children wanted to sit on Santa’s lap
But his halitosis cast most away
One large boy created quite a mishap
He slid and cracked Santa’s over-packed sleigh
Today I’ll not venture into a mall
They remind me of my worst job of all
- Carolyn Devonshire, Employment for An Elf, Poetry Soup 2013
As Jeff Hilson said, in his Introduction to The Reality Street Book of Sonnets, “To disturb the sonnet’s form too radically, therefore, is not just to disturb the sonnet itself, or the sonnet tradition, but to endanger the foundations of the wider poetic tradition.”
This is the dilemma the sonnet writers of today have to face. To maintain the sonnet tradition and be considered unoriginal- one of the worst insults that can be bestowed upon an artist- or to break the form and have it not be the desired form? Many, thus, in an attempt to satisfy both sides of the argument, tried to explore new ideas in the traditional fourteen-stanza form.
Carolyn Devonshire is one such sonnet writer. In her piece, “Employment for an Elf” she explores an area not usually covered by sonnets- duplicity and getting a job. While it maintains the strict fourteen-line limit and the Shakespearean rhyme scheme, it completely radicalizes the poem form by broaching such an unconventional topic.
Carolyn, however, maintains this balance between the old and the new, by sticking to the Shakespearean sonnet scheme. Her poem is fourteen lines, with an ababcdcd rhythmic pattern. Completely unrevolutionary. However, what is again new is the topic she broaches. Very few sonnet writers traditionally have approached the topic of getting a job they hated. This could be because the traditional sonnet writers did not think it interesting enough, or the concept of obtaining work (as we know it) did not exist back then. Either way, it was not a subject Shakespeare or Milton-or even Collins, a much more modern poet- did not write about.
However, others may argue that this sonnet is showing more reverence to the old form by describing the intense emotions the author is feeling- a much more traditional topic. However, many of the traditional sonnets were either about love, like Shakespeare’s Sonnet Eighteen or despair, such as Sir Thomas Wyatt (Farewell, Love, and all Thy Laws Forever, as an example), not about odious hatred, like Carolyn’s sonnet up top. While there is no denying the intensity of the emotions, is the sonnet really adhering to the rules by showing intense hatred, something rarely broached in the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries?
All in all, modern sonnetry is the balance of new and old traditions. It is not completely revolutionary- there are no new rules in regards to the sonnet form- but it is not completely kowtowing to old traditions either. It incorporates some of the old, but mixes some of the new in; therefore, the modern sonnet, as shown by Carolyn Devonshire, is a balance between the old and the new.
Devonshire, Carolyn. "Employment for an Elf." Poem: By Carolyn Devonshire. Poetry Soup, 10 Nov. 2014. Web. 01 Dec. 2014.
The Reality Street Book of Sonnets. Hastings, UK: n.p, 2008. Print. Reality Street Editions.
Levin, Phillis. The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English. New York: Penguin, 2001. Print.