Monday, 11 April 2016

The sonnet in The Beautiful Thread (2)

As Brother Conradus, anticipating his mother’s visit to St Alcuin’s, says to his abbot: “You will love her, Father John. You will absolutely love her.”

And Brother Conradus turns out to be quite right.

Conradus’s mother Rose – already well-known to the community through the many nuggets of her wisdom they’ve had passed on to them by her son – arrives at the abbot’s lodge after he’s undergone a succession of awkward encounters with difficult people. He’s feeling, to put it mildly, somewhat stressed.

Opening the door to the abbey court, trying to force himself to address one of the many tasks awaiting his attention, he catches sight of Brother Conradus making his way towards the abbot’s house, bringing a visitor:
“It was then, as he stood in the doorway of his house, within the shadow of its frame, that he saw Brother Conradus crossing the court towards him with a comfortably proportioned woman who simply had to be his mother. Deep in happy conversation, Brother Conradus gesticulating and laughing, pausing to point out the checker as they passed it, the door to the refectory, the windows of the library above, they made slow progress. And then she broke off to walk across, over to the wall beneath the refectory windows where a mass of bluebells, fading now but still in bloom, gave out such a glorious fragrance. And John watched her kneel unselfconsciously and unaffectedly, putting her hands to the flowers, bending her face to them, breathing in the perfume. Brother Conradus came to stand beside her, and she turned her head, lifting her face, her smile full of delight and appreciation. That’s where he gets it from, then, thought John. I wish more of your sons had vocations, Rose. We could do with the whole tribe up here.

The abbot receives Rose into his house, and they have their first conversation. If you pick out their dialogue with one another from its setting, you’ll see that their conversation forms a sonnet:

“Will you be weary now? Shall you first rest?”
“I’ve ridden far, but I am eager, too – ”
“To hear about the wedding? Is that best?”
“Oh yes – but more, to spend some time with you.
Our lad writes home about his Abbot John
In every single letter that he sends.”
“Aye, Rose – we likewise know you through your son;
I almost feel that we’re already friends.”
“Then may I – but I don’t want to impose.
If I would be a nuisance, you must say – ”
“Ah, no! You are most truly welcome, Rose.
I’ve been so looking forward to this day.”
“It’s such a big adventure to come here!”
“You’re welcome, with wide open arms, my dear.”

This is not my idea but Shakespeare’s – it was a literary stratagem for conveying the harmony – the congruence – between two individuals.

In his play Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo first notices Juliet he soliloquises in iambic pentameter—that is, in lines ten syllables long, with accents falling on every second syllable, as in: O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
The soliloquy is in rhyming couplets – similar to, but not precisely, sonnet form (a sonnet has fourteen lines):
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows,
As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand,
And, touching hers, make blessed my rude hand.
Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.

The power of this is that it expresses a lyrical moment – when Romeo’s soul is suddenly caught up into harmony, the beautiful melody of love.

Later, as Romeo and Juliet meet, the dialogue between them now forms a true sonnet:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand 
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this: 
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand 
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss. 

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much, 
Which mannerly devotion shows in this; 
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch, 
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss. 

Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too? 

Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer. 

O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do; 
They pray — grant thou, lest faith turn to despair. 

Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake. 

Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take. 

On his own, the poetry of Romeo’s soul is incomplete; put him together with Juliet, and the poetry is consummated. It speaks, as you can see, of their quality of their relationship.

Because of the sonnet’s structure – its compactness, the call-and response evoked by its rhyme scheme; the flirtation and teasing of proposition and response, the pleasing resolution of the volta at the end – enhanced by Shakespeare into a rhyming couplet. It’s a love affair in verse, and Shakespeare, arguably better than anyone, perfected the art of love’s expression in sonnet form – Had I no ear nor eyes, to hear nor see, Yet should I be in love by touching thee.

I borrowed the idea to communicate the instinctive and immediate harmony between Rose and Abbot John.

Their love – like Romeo and Juliet’s – cannot be; but its potential is nonetheless rich and beautiful; undeniable.

And sometimes, whatever our realistic possibilities, that’s how life is.


Kortney said...

Ack! Spoilers Alert! ...but really so happy that Conradus and his family are back in this book too!

MaryR said...

Wow! That's amazing, Pen! You amazing creature, you! I missed it altogether, and I studied Lit to degree level!! Oops!

Pen Wilcock said...


Well, I think we don't see what we aren't looking for. x

Anonymous said...

I missed it too! :o

Glad you pointed it out for us. :)

- Philippa

Pen Wilcock said...

:0) xx

Becky said...

Hi Pen, I loved this. I have been a secret follower for many years having read Hawk and The Dove at University many many years ago. We home educate and I'm very excited to see your books being recommended as part of a curriculum we use. My boys are now loving the books as much as I do :-) your books are food for this Vicars Wife's soul:-) many blessings

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Becky - waving! My grandchildren are home-educated too. Thank you for getting in touch. So glad you and your boys are enjoying my stories. xx