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Petrarch’s Hangover: An Argument in Five Sonnets

I’ll begin with a bit of a curveball, talking about a Modern novelist—James Joyce—as an introduction to an Italian Renaissance poetic form. I’d like to start off with a letter from James Joyce to his lover, later wife, Nora Barnacle, in 1909.

But, first, a little backstory. One fine day in June 1904, the young James Joyce is strolling through Dublin. He meets Nora Barnacle and is instantly smitten. After their first meeting, they make a date for a week later, but, crucially, she stands him up. He sends her a note expressing his disappointment, and they meet a couple of days later on June 16, 1904—a day which Joyce fans now know as Bloomsday, the date on which all of the action of Ulysses occurs. Nora was very popular with men, and for Joyce, who has an obsession with sexual infidelity—being cuckolded—that makes her even more compelling. Those of you who have read Ulysses know that much of the plot revolves around the hero, Leopold Bloom’s, preoccupation with his wife Molly Bloom’s infidelity.

The letter of 1909 was written after a serious quarrel between Joyce and Nora, about five years into their relationship—they have two children together. They have been living abroad in Switzerland and Italy for a number of years. Joyce has managed to convince a group of European businessmen that there is a great need for a cinema in Dublin, and in 1909, Joyce is sent over to Dublin to prepare things.

Back in Dublin, Joyce runs into a former friend, Cosgrove, who says that when Joyce and Nora were first dating, she was also dating Cosgrove. This news throws Joyce into a kind of spiral of jealousy and despair. He writes a number of letters to Nora accusing her of infidelity. She responds, stating that she rejected Cosgrove, and some friends back up her account. He seeks her forgiveness, and she forgives him. She also mentions that she has been enjoying his book of poems Chamber Music, which has just been published. Delighted, he commissions a necklace, spending a great deal of money, even though he is perennially broke. He is so broke at this point, he can’t afford passage back to Trieste.

He describes the necklace in this letter, dated September 1909. Now as some of you out there know, several months later Joyce’s letters to Nora become spectacularly filthy, exuberantly filthy (it’s pretty hard not to be impressed by them). But this letter is several months before those famously dirty letters. He’s still a little nervous, especially given their recent quarrel, and a little courtly in his speech.

My true love. Your present is lying before me on the table as I write, ready. I will now describe it to you.  It is a fat square case of brown leather with two narrow gold borders. When you press a spring it opens and the case itself inside is cushioned with soft orange colored silk. A small square card lies in the case and in the card there is written in gold ink the name Nora and under that the dates 1904 – 1909. Under the card is the ornament itself. There are five little cubes like dice (one for each of the five years we have been away) made of yellowish ivory, which is more than 100 years old. These are drilled through and strung together on a thin gold fetter chain the links of which are like small safety pins so that the whole string forms a necklet, and the clasp is at the back beside the middle dice. In the center of the chain in front and forming part of the chain itself (not hanging from it like a pendant) there is a small tablet also of yellowish ivory which is drilled through like the dice and is about the size of a small domino piece. This tablet has on both sides an inscription and the letters are engraved into it. The letters themselves are selected from an old book of types and are in the 14th century style and are very beautiful and ornamental. There are three words engraved on the face of the tablet, two above and one underneath, and on the reverse of the tablet there are four words engraved, two above and two below. The inscription (when both sides are read) is the last line of one of the early songs in my book of verses, one which has also been set to music: and the line is therefore engraved three words on the front and four on the back. On the face the words are Love is unhappy and the words on the back are When love is away. The five dice mean the five years of trial and misunderstanding and the tablet which unites the chain tells of the strange sadness we felt and are suffering when we were divided.

This is my present, Nora. I thought over it a long time and saw every part of it done to my liking.

Save me, my true love. Save me from the badness of the world and from my own heart!


Possibly the most over-determined present ever. So this is a photograph of the necklace.

I’ll state the obvious: it’s very ugly. It’s a dirty beige—it looks like wood rather than anything valuable. I’m sure Nora would much rather have had some pearls or a set of cameos. Or to have had Jim home a couple of months sooner, so she could stop being evicted from apartment after apartment with their youngest child.

There are lots of photographs of Nora, but no photographs of Nora wearing the necklace. There is a photo of James Joyce’s grandson Stephen Joyce with his wife Solange wearing the necklace. As you can see, the necklace is an awkward length—it doesn’t really fit the neckline of a dress.

Now Joyce is not someone who leaves much to chance. As you can tell from the letter, he is obsessive, highly detail-oriented. But even for him, this necklace is quite an undertaking. Why did he spend so much time and money on it, at a time when money was so tight? And why design it the way that he did?

The central detail of the necklace is this tablet:


3 words on the front, 4 words on the back.

Joyce is obviously very interested in this particular proportion—he mentions it twice in the letter. Rather than saying that it is 5 syllables on one side, 5 on the other, he chooses instead to emphasize the disproportion.

Now here is the very oddest detail about this very odd necklace.

If you were to walk up to someone wearing this necklace, all you would see is a woman wearing a plaque around her neck that says


Or alternatively, you would see someone wearing a plaque that says


Joyce could easily have designed a necklace that had all 7 words on one side of the plaque, or some other arrangement. Instead, the defining feature of the necklace is this unresolvable separation: 2 sad halves—LOVE IS UNHAPPY and WHEN LOVE IS AWAY—that together make a happier sentiment, but can’t be read at the same time. The only way to join them is by a turn—either half can be read first. Indeed, the turn transforms the meaning of each half. So you have 2 parts, in a proportion of 4 to 3, joined by a turn, which both unites and transforms them.

And of course, as we finally start to get to the point of all of this, 4 to 3 is the same proportion as 8 to 6. The proportion of the Petrarchan sonnet.

I don’t know if Joyce had the sonnet in mind when designing the necklace. But it may be worth noting that the font Joyce selects is a 14th-century Italian font—the font Petrarch would have used for his sonnets.

Another possible indication that Joyce had the Petrarchan sonnet on his mind at about this time comes from the name of the movie theater he had started and was managing—the Volta.

Okay, so at this point you’re saying—why all this about the necklace? Why should we care that James Joyce may or may not have been thinking about the Petrarchan sonnet when he designed a necklace for Nora Barnacle? It’s important, I believe, because Joyce was one of our great structural writers, and the necklace gives us insight into the essential structure of the Petrarchan sonnet.

In Ulysses, for example, Joyce plays with the idea that the story of the Odyssey and the story of Hamlet have modular similarities of plot, that they are—to use Hugh Kenner’s term—homeomorphic, similarly shaped, and he builds a plot with a similar structure. You have a son—Telemachus or Hamlet or Stephen Dedalus, each missing an absent father—Odysseus, the dead king in Hamlet, Leopold Bloom in Ulysses. And there is a mother who is suspected of unfaithfulness to the father—Penelope with her suitors in The Odyssey, Queen Gertrude in Hamlet, Molly Bloom in Ulysses. By importing this modular structure, he is able to leverage this structure, to build a narrative that works on several dimensions at once.

The story of the necklace invites us to play a similar game with the Petrarchan sonnet: to ask what it would look like stripped down to its essential structure.

The Petrarchan sonnet traditionally consisted of a number of formal elements. We have 14 lines in a regular meter (in English, iambic pentameter). They are arranged into an eight-line stanza—the octet—and a six-line stanza—the sestet—that are joined by a turn, the volta. In a classical Petrarchan sonnet, the rhyme scheme is ABBA ABBA CDECDE. These are all formal elements, but what is the essential structure of the Petrarchan sonnet? What is the skeleton, the function that enables us to say that a particular poem is, or is not, participating in the tradition of the Petrarchan sonnet, even if not all of these formal elements are present? And which formal elements are the sine qua non of Petrarchan sonnet structure?

What does it mean to call a poem a sonnet? What does it mean to claim the prestige of the sonnet, to say that this poem in some way participates in the tradition of the sonnet? A lot of people and a lot of poems ask this question and interrogate this tradition. I tend to resist strongly the suggestion that any poem of 14 lines should be called a sonnet. That’s not enough for me to say that a particular poem is participating in the tradition of either the Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnet. Nor is a particular meter or rhyme scheme. Nor is the turn alone—lots of types of poems feature turns.

But even without rhyme, even without regular meter, for me the structure—the sine qua non—of the Petrarchan sonnet looks a lot like this necklace. A fundamental disproportion in the ratio of 4 to 3 or 8 to 6—the Petrarchan disproportion—joined by a turn.

So what is the effect of this structure, of the Petrarchan disproportion? My argument is that this disproportion creates what I call a hangover effect, which affects how we experience the poem in time.

Let me back up a few steps.

We all experience language as linear in time.

We hear one word at a time, we read one word at a time.

We experience a sonnet, as we do any text, as having a temporal quality, a present and a past within that text. Now, the Shakespearean sonnet builds on that linear progression—thesis, variation, variation, conclusion. It builds on itself incrementally. It has an argument. It is using, not resisting, that linearity.

But a Petrarchan sonnet functions differently, because of this disproportion and the hangover it creates. Think of an octet and a sestet as 2 blocks of stone: one weighing 8 pounds, one weighing 6 pounds. Think of them as being threaded on an axis. If a sonnet were divided 7/7, or even 6/6 or 8/8, you would have 2 halves in equal opposition. If you spun them, they would balance each other out. Or if you stacked them, one would entirely efface the other. Now, some of Petrarch’s sonnets have 12 lines, some have 16 lines. At the time Petrarch was writing, the sonnet had only recently been invented. There was no law that said that a sonnet had to have 14 lines, divided into an octet and a sestet. We tend to take this way too much for granted. It could have been 6 and 6, 8 and 8, even 7 and 7.

But the unequal proportion—the Petrarchan disproportion—is the structure that survived and the structure that defines the Petrarchan sonnet. With an unequal proportion, things become more interesting. If you spun that 8-pound block of stone and the 6-pound block of stone at the same time, the 8-pound block of stone would continue spinning after the 6-pound block had already stopped. Or, if you stacked one on top of the other, one would overshadow the other.

This is what I think of as the hangover, which is often an effect of that fundamental, structural Petrarchan disproportion. The sestet tries to escape, to assert independence, to strike out on its own, to counter or overwhelm the octet. But there’s always some vestigial leftover momentum from the heavier, massier octet. Although, the sestet is more recent in our temporal experience of the poem, it can’t entirely supplant the memory of the octet. The hangover is the momentum of nostalgia.

Some examples will make it clearer. So let’s start with an example from Petrarch.

Sonnet 19 (c. 1334)

by Francesco Petrarca

Son animali al mondo de sì altera
vista che ‘ncontra ‘l sol pur si difende;
altri, però che ‘l gran lume gli offende,
non escon fuor se non verso la sera;

et altri, col desio folle che spera
gioir forse nel foco, perché splende,
provan l’altra vertù, quella che’ ncende,
lasso, e ‘l mio loco è ‘n questa ultima schera.

Ch’ i’ non son forte ad aspettar la luce
di questa donna, et non so fare schermi
di luoghi tenebrosi o d’ore tarde;

però con gli occhi lagrimosi e ‘nfermi
mio destino a vederla mi conduce,
et so ben ch’ i’ vo dietro a quel che m’arde.

Sonnet 19

(Mark Musa and Barbara Manfredi, trans.)

Animals exist on earth of such courageous
sight that they dare to face even the sun;
others, because they’re harmed by such great light,
do not come out until the sun is setting;

and others in their mad desire hoping
for joy in fire, perhaps because it glows,
learn of its other power, that of burning.
Alas, my place is with this latter race!

I am not strong enough to face the light
of this lady; I cannot shield myself
in shadowed places or in evening hours;

and so with eyes of tears and weariness
my destiny directs me to behold her,
and well I know I follow what will burn me.

This is a very literal translation, and we completely lose the rhyme and other formal features of the poem. But the structural disproportion between masses really comes through. It starts out mildly, almost like a natural history, but with an undercurrent of fear, of burning or risk. The octet outlines three strategies for coping with this danger: to be strong (to dare to face even the sun), to hide (to not come out until the sun is setting), or to burn (to succumb to joy in fire). Then, at the turn, the poet enters into this natural history and places himself in this taxonomy as one of these types of animal. In the sestet, he takes us through two possible escape strategies, both of which are negations. He is not strong, he cannot hide, so, by process of elimination, his destiny must be to burn. The inescapable logic of the octet overwhelms the escapist efforts of the sestet.

Let’s continue with two very famous examples of the Petrarchan sonnet in English, then move on to some more recent examples.

When I Consider How My Light Is Spent [On His Blindness] (1655)

by John Milton

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg’d with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied,”
I fondly ask; But patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best; his State
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

from John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose
Hackett Publishing Company, 2003

Let’s start with the octet. This is not the virtuoso variable line of “Lycidas” or Paradise Lost, which Milton started a few years later. This is not—

Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit
of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
brought Death into the world, and all our woe,

Instead, listen to how tentative, how methodical the first octet of “On His Blindness” is. It’s almost plodding—nearly all monosyllables, almost no variation in the meter. This isn’t Milton, the visionary poet; this is Milton, the tentative poet—the rhythm of the octet enacts the enforced cautiousness of the newly blind, the planning with which every step is undertaken in a suddenly unfamiliar world.

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,

I love that second line so much. It’s so simple: “In this dark world and wide.” You think the line is coming to an end “in this dark world”—it’s syntactically complete.

But then he opens it back up—“and wide.” That very tentative extension is like being in absolute darkness, going down a staircase, thinking that you’ve reached the last step, and then all of a sudden, vertiginously, there’s another step and you’re off-balance. Or like walking across the room in the dark and thinking you’re about to touch the opposite wall; instead, your hand goes through an open doorway for which you were unprepared. This octet is the octet of the dark world—characterized by an enforced caution, hesitancy, a methodical approach to ward off helplessness, the knowledge of uselessness. All of the lines are carefully end-stopped, a confined space.

And then you have the sestet. Acceleration begins in the last line of the octet where we have the first enjambment of the poem, and after that all of the lines are enjambed, pulling you around the corners, until the penultimate line. There are those pounding, insistent stresses in the first line of the sestet, “God doth not need.” It’s as if the lines are being whipped into life like a team of horses. Huge, uncomprehended movement around him, unseen things, as if the walls of his room had been pulled away to reveal a vision. But even the power and force of this sestet cannot entirely efface the memory, the hangover of the dark world. At the end of the poem, we return to the end-stopped line. Things slow down, become methodical, monosyllabic, more emphatically iambic.

“They also serve who only stand and wait.”

The sense is that this vast, rushing acceleration is too much for him, that the poet wants to turn away from the visionary in an impulse to retreat to his comfortable, dark, circumscribed world. The hangover—the inertia of the dark world in the octet—ends up reasserting its dominance over the visionary momentum of the sestet.

Now let’s look at perhaps the most famous 20th-century example of the Petrarchan sonnet.

Leda and the Swan (1924)

by William Butler Yeats

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                                      Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

from Selected Poems and Four Plays of William Butler Yeats
Scribner, 1996

Let’s look first at that absolute battery of stresses that starts off the octet. The effect is completely disorienting. There are a lot of body parts, disembodied. The syntax is fragmented. Things are just coming at you, violent things, sexual things. It’s an assault. Think of this in terms of camera angles: this would be extreme close-up, so close it becomes almost abstract—just shapes, body parts, and a series of jump cuts. It’s like a B-movie director filming a fight scene.

The octet is sex, violence, but most of all the octet is about bodies, being embodied; the perspective is the body’s perspective, the body’s situation. The girl Leda’s situation. Even though this is described in the third person, we’re seeing it from the girl’s point of view—inexplicable, terrifying, violating rape. And then, at the turn, really the only moment in the poem that approaches any sort of intimacy, however forced: “But feel the strange heart beating where it lies.” The foreign body is so close that she experiences it in her own body. And that moment of enforced closeness is followed by the moment of male sexual release, “a shudder in the loins.” And that moment of sexual release is followed, as so often in life, by an attitude of detachment—a shift over to the god’s perspective, the disembodied perspective, the historical perspective, the long view.

What we get in the octet is a radical foreshortening of history, the future generations, the Trojan War, The Iliad, The Oresteia all done in a line and a half, 16 syllables. Think of this as a drastic pulling back of the camera. This long view in the sestet is Yeats’ conception of history, his grand theory of recurring cycles. The sestet attempts to escape the personal, the vulnerable embodied, to take the philosophical view, the impersonal, the abstract. But once again, this effort to escape the memory of the octet—with all of its bodily violence—cannot wholly succeed.

The hangover, the call back to the octet, happens in the last line. We return to bodies, to parts of bodies, to the situation of the girl Leda’s body. “Before the indifferent beak could let her drop.” Rather than this grand panoramic camera angle, we’ve once again got a disembodied intrusive body part—that beak. Rather than the divine knowledge of the sestet, the hangover returns to the memory of bodily, sensory suffering and incomprehension. How is the human body, in its ignorance, its partial perspective, situated with regard to these great movements in history? Does suffering bring knowledge and power or is it just pointless suffering?

Let’s move on to a few contemporary examples.

Party Dress for a First Born (1995)

by Rita Dove

Headless girl so ill at ease on the bed,
I know, if you could, what you’re thinking of:
nothing. I used to think that, too,
whenever I sat down to a full plate
or unwittingly stepped on an ant.
When I ran to my mother, waiting radiant
as a cornstalk at the edge of the field,
nothing else mattered: the world stood still.

Tonight men stride like elegant scissors across the lawn
to the women arrayed there, petals waiting to loosen.
When I step out, disguised in your blushing skin,
they will nudge each other to get a peek
and I will smile, all the while wishing them dead.
Mother’s calling. Stand up: it will be our secret.

from Mother Love, W. W. Norton, 1996

The poem is from Dove’s book Mother Love, which is based on the Persephone and Demeter myth. Here, the speaker is the daughter, the “first born.” The speaker is addressing her party dress, which lies on the bed. She has externalized and depersonalized her own sexuality, an outer surface, prepared for the enjoyment of men, headless, inhuman, a sacrifice.

The octet is the pre-sexual childhood world, in which the mother, radiant as a cornstalk, is all-sufficing. The diction is simple, elementary. The lines never have more than 5 beats. The world is bounded by rules. It is a simple binary—“nothing” and “nothing else mattered.” Negation or else fulfillment.

Then, in the sestet, we grow up fast. The diction becomes much more sophisticated, the lines overrun the pentameter. In the sestet, the men appear, figured as scissors, menacing the party dress image of the girl, who takes her place in the scene. The scissors are threatening on several levels. There’s the threat of sexuality—if the covering dress is cut away. There’s the threat of destruction—to the extent the girl is synonymous with the dress. The scissors are also an existential threat and a threat of liberation—if the disguise, the dress, is cut away, the girl may have to reveal her true self.

But her defense mechanism is a reversion to the childhood world of the octet. This comes through strongly in the last line. The simple diction reappears, accompanied by a radically simplified syntax. Three independent clauses in a single line, without any joining conjunctions: “Mother’s calling. Stand up: it will be our secret.” Choppy. Menacing.

The reversion to the child-mind in the adult world is here rendered as pathological, almost sociopathic. The hangover is the impulse toward childhood simplicity that reasserts itself against the threatening sophistication of the adult world of the sestet.

The Tradition (2015)

by Jericho Brown

Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium. We thought
Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt, learning
Names in heat, in elements classical
Philosophers said could change us. Star Gazer.
Foxglove. Summer seemed to bloom against the will
Of the sun, which news reports claimed flamed hotter
On this planet than when our dead fathers
Wiped sweat from their necks. Cosmos. Baby’s Breath.
Men like me and my brothers filmed what we
Planted for proof we existed before
Too late, sped the video to see blossoms
Brought in seconds, colors you expect in poems
Where the world ends, everything cut down.
John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.

Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 7, 2015, by the Academy of American Poets.
Forthcoming in The Tradition, Copper Canyon, April 2019

So here we have a poem that engages explicitly with the idea of the sonnet as a received form, one with its own tradition as a love poem, more likely to contain hearts and flowers than bullets and bodies. Approaching the poem, we recognize that it is sonnet-shaped—we hypothesize this poem as a sonnet even before we start. It is the tradition that we assume is the subject of the poem before the first line. And indeed, the list of flower names at the beginning of the poem seems to reinforce the stereotypes of the sonnet tradition. And even as we begin to learn that the primary subject of the poem is elsewhere, an argument about poetic tradition continues to run along a parallel track.

What I like to call the informational strategy of this poem—the increments by which essential information is revealed—is fascinating. As opposed to a poem like, say, “Leda and the Swan,” where we know at the outset what the poem is about, here the true subject of the poem doesn’t announce itself until the final line.

But let’s consider the octet, which we could think of as something akin to John Locke’s “labor theory of property”—the idea that by mixing one’s labor with the soil, one has some claim of homestead, belonging, a stake. There are so many resonances here, including Voltaire’s “il faut cultiver notre jardin”—the Enlightenment neo-classical principles upon which this nation was founded. And the slavery on which this nation also was founded is in the reference to the labor of “our dead fathers.” Even though the poem contains no stanza breaks, the sentences of the poem outline the stanzas quite neatly. The octet is divided into two quatrains, divided or embellished by these flower names, flowers that the sun both stimulates and threatens.

And then there is the sestet, consisting of one increasingly vertiginous sentence, with line breaks that accelerate us around the corners. Think of the sestet as the contemporary world, the world of digital cameras, YouTube, Instagram. There’s a way in which the tumbling rush of the sestet is almost an exercise in plausible deniability—how long can we continue to deny what this poem is actually about—the killing of black men by the police. At the turn of the sonnet, the specific identity of the first person plural pronoun—which first appears in the first line of the poem and becomes clearer throughout the poem—is explicitly identified: “Men like me and my brothers.”

And let’s look directly at the last line—this litany that we realize is itself terribly abbreviated, that could stretch out over lines and lives. Why does Brown put these names in the same style as the flower names? Why does he set up this equivalence? Of course, thematically, you could say, yes, bright lives, all too short-lived, shallow-rooted, cut down. And that would be one thing, but I think that Brown, by making this poem a sonnet and calling attention to the tradition of the sonnet, is in some way casting doubt on poetry, on himself as a poet.

What does it do, after all, to put this litany of the names of black men killed by the police into a poem? It can’t offer them life, it can’t offer them justice, all it can offer them is poetry. I’m reminded of the end of “Easter 1916,” where Yeats expresses similar doubts, then says all he can do is to “write it out in a verse” and provides a litany of names.

A litany is also a tradition, and is what we have to offer when we can offer nothing else.

This blog post is based on a talk Monica Youn gave at Poets House in the (6 x 5 = 30) series, where six poets each provided close readings of five seminal poems as part of Poets House’s 30th Anniversary season.

Monica Youn is the author of three books of poetry, most recently BLACKACRE (2016), which won the William Carlos Williams Award of the Poetry Society of America. It was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Kingsley Tufts Award, and the PEN Open Book Award and was longlisted for the National Book Award, as well as being named one of the best poetry collections of the year by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and BuzzFeed. Her previous book IGNATZ (2010) was a finalist for the National Book Award. She has received fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Witter Bynner Fellowship of the Library of Congress, and the Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, among other awards.

Posted In: Close Readings