The Books: Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, ‘Scorn Not the Sonnet’, by Anne Fadiman

On the essays shelf:

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, by Anne Fadiman

I haven’t read Anne Fadiman’s book in a long time. It’s a bit radio-active with my father, and so I am glad that I own it but I stay away from it. It’s a bit raw. This time of year is tough for the O’Malley family, and so it’s odd (and perfect, perhaps?) that this particular book would come up at this particular time.

I remember loving her essay on the sonnet (I, too, have an affection for sonnets, and used to write them when I was in high school: I loved the strict RULES. That was the main appeal – and it sounds like the same was true for Fadiman). She shares a sonnet she wrote when she was in high school, and it is so earnest and hilarious and it failed to win the teacher’s praise. Her husband looked at it, read it, and said, “It scans well.” That’s all he could say. “It scans well.” Fadiman realized that that was the appeal to her of the sonnet: as long as she could write something that “scanned well”, then she would have written a sonnet, yes?

She writes:

The question remains: During my brief career as a soi-disant poet, why did I restrict myself almost entirely to sonnets? In retrospect, I believe I saw the form as a vindication of both my temperament and my physical self. I was small and compulsive; I was not suited to the epic or to free verse; in work as in life, I was fated to devote myself not to the grand scheme but to the lapidary detail. The sonnet, with its epigrammatic compression and formal structure (never twelve lines, never sixteen), hearteningly proclaimed that smallness and small-mindedness need not go hand in hand.

She describes loving Wordsworth’s sonnet, “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room”, and its vision of nuns not being trapped by the narrowness of their room because that room contained God. You could see that as a metaphor for the sonnet itself.

But I had forgotten how Anne Fadiman’s beautiful essay ended. And that Milton’s sonnet to his blindness makes an appearance, Milton, whose birthday was this past week. I am a wreck. And that will be all for today.

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, ‘Scorn Not the Sonnet’, by Anne Fadiman

The theme of the sonnet’s consolatory power has special meaning to me because of what happened to my father two years ago, when he was eighty-eight. Over the period of a week, he had, for mysterious reasons, gone from being able to read The Encyclopedia Britannica to being unable to read the E at the top of an eye chart. I took him from the west coast of Florida, where he and my mother live, to the Bascom Palmer Eye Institue in Miami. He was informed that he had acute retinal necrosis, improbably caused by a chicken-pox virus that had been latent for more than eighty years. He was unlikely to regain much of his sight.

I spent the night on a cot in my father’s hospital room. We talked about his life’s pleasures and disappointments. At some point after midnight, he said, “I don’t wish to be melodramatic, but you should know that if I can’t read or write, I’m finished.” Never retired, he was accustomed to working a sixty-hour week as an editor and critic.

“Well, Milton wrote Paradise Lost after he went blind,” I said, grasping at straws.

“So he did,” said my father. “He also wrote that famous sonnet.”

“‘On His Blindness,’” I replied. I had read it at thirteen, the year I wrote my own first sonnet.

“‘When I consider how my light is spent’ – then how does it go?” he said. “Isn’t there a preposition next?”

In the darkness, we managed between us to reconstruct six and a half of the fourteen lines. “When you get back to New York,” he said, “the first thing I want you to do is to look up that sonnet and read it to me over the telephone.”

There was no way to know at the time that over the next year my father would learn to use recorded books, lecture without notes, and gain access to unguessed-at inner resources – in short, to discover that the convent’s narrow room that he had been forced to occupy was, though terrible, considerably wider than he had expected. All these things lay far in the future, but that night in Miami, Milton’s sonnet provided the first glimmer of the persistent intellectual curiosity that was to prove his saving grace.

When I returned home, I called him at the hospital and read him the sonnet:

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,
Lodged 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.

“Of course,” said my pessimistic, areligious father. “How could I have forgotten?”

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3 Responses to The Books: Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, ‘Scorn Not the Sonnet’, by Anne Fadiman

  1. Shelley says:

    All of us will end up eventually in that convent’s tiny room, unless we die young.

    Literature will be waiting for us.

  2. Russell says:

    I’ve spent a good many hours listening to Information Please, the radio show that Clifton Fadiman hosted in the 30s and 40s. He was just the man for the job, the right mix of erudition and the common touch.

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