On the Nature of Mental
Discipline and Sonnets
by Kenneth Jernigan
President Maurer (left) and Dr. Jernigan (right) shake
hands at the NCSAB reception.
Recently in North Carolina, when I was undergoing cancer treatment and having a restless night, I put together a piece for the Monitor that I have been intending to do for more than thirty years. I doubt that I will ever write such an article again, but at least for once here goes.
From time to time I am asked what technique I use in writing speeches and articles, and I always give a general or cursory response. It is not a question of keeping secrets but of wondering whether the person (even though making the inquiry) would really want a full explanation if one were offered. Of course, I could (and usually do) say that writing requires a lot of time and hard work, but that is a platitude.
Let's get right to the meat of it. If I am to talk about how I write speeches and articles, I must discuss the sonnet, which is the most demanding verse form in the English language. It requires great mental effort while appearing to be amazingly simple. As a starter, a sonnet must have fourteen linesnot thirteen, not fifteen, fourteen. And each line must have exactly ten syllablesnot nine, not eleven, ten. But wait! We are not through. Each syllable must be precisely placed.
To explain, I must leave the world of common sense and go to the rarified esoterica of graduate school literary classes. And more precisely I must talk about poetic feet. A poetic foot is a stressed and all associated unstressed syllables, much like a measure of music.
But there is more, much more! There are several kinds of poetic feet, but for our purposes we will deal only with the iambic. An iambic foot is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. If a line consists of two feet, we call it dimeter. If it has three feet, we call it trimeter. If it has four feet, we call it tetrameter. If it has five feet, we call it pentameter. There is more, but for these purposes that is sufficient.
And now we can deal with the sonnet. As I have already said, it must have fourteen lines of iambic pentameternot more, not less.
And if you think I have finished, be patient. I have only begun. The sonnet must have a particular rhyme scheme. The last part of the first line is called "a"and so is everything that rhymes with it. Thus, if the first line ends with the word "cat," then "that," "hat," "mat," and anything of similar ilk will be called "a."
The last part of the first line that is not "a" will be called "b." Thus, if the line ends with the word "dog," then "log," "hog," "frog," etc. will be called "b." The next line that is not "a" or "b" will be called "c"; the next "d"; etc. And there you have the rhyme scheme for poetry.
In the English language there are two main kinds of sonnets-
-the Petrarchan, which came first and was named for the Italian who popularized it, and the Shakespearean, which is of obvious origin. Each has its own particular and demanding rhyme scheme, but both require fourteen lines of iambic pentameter.
The Petrarchan sonnet has a little (but only a little) flexibility. Its rhyme scheme is "abbaabba, cdecde." The "cde" lines may vary somewhat in placement, but the first eight lines may not. Thus, you may have "cc," "dd," "ee." Or you may have "cd," "cd," "ee." Or you may have any other arrangement you like for the "cde" linesso long as you leave the first eight alone.
As to the Shakespearean sonnet, forget about flexibility. It isn't there. The rhyme scheme is "abab," "cdcd," "efef," "gg." Nothing more, nothing less. Take it or leave it.
Do you think I have finished? Not on your life. There is more. The first eight lines (I won't bother you with the technicality of their name) must pose a question or problem. And the last six (and again I won't bother you with their name) must give the answer or solution.
I first tried to write a Shakespearean sonnet in late 1944 or early 1945 when I was a senior in high school. You will observe that the language is romantic and the sentiment commensurate. Here it is:
From out the distant realm of higher grace
Your passing glance illumines all my thought,
And I do dream of how 'twould be, your face
With all its wondrous gleams of beauty wrought,
If could I but ascend the filmy clouds That do obscure you from my closer view, And pierce each vestige of the mist that shrouds Each soft and perfect tint, each paling hue;
But could I breach the veil of clinging haze That doth impair my vision's clearer sweep, Perhaps 'twould serve but to reveal a maze Of hidden flaws unseen across the deep.
Tis better thus to worship from afar, Where naught but beauty gleams from out the star.
It was not until I was a sophomore in college that I undertook to write a Petrarchan sonnet. You will observe that by that time my language had become more down to earth. In fact, my journalism professor accused me of being a cynic. (I might insert here thateven though Freud would doubtless disagreemy sonnets have not primarily been written for philosophical but disciplinary purposes.) In any case, here is my first Petrarchan attempt:
Often when I hear a great hero praised=20 For some marvelous deed which he has done, And I see him basking in the warm sun Of fame, his name by all so fondly phrased, Or when I see some honest fellow, dazed By jeering insult, slandered, loved by none, Because of failure, or some goal not won, I muse upon the sad prospect amazed.
Cannot mankind this truth of truths perceive, This one mighty immortal lesson learn, That what we have is ours by circumstance, That fate says who shall fail and who achieve, And even Solomon's glory did turn=20 Upon a trick of near inheritance?
In recent times I have written only Petrarchan sonnets. A
few years back, Mrs. Jernigan and I were driving home from one or
another of the state conventions, and I suddenly heard her say to
me: "Are you singing?"=20
"No," I said "I guess I was thinking out loud and trying to compose a sonnet." Here is what I wrote:
There is no slightest way to comprehend The farther reaches of the stream of time, Which is not stream but myth that birthed the slime Which coalesced to form the thought I send To probe the afterwhere of logic's blend To seek to find some underlying rhyme Or reason as a universal prime To answer Einstein's search for means and end.
But if I cannot find the why and how Of distant first and just as distant past
Or, equal chance, of neither then nor now, But circling stream that makes the future past, Still must I seek and probe and try to know, Because there is no other way to go.
My last effort at writing a sonnet was at least a year or two ago. Here it is. You will observe that I even went so far as to give it a name:
Perhaps my final breath will gently go In restful sleep or age or other way, As uneventful as the close of day When only soft and quiet breezes blow To mark the undramatic ebb and flow Of all that lives and turns again to clay. But just as like, my life may end in fray.
We dream and speculate but cannot know.
Yet, if the veil that hides what is to be Could lift to show us at a single glance The full procession of our future time, The knowledge got would rob us of romance, Would trade our will for one compelling prime. We would be slaves, unable to be free.
There are two sonnets by American authors that I regard as outstanding. They are "Nature" by Longfellow and "Tears" by Reese. And even the Longfellow poem is flawed since two syllables have to be run together to make it scan. However, the sonnet that I have taken as my model of excellence was written by a Britisher. I committed it to memory when I was in high school and have referred to it ever since. It is "Remember" by Christina Rossetti:
Remember me when I am gone away, Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand, Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay. Remember me when no more day by day You tell me of our future that you planned:
Only remember me; you understand It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet, if you should forget me for a while And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave A vestige of the thoughts that once I had, Better by far you should forget and smile Than that you should remember and be sad.
So there you have my favorite sonnet and also some of my
techniques for writing. Of course, there is much more to be said
to round out the picture. I could, for instance, talk about
dactylic, trochaic, and anapestic rhythms; about tercets and
sestets; or about hexameters and other such. But I think I have
said enough to make the point.=20
So what does all of this have to do with mental discipline and writing speeches and articles? If I have to tell you, it probably won't do any good. To those who say that I have gone over the edge and lost touch with reality, I reply that I have not forgotten how to engage in combat or street fighting and that I still know how to relate to the members at the National Convention. It can be put to the test. To those who say that madness is indicated, I respond that everybody has (or probably should have) at least a touch of insanity. If (assuming you choose to do so) you want to remember me in the future, think of the sonnet, for of such is the stuff of lifeat least, of my life.
As A. E. Housman said:
Oh, when I was in love with you, Then I was clean and brave;
And miles around the wonder grew How well did I behave.
And now the fancy passes by,
And nothing will remain,
And miles around they'll say that I Am quite myself again.
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