Time Enough for Writing a Sonnet

Text of Sonnet #18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?) by William Shakespeare

Feeling somewhat frustrated earlier this month during UK lockdown 3.0, I picked up Robert Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love, to read again.

If you’ve read the novel, you’ll know that in the Intermission, Excerpts from the Notebooks of Lazarus Long, he sets out a list of skills of the competent man — what he thinks a human being should be able to do.

If I hadn’t already been feeling useless, reading the list certainly would have done it in one fell swoop. It appears on p.264 (at least it does in the first New English Library paperback edition, April 1975) and it goes like this:

Quotation about the skills of the competent man from Time Enough for Love, by Robert Heinlein: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

Okay, I thought, I can do a few of these. But not enough.

And I’m certainly not useful enough to be pre-selected for shelter in an underground bunker in the event of an impending asteroid or comet impact (you know the type of movie, Greenland and Deep Impact, for example). In fact, I probably wouldn’t even get a chance in the public lottery. No, I think I’d be left to perish outside with the insects — but with less chance of survival than the insects.

I can solve equations, balance accounts and program a computer (well, write a bit of code to get bits and pieces done). I may also be able to do one or two of the less skilled items on the list; I could definitely take orders — even for a meal, perhaps — but I would not be able to cook a tasty one, apparently.

But what about the sonnet?

Could I write a sonnet? I had never attempted one, but in the current coronavirus lockdown there certainly seemed time enough to try. So I searched online for the first sonnet that came to mind: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18.

That’s the one that starts “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”, and after spending a bit of time familiarising myself with the content, meaning and structure of that sonnet, the time had come to have a go at writing my own.

All I needed was one stanza of three quatrains and a rhyming couplet at the end, and all in iambic pentameter. Eh? It sounded way harder than solving an equation (and it was). But I was excited by the structural element and my eager fingers were poised over the keyboard.

Not long into the task, I realised my creativity was also on lockdown. So I decided that for my first time writing a sonnet it would need to be a pastiche of Sonnet 18, and therefore Shakespearean, but with a theme inspired by life as we know it, and therefore Covidian.

And here it is:

Sonnet COVID-19 copyright Margaret Murphy (2021)

The beady-eyed will note that it’s not in strict form, a broken rule here and there (but Shakespeare sometimes did that too). I might say that the meter is intentionally broken for effect — rather than I couldn’t get it to fit — and actually that would be true.

Because I use a three-syllable present participle at the end of four of the lines, it adds an extra syllable to the iambic pentameter, so technically it’s not in iambic pentameter. But, if you merge the second and third syllables together when you read it, reduced into a single beat, it does work (enough for me, anyway).

So the time has come to tick writing a sonnet off my list.

But it still won’t get me into that bunker. That’s a new problem to analyse.

If you enjoy the work of Robert Heinlein, read my review of The Door into Summer and its upcoming Japanese film adaption.