Originally published at the Englewood Review of Books. I was excited to hear that the author himself read it. Guite said it “got right to the heart of the book.”
Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets For the Christian Year
Paperback: Canterbury, 2012
Reviewed by Philip Zoutendam
We are “tangled in time” says the first line in Sounding the Seasons. The remainder of the book, a sonnet sequence for the Christian year, is Malcolm Guite’s way of untangling us, untangling us by plunging into time. As Guite “sounds the seasons” aurally with the music of each poem, he also sounds—that is, fathoms—their meaning. His reader is immersed in a particular moment in time, but because that moment is isolated, meditated on, it is elevated out of time.
Poetry is the right medium for such an operation; poetry, and the sonnet in particular, has long been perceived as a mode of timelessness, a means to immortality. A sonnet is a “moment’s monument” Guite reminds us, borrowing Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s epithet in that first poem. It is something standing in the temporal but pointing to and striving for the eternal. Thus times and seasons, through the arresting lens of Guite’s poetry, do for a moment lead, as his prologue promises, “through time to endless glory.”
Guite’s sequence traces the liturgical calendar from Advent to Christmas and Epiphany, through Lent and to the Passion and resurrection of Holy Week, and then through Pentecost and finally the long stretch of “Ordinary Time” that wraps back around to Advent. Some of his poems celebrate feasts or holy days, others explore readings or themes from a season.
The longest related series of poems is Guite’s twelve-sonnet rendering of the Stations of the Cross. Though it comprises a large portion of the book, it is perhaps the quickest portion. Guite captures the Passion narrative’s momentum in his poems, bridging them by repeating in each sonnet a significant line from the preceding poem.
Two other notable series occur at the beginning, before Guite actually steps into time and the seasons. First, he cites his sources, “The Four Evangelists,” with a sonnet characterizing each Gospel text. “First of the four, Saint Matthew is the Man,” he begins: his gospel “discloses / Eternal love within a human face” and “Christ [in] the heart of every human story”; Mark is “A winged lion, swift, immediate, / Mark is the Gospel of the sudden shift;” Luke’s Gospel “is itself a living creature, / A ground and glory round the throne of God;” finally, John declares “the Gospel of the primal light, / The first beginning, and the fruitful end.”
After the Evangelists, Guite lingers on the edge of Advent. He looks up before looking forward, offering lyrics derived from ancient Latin antiphons in praise of the Godhead: “O Sapientia,” “O Adonai,” “O Radix,” “O Clavis,” “O Oriens,” “O Rex Gentium,” and finally “O Emmanuel.” These are his pithiest poems and his highest poetry. In “O Clavis,” celebrating God as the Key, we find this intricate image:
I can remember freedom, but forget
That every lock must answer to a key,
That each dark clasp, sharp and intimate,
Must find a counter-clasp to meet its guard.
Particular, exact, and intricate,
The clutch and catch that meshes with its ward.
The next poem, “O Oriens” (O Dayspring), begins with this beautiful layered image:
First light and then first lines along the east
To touch and brush a sheen of light on water,
As though behind the sky itself they traced
The shift and shimmer of another river
Flowing unbidden from its hidden source;
The Day-Spring, the eternal Prima Vera.
Certainly Guite’s collection provides the richest fare to readers already initiated in the liturgical and poetic traditions of the West. Such readers will feel, alongside the delight at a new thing, the affection for the familiar. But for those unfamiliar with the times and feasts there is still much to feast on, and for those unversed in verse there is no reason to stay away. To the contrary, Sounding the Seasons offers an inviting introduction to both the Christian calendar and the sonnet.
That Guite begins rooted in scripture, and never departs from it far or long, makes his subject matter familiar and welcoming to any Christian reader. Furthermore, Guite achieves a humble tone, devoid of any pride or stuffiness, through his emphasis on the humble and humane in Christ and in those orbiting around him.
Once comfortable with Guite’s tradition, readers can participate in it easily in both part and whole. One can span a whole year in an afternoon, or spend a week in the depths of a single moment. There is no imposed pace. There is no obligatory wait for seasons to pass. The reader chooses what and how much to take in, and thus there is none of that overwhelming foreignness met in one’s first taste of a liturgical service.
There is also none of the foreign language and grammar often feared in sonnets. His lyrics require no trips to the dictionary, and no double-takes, to grasp their initial sense. Guite speaks modern English, not Elizabethan. His expression is clean and simple.
Simplicity, however, implies neither a lack of depth nor of skill. Guite knows what he is doing with a sonnet; he exploits the form deftly to give his themes resonance. The traditional “turns”—lines nine and thirteen—he uses to accentuate revolution and reversal. In a sonnet on Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, Guite establishes the power of the king and the weakness of his victims in the poem’s body, then overturns it with this concluding couplet: “But every Herod dies, and comes alone / To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.” He likewise turns a poem of failure into one of promise with the final lines of “Ash Wednesday:” “But hope could rise from ashes even now, / Beginning with this sign upon your brow.”
What Guite does with a whole poem he can also do with a single line. Indeed, iambic pentameter is perfect for the kind of paradox he loves: the boundaries of the meter afford just enough room to balance two contrasting ideas in each line. Take for example this quatrain from “O Sapientia:”
I cannot think unless I have been thought,
Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken;
I cannot teach except as I am taught,
Or break the bread except as I am broken.
And this from “St. Paul:”
An enemy whom God has made a friend,
A righteous man discounting righteousness,
Last to believe and first for God to send,
He found the fountain in the wilderness.
There are other moments when Guite harnesses the meter not to alternate between two ideas, but to keep building on a single idea. These lyrics, like this quatrain from “The Baptism of Christ,” are his most musical:
The Father speaks, the Spirit and the Son
Reveal to us the single loving heart
That beats behind the being of all things
And calls and keeps and kindles us to light.
By creating a sequence that is beautiful and profound but still accessible to a broad audience, Malcolm Guite ultimately creates a kind of verbal iconography. Each sonnet generates an image—of the divine or the divine in man—worthy of meditation and rewarding of it. Sounding the Seasons is a book worth more than one read.