This is one of the longest and most entertaining chapters in Machado de Assis’ novel Don Casmurro, a fictional memoir of the eponymous narrator.  Many of the other chapters are shorter than a sonnet, but I liked this one, describing the sonnet he almost wrote, starting with the sudden apparition of a dazzling, as he thought, opening line.  He got only as far as a facile closing line, but despite every attempt to put himself in a position which would bring about the visitation of the muse, he just couldn’t quite fill in the middle dozen.

Generously, he here hands over his brilliant two lines, like two slices of bread, inviting the reader to insert the filling of his choice to make a sonnet sandwich.

Machado de Assis (1839-1908), still a household name among literate Brazilians, is undeservedly barely known in the English-speaking world.  His spare prose, full of wry humour and self-deprecation, reminds me of Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno or similar 20th century novels.  It is certainly ahead of its time.

And what a wonderful description of insomnia: ‘the muse with staring eyes’.

Feel free to complete that sonnet and send it to me to publish on this website (if it’s any good).

 

Source: Machado de Assis, Dom Casmuorro, trans. Helen Caldwell, foreword by Elizabeth Hardwick (New York: The Noonday Press, 1991 (1900)), pp. 109-13

Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema at unsplash.com

I will tell the story of a sonnet that I never wrote.  It was during the time of the seminary, and the first verse is as follows:

                  O flower of heaven!  O flower bright and pure! 

How and why this verse sprang from my brain, I do not know.  It sprang forth like that, as I lay in bed – an abrupt exclamation.  And when I noted that it had the measure of verse, I thought of composing something to go with it, a sonnet.  Insomnia, the muse with staring eyes, did not let me sleep for a long hour or two.  The tickling asked for fingernails. I scratched with my whole soul.  I did not choose the sonnet right away.  At first I considered other forms, rhymed as well as blank verse, but finally I settled on the sonnet: a poem that was brief and adaptable.  As for the idea, the first verse was not yet an idea, it was an exclamation; the idea would come later.  Thus, lying in bed, wrapped up in the sheet, I essayed to poetize.  I had the startled sensation of a mother who feels within her the stirrings of her first child.  I was going to be a poet.  I was going to compete with that monk of Bahia who had been discovered a short time before and was then all the rage.  I, a seminarist, would tell my woes in verse as he had told his from the cloister.  I got the verse well by heart, and repeated it in a soft voice, to the sheets. Frankly, I found it handsome, and even now it does not seem bad to me.

                  O flower of heaven!  O flower bright and pure! 

What was the flower?  Capitu, probably; but it could be virtue, poetry, religion, whatever other concept the metaphor of flower and flower of heaven fits.  I waited for the rest, reciting the verse over and over, first on my right side, then on left; finally I lay on my back, with my eyes on the ceiling.  Even in this position, nothing more came to me.

Then I remarked that the most highly extolled sonnets were those that closed with a golden key, that is, with one of those verses that are the triumph of thought and form. I decided to forge such a key, for, I reflected, if the final verse came forth in chronological order after the preceding thirteen, one could scarcely expect it to have the approved perfection.  I imagined that such keys were poured before the lock itself.  Thus it was that I determined to compose the final verse of the sonnet, and after much sweating, this emerged:

                  Life is lost, the battle still is won!

Without vanity, and looking at it as if it were by someone else, it was a magnificent verse.  Sonorous, beyond question.  And it had a thought – victory gained at the cost of life itself – an exalted and noble thought.  It may not have been exactly novel but neither was it commonplace.  And even now I cannot explain in what mysterious way it came into such a youthful head.  At the time, I found it sublime.  I recited the golden key again and again.  Then I repeated the two verses in sequence, and made ready to connect them by the twelve center ones.  As for the idea, it seemed to me now, in view of the final verse, that it would be better if it were not Capitu; it would be justice.  It was more appropriate to say that in the struggle for justice life is lost perchance but the battle still is won.  It also occurred to me to accept battle in its ordinary sense and make it the fight for one’s country, for example. In that case, the flower of heavenwould be liberty.  This acceptance of the term, however, since the poet was a seminarist, might not fit so well; and I spent several minutes in choosing one or the other.  I found justice the better, but in the end I accepted a new idea – charity.  I recited the two verses, each in its own style, the one languidly:

                  O flower of heaven!  O flower bright and pure! 

and the other with spirit:

                  Life is lost, the battle still is won!

The feeling I had was that a perfect sonnet was about to be born.  To begin well and end well was no small thing. In order to give myself a bath of inspiration, I called to mind several celebrated sonnets, and I noted that most of them were quite facile.  The verses, with the idea already in them, flowed so naturally one out of the other one could not decide whether it was the idea that had fashioned the verses, or they that had summoned the idea.  Then I turned back to my sonnet, and once more repeated the first verse and waited for the second.  The second was not forthcoming, nor the third, nor the fourth, nor any of them. I had several fits of rage, and more than once considered getting out of bed and going to try ink and paper. Perhaps in writing, the verses would flock to me, but…

Worn out with waiting, I decided to alter the meaning of the final verse by the simple transposition of two words, thus:

                  Life is won, the battle still is lost!

The meaning turns out to be exactly the opposite, but perhaps this in itself would coax inspiration.  In this case, it would be irony: by not practising charity one may win life but lose the battle of heaven. I took heart and waited.  I did not have a window.  If I had had, it is possible I would have gone to beg an idea of the night.  And who knows if the fireflies flashing here below would not have seemed to me like rhyming bits of stars and this living metaphor given me the elusive verses with their proper consonants and meanings.

I toiled in vain, I searched, I hunted, I waited.  No verses came.  Since then I have written more than one page of prose, and now I am composing this narrative, though I still find nothing in this world more difficult than writing, well or ill.  Well, sirs, nothing consoles me for that sonnet I did not write.  But, as I believe that sonnets spring ready made, as do odes and dramas and the other works of art, by a law of metaphysical order, I offer these two verses to the first idle soul who wants them.  On a Sunday, or if it’s raining, or in the country, or in any other moments of leisure, he can try to see if the sonnet will come.  All he has to do is give it an idea and fill in the missing middle.

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