Monday, December 31, 2012

Shakespeare's Sonnets, And Rieden's "Sonnet Number Six"

Back in the late '90s my classmate Charles Rieden complained to our Dean at St John's College that he didn't want to have to read Shakespeare's sonnets.  Charles explained to the Dean that sonnets were an outmoded and rather silly form of writing.  

The Dean listened to all this patiently, and then made Charles an offer: write me one good sonnet and you don't have to read any of Shakespeare's sonnets.  Charles immediately agreed.  How hard could it be to write one decent sonnet?

Very hard, it turns out.  And Charles, to his everlasting credit, came to see that pretty quickly.  He produced some sonnets that week, but, by his own estimation, they were terrible.  So he kept trying.  Eventually, over the course of the next year, he had a thick stack of sonnets.  I think in the end he wound up writing more sonnets than Shakespeare, and quite a few of them were really good.

Charles died, tragically, later that year.  He was hit by a drunk driver as he walked along a highway in Santa Fe.  The college framed one of his best sonnets, "Sonnet Number Six," and hung it in the graduate student common room.

As near as I know, it still hangs there, a memorial to Charles.  I take it as a reminder not to dismiss too quickly what I do not understand, and not to imagine I understand what I have not really engaged with.

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