Edwin's re-sonnets

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Email today from Edwin Williams:

I constructed "new" sonnets from Shakespeare's sonnets by this formula: from a set of 7 randomly selected Shakespeare sonnets (a…g) I made a new sonnet "a b a b c d c d e f e f g g", which means, the first line is taken from the first line of sonnet a, the second line from sonnet the second line of sonnet b, etc. So no two adjacent lines were from the same sonnet, except the last two. I made 154 of these (same number as S made).

I did it for fun but was startled by the result–the new sonnets were sonnetlike, felt syntactically coherent, and begged for interpretation. People I sent them to were fascinated by them, even when they saw what I had done, or after I told them. One of them, Craig Dworkin, a poet I got to know when he was at Princeton in the 90s, asked to include them in his e-poetry site, and there they sit: http://eclipsearchive.org/projects/EDWIN/.

One example:

No more be grieved at that which thou hast done,
Breathed forth the sound that said 'I hate',
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
But when she saw my woeful state,
Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire,
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,
And rather make them born to our desire,
At the wood's boldness by thee blushing stand.
So is the time that keeps you as my chest
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
To make some special instant special-blest,
More than that tongue that more hath more expressed.
Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
And mock you with me after I am gone.

Edwin's comment:

I don't really understand why they feel so coherent. Part of it is just that syntactic boundaries tend to align with line boundaries, so that the transpositions involved tend to preserve unit-hood, and I imagine more modern sonnets wouldn't work as well. But that is not enough–I strongly believe the coherence arises from the fact that I preserved line position–if a line is #3 in the Shakespearean source, it will be #3 in the new sonnet. If so then something remains to be understood about the typical role of line 3, say, in a Shakespearean sonnet, which means there is more convention built up around the form than just the rhyme scheme. Further experiments suggest themselves but I haven't done them.

So in Edwin's honor, this morning I programmed one small further experiment, based on random line-pairs from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese. Because their rhyme scheme is a b b a c d d c e f e f e f, each composite is taken from six random sonnets rather than from seven. One example:

The face of all the world is changed, I think,
To let thee sit beneath the fall of tears
As salt as mine, and hear the sighing years
Betwixt me and the dreadful outer brink
The soul’s Rialto hath its merchandize;
Since first I heard the footsteps of thy soul
Move still, oh, still, beside me, as they stole
Receive this lock which outweighs argosies,—
To these things? O Belovëd, it is plain
Men could not part us with their worldly jars,
And yet, because I love thee, I obtain
Our hands would touch for all the mountain-bars:
To live on still in love, and yet in vain,—
We should but vow the faster for the stars.

And another random re-sonnet:

Thou comest! all is said without a word.
Have heard this word thou hast said,—Himself, beside
Thee speaking, and me listening! and replied
Their happy eyelids from an unaverred
Unlike are we, unlike, O princely Heart!
Face to face, silent, drawing nigh and nigher,
Until the lengthening wings break into fire
On one another, as they strike athwart
To these things? O Belovëd, it is plain
With pulses that beat double. What I do
And yet, because I love thee, I obtain
Must taste of its own grapes. And when I sue
To live on still in love, and yet in vain,—
And sees within my eyes the tears of two.

A tip of the hat to Nick Montfort, along with a few examples from my program for creating passwords from sequences of three words chosen at random from the 74,286 entries in the SUBTLEXus list:


As Edwin put it, these often "beg for interpretation", and in fact I've more than once gotten some side-eye from individuals that I've enrolled as users with one of these for an initial password.


  1. Ralph Hickok said,

    February 6, 2020 @ 10:45 am

    I don't see very much coherence in these examples.

  2. richardelguru said,

    February 6, 2020 @ 10:48 am

    Bit like what3words the app that treats locations in a similar way.
    I am currently sitting at work at friday.robots.sweeping.

    Some of my work includes robotic systems, pity it's Thursday…


  3. Tristan Miller said,

    February 6, 2020 @ 11:02 am

    Something very similar was done back in 1991 by poet Dave Morice, and written up for publication in Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics: http://digitalcommons.butler.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3617&context=wordways

    Morice hand-selected 70 lines from Shakespeare's original sonnets that he thought would match up well in terms of rhyme and meaning, and wrote a simple algorithm for shuffling these lines into new sonnets. In 2014 I produced a JavaScript implementation of his method which can be seen here: http://www.nothingisreal.com/sonnet/

  4. Suburbanbanshee said,

    February 6, 2020 @ 11:54 am

    In Roman times, people spent a lot of time making new poems out of lines from Virgil's Aeneid. The practice was called "cento."

    The form's most famous proponent was the early Christian woman Proba, who made a Biblical epic cento called Cento Virgilianus "De laudibus Christi".

    These are Shakespearian centos. Nice to see this fannish poetic form revived!

  5. martin schwartz said,

    February 6, 2020 @ 3:10 pm

    The late Harry Mathews of the Oulipo literary group wrote much about such means of composition. On internet one can probably find,
    e.g. "Mathewa' Algorithm".

  6. martin schwartz said,

    February 6, 2020 @ 3:14 pm

    please add a comma after my e.g. .

  7. John Baker said,

    February 6, 2020 @ 3:47 pm

    Amir Aczel wrote a book about the Burbaki math thing that included someone's attempt at automatic writing. The method was to take a sentence and look up each word in a dictionary and count down or up a certain number of entries & substitute the resulting word for the original. I tried it & found it produced nonsense. But I put those words, that sentence, into a poem I was writing. No one seemed to notice the introduction of a string of abstract notions into the middle of a poem.

    Is this what we mean by coherence?

  8. bks said,

    February 6, 2020 @ 4:18 pm

    Reminds me of reading Shakespearean sonnets in High School. Even in their original form I was hard pressed to understand the connection between successive lines.

  9. Peter S. said,

    February 6, 2020 @ 5:44 pm

    This reminds me of Cent mille milliards de poèmes https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cent_mille_milliards_de_po%C3%A8mes (translated to English as A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems), by Raymond Queneau This is a sonnet with ten possibilities for each line, all arranged so as to have the proper rhyme scheme.

  10. martin schwartz said,

    February 7, 2020 @ 12:59 am

    @Peter S.: Queneau was co-founder and 1st president of the Oulipo,
    of whom Harry Mathews, mentioned by me above, was a great exponent. Those word-and-game lovers who haven't looked into
    Oulipo should do so.

  11. Rose Eneri said,

    February 7, 2020 @ 10:01 am

    Just goes to prove we can never divine an author's thoughts/intent from opaque poetry. It's like a Rorschach test.

    In the immortal words of Elaine Benes (spoken to Frank Costanza), "It means whatever the hell you want it to mean." (To which Frank replies, "You want a piece of me?")

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 7, 2020 @ 10:32 am

    A few days ago, RH Draney posted a four-line cento in alt.usage.english. I added three lines, and he said we were halfway to a really awful sonnet. So here's the finished version:

    Tyger, tyger, burning bright,
    Removes the colours from our sight.
    I wish I may, I wish I might
    Beware my power: Green Lantern’s light!
    Sing it, y’all, we be all night.
    Nor law, nor duty bade me fight;
    But she knifed me one night ’cause I wished she was white.
    I hate people when they’re not polite.
    You’re right, you’re right, you’re bloody well right.
    Man, I had a dreadful flight.
    The year is dying in the night,
    Offers each the bloom or blight,
    But westward, look, the land is bright
    If Blake could do this when he rose up from shite.

  13. Martha said,

    February 7, 2020 @ 8:23 pm

    To piggyback on John Baker's comment, I think they're coherent *for a poem*.

    I think Edwin's conclusion about the conventions is probably true. Additionally, though, there's a certain way you have to go about reading (some) poetry, and if you're adept enough at it, random things put together can seem "coherent."

    (It might sound like I'm trying to denigrate poetry. I'm not. I just mean to say that since poetry follows different rules – e.g., as bks points out, the connection between lines isn't always immediately transparent – if you have your poetry reading cap on, unconnected ideas can be made to be coherent.)

  14. Joyce Melton said,

    February 9, 2020 @ 1:04 am

    'Twas brillig…

  15. Nick Montfort said,

    February 10, 2020 @ 2:30 pm

    I'm chiming in late here, but I was interested to read this for many reasons; one is that, in a more primitive and exploratory way, I looked into building new verse out of Shakespeare's sonnets 6 months ago. In the following, you will notice that the music of the language, above the line level, certainly lacks nuance! But I find it quite coherent semantically. Perhaps it's a simple consequence of the single rhyme leading to many of the same end words being used again and again, in rime riche.

    ['Like feeble age he reeleth from the day,',
    'From his low tract and look another way:',
    'And threescore year would make the world away:',
    "Against the stormy gusts of winter's day",
    'Then the conceit of this inconstant stay,',
    'But wherefore do not you a mightier way',
    "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?",
    'So I for fear of trust, forget to say,',
    'If thou survive my well-contented day,',
    'And shalt by fortune once more re-survey',
    'Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,',
    "To let base clouds o'ertake me in my way,",
    'By looking on thee in the living day,',
    'Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay!',
    'Injurious distance should not stop my way,',
    'From limits far remote, where thou dost stay,',
    'How careful was I when I took my way,',
    'That to my use it might unused stay',
    'How heavy do I journey on the way,',
    'Doth teach that case and that repose to say',
    'The which he will not every hour survey,',
    'That I might see what the old world could say,',
    'Whether we are mended, or whether better they,',
    'That Time will come and take my love away.',
    'The right of sepulchres, were shorn away,',
    "Ere beauty's dead fleece made another gay:",
    'When I (perhaps) compounded am with clay,',
    'In me thou seest the twilight of such day,',
    'Which by and by black night doth take away,',
    'Without all bail shall carry me away,',
    'Which for memorial still with thee shall stay.',
    'Thus do I pine and surfeit day by day,',
    'Or gluttoning on all, or all away.',
    'Then thank him not for that which he doth say,',
    'Since what he owes thee, thou thy self dost pay.',
    'Then if he thrive and I be cast away,',
    'But do thy worst to steal thy self away,',
    'And life no longer than thy love will stay,',
    'How many lambs might the stern wolf betray,',
    'How many gazers mightst thou lead away,',
    'Yet seemed it winter still, and you away,',
    'As with your shadow I with these did play.',
    "Rise resty Muse, my love's sweet face survey,",
    'Make answer Muse, wilt thou not haply say,',
    "Beauty no pencil, beauty's truth to lay:",
    'Wherein I should your great deserts repay,',
    'Whereto all bonds do tie me day by day,',
    'One of her feathered creatures broke away,',
    'In pursuit of the thing she would have stay:',
    'That followed it as gentle day,',
    'From heaven to hell is flown away.',
    'My sinful earth these rebel powers array,',
    'Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?',
    'With insufficiency my heart to sway,',
    'And swear that brightness doth not grace the day?',
    'For thou betraying me, I do betray',
    'My soul doth tell my body that he may,']

    I think there are other reasons these lines combine well. As Lakoff and Turner describe in More Than Cool Reason with reference to specific cases, many of these lines use, develop, and question the same underlying conceptual metaphors, which permeate the sonnets.

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