I will put Chaos into fourteen lines
And keep him there; and let him thence escape
If he be lucky; let him twist, and ape
Flood, fire, and demon --- his adroit designs
Will strain to nothing in the strict confines 5
Of this sweet order, where, in pious rape,
I hold his essence and amorphous shape,
Till he with Order mingles and combines.
Past are the hours, the years of our duress,
His arrogance, our awful servitude: 10
I have him. He is nothing more nor less
Than something simple not yet understood;
I shall not even force him to confess;
Or answer. I will only make him good.
The binary construction of word and deed—words and actions—is embedded in our cultural consciousness. Right? Thinkers and writers since at least Thucydides have yoked the two ideas as a pair, implying a difference between the two, if not a contrast. What happens when that distinction collapses? One answer is this sonnet.
Here words are actions. The speaker states her goal—putting Chaos into fourteen lines—and accomplishes that goal by means of her statement. The poem’s closing line is also an enclosure, imprisoning Chaos within the structure of a sonnet. Of all the limitations placed on “his essence and amorphous shape,” meter restricts him most. As a prescribed quantity (i.e., iambic pentameter), it acts as a boundary of content. Five even steps allowed per line: no more. Chaos’s “strict confines” are a verbal room of five by fourteen square feet. While other structural features such as rhyme, punctuation, and capitalization also impose order, none exercise as much control as meter.
Need I address the significance of this poem/incarceration for our own times? Probably. This sonnet offers hope to those reeling from the Great Recession—hours and years of duress if ever there were any. These lines illustrate the capacity of art to control and conquer pandemonium. The victory is not final, but it is encouraging. Art can make us good.