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40 Sonnets by Don Paterson review – playful poems from a master

Extraordinary, beautiful or funny – these poems from an expert in rhythm and rhyme stay with you

A few days ago, I played a little trick on the internet, asking people to name and date a sonnet, whose first few lines I gave as: “Whenne I was ruined by Love, I tooke a Vow / That if I loved againe, I’d love the lesse; / Soe when I spoke love, spoke it to excess, / As Love will make its mirror anyhowe.” What I had naughtily done was antiquate the spelling, for this is “A Vow”, the 17th sonnet in Paterson’s collection, off which an early 17th-century steam rises so powerfully that I couldn’t resist the joke. And I think this is precisely the effect he was after: there’s only one clue to the fact that the poem is modern: the later use of the word “lift” to mean what Americans call an elevator. (And an indirect one: a glancing reference to the speed of receding galaxies.)

But the main point of “A Vow” is that it is a beautiful poem and, once untangled (as in any good metaphysical poem, the language is concentrated, like an artful knot), it spoke to me directly, as if someone had beamed it into my head. It works in two ways: as a literary exercise and as genuinely meaningful verse.

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