I sat down on the grass to read ‘The Making of a Sonnet - A Norton Anthology’, while my kids lined up for their turn on the 20ft water slide, temporarily installed over summer at Whangarei’s Town Basin (in New Zealand), a public space next to the harbour inlet where yachts are moored.
I’d paid $8 for an hour’s worth of sliding for each of them. So an hour, I thought, to enjoy reading poetry under the shade of a tree. But I struggled. I wasn’t in the mood to dwell long in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, though I lingered with some genuine pleasure on a few of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Mostly, the language was too stilted, the syntax unfamiliar, the poems unknown. So I casually kept flicking the pages until the 19th century, when familiar poems by Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats of course, were dutifully read and admired.
And into the 20th century: W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost, St Vincent Mallory... and then a poem on page 213 by R.A.K Mason, 'Sonnet of Brotherhood'.
Mason was a fellow New Zealander who wrote only a small number of poems, his best when he was a young man in the 1920s. 'Sonnet of Brotherhood' was a poem I hadn’t read for 15 years or so. But it now burst back into my consciousness, as thrilling perhaps as splashing into the water at the bottom of the slide was for my kids. Because reading this poem, at that moment, caused an almost physical response. Mind and body felt different, alert, charged. And I was reminded again that poetry matters.
This poem, written in 1924, seemed so relevant to the world today. A world divided in many ways, but of particular importance for this poem, into bordered countries, which are likened by Mason to “garrisons pent up”, where in each of our “little forts” surrounded by enemies we do not “quarrel and divide[...] but friend and foe are friends in their hard sort.” Mason was writing not long after the end of the World War One and its strident nationalism.
The twist in the sonnet form that comes in the last six lines is to point out in heightened and memorable poetic language that all humans are up against a common enemy, we are all victims of “Fate’s gigantic plot”, together alone on one planet. The question the final part of the poem forces us to consider: is why aren’t we then friends of some hard sort?
Today, the threat of catastrophic global warming, resource depletion, and other ecological crises, must make us “friends”, or the consequences for human civilisation will be extreme.
Astronauts have spoken of the shift of consciousness that occurs when seeing earth from space; it’s beauty, but also a profound realisation that we are together on this planet; that the ocean currents, the winds, the flow of the energy from the sun, are a unity. Mason’s appeal to “brotherhood” would surely resonate with someone who has seen Earth from space. His appeal is not based on any romantic utopian vision or spiritual awakening, but rather based on a sober realisation of reality, thunderously proclaimed in the concluding lines of the poem:
“here in this far-pitched perilous hostile place
this solitary hard-assaulted spot
fixed at the friendless outer edge of space.”
The full poem can be read here: http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-FaiWoma-d1-t3.html