Age: 15, Grade: 10
School Name: Brearley School, New York, NY
Educators: Natalie Cook, Sherri Wof
Category: Critical Essay
On Observing the Form and Content in “On Rereading a Sonnet Written in 1951”
Rhina Espaillat’s “On Rereading a Sonnet Written in 1951” illustrates both the nostalgia in finding a memento from one’s childhood, as well as the reminders of the progression from youth to adulthood that are inspired by the souvenir. Just as we develop throughout our lifetime, the main ideas in the poem slowly emerge throughout its fourteen lines. In “On Rereading a Sonnet Written in 1951,” Rhina Espaillat argues that an idea one had as a child can take a lifetime to fully understand.
The first quatrain uses a simile to express the idea that childish knowledge can be accurate. The sonnet begins with the words “It is as if a sketch in a child’s hand…became the place you could not know till now,”(1-4) comparing a sketch drawn by a child to a sonnet written by a child. The simile reveals that Espaillat realizes a youthful idea as a reality in later life, almost as if a childish illustration had become the setting or backdrop of her life. A child’s simple drawing of “a cow/floating on crayoned green meant to be land”(2-3) and their sonnet about “the ultimate grief”(9) share the quality of being unexpectedly accurate to adult life, although the illustrator or author did not realize why at the time. The first two lines of the sonnet are enjambed, highlighting that children have no hesitation or doubt in their understanding of scenes “all children know—” such as “a cow/floating on crayoned green meant to be land,”(2-3) as a punctuation mark indicates a pause or hesitation. An internal rhyme of “scenes”(2) with “green”(2) illustrates the simple joys in a child’s life, a life in which the “scenes” are often “green,” rather than being multi-colored as the complex scenes in an adult’s life are. The nearly perfect iambic pentameter in “bearing the scenes all children know”(2) conveys the structure and orderliness of a child’s life, as do the repeated gerunds of “bearing”(2) and “floating.”(3) The parallel structure offered by these verbal adjectives mirrors the comfort in the routine, static elements of the early stages of one’s life. Sparing with its punctuation, the first quatrain’s mere three punctuation marks enhance its feeling of youthful simplicity.
In the second quatrain, the current Espaillat chatters to her younger self while exploring the concept of ironic or unexpected knowledge or cleverness. She remarks “Look, fourteen lines you clothed in fancy dress,”(5) with “you” giving the quatrain a conversational tone as the grown up Espaillat talks to her younger self. “Look” is a casual word one would use with a friend, and the chatty combination of “you” and “look” makes line 5 seem like a reunion between two friends recalling an old memory that they shared together. The clothing imagery in “Clothed in fancy dress/in borrowed images”(5-6) emphasizes that an old sonnet, just like clothing, is a tangible artifact we can analyze as well as being a memory. Espaillat uses the metaphor of dressing her sonnet up to express that she used “fancy,” or precocious, words or ideas in it, without genuinely knowing their meaning. By using the passive voice in the action verbs of “clothe” and “borrow,” she implies that the sonnet was based on a “borrowed” thought, one that the young girl did not fully follow, but was able to relate with pen, paper, and an advanced vocabulary. The second quatrain has the most conversational tone of any quatrain in the sonnet. Espaillat notices how “Silly, yet here and there, how luck may bless,”(7) with “yet here and there” indicating surprise at the occurrence of silly things, enforcing the theme of surprise and irony. Espaillat comically rhymes, “one day at school”(6) with “with unsuspecting wit the simplest fool!”(8), ironic because school is associated with accumulating intelligence. Later in the sonnet she describes “one who had not learned a thing but by report” and expresses her belief in “what she somehow knew,” calling attention to the fact that sometimes one can repeat something one has heard without genuinely understanding it, or one can “know” something “somehow.” The poet further explores the concept of chance by stating that “luck may bless/with unsuspecting wit the simplest fool!”(7-8) Luck’s personification as a being with such power that it can make the foolish fortunate reveals the might of circumstance. The placement of “with unsuspecting wit” between the subject “luck” and the direct object “fool” makes it unclear to whom the backhanded compliment is referring to: Is luck unknowingly clever? Or does it bless the naive and foolish with shrewdness the fools themselves do not understand? Espaillat may be referring to her younger self as a “fool,”(8) who possessed certain knowledge simply by chance. She wrote the sonnet in 1951 “one day at school.”(6) It just so happened that on this day a young girl wrote a sonnet, and no one revisited it until over fifty years later. The rhyme of “day”(6) with “may”(7) adds an increased sense of chance to the fact that she wrote the sonnet, as “may” is an auxiliary verb implying the unpredictable nature of an occurrence.
The third quatrain uses a slightly formal, less conversational tone, to separate the writer of the sonnet from the childhood version of herself, making distinctions between experienced and intuited understandings. The lack of punctuation except for the em dash in “as if you’d known/who had not learned a thing but by report—”(9-10) generates a sense of childhood and a lack of experience, yet it is a different tone than that in the first quatrain. Both quatrains use “as if” but the first one uses the words to begin a whimsical simile, while the second one uses it in a critical sense, without sugarcoating the girl’s naivety with a description of an agricultural landscape. Espaillat still uses the pronoun “you” in the third quatrain, but it is embedded within a critical statement, rather than what seems like a casual chat to catch up with an old friend. The contradictory tones in the second and third quatrains reflect Rhina Espaillat’s inner struggle about the extent to which she wants to form a connection with her past self. In the third quatrain, she speaks more like an adult who has perspective on life when discussing “the ultimate grief.”(9) She expresses the idea that “The ultimate grief…is to discover that one dies…alone”(9-11) in split up iambic meter, containing almost perfect iambs except for a missing syllable after the second syllable in “alone.” The fact that a syllable is missing from the otherwise perfect meter reinforces the idea that the utmost sadness is caused by the absence of something, with the absent syllable representing the absent people. The turn in the sonnet is in the lines “The ultimate grief…is to discover that one dies…alone”(9-11) as it is the first time that we hear the voice of the younger Espaillat. The fact that the alliteration in “discover” and “die” associates discovery with the end of one’s life further emphasizes Espaillat’s belief that one can only understand a profound statement about life that one said as a child when one is significantly older. Espaillat separates her older self from her younger in “How odd to be that girl, how long–how short–,”(12) for it is clear that Rhina Espaillat is “that girl,” yet her use of “to be,” rather than “I was” makes the tone withdrawn. Despite using the impersonal “she,” the infinitive “to be” is in the present tense, implying that Espaillat is, in some ways, still the girl she was in 1951. Therefore, she could be wondering “how odd” it is that she is still that girl, as she ponders the paradox of growing up: It can feel both “long”(12) and “short.”(12) Em dashes after these two antonyms make the reader wonder if Espaillat was going to finish her thought with “ago,” yet the lack of this adverb emphasizes her conflicting feelings about how to connect with her past self, given that “long ago” would imply “long ago” in her lifetime.
The sonnet ends by stating its theme: Sometimes it is only after many years that we can comprehend the gravity of something we said as a child. The alliteration in “the lifetime spent in learning if it’s true”(13) sheds more light on Espaillat’s belief that an increased comprehension of life is essential to growing up. She suggests that “suspecting” is dependent on “knowing” by surrounding “what she suspected”(14) with commas, making it inessential to the rest of the sentence. There is parallel structure in “what she suspected, what she somehow knew”(14) except for the added “somehow” in the second clause. The sentence seems repetitive, as “suspected” and “knew” are relatively similar verbs, but “somehow” helps emphasize the difference between suspecting and knowing. Suspecting often comes with evidence, but even so it is just a suspicion, and therefore one does not know that the suspicion is definitely accurate. But sometimes knowledge comes to us for no reason at all; a child can have knowledge of an essential fact of life, even if they cannot fully comprehend what they know until they have reached adulthood. Espaillat uses the pronoun “she” for the first time in the sonnet in “what she suspected, what she somehow knew,”(13-14) making it seem as though she is referring to a completely different person. Using “she” disassociates adult Espaillat from youth Espaillat even more than using “you,” as now the sonnet has lost its conversational tone. The repetition of “what” in the poem’s last line makes the reader wonder “what” was this sonnet really about?
All Shakespearean sonnets have a turn or volta, and “On Rereading a Sonnet Written in 1951” is no exception. But this sonnet describes an ongoing turn throughout someone’s life, an ongoing process of understanding. “On Rereading a Sonnet Written in 1951” could be a metaphor or symbol for the whole lifetime that allowed Rhina Espaillat to recognize “the ultimate grief” and the sonnet she wrote in 1951 may be a symbol for a short “lifetime” – one lived by a young child who therefore has little perspective on life. In Espaillat’s sonnet, we see that our own poetry can fascinate us as much as that of others because it can almost seem as though it were written by someone else.