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Of Sonnets and Discipleship: the Beauty of Limits

“. . . our human and earthly limits, properly understood,
are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration
and elegance, to 
fullness of relationship and meaning.” “Faustian Economics,” Wendell Berry

Our assignment in my poetry class was to write a sonnet–English or Italian, our choice. But when it comes to sonnets, that option, in many ways, is where the freedom seems to end. You can’t write as many lines as you want (has to be fourteen, of course). You can’t make it rhyme–or not–however you might like (must be abab, cdcd, efef, gg for the English kind).  Line length is non-negotiable, either: five “feet” of “iambs” (unstressed syllables followed by stressed ones). Sonnets and the poets who write them take their metrics very, very seriously.

My classmates and I were a little freaked out. Writing formal poetry–poetry that adheres to form (e.g. sonnet, sestina, villanelle, tanka, ode)–seems the exclusive purview of the professionals. Plus, isn’t formal poetry too often, well,formal, in the other sense of that word: stuffy and standoffish?

Who wants to write a formal poem?

Not us, we all said. How can we say what we want to say when we’re so restricted? What is the point of writing a poem if you feel all hedged in–if the form itself seems intent on cramping your style, stifling your self-expression, limiting your freedom?

Yet here’s the thing:

Freedom, genuine freedom, (in any context) can be exercised only within limits. This seems counterintuitive, of course, especially in a culture founded on the idea of breaking free from all constraints (the sky’s the limit! no rules! live free or die!). America’s revolutionary war sloganism has had its inevitable end in modern advertising jingles that signal the swapping of one form of tyranny for another: in two hundred years we traded subjugation under King George for the slavery of the self to the forces of consumer-capitalism.

And so the so-called free individual finds it harder and harder to feel truly free. As theologian Philip Kenneson has put it:

How many people feel free not to buy a new car every three or four years? (Or not to buy one at all?) How many people feel free not to dress in the latest styles or fashions? How many people feel free not to look like, talk like, walk like and think like everyone else? In short, how many people feel free not to desire what everyone else desires?

As I often ask my brightest, most accomplished students: How many of you felt free not to come to college right after high school?

Unlimited freedom, it turns out, can be pretty limiting. Without a telos–an ultimate end or aim–and without a community of some kind in which such a purpose is given shape and substance, focus and direction, freedom can feel a lot like bondage.

Freedom and Constraint in Discipleship

But determined by telos that has to do with the well-being and flourishing of all (and not merely the wish fulfillment of the unencumbered individual), genuine freedom is exercised in relationship and reciprocity. Etymologically related to “friend,” the word “free” carries the sense of “dear” or beloved,” and, as Wendell Berry notes,

We set our friends free by our love for them, with the implied restraints of faithfulness or loyalty. And this suggests that our ‘identity’ is located not in the impulse of selfhood but in deliberately maintained connections.

In Christian discourse, freedom is bound up (now there’s a theological oxymoron) in the freedom to love, to serve, to know and be known. We exercise our freedom for the sake of a life directed toward love of God and neighbor, not merely (or not really at all) as freedom from hindrance or constraint.  Freedom understood theologically is generative, fecund, prolific; its goal is not the casting off of encumbrances but fullness of life.  Freedom as free rein, by contrast, is narrow, small, often paranoid and suspicious—it fences out the neighbor, it feeds our narcissistic whims.

Fullness of life suggests that we live necessarily within certain kinds of restraints, certain disciplined practices that make evident what counts as a life lived fully before God and neighbor. Consider, for example, the Ten Commandments.  For Israel, the law given at Mount Sinai came as gift, as a liberating word to help the covenant people of God learn how to thrive in their new life together. Where we might see the keeping of the commandments as a way to earn God’s favor and escape God’s wrath (and even as a curtailment of our freedom), the biblical writers are clear that the law comes after Israel’s salvation and in response to it; keeping it, living it is how the people of God express their gratitude freely. And as Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed (from prison, interestingly), “nobody experiences the mystery of freedom unless through discipline.”

So disciplined, formal, speech like the Decalogue (and the creeds and the Lord’s Prayer) doesn’t restrict our freedom; in fact it makes genuine freedom—fullness of life and living—possible. As it turns out, astonishing complexity flows from the forms we adhere to.

What About Poetry and Freedom?

In the end, writing a sonnet wasn’t easy but it was surprisingly freeing.  The constraints of the form were not, after all, limitations to creativity but their necessary precondition. Once the boundaries were acknowledged not as confinements but as “inducements to elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning” (Berry), it was possible even to strive for and discover beauty: in choosing this word and not that one,  in making the rhyme scheme work, in finding a fitting image or metaphor.

The discovery of beauty in words, in life, in a life directed toward love of God and neighbor: What is our freedom for if not for that?

Editor’s Note: This is a repost of Of Sonnets and Discipleship: the Beauty of Limits by Debra Dean Murphy. It appears here with the author’s permission. 

Debra Dean Murphy is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at West Virginia Wesleyan College. She likes books, movies, music, art, politics — and she likes to think and write about how religion intersects all of these arenas. She serves on the board (and is an avid fan) of The Ekklesia Project.

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