"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
July 25, 2012
by Marian Stoddard

“Teach me some melodious sonnet, Sung by flaming tongues above…”

Some people chafe at what they see as the restrictions of the commandments.  They say that there is no room for individuality, that everyone has to march in lockstep and there is little freedom of expression. 

My mother, who helped create my love of poetry, pointed out to me as a teenager that the gospel is a structure that allows vast variety within it.  She likened it to the rules of sonnets in poetry.  The sonnet is a very strict form, with 14 lines in iambic pentameter (that means da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA, next line, as a cadence), which is the closest written rhythm to speech, and two patterns of rhyme to choose from, the Italian or Elizabethan.

The Italian uses two quatrains (sets of four lines) and one set of six; the Elizabethan or Shakespearean uses three quatrains and an ending couplet: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, with those letters being the ending word to rhyme.  (Oh, I’m sorry, you thought you were done with school? I’ll only keep you a moment, I promise.)

The content, once you have mastered the structure, can be anything you want.  Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets.  Probably the most famous one starts, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"  One of my favorites, on growing older, begins, "That time of year thou mayest in me behold/When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang /Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,/Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang." 

The best known sonnets of religious content are John Donne's "Holy Sonnets," and the most familiar one of those is "Death, be not proud..."  which ends triumphantly, "One short sleep past, we wake eternally/And death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die!"

But I like this one —

At the round earth's imagined corners blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go;
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o'erthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you, whose
Eyes shall behold God, and never taste death's woe.
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space;
For, if above all these my sins abound,
'Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace,
When we are there.  Here on this lowly ground,
Teach me how to repent, for that's as good
As if Thou hast seal'd my pardon with Thy blood.

Quite a sermon, isn't it?  And there is quite a difference in content between love poems, religious concepts, and meditations on anything you choose — all within the confines of a careful structure, and all with the vast individuality of expression. 

I love the leafless tree in winter as "bare ruined choirs [seats for the singers]" and the "round earth's imagined corners." And then there is Gerard Manley Hopkins, who stood the cadence on its head while preserving the form.  The writing of sonnets is far, far, from a knee-jerk, lockstep process.  Sonnets are a way to create beauty with words.

In a similar way, the gospel offers a way to create beauty with faith, love, choices, service, and obedience. Our lives will be as varied as we are, but the structure of principles, ordinances, and blessings underlying them will be the same. Each of us has unique gifts to offer and to receive, unique lessons to learn, and there is nothing cookie-cutter about it. True joy will be the beauty our Father in Heaven creates with us, unmistakable to those with eyes to see.

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About Marian Stoddard

Marian J. Stoddard was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in its Maryland suburbs. Her father grew up in Carson City, Nevada, and her mother in Salt Lake City, so she was always partly a Westerner at heart, and she ended up raising her family in Washington State. Her family took road trips all over the United States and Canada, so there were lots of adventures.

The adventures of music, literature, and art were also valued and pursued. Playing tourist always included the local museums as well as historical sites and places of natural beauty. Discussions at home, around the dinner table or working in the kitchen, could cover politics, philosophy, or poetry, with the perspective of the gospel underlying all. Words and ideas, and testimony and service, were the family currency.

Marian graduated from Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Maryland, and attended the University of Utah as the recipient of the Ralph Hardy Memorial Scholarship, where she was graduated with honors, receiving a B.A. in English. She also met the love of her life, a law student, three weeks after her arrival; she jokes that she had to marry him because her mother always wanted a tenor in the family. (She sings second soprano.) They were married two years later and have six children and six grandchildren (so far). She treasures her family, her friends, and her opportunities to serve.

Visit Marian at her blog, greaterthansparrows.  You can contact her at bloggermarian@gmail.com. 

Marian and her husband live in Tacoma, Washington. Together they teach those who are preparing to go to the temple for the first time, and she also teaches a Stake Relief Society Institute class.

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