by Donald Justice
There are two remarkable turns in Donald Justice’s Italian sonnet “The Wall.” One could be called rhetorical, that is, built into the Italian sonnet form with its octave-sestet argumentative structure, and one dramatic, provided by the narrative and the way that Justice chooses to tell or dramatize the story. Surely one of the great accomplishments of “The Wall” is that it manages to fit Paradise Lost into 14 lines!
The second turn, or dramatic one, is located in the final line: “As they advanced, the giant wings unfurled.” Those wings have been foreshadowed dramatically in line 4, as the wings of the angels which did not instill awe in Adam and Eve as long as they remained “furled.” In the last line, the awe and awfulness of the revelation of the wings dawns on the fallen pair. The line is also ambiguous. Though grammatically “they” in “they advanced” ought to refer to Adam and Eve ,who are the subjects of the entire sestet, “they” may also refer to the wings themselves and by implication the angels, advancing in all their colossal glory. A state of instability makes the entire poem stand on a shifting base, rather like that cake of ice on a hot stove Robert Frost speaks of, in this case riding not only on its own melting, but its own falling.
But the turn that is a stroke of genius is the first line of the sestet, line 9: “As for the fruit, it had no taste at all.” All of Book 9 of Paradise Lost is contained in line 9 of “The Wall.” Granted, the line does not have the impact of Milton’s “Earth felt the wound,” but I’d put it beside “Forth reaching to the fruit, she pluck’d, she eat” any day. With line 14 in Justice’s poem, line 9 brackets the four lines of anaphora that make up lines 10-13: “They had been warned . . . They had been told . . . They saw it now,” etc. The two turns together rotate the sestet like a wheel of history, like the fallen world itself, and the entire poem rides right into immortality.
Mark Jarman’s latest collection of poetry is Bone Fires: New and Selected Poems (Sarabande Books, 2011). He is Centennial Professor of English at Vanderbilt University and an Elector for the American Poets’ Corner at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City.
†The version of the poem to which we have provided a link differs slightly in its punctuation from that of the original poem. For a more accurate version of the poem, we encourage readers to consult the print version, which can be found in Donald Justice’s The Summer Anniversaries, Wesleyan University Press, 1960.