During the English Renaissance, the heyday of the sonnet, one popular long form was the sonnet sequence. William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Michael Drayton, and Samuel Daniel are only a few of the poets in the age of Elizabeth I who left intriguing works in this form. Since that period, few successful long poems in sonnet stanzas have appeared, the nearest approximation being George Meredith’s Modern Love (1862), a sustained sequence of sixteen-line units. Indeed, Meredith’s title could stand as an effective subtitle for Vikram Seth’s work; The Golden Gate is, among other things, a survey of contemporary love relationships. Love and survival are the author’s central themes, and worthy themes they are for the dignity of the sonnet.
Seth’s sonnets, however, are not so very dignified. Committed to a comic treatment of his material, this astonishingly assured poet bends the usually sober-sided effects of the sonnet to his will. One way in which he does this is by keeping his diction, for the most part, contemporary. It would be misleading, however, to give the impression that his vocabulary is narrow or commonplace: This is an eclectic, precise, and striking diction that harmoniously blends everything from glib hipness to scholarly erudition. Indeed, the voice of the engaging speaker who tells this tale is one of Seth’s great achievements. He is a true humorist who has a lot of affection for those he chides. An opaque rather than transparent narrator, Seth’s persona shows an affection for the reader, too. Time and time again he sets aside the narrative for a moment to engage the reader directly. Having sonnets written to the reader is a most pleasant form of flattery.
Another source of humor, though intimately connected to diction and voice, is the special sonnet shape that Seth has invented for this work. Typically, his rhyme scheme is ababccddeffegg. The poet borrows his opening quatrain from the English tradition, follows it with a quatrain made of two couplets, then a third quatrain in the Italian style, and finally the closing couplet—once again a feature of the English sonnet type. The formal device, then, is an eccentric version of a familiar shape that provides Seth with special opportunities that he is ready and eager to exploit.
The most obvious opportunity (and challenge) is adding more couplets to the sonnet than are usually found. The four couplets in each of Seth’s sonnets are the traditional containers for poetic wit, the proximity of the rhyming words allowing them to call special attention to themselves. Seth often complicates his sound-play by adding another comic device—polysyllabic rhyming—both on the couplets and elsewhere. Add to this Seth’s preference for the iambic tetrameter line, rather than the customary pentameter, and one has a complicated vehicle for whimsical and broad effects. (The tetrameter line simply shortens the intervals between rhyme words.) Here is an example from the first chapter. John Brown, one of the main characters, is describing himself:
“I’m young, employed, healthy, ambitious,Sound, solvent, self-made, self-possessed.But all my symptoms are pernicious.The Dow-Jones of my heart’s depressed.The sunflower of my youth is wilting.The tower of my dreams is tilting.The zoom lens of my zest is blurred.The drama of my life’s absurd.What is the root of my neurosis?I jog, eat brewer’s yeast each day,And yet I feel life slip away.I wait your sapient diagnosis.I die! I faint! I fail! I sink!”“You need a lover, John, I think.”
The second speaker is John’s former girlfriend, now his confidante, Janet Hayakawa. Her response continues in the next sonnet, exemplifying another feature of Seth’s technique—the enjambing of materials from one section to the next so that the longer poem gains continuity at the expense of the independence of its hundreds of units.
For every obstacle one could name to the accomplishment of his goal, Seth has found a solution. By merging the two genres into a unique literary work, he has freshened both the tradition of the...