2001 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner High School Division
Alexis L. Teagarden
Brookfield, CT

Setting Sonnets to Music

Sonnets are meticulously crafted pieces of poetry.  They follow stringent rules specifying meter, length, and even pattern of thought.  They are elegant, intricate works that rely on cunning and cleverness to lace together a few words to create a vivid image of the speaker’s emotions or thoughts.  Although their very set up seems to doom them to nothing but academic wit and dry displays of skills, great sonnets break though the traditional patterns and limitations to overwhelm the reader with passion.  From the most restraints comes a pure, honed vision and communication.  Sonnets, therefore, are very like the dances in Jane Austen’s novels.  Despite the social constraints inherent in her world, Austen was able to use dances and dancing to open up the volatile, inner soul of her characters.  Dancing reveals unspeakable emotions, such as love and hate, as well as sheds lights on the very essence of her characters.  Her books, and their many film adaptations, delight in using the formal dance as a background to the passionate thoughts and ideas within her dancers.  The irony of a structured backdrop exposing the more elemental world of emotion is one that works well in sonnets and dance.  Austen, who came two hundred some years after her countryman William Shakespeare, could be said to have set his sonnets, and their ironic components, to music.  She, like him, used the limitations of convention to describe the less raw world of the heart.

So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharged with burthen of my own love’s might: (“83” 5-9)

This is a sonnet with which several of Austen’s characters would agree. Mr. Knightley, of Emma, certainly would, as would Jane and Bingley, from Pride and Prejudice, and Fanny, of Mansfield Park. These characters act out the words of the sonnet, by using their dancing to show the feelings they cannot express. Mr. Knightley is unable to tell Emma how he loves her.  It is only when she asks him to dance that Knighley is able to express a bit of his emotions.  When Emma says, “…you know that we are not really so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper,” Mr. Knightley tellingly exclaims, “Brother and sister! no, indeed,” (Emma 298).  Here, his depth of feeling for Emma is quick to rise up against the suggestion of a family connection that would make marriage impossible.  Dance brings out his love.  In the 1995 Miramax version of Emma, Gwynth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam, Emma and Mr. Knightley, reveal their characters’ love in this scene by holding eye contact as they dance.  This shows the strong undercurrents of emotions running between them.   Dancing also brings Mr. Bingley and Jane together.  He singles out Jane, “-because he danced with her twice.  To be sure that did seem as if her admired her,” (Pride 11).  Bingley’s affection for Jane is pointed out to Mr. Darcy, and the reader, as the couple dances (Pride 63). Their feelings develop as they dance, though they both refrain from verbally committing.  Similarly, Edmund describes, unknowingly, how wonderful his relationship with Fanny is while they dance.  “I have been talking incessantly all night, and with nothing to say.  But with you, Fanny, there may be peace.  You will not want to be talked to.  Let us have the luxury of silence,” (Mans. 225).  Fanny readily agrees, providing her beloved Edmund with the soothing atmosphere he desired.  She protects him, and they are comfortable together, showing what a true relationship is.  These three couples find satisfaction and a means to communicate their love in dancing.  They also show the reader how their relationships are progressing, despite what is or is not said.  “Oh learn to read what silent love hath writ:/To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit,” (13-14) pleads sonnet “23.”  They are lucky in their ability to reach their desired partners and give vent to their inner emotions.

Many of Austen’s characters, however, fail to “hear with their eyes” initially.   In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy, whose entire trouble with his Elizabeth arises from, at, and about a dance, is also forced to use the strained ritual to advance his relations with her.  But, unlike Edmund, his partner shows no concern for his feelings.  With Darcy, the dance still symbolizes his affection and hidden emotions, but it is not enough to overcome Elizabeth’s prejudice.  As Darcy’s feelings grow, he offers Elizabeth his hand in dance several times: accepting Sir Lucas’s prompt at the second ball and asking Elizabeth to join him in a reel at Netherfield.  Darcy does not reach out to Elizabeth by his words; it is his persistent attention that shows how he feels.  Elizabeth, despite her “fine eyes,” is unable to see the meaning behind Darcy’s actions.  When she finally does dance with him, Darcy remains cold, and Elizabeth alternates between silence and mockery. The A&E 1995 adaptation, featuring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth as Elizabeth and Darcy, use the dance well to show the characters’ emotions.  At this ball, in Volume II, this dance shows Darcy’s tentative moves towards kindness, and Elizabeth’s determination to dislike him.  Though Elizabeth claims to be puzzled about Darcy, the reader and viewer clearly see his growing admiration and his true personality.  While Darcy’s actions show how Austen developed feelings of love, Elizabeth’s represent Austen’s skill at illuminating feelings quite opposite to it.

Snubbing is a cruel punishment in the ballroom, one that affects even the usually resilient Elizabeth.  Her very dislike of Darcy arose from his refusal, “to give consequence to young ladies [namely herself] who are slighted by other men,” (Pride 7). His thoughtless gesture begins her prejudice, which seriously cripples their relationship.  Edmund feels Miss Crawford’s slight, “She has never danced with a clergyman she says, and she never will,” (Mans. 217) acutely, enough so that he does not want to attend the ball.  Harriet Smith, in Emma, also feels this cruel slight. Mrs. Weston tries to remedy Harriet’s partnerlessness at her party by asking Elton to dance.  He said he was quite ready, until her realized the proposed partner is Harriet.  He quickly backed down, “Miss Smith! –oh!- I had not observed…But my dancing days are over, Mrs. Weston.  You will excuse me,” (Emma 295).  Harriet is crushed.  In the Emma adaptation this scene is portrayed beautifully.  Harriet’s discomfort at standing alone, and her shame at Mr. Elton’s refusal, is made clear in her falling face and hand held to head.  Just as accepting a dance is often an expression of love for Austen, refusing can be a weapon used to hurt.

While not dancing is a hardship, the wrong partner often illuminates characters’ less kind emotions. Elizabeth’s first two dances at the Netherfield ball, “…were dances of mortification,” since Mr. Collins, her partner, was, “…awkward and solemn… and often moving wrong without being aware of it, gave her all the shame and misery which a disagreeable partner for a couple of dances can give,” (Pride 62).  The movie Pride and Prejudice makes Elizabeth’s disgust apparent.  Ehle’s smile shrinks every time she faces him in the dance.  Mr. Collin’s missteps in dance mirror his general missteps in life, as well as show how he is completely unsuitable for her.  After all, it is Elizabeth who wisely points out the, “efficacy of poetry in driving away love,” (Pride 30).  When love is strong, she admits, poetry might help, “…but if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away,” (Pride 30). Similarly, while dancing with loved ones help characters express themselves, being partnered with the wrong person does little to improve relations.

This is mildly true for the characters in Emma, who spend their dances dreaming of others.  When Emma dances with Frank Churchill, she thinks of and smiles at Mr. Knightley.  Paltrow plays this scene well, for her focus in not on the dashing Churchill, but on her friends Harriet and Knightley.  Mr. Knightley, too, after dancing with Harriet, praises Emma’s choice in friend, rather than Harriet herself (Emma 298).  Fanny and Edmund experience harsher disappointments when they mismatch partners. When Fanny leads the way at the Mansfield ball with Mr. Crawford, “it was rather honour than happiness…for the first dance at least…she was a great deal too much frightened to have any enjoyment,” (Mans. 223).  Her reaction is quite different from that of “sober tranquillity” with which she dances with Edmund (Mans. 226).  Edmund has similar troubles with Miss Crawford, who, “had been in gay spirits when they first danced together but it was not her gaiety that could do him good; it rather sank than raised his comfort,” (Mans. 226).  He, too, finds little satisfaction in dancing with the wrong partner.

Austen’s use of dance, however, goes beyond describing emotional states to actually developing character, just as Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence develops different personalities.  Elton’s actions to Harriet cement his dislikable persona. “For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;/Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds,” (“94” 13-14), and thus by his actions, Mr. Elton, once admired, completely fell from grace.  In contrast, Mr. Knightley, who offers Harriet his hand (Emma 295) saves her from shame.  His response at the dance highlights his true, compassionate nature, as Elton’s reveal his base, ungentlemanly self.  The movie Emma expands on this scene.  Paltrow moves from feeling anxiety at Harriet’s plight to sighing with contentment as Knightley leads Harriet to their circle.  Paltrow reaches out to Harriet as she passes her and smiles blessingly on Knightley when they face each other. The gentle physical signs reinforce the important actions the dance inspires in the characters.  The A&E version of Pride and Prejudice plays up the foolishness of Lydia and Kitty by showing their passion for dancing.  Twice in Volume II of the set, Lydia pulls Wickham away from Elizabeth to dance.  She also interrupts the dinner given at the Netherfield ball by dancing in and loudly disrupting the room.  This careless, self-gratifying behavior is drawn from the book, which often points out how the younger sisters were indeed shallow and indecorous.  “Catherine and Lydia had been fortunate enough to be never without partners, which is all they had yet learnt to care for at a ball,”(Pride 7).  Lydia’s thoughtlessness, developed by dance, leads her into her foolish elopement.  Similarly, Miss Bingley’s reaction to dance, scorn, reflects on her ill temper.  “I should like balls infinitely better… if they were carried on in a different manner; but there is something insufferably tedious in the usual process of such a meeting,” (Pride 37), she says, in a vain attempt to align herself with Darcy.  She is unable to find enjoyment in anything that makes others happy, and her ugly side does not go unnoticed by Darcy.  Thus Austen uses dance as a way of reveal much more than principle characters’ emotions; dance also illuminates characteristics and values.  It can help restrained characters demonstrate their feelings or bring those less prudent characters into the light of their own folly.

Dancing or not dancing, with life mates or mistakes, is one of Austen's most enlightening and ironic tools for developing her stories and her characters.  Dances are places to show emotions that must often be masked in a restrictive society or by a reserved personality; they are also moments for polite insults, and chances reveal personalities.  Austen uses the limits of the formal setting to expand on her characters.  Her elegant use of the dance is as articulate, skillful, and clever as a Shakespearean sonnet.  And, like the sonnets, through her wit she touches the souls of her character and her readers.