Life Is Like A Sonnet

In her book, A WRINKLE IN TIME, Madeleine L’Engle has included one of the best and clearest ways to answer this question –
“Do we have free will or are our lives determined by forces outside ourselves? Do we have control over how we live our lives or does Fate run things?”

In the West the word “Karma” is often used as a substitute for “Fate,” but this is a misunderstanding. The Eastern concept of Karma is not about any kind of predestination, or punishment. It’s about cause and effect, about the consequences of our actions that are revealed in the cycle of birth and rebirth. But let’s get back to the basic question – do we run our lives or are our lives mapped out for us?

The new movie based on A WRINKLE IN TIME is good – and definitely worth seeing, but the book is wonderful. In print, L’Engle’s views on the nature of reality and human nature can be presented with greater depth than on the screen. Her description of other dimensions, although deceptively simple, is profound and her understanding of human nature keeps the fiction grounded and believable. This is not a book just for children.

There’s no room in the movie for passages like this splendid one in which beyond-brilliant little brother Calvin has a discussion about life with Mrs. Whatsit, one of the pan-dimensional wise women. Somewhat abbreviated, here it is:
“If we knew ahead of time what was going to happen we’d be – we’d be like the people on Camazotz, with no lives of our own, with everything all planned and done for us. How can I explain it to you? Oh, I know. In your language you have a form of poetry called the sonnet.”

 “Yes. Yes, “ Calvin said impatiently. “What ‘s that got to do with the Happy Medium?”

 “Kindly pay me the courtesy of listening to me.” Mrs. Whatsit’s voice was stern, and for a moment Calvin stopped pawing the ground like a nervous colt.

“It is a very strict form of poetry, is it not?”


 “There are fourteen lines, I believe, all in iambic pentameter. That’s a very strict rhythm or meter, yes?”

 “Yes.” Calvin nodded.

 “And each line has to end with a rigid rhyme pattern. And if the poet does not do it exactly this way, it is not a sonnet, is it?”


 “But within this strict form the poet has complete freedom to say whatever he wants, doesn’t he?”

 “Yes.” Calvin nodded again.

 So,” Mrs. Whatsit said.

 “So what?”

 “Oh, do not be stupid, boy!” Mrs. Whatsit scolded.“You know perfectly well what I am driving at!”

 “You mean you’re comparing our lives to a sonnet? A strict form, but freedom within it?”

“Yes.” Mrs. Whatsit said. “You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.”

Using an exclusionary pronoun (he) that assumes poets are male belongs to the time when A WRINKLE IN TIME was first published – 1962 – before societal struggles made us look again at the language we use. Reading “he” again was a small jolt for me, and a reminder of past attitudes. But what’s true is that L’Engle’s book was visionary then and still is today.

What she expresses so clearly with the passage about sonnets is that although there are rules for being an embodied human being, what you do within the form of your individual life is up to you. The choices we make, or don’t make, are very, very important. All choices, of whatever scale or size, create effects. Even small decisions are part of the dynamic force that shapes our lives and, since we are all connected, the lives of others.

Usually discussions about free will become either/or arguments. You can either direct your own life or live the one predestined for you. You either have a completely blank canvas or it’s a paint-by-number project. No wonder this usually produces impenetrable back and forth discussions that rule out any really useful understanding. The example L’Engle uses to describe this very complex concept is splendid: that life is like a sonnet certainly made sense to me. It’s an explanation that’s so clear and easy to understand that it’s quickly captured by the mind and it stays there.

*     *     *     *     *
A WRINKLE IN TIME, By Madeleine L’Engle, Square Fish Books/ Macmillan and Farrar Straus Giroux, copyright 1962 by Crosswicks, Ltd.
The new paperback edition includes an introduction by Anna Quindlen and a short interview with Madeleine L’Engle.

The illustration at the top of the post is called “Time Machine” by AzDude on Pixabay.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Anne Wotring says:

    Hi Celia, I love this! Thanks! Anne

    Anne Wotring Sent from my iPhone


  2. Lucia Thornton says:

    Absolutely brilliant! Such a clear commentary on the nature of our existence. Bravo Celia! In deep appreciation for your writing, Lucia

  3. jeanmatlack says:

    Such an apt metaphor. It will stay with me too, Celia.

  4. Lisbeth Bagnold says:

    Now intrigued to read the book! I realize that I am somewhat desensitized to the language of “he”…starting in the 90’s, when writing business proposals, I resorted to s/he throughout. Interesting how non-gender specific language is evolving — but that’s another subject.

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