“Silent Reading” by Deborah Warren was published in Volume 13 Issue 2 (2002) of The Formalist. The first thing one notices about “Silent Reading” is that it references a fairly (though not unobtainably) obscure historical document. As such, it might limit itself to a more erudite audience if it did not, in the first stanza, lay out all the necessary details of the story. Since it does lay out all those details, the reference at the top seems rather superfluous, especially since it does not provide enough detail to be useful as a reference.
However, with that exception, this sonnet seems to be quite well crafted. It is an unrhymed Petrarchan sonnet (if that isn’t an oxymoron), but it keeps enough resonances of sound between the consonances the assonances and the occasional rhymes that it really retains the feeling of a traditional sonnet well. As someone who is perhaps overfond of rhyme, I didn’t even miss it, and didn’t realize that the poem was unrhymed until my second or third read through of it. I thought that made it really interesting from a formal standpoint.
This is one of those sonnets where the volta really stands out. The shift in thought from the octet to the sestet is almost jolting, which is appropriate for imagery of the earth standing still. The feeling of absolute shock and awe, of the paradigmatic shift that must have hit the Romans at Amrose’s reading is absolutely captured. I thought it was especially interesting the way that the octet provided a narrative, and the sestet a commentary by way of a single image, form and function working together dramatically yet again. One leaves the poem, like Ambrose, like the Romans, silent.