Verse > Anthologies > Hunt and Lee, eds. > The Book of the Sonnet
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Hunt and Lee, comps.  The Book of the Sonnet.  1867.
 
Introductory Letter
By Leigh Hunt
 
To Samuel Adams Lee, Esq.

MY DEAR FRIEND,—
  (For though you are still young, and I am now indeed old, having outlived the period usually assigned to the age of man, yet, to say nothing of graver reasons, friendship, you know, may exist in its most companionable form between juniors and their elders, when founded on the love of such never-fading things as the beauties of nature and the books which they have inspired,) you gratified me extremely, when you asked for some remarks from my pen on the subject of the class of poems from which you meditated a selection. The interest which with a zeal so generous you take in the Transatlantic welfare of my writings would alone be as sufficient as it ought to be to set me gladly to the task; but you considered, I have no doubt, (for I have learnt to detect your artifices in such matters,) that the subject would be one that I should like for its own sake also; and when you concluded your request with mentioning the names of the distinguished persons who agree with you in thinking that the remarks would be welcome to the American public, the measure of my satisfaction was “full measure, pressed down, and running over.”
  1
  It may be thought by some persons who do not happen to be conversant with the particular form of verse denominated the SONNET, that, while making extracts from poets, we might have done better than confine ourselves to a species of composition not yet associated in the general mind with the idea of anything very marked or characteristic; but it will not be difficult to show, that the Sonnet, while admitting of a greater and happier levity than those who think lightest of it imagine, is in reality connected with some of the most thoughtful, some of the most affecting, and some of the grandest events of the most exalted men.  2
  “Scorn not the Sonnet,” says one of its most dignified masters:—

  “Scorn not the Sonnet. Critic, you have frowned,
Mindless of its just honors. With this key
Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound;
A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound;
With it Camoens soothed an exile’s grief;
The sonnet glittered a gay myrtle-leaf
Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned
His visionary brow; a glow-worm lamp,
It cheered mild Spenser, called from Fairy-land
To struggle through dark ways; and when a damp
Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand
The thing became a trumpet, whence he blew
Soul-animating strains,—alas! too few.”
  3
 
  The regret expressed by Wordsworth, in the conclusion of his sonnet, will, I hope, serve as a warning against similar shortcomings to the Bryants, Longfellows, and Lowells among you, and all others whom it may concern, but with whose names and genius I am not equally well acquainted. Next indeed in enjoyment to the gratification which I experience for my own sake as well as for that of your friendly zeal, in complying with your wish in regard to the present volume, is the indulgence of a hope, that, as previous writers on the class of poetry which it illustrates have not exhausted the subject, and as the selection of the many beautiful specimens which it contains proceeds upon a plan combining personal with poetical interest, it may help to excite a disposition to the cultivation of the Sonnet in all poetical quarters, particularly those of the country in which the book makes its first appearance. Reasons for the pleasure and other advantages to be expected from so doing will be found, I trust, in the Essay which follows this letter. I cannot help looking upon myself, in this matter, as a kind of horticulturist who has brought a stock of flowers with him from Italy and England, for the purpose of diffusing their seeds and off-sets, wherever the soil can be found congenial; and therefore, with your leave, and with the privilege of free-speaking which is conceded to guests and graybeards, I hereby give notice, that if in the course of a few years from the date of this intimation a good crop of Sonnets, of all hues and varieties, does not start up throughout the said quarters, like a new flush of beauty to your meadows, or song to your groves, (for birds and flowers grow ripe together,) I shall be inclined to ask my American cousins what right they possess not only to the wit and the poetry that already flourish among them, but to the more than Italian sun that warms so much of their territory, and to that extraordinary feathered songster, the Mocking-Bird, which is the only imitator in the world that beats what it imitates.  4
  Be this however as it may, and let our Selections prosper in any respect or not, I am ever,
Dear Mr. Lee,
Your obliged and affectionate friend,
LEIGH HUNT.    
  5
 
 
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