Hunt and Lee, comps. The Book of the Sonnet. 1867.
An Essay on the Cultivation, History, and Varieties of the Species of Poem called the Sonnet
I. On the Desirableness of Cultivating the Sonnet
THE OBJECT of this Essay is twofold,first, to assist in furthering the cultivation and enjoyment of a species of verse peculiarly fitted to diffuse an acquaintance with poetical composition; and, second, to perform the like office in diffusing an acquaintance with Italian as well as English poetry.
By cultivation is meant the practice of Sonnet-writing by such as are inclined to poetize in that direction; by the enjoyment of the Sonnet, the pleasure already taken, or to be taken in it, by lovers of poetry in general, whether writers or readers.
As to Italian and English poetry, the words carry with them their own recommendation to all who know anything of poetry or music; yet I always feel so grateful to the very sound of the Italian language, when about to put its words on paper, that by way of prelude to my task I cannot but quote what has been said of it by a late gallant and conscientious writer, Captain Henry Napier, who, in the sixth volume of his Florentine History, no less truly than gracefully describes it as a language replete with beauty, abounding in energy, adapted alike to the deepest pathos and the loftiest flights of poetry,as well to the breathings of youthful love, as to the resistless energy of passion, or the liveliest sallies of wit,descending from the sublime to the burlesque, from the palace to the cottage, with the grace and facility of a bird, and charming in every flight.
There would be more poets in a nation, more pleasure in the general reading of poetry, and no fear of the incompatibility of such pleasures with the duties of active life, if people in all parts of the world were as aware as they have long been in the South of Europe what an amount of good poetry and of wholesome recreation can be put into the small compass of this favorite of the Italian language, the Sonnet. They would be glad to find how much enjoyment can be got out of the mere perusal of it by a little more knowledge of its requirements; what a pastime worthy of their genius the study and construction of it have been to some of the greatest men; and how little, with anybody, a like diversity of his leisure need interfere with the ordinary business of life, any more than the meal, or the walk, or any other of those every-day recreations which are necessary to the right and wholesome despatch of business itself.
The sonnet-writers of Italy are innumerable. Not only all their celebrated poets are among them,perhaps it may be said, every poet without exception,but men of all ranks, callings, and professions,soldiers, statesmen, mechanics, princes, lawyers, merchants, painters, physicians, men of science, monks, cardinals, composers, &c, not excepting a multitude of ladies. Indeed, it was not to be expected that ladies would be left out where so much love is concerned, to say nothing of the domestic affections in general, which have produced some of the most beautiful of all sonnets. And if the present condition of Italy be thought a counter-evidence to the good of its example, let us recollect all which Italy did of old, united or disunited, and all which its enemies fear it would do, if united again. Napoleon is said to have been of opinion that it would again govern the world. Countrymen of Alfred and of Washington may be allowed to differ with that opinion; not to mention the generals they produced in the times of Anne and George the Fourth. But Napoleonhimself an Italianwas not hindered by the sonnets of Italy from coming to that conclusion; nor did the sonnet-writers themselves fail to do their best towards rousing the energies of their prosers with constant remonstrances and reproaches. Most of the poets of Italy, some of the greatest in particular, have been men active out in the world,sometimes, it has been thought, too active,a charge which Tories in England have brought against Milton, and Whigs against Spenser,both of them, like Dante, writers of sonnets as well as of poems on a scale the most grand.
There is a combination of advantages peculiar to the sonnet, which, when acquaintance is once made with it, naturally tend to make it a favorite with everybody. These are, first, that, with the exception of one class of subjects,the dithyrambical, which disdains all order and bounds,there is none which is unsuitable to it,whether light or serious, the humblest or the most exalted. Second, that, being short, it occupies so much the less time either in reading or composing. Third, that its brevity adds to its force, and so makes it the easier to remember. Fourth, that, being restricted to certain limits, a sonnet complete in other respects, is of necessity complete in all, and thus gratifies the workman with a consciousness of his having done something finished, however little; and, fifth and last, that a single sonnet, in consequence, may procure the writer a repute and even a durationas will be seen in the course of this volumewhich circumstances beyond his control might otherwise have put out of the question.
Every mood of mind can be indulged in a sonnet; every kind of reader appealed to. You can make love in a sonnet, you can laugh in a sonnet, you can lament in it, can narrate or describe, can rebuke, can admire, can pray. One of the most affecting sonnets of Petrarca is a prayer to God for pardon of his lost time. Dante, when he was young, and before strife had embittered his feelings, left, in a sonnet, a model for the expression of love. In sonnets Petrarca and Alfieri denounced the vices of the Papal court. In sonnets the great Filicaiaas Wordsworth called himmourned the beauty that attracted invaders to Italy, and the sloth and effeminacy that would not repel them. In sonnets Berni satirized, and Casti harmlessly jested, and English poets wrote as we have seen Wordsworth describe them, and Wordsworth himself has obtained by no means the least part of his fame. Indeed, all the sonnets to which allusion has thus been made are famous in their own countries, if not throughout the world,some of them known wherever a language of Europe is spoken.
Our essay, then, may enter into some details on the subject, not only without the fear of being thought frivolous, but with the confidence derivable from these great names, and with the enjoyment which such companionship naturally tends to produce.