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
VI. Of English Sonnets, and of the Sonnet Illegitimate, or Quatorzen
CONSIDERING that the love of Italian poetry has always been greatest in England when English genius has been in its most poetical condition, it is not a little remarkable, that the oldest known sonnet in our language dates no farther back than the reign of Henry the Eighth. It is a translation of a sonnet of Petrarca, and is the production of the noble-minded Sir Thomas Wyatt, who in several of his poems had the courage to aim the most cutting sideblows at the cruelty and effeminacy of that brutal tyrant.
How are we to account for the non-appearance of a sonnet in the poems of Chaucer?of Chaucer, who was so fond of Italian poetry, such a servant of love, such a haunter of the green corners of revery, particularly if they were small,of Chaucer, moreover, who was so especially acquainted with the writings of Petrarcas predecessor Dante, with those of his friend Boccaccio, and who, beside eulogizing the genius of Petrarca himself, is supposed to have made his personal acquaintance at Padua? Out of the four great English poets, Chaucer is the only one who has left us a sonnet of no kind whatsoever, though he was qualified for every kind, and though of none of the four poets it would seem more naturally to have fallen in the way.
The secret, I conceive, lay in one of three reasons; perhaps in all three combined: first, that the Anglo-Norman court which he served had so close a connection with France as to lead him, when he was not writing his narrative poetry, rather into French miscellaneous poetry than Italian; second, that the sonnets neither of Dante nor Petrarca had yet followed into England the great poem of the one, or the fame of the Latin poetry of the other; and third, that Chaucers propensity to narration and character was so truly his master-passion in poetry, as to swallow up all the rest of his tendencies in that direction. It is observable, that, with the single exception of the beautiful and stately exaltation of his mistresss merits, beginning
Hide, Absalom, thy giltè tresses clear,
(which indeed is like a strain of music coming before a queen,) Chaucers lyrical productions are few and trifling. The second of these reasons, however, I take to have been the chief. Had Chaucer been familiar with the sonnets of men whom he so admired, the very lovingness of his nature would hardly have failed to make him echo their tones.
Wyatt, who came long after these poets, was born in the same year with Casa, whom we have seen purposely roughening the Sonnet, because it had grown too sweet with time. Englands first sonnet, in Wyatts hands, is as rough as if poetry itself had just been born in the woods, among the ruggedest of the sylvan gods. It is not repeated in this book. I extract one other, which does a little more justice to the writer. But I mention the former in order to observe, that, in common with almost every one of Sir Thomass sonnets, it abides by the forms of the Legitimate Sonnet; and I may be allowed to add, in reverence for this excellent person, that although he continued for the most part to be a rugged poet, and was at all times rather a good and great man than a master of verse, he showed that he could translate smoothly as well as nobly from another Italian poet, Alamanni, one of whose satires he condensed into an invective of so much force and vehemence against the court of Henry the Eighth, as must have struck even the hard heart of that ruffian with awe and astonishment.
The first English sonnets that possessed anything like Italian music were the production of Wyatts young friend, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who is justly ranked among the most elegant and promising of our early poets. He perished at thirty years of age, on a ridiculous pretence, by order of the tyrant whom they both hated; nor is it improbable, that one of the sonnets extracted into this book,the one commencing The Assyrian King, in peace, with foul desirewas the real cause of the murder.
As Wyatt was the first introducer of the Sonnet into his native language, so he was the first, though but in one instance, to set the example of a departure from its laws, and thus introduce the Illegitimate Sonnet. All the rest of his thirty-two sonnets are of the authorized construction. Those of Surrey, which are scarcely half as many in number, are either wholly illegitimate, and setters of the pattern generally followed in England till lately, or they run upon one rhyme, till they close with a couplet in another,a form not without precedent in Italian poetry, though very rare. None are destitute of merit; and there are three in the present volumes successively characterized by truth, tenderness, and strength.
It is a curious circumstance, in the history of sonnets,and might be thought to tell in their disfavor, if the cases were not exceptional, manners of times to be considered, and the vast majority of sonnets of a different description,that so many of them turn upon illegal attachments. Dante who makes a saint of Beatrice, and ultimately of himself too, and who marries her, as it were, in Heaven, never breathes a syllable of her husband. Nobody would suppose that there had been such a casualty in the ladys life. Beatrice, for all that appears to the contrary, is always the unmarried Beatrice that Dante first became acquainted with,the same Beatrice Portinari. The married woman, Beatrice de Bardi, is a gentlewoman never heard of. It is the same with Petrarca. Nobody would dream, from his three hundred sonnets, that there was a gentleman of the name of De Sade, who had a right to ask him what he meant. The poet ignores the husband during the whole of the ladys life on earth; and when the lady dies, she equally ignores the husband, and invites the poet to come and live with her in Paradise. This looks, in both instances, as if there must have been some remarkable reasons for the conduct, with which readers are unacquainted. Casa, the next famous sonnet-writer to Petrarca, is understood to have addressed his love-verses to a married lady of the name of Quirino. He was an ecclesiastic; who is a person in Roman Catholic countries that is not permitted to marry; and hence an ecclesiastic, on the principle of extremes meeting, is understood to be the most married of all men. Almost all the love sonnets of Alfieri are addressed to the wife of the second English Pretender, on whose deathfrom drinkingthe poet is understood to have been married to her. The course of my subject has brought me to Sir Philip Sidney, the Stella of whose sonnets was Lady Rich, the wife of a husband who is said to have been as bad as the Pretender: and soon after Sir Philip, we shall meet with Shakespeare, the mysterious heroine of whose sonnets was evidently a person by no means belonging to the household of the great poet. The history of marriage would make a strange history: beautiful and devoted in many instances; ugly and unfitting in others; mixed up in allthough not by the partieswith causes feudal, fiscal, and ecclesiastical, some of which, originating in Roman Catholic times, lie at the root of all which injures the ordinance, and being taken away, would render it fitter to go to an altar than ever it has been yet.
I need not add, that in the present collection of sonnets there is not a single verse which is objectionable. In those from Shakespeare the love is of so true a nature, that as it is not known to whom all his love-sonnets were addressed, and more than one lady might have been concerned in them at different periods of his life, we may hope that the object of the best of them was no less estimable than adored.
Sir Philip Sidney, with an additional and almost Shakespearian flow of ideas, was a very Italianate person in his writings. He acquired from Italian books a portion of their conceits as well as beauties; took from them the title, and something of the style, of his Arcadia; made it, like theirs, a mixture of prose and verse; and in the verse introduced so great a number of their forms of composition that it would have been strange had he never written sonnets after their fashion. The reader will find one or two of them in this collection, highly characteristic. One in particular sounds like the last note of courtly chivalry. It may not be thought unworthy of remark, that the first three introducers of the Sonnet in England, Sir Thomas Wyatt, the Earl of Surrey, and Sir Philip Sidney, were all knightly and accomplished men.
It is not a little curious, that in spite of this example on the part of his friend Sidney and others, and a great love for Italian poetry on his own, the first man that wholly and studiously set aside the Italian pattern of the Sonnet, should be Spenser. I say studiously set aside, because the form which he invented for it in its stead, appears to have been the result of repeated experiments.
The poetical student, I think, will not be uninterested by a sight of these experiments. The first, strangely enough, is in blank verse,a speculation unique of its kind. The second is in three elegiac quatrains, like those of Grays Country Churchyard, ending with a couplet; which is the form that was adopted by Shakespeare. The third, which Spenser finally adopted, linked the three quatrains together by means of a rhyme out of each.
It is no little addition to the strangeness of the first of these experiments, that six out of fifteen sonnets which the poet has thus given in blank verse compose a translation of one of the odes of Petrarca, the twelve-lined stanzas of which he has enlarged for the purpose. And he appears to have been so bent on making them strictly regular sonnets in other respects, that all of them but one exhibit, by means of stops, the most marked Italianesque division into quatrains and terzettes. The specimen, however, here laid before the reader is translated, not out of Petrarca, but from the fine old French poet, Bellay, or ratherto pile curiosity on curiosityfrom a Dutch version of the Frenchman.1
I saw a fresh spring rise out of a rocke,
Clere as christall against the sunny beames,
The bottome yellow like the shining sand,
That golden Pactol drives upon the plaine:
It seemed that arte and nature strived to joyne
There in one place all pleasures of the eye.
There was to heare a noise alluring slepe
Of many accordes, more swete than Mermaids songs.
The seates and benches shone as ivorie;
An hundred Nymphes sate side by side about,
When from nie hilles a naked rout of Faunes
With hideous cry assembled on the place;
Which with their feete uncleane the water fouled,
Threw down the seates, and drove the Nimphs to flight.
If the guess of Spensers biographers be correct in dating his birth probably about the year 1553, the poet must have been sixteen when he wrote these blank-verse sonnets, for they were published in the year 1569, which was that of his entrance into the University. Youths went much earlier to the University in those days than they do now. How Spenser came to be acquainted with the Dutch language does not appear; though there was much intercourse with the Low Countries in those days; and English words possess keys to Dutch. It was easy also to get somebody to help him to a prose version. Upon the whole, the sonnets are worthy of the boyhood of such a man. You may see his noble and sweet notes commencing in every one of them. Yet observe how rich the strain has become in his version of the same sonnet, published some twenty years afterwards. I seize the opportunity of adding it, because it furnishes a sample of the illegitimate species of sonnet above alluded to, which is called Elegiac, and which formed the second of the authors experiments in sonnet-making:
In the form of his third and last experiment in sonnet-making, which, like the blank-verse specimen, was an entirely new one, Spenser wrote all the sonnets which he finally published when he was forty years of age, under the title of Amoretti,Little Loves. The title is good; but compared with what was to be expected of them, these Little Lovesnot to speak it irreverentlyare rather a set of dull, middle-aged gentlemen, images of the authors time of life, and of the commonplace sufferings which he appears to have undergone from a young and imperious mistress. Spenser gave the world to understand, though in words the reverse of disparaging to the lady, that he married, as the phrase is, beneath him. If the heroine of the sonnets was this lady, as she is believed to have been, it is not improbable that she was at once rendered proud by the homage, and secretly mortified and irritated at not knowing how to receive it; that is to say, how to respond to its refinements. When her admirers love is at its happiest, it is only by comparison with something the reverse. The following sonnet is one of the best. It partakes of his sweet modulation; and one of the lines, Through the broad world, has the strength of his full hand upon it. The reader will bear in mind, with regard to this form of sonnet, what has been said of its substitution of a third quatrain and a couplet for the two terzettes, and its linking all the quatrains together with a rhyme out of each.
Mark when she smiles with amiable cheare,
And tell me whereto can ye lyken it,
When on each eyelid sweetly doe appeare
An hundred graces as in shade to sit.
Lykest it seemeth, in my simple wit,
Unto the fayre sunshine in somers day,
That when a dreadfull storme away is flit,
Through the broad world doth spread his goodly ray;
At sight whereof, each bird that sits on spray,
And every beast that to his den was fled,
Comes forth afresh out of their late dismay,
And to the light lift up their drouping hed.
So my storme-beaten hart likewise is cheared
With that sunshine, when cloudy looks are cleared.
This form of sonnet never became popular. It is surely not so happy as that of the Italian sonnet. The rhyme seems at once less responsive and always interfering; and the music has no longer its major and minor divisions. It is not indeed easy to conceive what induced the inventor of the beautiful stanza of the Faerie Queene, with its fine organ-like close, to employ so inferior a construction in all these eighty-eight sonnets called Amoretti. Finding perhaps how much his first rhyming invention was admired, he too hastily thought to succeed in another, and failed as authors second enterprises, when so suggested, are apt to fail. For it is genuine love of the thing that inspires a first invention; whereas self-love too often aims at the second; and self-love is no such singer as love. Yet Spenser, in his mature days, never wrote but one sonnet in any other form. To my ear there is something in it of the teasing nature of Dantes terza rima, which is a chain that seems as if it would never end, and is dragged after him by the presumptuous poet through his next world, like a retribution. It is observable that the terza rima was never again used by the Italians in a long poem; at least, not in any that has survived. They confined it to satires, to didactic poetry, and to familiar epistles.
But I fear I am writing too much upon Spenser. Spensers friend Raleigh left us so excellent a sonnet on the Faerie Queene, that it makes us wish he had written a thousand; or rather, that he had devoted his whole life to poetry, instead of the pursuits that ruined him. Raleighs fate was singularly unlucky. He had a fine vein of poetry, which he scarcely touched: he believed there was a region of gold in the New World; and there was,but he missed it. He had the glory of discovering Virginia, but was unable to colonize it; and he obtained the favor of Queen Elizabeth, and was the terror of the foes of England, only to be imprisoned and put to death by her unworthy successor. He had much better have stuck to his Gentleman-Pensionership, and confined his conquests to the pen. His pen was very like a sword. You see, in this one little sonnet,5 what possession he takes of the whole poetical world, in favor of the sovereignty of his friend Spenser. He was not exactly in the right; but when did conquerors consider the right? The sonnet is of the least artistical order, as to construction, consisting only of the three elegiac quatrains and a couplet; and it has the fault of monotonous assonance in the rhymes; yet it flows with such nerve and will, and is so dashing and sounding in the rest of its modulation, that no impression remains upon the mind but that of triumphant force.
Shakespeares hundred and fifty-four sonnets are of the same unartistical construction as this of Raleigh; and you think of it as little, for similar reasons. His total neglect however of the Italian form, in connection with as entire a silence in regard to the poets of Italy, to their works and their names,for one would think it hardly possible that such a poet should put not a word respecting such brother poets in the mouths of any of his Italian gentlemen and ladies,tends to go counter to the opinion which has been entertained of his acquaintance with Italian literature, and even with the Italian soil. A visit to Italy by Shakespeare is a thing delightful to fancy, and it is a pity Mr. Knight did not make a chapter of one in his conjectural biography,a species of writing, by the way, strangely objected to; for what better entertainment can admirers of great men desire, than to live thus in their company through every probable phase of their existence? But on the above accounts alone I cannot believe in these Italian experiences of Shakespeare; to say nothing of other such reasons as his mixture of Latin with Italian names in his Dramatis Personæ, and his mispronunciation of Italian names at all liable to the mistake; such as Ròmeo for Romèo, Vìola for Viòla, and Desdemòna for Desdèmona. The great dramatist, it is true, was not in the habit of speaking of other writers, however he may have admired them; but if he had visited Italy, or been conversant with Italian books, he would have known that nothing was more common for educated Italians than to quote and express admiration for their native poets; and his gentlemen and ladies of Verona and other places, might have been expected, in their various wit-encounters and love-makings, to act accordingly. In the year when Shakespeare is supposed to have been in Italy, 1593, Tasso was at the height of his fame. Chiabrera also, and Marini, were flourishing; Petrarca had never ceased to flourish; and Dantes verses were in all serious mouths, and Ariostos in all lively. How came it, that neither Shakespeare nor his characters ever took the least notice of them?
But I am digressing from my purpose. Be all this as it may, Shakespeares sonnets, like the rest of his productions, conquer all objection. Obscure and perplexing as some of them are, others contain passages of as exquisite poetry as any he wrote, and the best of them are veritable jewels. It is not easy to call to mind anything more loftily beautiful than the sonnet beginning,
Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye,
anything more humbly and then exultingly beautiful than the one beginning,
When in disgrace with fortune and mens eyes,
or more deeply and affectingly beautiful than
No longer mourn for me when I am dead,
Than you shall hear the surly, sullen bell, etc.
. For I love you so,
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
All the tears, tenderness, and generosity of the truest love are in that passage. The reader, I hope, will find the very best of these sonnets in the present book. I do not say the best: those would be too numerous; but only the very best,those which surpass the surpassing.
Among the miscellaneous poems of Ben Jonson are a few sonnets, two of which are of the legitimate order, but hardly worthy of him. One of the others, very characteristic, is inserted in this collection.
Learned Ben Jonsons learned friend, Donne, not only wrote some five or six and twenty sonnets, almost all of which are of the legitimate order, but he is the only English poet, as far as I am aware, who has given us a Crown of Sonnets, after the fashion alluded to in the preceding section. It comprises the first seven of his Holy Sonnets; and in reference to the native country of the fashion, he has entitled it La Corona. It has fine passages, and I wish I could extract it into this book, as a specimen of the class it belongs to; but Donnes piety, though sincere, was not healthy. It does not do justice to the Divine Goodness. Fortunately the best sonnet he wrote, though it is upon a subject on which, generally speaking, he was in more than one sense of the word least happy,Death,is equally unexceptionable and noble.
The sonnets of Shakespeares other contemporaries, Daniel and Drayton, are of a like construction with his own, but very different in substance. Daniel, it might have been supposed, would have given them some of the fine thoughtfulness observable in his other productions; and Drayton some of his real though sparse vein of poetry. But neither are to be found.
The next best sonnet-writer to Shakespeare, in point of time, is Drummond of Hawthornden; and he has a value of his own. I use the old local designation in speaking of him, for we have not too many such, and it would be an especial pity in his case to let it drop, for he was a genuine lover of trees and bowers, and deserved the good fortunerare for a poetof possessing an estate in the bosom of them. Drummonds sonnets, for the most part, are not only of the legitimate order, but they are the earliest in the language that breathe what may be called the habit of mind observable in the best Italian writers of sonnets; that is to say, a mixture of tenderness, elegance, love of country, seclusion, and conscious sweetness of verse. We scent his muskèd eglantines, listen to his birds, and catch glimpses of the sweet hermitress whose loss he deplored. Drummond was not without the faults of prototypes inferior to those writers. His Italian scholarship in some measure seduced, as well as inspired him; but upon the whole his taste was excellent; and he leaves upon his readers the impression of an elegant-minded and affectionate man.
Drummond, though an extreme, was an honest Tory. He wrote bitterly on the crimes of the Court of James the First; though he sided vehemently with Charles in the civil wars. Milton took as vehement a part on the other side. Both these poets, however, might have met on the beautiful neutral ground of poetry, and compared sonnets and Italian books. One touch of Sonnet makes all parties kin.
If a complete specimen of the legitimate sonnet in all its demands, both of uniformity and variety, could have been expected of any English poet, Milton was the man; for he was a poet willing to show his learning; he was a musician; and he could write sonnets, as we have seen, in their native language. Yet it is remarkable that, although all the sonnets of Milton, English as well as Italian, are of the legitimate order, and though he was an honored guest in Italy at the time when the reaction was beginning to take place in favor of its purest and best writers, he has hardly left us one in which the received rules respecting the division of quatrain and terzettes are not broken, and the music of the whole fourteen lines merged into a strain of his own. The strains, except in one particular, are good; most of the sonnets good; some of them noble and beautiful; one of them rejoices in the recollection of Tuscan airs, and it might be supposed that the writer would have modulated his notes accordingly, and shown what variations he could make of his own, after the Tuscan manner.
Not so. The sonnets are entirely such as I have described, with this unmusical and therefore remarkable deterioration, that they are unhappy and monotonous in their rhymes. Few of them, either English or Italian, are exempt from this fault. The two most affecting sonnetsthe one on the Massacre of Piedmont, and that on his Deceased Wifeare so full of them that a writer of Spanish asonantes would say that they had but two rhymes throughout. The two quatrains of the latter sonnet give us no rhymes but in a, and the terzettes none but in i. (Saint, grave, gave, faint, taint, save, have, restraint, mind, sight, shined, delight, inclined, might.) Criticisms on rhymes appear trifling and hypercritical, and in the case of long poems would be so; but they are otherwise in respect to compositions that are at once so brief and so full of musical requirement as sonnets.
Most affecting, nevertheless, are those two sonnets; noble the one on the Assault Intended to the City; charming the Invitation to Lawrence; and masterly in passages all the rest.
Soul-animating strainsalas! too few.
Why did not Milton write a sonnet on every cheerful, mournful, and exalting event in his life? Why do not all poets do so? I mean, when they are not too happy or too unhappy to speak. What new and enchanting volumes of biography we should possess!
With Milton the sonnet disappeared from English poetry for nearly a hundred years. The unromantic school of French poetry, which came into England with the restoration of Charles II., put an end to that of the Italians; and the sonnet fell into such disrepute, for a still longer period, that it has not been set quite right perhaps, even yet, with the reading public. The countenance that was given it towards the close of the last century, by sequestered scholars like Gray and Warton, availed it little. At the beginning of the century, Pope, in his Essay on Criticism, said of a supposed despicable performance by a person of quality,
What woful stuff this madrigal would be
In some starved hackney sonneteer, or me!
and towards the close of the century, Johnson, sneering at Wartons poetry,not without an insinuation against that of Gray,says, that wheresoeer he turns his view,
All is old and nothing new;
Tricked in antique ruff and bonnet,
Ode, and elegy, and sonnet.
Johnson little suspected, that before half the next century was over, his own poetry would be thought staleness itself compared with that of Gray; and as little did Pope suspect that a professed sonneteerWordsworthwould be looked upon by many persons as the greatest English poet since the time of Milton.
The sonnet, in truth, as a form of poetry, is disrespected by none but those who are unacquainted with its requirements; and had not the poets and wits of the reign of Anne been ignorant of Southern literature to a degree which is surprising, considering their love of books,nay, had they not even been unacquainted, or at least unfamiliar, with the miscellaneous effusions of the greater English poets who preceded them,they would have blushed to make a by-word of a species of verse which, with more or less attention to its laws, had been cultivated by all the greatest poets of Europe, those of their own nation included.
The sonnet rose again, like a transient promise in spring, or like a morning at once ruddy and weeping, in the solitary one by Gray on the death of his friend West. Wordsworth, in a spirit of hypercriticism which it is a pity he had not spared for his own sake, found fault with what he called the artificial language of this sonnet, and with the introduction of Phbus, lifting his golden fire. As if a man so imbued with the classics as Gray, and lamenting the loss of another man equally so imbued, whose intercourse with him was full of such images, could not speak from his heart in such language! Similar faultwhich it might have been thought would have warned Wordsworth off such ungenial groundhad been found by Johnson with Miltons classical lament of a deceased friend and fellow-student, in the beautiful poem of Lycidas. Not only did Milton and Gray speak from the heart on these occasions, but perhaps, had they not both so written, they had not spoken so well. They would not have used language so accordant with the habits of their intercourse. And the image in Grays sonnet is beautiful for its own sake, and beautifully put:
In vain to me the smiling mornings shine,
And reddening Phbus lifts his golden fire.
We are too much in the habit of losing a living notion of the sun; and a little Paganism, like this, helps, or ought to help, to remind us of it. More particularly ought this to have been the case with Wordsworth, who, when it suited him, wished to have been suckled in a creed outworn, and to have
Sight of Proteus coming from the sea,
rather than witness round about him the belief in nothing but every-day worldliness. Phbus, in this instance, is not a word out of the dictionaries, but a living celestial presence.6
Grays sonnet is of the legitimate order, though not of the commonest. Those of Thomas Warton, who followed him, are so too; and some of them express real feelings with an elegance so scholarly, so simple, and so full of faith, that no universalist in the love of poetry who has once read them chooses to part with them.
The sonnets that appeared in England between the times of Gray and of Wordsworth are generally of a workmanship inferior to that of both. Yet the species of composition is so favorable for expressing a real feeling, whether it be a cheerful one requiring no greater compass, or a mournful one too painful to enlarge upon, that truthfulness of impulse has, in not a few instances, given permanent value to a sonnet for nothing but the general impression left by it on the readers mind, or even for that which has been made by a single verse. The sigh, or the sweetness, of a whole life seems now and then to breathe out of a single sonnet, and readers cherish the memory of it accordingly, even when they are masters of the art. A few sonnets of Bowless, on this account, made an indelible impression on the mind of Coleridge; and Coleridges praises have helped them to live on. Indeed, far greater poet as he was, his own sonnets, for the most part, are inferior to those which have been selected from Bowles in the present volume.
Anna Seward was a woman of great natural abilities, spoiled by premature admiration, and by the homage of a country town; but her sonnet on rising of a winter morning to read her books, while the fire is blazing, and the white houses of her neighbors looming in the dark, comes home to everybody who has had the like experience; and the effusion is cherished accordingly.
Helen Maria Williams was another woman of great natural abilities, with a correcter taste, though her poetry is of a still more conventional cast than Miss Sewards; yet one of her sonnets made such an impression on Wordsworth that she records with a just pride his having repeated it to her, years afterwards.
Several of Charlotte Smiths sonnetsthe one to the Moon in particularare popular for their truth alone. Their powers either of invention or expression are nothing, save in the ability to reject what is false and superfluous; yet that single merit is a thing so necessary to excellence, and so rare, that everybody likes the sonnets because nobody doubts their being in earnest, and because they furnish a gentle voice to feelings that are universal.
Most of the sonnets of these ladies and of Mr. Bowles are of the illegitimate order; which consequently became such a favorite with lovers of easy writing who could string fourteen lines together, that, notwithstanding the biographies of Roscoe, and the republication of Italian poets and critics by Mr. Mathias, it continued to fill the press with heaps of bad verses, till the genius of Wordsworth succeeded in restoring the right system.
Of the world of thought, feeling, and imagination contained in the many sonnets which have enriched this class of composition. from the pen of Wordsworth, so much has been said of late years by so many writers, myself among them, that to notice it further in this place might be thought superfluous. I must only beg leave to observe, that in a quotation made in Mr. Housmans Collection of English Sonnets, from some remarks of mine on the subject, there occurs an omission of some words respecting Milton, which leaves an impressionunintended I have no doubtas though I considered the author of Paradise Lost not merely a less rich and abundant sonneteer than Wordsworth, but a less poet. On the contrary, in the midst of warm eulogies of Wordsworth, I had felt myself bound to say, that there could be no comparison in point of greatness between the genius, however fertile and admirable, manifested in his contemplative effusions, and the mighty epic-sustaining powers of Milton. I must also take this opportunity of observing, that, considering the less advanced nature, in some respects, of the times in which Milton lived, Wordsworth did not show anything like equal enlargement or independence of mind. He was too much afraid of what is called committing himself; and the weak and misplaced notion of strong-mindedness, which induced him to devote a portion of his sonnet-warblings to advocacy of the punishment of deathas though a nightingale should encourage the vigils of a hangmanwas deplorable.
The sonnets of Coleridge, who, when he did his best, appears to me to have been a more thoroughly poetical, that is, purely imaginative poet than Wordsworth, are not answerable to that idea of him. Most were written in his younger days, when his style was conventional, and his genius did but reveal itself by glimpses. Yet I have retained more than half of them, partly for the sake of such glimpses, and partly because they contain other traits personally characteristical of their author.7
Of the other distinguished poets between that time and this, whom I refer to in a body because their sonnets were few, and, generally speaking, the care bestowed on them little, the only memorable ones, I think, are those extracted into the present volume, of which Keatss magnificent sonnet on Homer stands at the head. Shelley ought to have been a fine and abundant Sonneteer; for he was full of thought, feeling, and music. His sonnet on Ozymandyas has the right comprehensiveness of treatment, and perfection of close. But though he was always longing for them, he never could content himself in these sequestered corners of poetry. He was always, so to speak, for making world-wide circuits of humanity.
The sonnets extracted from Charles Lamb are happy evidences of what has been said of the desirableness of founding such compositions on special personal experience. Lamb, though a wit and humorist of an exquisite kind, was not habitually a poet. He sat at the receipt of impressions, rather than commanded them. He had not fervor enough to be a poet, not imagination or fancy enough at will, and little or no perception of music. He was the creature of nerves, and thoughts, and a trying private history which needed consolation; and his fine natural sense found it in those necessities of reaction against sorrow, which brighten wit by the contrast, and discern humors by the force of sympathy. His younger and more ambitious efforts in verse are forgotten; but who that knows does not quote lines from his Farewell to Tobacco; his walking, gowned in fancy, while visiting Cambridge; his bidding the reeds of Camus be still, while he propounded themes that might puzzle Aristotle; and his life-long India-house denunciations of
I avoid speaking of the living. I have not done so in my time; and I can still speak of them now and then in cases where only a single writer is to be considered apart from others. I cannot help seizing at this moment the opportunity that seems afforded me by the circumstance of her being the only poetess living, to indulge myself in an exception of this kind with regard to Mrs. Browning, and expressing my admiration, indeed wonder, at the marvellous beauty, dignity, delicacy, richness, the entire worthiness and loveliness of her sonnets, particularly those professing to be from the Portuguese. It is little to say of a woman of such genius, that, for anything which survives to show the contrary, she is the greatest poetess that ever existed. She is great, whether among poetesses or poets; and the greatest might have claimed her for a sister.
But when many writers of either sex are brought together in a book like this, comparisons are excited as to the greater or less amount of claims to distinction; andto say nothing of other delicate pointsthe most generous of them might be hurt by what might seem to be the drawing to them of invidious attention. Circumstances have so conspired to perplex me in this portion of my work, that I am not sure of having selected, or even of having been able to procure, the best specimens of some of the writers, or the very names and books of others, who have arisen in these poetical times, and whose rays are appearing above the horizon. But, as the old gentleman said when he was going to get on horseback before some ladies, my readers must count seventy-two before they think I could have been more active in the getting up of this book.
I had scarcely entered upon my task from the very first, when the difficulty of making the selection at all forced me on adopting a plan of restriction which, if it has often severely tried the indulgence of my own pleasure, has not only facilitated my work otherwise, but will have given the book perhaps some increase of interest, and even, for the kind of work, some portion of novelty. Of sonnets known to all the sonnet-reading world, I have omitted, I hope, none of such exquisitest name as they had a right to look for; but with regard to the rest, I have confined myself as much as possible to such as took a peculiar coloring from the lives and idiosyncrasies of the writers, and thus added personal to poetical interest. I have made but two exceptions to this rule, whenever I could follow it. I have admitted nothing licentious,which is the excess of the animal nature,and nothing superstitious,which is the disease and desecration of the spiritual.
It should be added, that no conclusions for or against the merits of the different writers are to be drawn from the greater or less number of the sonnets extracted; the total amounts of them in their authors pages varying extremely, from a small number to a great. Nor have I always been able to ascertain how many were written, in consequence of finding some of them in selections only.
And if I might now conclude this essay with a word of advice, which I venture to think the best possible to be given to cultivators of the Sonnet, or indeed of any kind of writing whatsoever, I would say, let a sense of the honest likings and dispositions most peculiar to themselves, whatever they may be, predominate above every other consideration in the choice of subjects to write upon. What we know best, we can relate best. What is truest within us, we can best utter. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh. To be, and not to seem, is as admirable a principle for writing as for everything else. Let nobodyapart from just respect for his characterconsider what would make his powers, or his inclinations, appear best in the eyes of the world. Let him think of nothing but what he can best do,what he is fittest to do by habit and information; what he is most inclined to do for its own sake; what he feels it to be most incumbent upon him to do for conscience sake, or for common truths sake, or for common senses. If he is an eagle, let him soar. If he is only a dove, what good will the attempt to soar do him? but how beautifully may he not circle the homestead. If he is a sea-bird, let him go out to sea; if a nightingale, keep to the covert; if a mocking-bird, sing of what he pleases; but then the name must be true in part only, as it is in the case of the bird, to which it does injustice: he must not only have mockery in him, not only the power to resemble others, but a song, in addition, of his own. If writers of verses in general were not too much addicted to hackneyed subjects, particularly those upon which they seem riding on the high horse, the world would have many more poets than it possesses, and a great many more charming productions. Why do not a greater number of people write? and why do not writers oftener speak according to knowledge, whether gravely or gayly? The shop has been too much cried down. The fault of the poem called The Shipwreck is, not that it is too nautical, but too little so. I do not mean in a technical sense; for much technicality is at no time desirable; but in the homely, natural, and hearty sense; the sense that has given so much popularity to the prose writings of Smollett, Cooper, and others, and the sea-songs of Dibdin. Garth, the author of The Dispensary, who was a physician as well as a wit, did not disdain to avail himself of his professional knowledge for the purpose of writing that satire on behalf of a charity; and much the more effective for the knowledge it was. Wartons sonnet upon his favorite pursuit, literary antiquities, was the best he wrote, and everybody admires it; but who cares for his laureate odes, or for his Pleasures of Melancholy? What a pity that Michel Angelo did not write artistical, instead of philosophical sonnets; and that Corelli, Scarlatti, and others, who were members of the rhyming Arcadian Society, did not tell us something, in verse, of their exquisite musical perceptions! All persons who are able to do it should give us the pleasure, in like manner, of seeing what they can best do, and what most heartily enjoy.
Note 1. See Todds edition of Spenser, vol. i. p. v., in Life, and vol. vii. p. 525. I have no hesitation in attributing these blank-verse sonnets to Spenser, not only for the reasons there given, but from the poets whole character, both as a man and a gentleman. [back]
Note 6. I was surprised to find the other day, in reading a passage of his Biographia Literaria, which had escaped my memory, that Coleridge, though he differs in other respects with the criticism of Wordsworth on Grays sonnet, and indeed with the particular ground of objection to this line about Phbus, finds fault with it still more severely on another, affirming that it has almost as many faults as words. He accuses it of incongruous images, of confusion of cause with effect, or the real thing with the personified representative of the thing,in short, of difference from the language of good sense. It is unpleasant to differ on a point of criticism with Coleridge; but I must do so in this instance, even to the extent of retorting his own words; for the charge appears to me incongruous with what he, as well as Wordsworth, thought of Johnsons charge against Lycidas; it confounds a warrantable use of the Pagan image with ordinary commonplace, assuming at the same time that the epithet reddening was intended to be understood in the neuter, and not the active, sense of the participle; and finally, on all these accounts, it differs from the language of good sense. Coleridges criticism in general was as subtle and beautiful as his poetry; and I should dissent from it in this instance with becoming diffidence, if it had not been inconsistent with its own spirit and its own letter. [back]
Note 7. In preferring Coleridges poetry to Wordsworths, I allude chiefly to the Christabel and The Ancient Mariner. But there is also, I think, in his love-poetry a tenderness and unprosaical simplicity, a pure unmixed feeling of (so to speak) the most limpid kind, not to be found in the troubled waters of his contemporary. In powers of poetical criticism there was no comparison between them. Coleridges review of Wordsworth, in his Biographia Literaria, contains the finest lecture on the art of poetry in the language. [back]