Higginson and Bigelow, comps. American Sonnets. 1891.
THOREAU has said that there is no definition of poetry which the poet will not at once prove to be worthless, by setting aside all its requisitions. It is, perhaps, a merit of the sonnet that it puts some bounds to this possibility of range, and implies a few fixed laws. Yet in attempting to enforce those laws, it is easy to become as pedantic and wearisome as the later Greek grammarians. It is as possible in literature as in zoölogy to over-refine, over-classify, and to make species and even genera out of mere varieties. Much of the distinction so often claimed between the Shakespearian and the Petrarchan types of sonnet becomes worthless when we observe that Petrarch, when he found it convenient, closed his sonnets with a rhymed couplet as fearlessly as Shakespeare; so did Milton, so does even Rossetti.1 It is much the same with all other technicalities, beyond the mere number of lines and their length; while it is true, on the other hand, that we observe a steady reversion from the Shakspearian and toward the Petrarchan form.
This reversion began mainly with Milton, of whose sonnets Dr. Johnson curiously remarkedand perhaps for this very reasonOf the best it can only be said that they are not bad, and perhaps only the eighth and twenty-first are entitled to even this slender commendation. Yet Milton led the way in the direction of the Italian models, and if his combination of the two essential parts of the sonnet does not always satisfy Mr. Theodore Watts, the same infliction must fall on Petrarch. The most curious episode that has occurred in the history of the English sonnet was when Coleridge, following a century after Milton,and with the correct and careful Bowles as an intermediate influence,yet swept away at a stroke all that Milton had gained and Bowles had preserved, and declared an English sonnet on the Italian model to be the most difficult and artificial of all species of composition. He went on to assert that respecting the metre of a sonnet, the writer should consult his own convenience,rhymes many or few, or no rhymes at all; and then exemplified his theory by publishing a rambling poem of sixteen lines, with alternating rhymes, and calling it Sonnet V. of a series of ten which he had selected as not beneath mediocrity.2 Between this utter looseness of structure and the present comparative strictness, there is certainly a wide range. Coleridges opinion of the intrinsic impracticability of the English sonnet is now wholly set aside, and our native tongue has proved itself, in Rossettis hands, to be as plastic as the Italian.
American sonnets, like the English, have undergone a distinct reversion to greater strictness of form, and this has proceeded less from the influence of any single recent poet than from the direct study of Italian models. Some of the older examples in this volume would scarcely have found a place here but for a certain historical interest, as proceeding from writers of the last generation, who deeply influenced American thought and life, although not primarily classed as poets. The sonnet here assigned to Daniel Webster, for instance, would hardly be preserved but for its authorship, as it certainly does not indicate what a foreign lady remarked to Motley in Europe, that the great orator was one of our chief poets.3 The same historic interest would preserve, even if they had no merit of their own, the sonnets here given under the names of Garrison, Parker, Allston, and Margaret Fuller Ossoli. Others are here introduced as representing the work of poets who, though now fallen into some neglect, yet did good service for American literature in what may be called the pre-Emersonian period, and whose sonnets were much like the average composition of minor English poets at the same date. Such are the examples taken from Tuckerman, Benjamin, Appleton, and Lunt; with the twin acrostic sonnets by Willis and Percival on the reigning beauty of her day, Miss Emilie Marshall. Jones Verys sonnets stand by themselves as having a peculiar spiritual dignity which will preserve them in spite of what would now be regarded as a laxity of form. The more recent sonnets show more regularity of structure and, on the whole, more strength of expression and perhaps more originality of thought.
The last American collection appeared more than twenty years ago, and a comparison between that volume and this may safely be challenged; since it is clear that in this direction, at least, our literature has suffered no detriment with time. To indicate this fact, as well as from other motives, it has been thought best to give but a limited space to any single sonnetteer. Some of the poems have been revised for this book by their authors, and one or two are here first printed. With the best-intended efforts at selection, the contents of this volume doubtless vary greatly in merit; but it is to be hoped that none of them deserve the sweeping condemnation with which Coleridge visited all modern English sonnets, except his own, saying,And when at last the poor thing is toiled and hammered into fit shape, it is in general racked and tortured prose rather than anything resembling poetry.4
Note 1. Petrarch: Sonnets lxxiii., cxxxiii., cclxxxii.; Milton: Qual in colle, Per certo, and Cromwell, our chief of men; Rossetti, passim, even in his sonnet on the sonnet itself. [back]
Note 2. Poems of S. T. Coleridge, second edition, to which are now added poems by Charles Lamb and Charles Lloyd. 1797. Pages 73, 79. In the later editions of Coleridge this curious prose passage is suppressed, and the sixteen lines appear, no longer as a sonnet, but as Lines composed while climbing the left ascent of Brockley-Comb. [back]
Note 3. Correspondence of John Lothrop Motley, i. 147. [back]