I have selected the following Sonnets from various Authors for the purpose of binding them up with the Sonnets of the Rev. W. L. Bowles.
The composition of the Sonnet has been regulated by Boileau in his Art of Poetry, and since Boileau, by William Preston, in the elegant preface to his Amatory Poems: the rules, which they would establish, are founded on the practice of Petrarch. I have never yet been able to discover either sense, nature, or poetic fancy in Petrarch's poems; they appear to me all one cold glitter of heavy conceits and metaphysical abstractions. However, Petrarch, although not the inventor of the Sonnet, was the first who made it popular; and his countrymen have taken his poems as the model. Charlotte Smith and Bowles are they who first made the Sonnet popular among the present English: I am justified therefore by analogy in deducing its laws from their compositions.
The Sonnet then is a small poem, in which some lonely feeling is developed. It is limited to a particular number of lines, in order that the reader's mind having expected the close at the place in which he finds it, may rest satisfied; and that so the poem may acquire, as it were, a totality,--in plainer phrase, may become a whole. It is confined to fourteen lines, because as some particular number is necessary, and that particular number must be a small one, it may as well be fourteen as any other number. When no reason can be adduced against a thing, Custom is a sufficient reason for it. Perhaps, if the Sonnet were comprised in less than fourteen lines, it would become a serious Epigram; if it extended to more, it would encroach on the province of the Elegy. On this however we lay no stress. Poems, in which no lonely feeling is developed, are not Sonnets because the Author has chosen to write them in fourteen lines: they should rather be entitled Odes, or Songs, or Inscriptions. The greather part of Warton's Sonnets are severe and masterly likenesses of the style of the Greek epigrams.
In a Sonnet then we require a development of some lonely feeling, by whatever cause it may have been excited; but those Sonnets appear to me the most exquisite, in which moral Sentiments, Affections, or Feelings, are deduced from, and associated with, the scenery of Nature. Such compositions generate a habit of thought highly favourable to delicacy of character. They create a sweet and indissoluble union between the intellectual and the material world. Easily remembered from their briefness, and interesting alike to the eye and the affections, these are the poems which we can "lay up in our heart, and our soul," and repeat them "when we walk by the way, and when we lie down and when we rise up." Hence, the Sonnets of Bowles derive their marked superiority over all other Sonnets; hence they domesticate with the heart, and become, as it were, a part of our identity.
Respecting the meter of a Sonnet, the Writer should consult his own convenience.--Rhymes,--many or few, or no rhymes at all--whatever the chastity of his ear may prefer, whatever the rapid expression of his feelings will permit;--all these things are left at his own disposal. A sameness in the final sound of its words is the great and grievous defect of the Italian language. That rule therefore, which the Italians have established, of exactly four different sounds in the Sonnet, seems to have arisen from their wish to have as many, not from any dread of finding more. But surely it is ridiculous to make the defect of a foreign language a reason for our not availing ourselves of one of the marked excellencies of our own. "The Sonnet (says Preston) will ever be cultivated by those who write on tender pathetic subjects. It is peculiarly adapted to the state of a man violently agitated by a real passion, and wanting composure and vigor of mind to methodize his thought. It is fitted to express a momentary burst of Passion," &c. Now, if there be one species of composition more difficult and artificial than another, it is an English Sonnet on the Italian model. Adapted to the agitations of a real passion! Express momentary bursts of feeling in it! I should sooner expect to write pathetic Axes, or pour forth extempore Eggs and Altars! But the best confutation of such idle rules is to be found in the Sonnets of those who have observed them in their inverted sentences, their quaint phrases, and incongruous mixture of obsolete and spenserian words: and when, at last, the thing is tolled, and hammered into fit shape, it is in genreal racked and tortured. Prose rather than any thing resembling Poetry. Miss Seward, who has perhaps succeeded the best in these laborious trifles, and who most dogmatically insists on what she calls the sonnet-claim, has written a very ingenious although unintentional burlesque on her own system, in the following lines, prefixed to the Poems of a Mr. Carey.
A spirit, force, and grandeur, all their own!!