From The English Sonnet (1917)

By T. W. H. Crosland

return to sonnet central

...We perceive also that loftiness is an affair of the lambent intellect as well as of the great wing, and that the mere lyrical spirit, however exalted and however melodic, falls short.

Now what has all this to do with the English sonnet? So far as one is able to discover the sonnet, whether English or alien, has never figured in the critical eye otherwise than as a form: a pattern, or mould, or set shape convenient for the expression of "intense but inexpansive" poetical emotion. "The small species of poem called a sonnet," says Leigh Hunt, who probably knew more about sonnets than any man before him. "The pint-pot of the sonnet," says a more modern critic. "A brief poetic form of fourteen rhymed verses ranged according to prescription," says Watts-Dunton. And by way of a real effort of definition by implication we have this from William Sharp:--

For the concise expression of an isolated poetic thought--an intellectual or sensuous "wave" keenly felt, emotionally and rhythmically--the sonnet would seem to be the best medium, the means apparently prescribed by certain radical laws of melody and harmony, in other words of nature: even as the swallow's wing. is the best for rapid volant wheel and shift, as the heron's for mounting by wide gyrations, as that of the kite or the albatross for sustained suspension.

"The sonnet has had many apologists," remarks the same writer further in his discourse. As a matter of fact it has had nothing else but apologists from Mears and Gascoyne down. Shakespeare himself, we are told, "unlocked his heart" with it; but he had gibes for the "key," even though he came to perceive that he might open the doors of everlasting fame with it:--

You must lay lime to tangle her desires.
By wailful sonnets, whose composed rimes
Should be full fraught with serviceable vows.


I had rather than forty shillings I had my Book of Songs and Sonnets here.


And I'll be sworn upon't that he loves her,
For here's a paper written in his hand,
A halting sonnet of his own pure brain,
Fashion'd to Beatrice.

Straws, perhaps, though they show which way the wind blew. Milton, who brought the English sonnet proper into being, had so little respect for his instrument that he could use it for expressing himself "on the detraction which followed upon my writing certain treatises"; and Wordsworth, who for his part lifted "the thing" clean out of its Italianate association and set it four-square on English ground past all dispute and for all time, wrote the perpetually quoted lines which, though defensively intended, are stark apology and sheer whimper.

Scorn not the Sonnet: Critic, you have frowned
Mindless of its just honours.

And he goes on to call it not only a "key," but "a melody," a "small lute," a "pipe," "a gay myrtle leaf," "a glow-worm lamp"; after which "a trumpet " for "soul-animating strains--alas, too few," might perhaps be considered to fall rather flat; and great as were his mind and perception, he could consciously and for himself get no more out of the "trumpet" than this:--

Nuns fret not at their convents' narrow room,
And hermits are contented with their cells,
And students with their pensive citadels:
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest peak of Furness Fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells.
In truth the prison unto which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence to me,
In sundry moods, 'twas pastime to be bound
Within the sonnet's scanty plot of ground,
Pleased if some souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

In the lines italicised you have the sonnet, cap-in-hand. "'Twas pastime," "the sonnet's scanty plot of ground" "pleased if some souls should find brief solace there!" When the mighty conspire for belittlement, the less powerful are convinced. In all the literature of the subject you will fail to discover ponderable objection or argument which even begins to move the sonnet from its place among the suns of poetry; yet the accent throughout is one of condonation. "Please excuse her: she is only a little moon; the Lord knows wherein she hath sinned; but of your charity forgive her!" Very kindly, and doubtless because he had friends in the business, Watts-Dunton tells us that "the sonnet form" would seem to have had "a peculiar fascination for poets of the first class," and that it has "drawn" "some of the most passionate poets in the world" as "a medium of sincerest utterance"; but beyond this we are vouchsafed no glimmer of the actual truth. And it will be observed that even here the accent is the accent of caution and bland patronage. What is wrong with the sonnet that we should have a suggestion of the moth and the candle in that "peculiar fascination for poets of the first class"? Does one ever hear that blank verse had a peculiar fascination for Christopher Marlow, or that four quatrains clinched by a couplet had a peculiar fascination for Shakespeare, or that chimes of rhyme had a peculiar fascination for Swinburne? And why shouldn't a passionate poet put his sincerest utterance into a sonnet, just as well as into blank verse or the lyrical stanza? There is no reason; and as a fact the reason of the whole matter is entirely the other way about.

And now let us hark back to high poetry. We have seen that the test for it is roughly sublimity. We say "roughly." because we are not prepared in this place to rule out of high poetry a few--very few--lyrical achievements which in parts, or more correctly flashes, are very nearly sublime. But we assert without reservation that if you take away from the fabric of English poetry those portions of it which may be properly described as belonging to the sublime, as distinguished or removed from the lyrical, you have taken away all that is greatest and finest. This is not to suggest that no glory remains; only that the remaining glory is by comparison minor. For reasons which have to do with pure poetics, it happens that practically all great English poetry has been written in decasyllabic lines. Sublimity in English climbs on decasyllables. It is attained for us mainly in blank verse; but also in the decasyllabic stanza--the blank verse preponderating. Blank verse worth talking about amounts simply to a succession of high poetic flights on the decasyllable, all making for nothing but sublimity. Poetry in decasyllabic stanza is either a succession of high flights, or an attempted long high flight, on rhymed verse instead of blank; the mark being still the same. And we say that the Sonnet is neither more nor less than a swift high flight at the identical mark, and on rhymed decasyllables instead of blank. We say further that just as the inherent spirit of poetry at its highest and noblest forces itself into the mould of blank verse or the decasyllabic stanza, so is it, on occasion prescribed by itself, forced into the mould of the sonnet, which is just as glorious, just as gracious, and just as free, powerful, and effective a vehicle for poetic utterance as either of the other two, and just as natural and necessary to be employed, on its occasion, as either of them. The notion that any great sonnet by any great poet has been written because that poet fell under the spell of "a peculiar fascination" for the sonnet form is, in our opinion, fallacious, and a mere putting of the cart before Pegasus. For the poet, it is the passion which searches out, discovers and lays hold of the forms preordained for its utterance and never the form that induces or sets fire to the passion. The whole history of poetry, both as a spirit and as an art, goes to prove this. It is indisputable that, in a measure difficult for an age with six hundred years of poetic triumph behind it to understand, the beginnings of modern English poetry, dating from Chaucer, were so many strivings and fightings for due and essential form. The struggle is usually marked to have been set afoot by Wyatt and Surrey, but for ourselves we shall set it back to Chaucer, and we shall say that it was by and through the sonnet, and by and through the sonnet alone, that victory became possible. It is true that no sonnet of Chaucer can be proved to exist. On the other hand, it is equally true that he was a poet, and that in his middle and most powerful period the influence chiefly at work in him was the influence of Italy. It is probable that he knew Petrarc and Boccaccio in the flesh. He was conversant with their poetry, and from Boccaccio, at any rate, he derived not a little of his subject matter. But it was the form of his Italian contemporaries that principally served him; and how are we to suppose that deriving from them the decasyllabic stanza and the heroic couplet and the new kingdom of expressional liberty those forms unlocked for him, he still owed nothing to the sonnet, which for prescriptive purposes was then as now ordered rhymed decasyllables in their finest and most convincing showing. On the "peculiar fascination" theory, Chaucer could scarcely help but experiment with the sonnet. On our theory his impulse, which was mainly for the narrative rather than the reflective, would not drive him into it, though he would of a surety instruct himself from its fluid effects and mounting sonorities. It has been said that Surrey was "the first poet to free the natural rhythms of English speech from the five-foot prison of the 4 iambic' line." It must not be forgotten, however, that it was Chaucer who gave us that line, and that prison or no prison it was the formal foundation for everything of importance that came after. And we claim that without the sonnet the iambic line could never have been the instrument it was, even for Chaucer. When we turn to Wyatt and Surrey the significance of the form in its relation to the development of English poetics becomes clear and unmistakable. In their own day and generation these two writers wrought positive marvels for poetry, converting England into a veritable nest of sonnetal singing birds, and making plain the road for Sidney, Spenser, Drayton, and Shakespeare. We must note particularly that Surrey, who with Wyatt introduced the sonnet itself into England, was also the introducer of blank verse. As far as is known, the unrhymed measure ot iambic decasyllable in five beats occurs for the first time in a Provencal poem of the tenth century. The earliest complete work in the measure is by the Italian poet Trissino (1515), and it may be supposed that of this poem Surrey had knowledge. But it seems to us quite likely that the real source of his inspiration--and surely inspiration is the term--was the "blank" tercets of Petrarc. Here was Surrey, more or less "sonnet-mad," exploring and appropriating all that was finest in the Italianate sonnet literature, and particularly fired by the sonnets of Petrarc, the first tercets of which are commonly blank. He must have recognised, therefore, that the sonnet or decasyllabic line was capable of being handled without rhymes, and when he came to try his hand at that last ambition of poets who are not the greatest, namely, an English translation of the Aeneid, the Petrarcan blank line was there for his purpose, ready and waiting to be seized upon and started on its career of wonder. Surrey put only two books of Virgil into blank verse; but they were sufficient; and the next blank verse was the flaming "Tamburlaine the Great." Of the author of Tamburlaine, Swinburne says that he was "the first great English poet," "the father of English tragedy and the creator of English blank verse . . . as distinguished from mere rhymeless decasyllables." We can agree with every word of Swinburne's estimate without forgetting that Surrey, "the sonneteer," created for English the "mere rhymeless decasyllables," and probably had them from Petrarc. By Tamburlaine, of course--and as we contend virtually through the sonnet--English poetry came into its own; that is to say, into its full sweep and power of movement and its highest possibilities of flight. There has been nothing since to out-rival it at its greatest, and there never will be. And when you dig deep down for its beginnings in poetic, for the well of English not only undefiled, but of living water, there you find the sonnet.

Thus we come to the Age of Shakespeare and to Shakespeare himself. And looking into this marvellous period with marvels in it past count, we light upon a sonnet literature which would alone have made it a saeculum mirabilis There are the sonnets of Spenser, the sonnets of Shakespeare, the sonnets of Drayton, each of them a poetry, and in the case of Shakespeare and Drayton, if not perhaps of Spenser, ranging with the highest. Sir Sidney Lee has counted "many more" than two thousand sonnets extant in the Elizabethan period. The bulk of them may be minor and negligible, but so is the bulk of all poetry at nearly all times. Yet the fact of their existence is important to a right understanding of the sonnet; because it proves, if proof were indeed needed, that when poetry flourishes, so flourishes the sonnet. And if you have a mind for the converse of the proposition, you may turn to the Augustans, the sonnetless Popes and Pyes, and the sonnetless Dryden; and even they could not have existed at all without the sonnet line. We need not, for the moment, deal with Milton and the great poets after him. One has only to say their names to call up forthwith assemblages of sonnets, each shining in its place like a galaxy, and each just as much part and parcel of high poetry as the best work in any other forms.

Without pressing the point too far, we might, indeed, venture the theory that a very large part of what is admitted to be the loftiest poetry belongs essentially and by its nature almost as prescriptively to the sonnet form as to the forms in which it is cast. Let us take at hazard some of the finest lines of Marlowe:--

See where Christ's blood streams in the firmament.


O thou art fairer than the evening air,
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars


Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?


Still climbing after knowledge infinite
And always moving as the restless spheres.


Zenocrate lovelier than the love of Jove,
Brighter than is the silver Rhodope,
Fairer than whitest snows on Seythian hills.


Her silver arms will coil me round about
And tears of pearl cry "Stay, Aeneas, stay!"

What are these but the beginnings or ends for wondrous fine sonnets? And there are passages in Marlowe which are nearly complete sonnets of themselves; lacking nothing save due rhyme:

The first time when he pitcheth down his tent
White is his hue, and on his silver crest
A snowy feather spangled white he bears,
To signify the mildness of his mind. . .
But when Aurora mounts the second time,
As red as scarlet is his furniture;
Then must his kindled wrath be quenched with blood,
Not sparing any that can manage arms;


But if these threats move not submission,
Black are his colours, black pavilion,
His spear, his shield, his horse, his armour, plumes
And jetty feathers, menace death and hell.

Two more lines and the rhymes, and we should have had here a great sonnet; that is to say, if the passage is great poetry, which, one takes it, nobody doubts.

Shakespeare, of course, abounds in similar sonnet stuff. We have already quoted "How far that little candle throws his beams, So shines a good deed in a naughty world," but what an onset or what a close it would have made for the fourteen-line flight! Innumerable other passages from the plays might be instanced, such, for example, as:

Oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew.


No, let the 'candied tongue lick absurd pomp,
And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee
Where thrift may follow fawning.


When sorrows come they come not single spies
But in battalions.


There be some sports are painful and their labour
Delight in them sets off: some kinds of baseness
Are nobly undergone, and most poor matters
Point to rich ends.


Night's candles dies are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.


There is no woman's sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart; no woman's heart
So big to hold so much.


O polished perturbation! golden care!
That keepst the ports of slumber open wide
To many a watchful night!--sleep with it now,
Yet not so sound and half so deeply sweet,
As he whose brow with homely biggin bound
Snores out the watch of the night.


To-morrow, and to-morrow and to-morrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.


Here, here will I remain
With worms that are thy chambermaids; O, here
Will I set up my everlasting rest,
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh.


His silver skin laced with his golden blood.


For God's sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of Kings.


In such a night
Stood Dido with a willow in her hand
Upon the wild sea-banks, and waved her love
To come again to Carthage.


There's not the smallest orb that thou beholdest
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins.


'Tis better to be lowly born,
And range with humble livers in content,
Than to be perked up in a glistering grief
And wear a golden sorrow.

One is hard put to it to stop. All these beautiful farniliar things, and literally hundreds of others as beautiful and familiar, have for our mind not only a surface relationship with the sonnet, but also a relationship which is deep and intimate and philosophically demonstrable; as a fact we do not think it is possible to find either in Shakespeare or any other high poet at his highest a passage of beauty and power which runs to more than fourteen lines. Always they are decasyllabic lines, and always they could have been made into sonnets, and would have suffered nothing in the process. What is true of blank verse is equally true of the decasyllabic stanza. From Lycidas we take the following :--

Alas! what boots it with incessant care
To tend the homely slighted shepherd's trade,
And strictly meditate the thankless muse?
Were it not better done as others use,
To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
Or with the tangles of Neaera's hair?
Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of noble minds)
To scorn delights and live laborious days;
But the fair guerdon when we hope to find,
And think to burst out into sudden blaze,
Comes the blind Fury with th' abhorred shears,
And slits the thin-spun life.

Another line and a half would have sufficed for the full-blown Miltonic sonnet, irregular as regards the rhyming of the first eight lines but otherwise fitting in with every essential of Milton's alleged conception of the form.

The same curious sonnet kinship is evident in the poetry of all the late moderns. Admitting for the sake of the argument that the sestet, or concluding system of a sonnet, may with propriety contain a rhymed couplet, the following four verses of FitzGerald are nothing but splendid sonnet endings :--

With them the seed of Wisdom did I sow
And with my own hand labour'd it to grow;
And this was all the harvest that I reaped--
I came like water and like wind I go.


[And] in the market place, one Dusk of Day,
I watched the Potter thumping his wet clay;
And with its all obliterated Tongue,
It murmured--"Gently, Brother, gently, pray!"


Ah Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits--and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!


The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

From Tennyson, Swinburne, and Browning sonnet-matter is extractable in plenty. We give two examples of Tennyson, the first of which is nearly identical in form with some of the "iterated" sonnets of the Italians:--

Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white,
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font,
The fire-fly wakens: waken thou with me.
Now droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost,
And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.
Now lies the Earth all Danaë to the stars,
And all thy heart lies open unto me.
Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves
A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.
Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,
And slips into the bosom of the lake:
So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
Into my bosom and be lost in me.

Fourteen lines, you will note, and the last four have the force and clinching power which belong to the sestet of a sonnet. Then there is the never-to-be-forgotten "Come down, O maid," which might readily be transformed into two blank sonnets, and has a closing tercet such as only the proudest sonneteers can compass:--

Come down, O maid, from yonder mountain height:
What pleasure lives in height (the shepherd sang)
In height and cold, the splendour of the hills?
But cease to move so near the Heavens, and cease
To glide a sunbeam by the blasted Pine,
To sit a star upon the sparkling spire;
And come, for Love is of the valley, come,
For Love is of the valley, come thou down
And find him; by the happy threshold, he,
Or hand in hand with Plenty in the maize,
Or red with spirted purple of the vats,
Or foxlike in the vine; nor cares to walk
With Death and Morning on the silver horns,
Nor wilt thou snare him in the white ravine,
Nor find him dropt upon the firths of ice,
That huddling slant in furrow-cloven falls
To roll the torrent out of dusky doors:
But follow; let the torrent dance thee down
To find him in the valley; let the wild
Lean-headed Eagles yelp alone, and leave
The monstrous ledges there to slope, and spill
Their thousand wreaths of dangling water-smoke,
That like a broken purpose waste in air;
So waste not thou; but come; for all the vales
Await thee; azure pillars of the hearth
Arise to thee; the children call, and I
Thy shepherd pipe, and sweet is every sound,
Sweeter thy voice, but every sound is sweet;
Myriads of rivulets hurrying thro' the lawn,
The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees.

There are thirty-one lines here, but we shall hold that the movement from the first line to and including the seventeenth is recognisably allied to the sonnet movement, and that the rest of the poem is similarly allied, while the last six lines, reckoned from "the children call," constitute a natural and powerful sonnet sestet, less rhymes.

It goes without saying that the theory hereby adumbrated is susceptible of easy challenge, particularly as it might be taken to involve the suggestion that any and all poetry in the decasyllabic line is virtually sonnet poetry. Our answer is that any indisputably great poetry in the decasyllabic line, and whether blank or rhymed, which may be cited for our confusion, will fall under one of three heads: unreflective description, plain relation or narrative, and sheer drama or exclamatoriness. For the rest, and it includes all the highest, we say it is sonnet poetry, and where there are rhymes, quite frequently indistinguishable from sonnet poetry. We shall depend for the security of our position a good deal more on the instinct and ear of the unbiassed reader than on the prepossessions and hard and fast conceptions of criticism. Let any such reader consider the passages we have quoted, or search out passages for himself, and compare them with the finer sonnet work, making due allowance for the absence of rhyme when it is absent and for its deviations from the stricter sonnet incidence when it is present. If he fails to follow us in our view, we are undone. If, on the other hand, he sees eye to eye with us, and we have faith to believe that he will, we shall between us have established a new claim for the sonnet which lifts it for ever out of the range of critical scorn and places the "apolologists" at the serious disadvantage of having endeavoured to excuse the very pith and marrow of the stuff we call poetry.

To sum up we say of the sonnet:

(1) That it belongs essentially to the highest poetry.
(2) That it is the corner-stone of English poetry.
(3) That without it we should not have attained to the blank verse line, or the blank verse passion.
(4) That it is a form of absolute freedom for the very largest kind of utterance.
(5) That it is neither a convention, nor an arbitrary or pedantical contrivance.
(6) That when great poetry is being produced, great sonnets are being produced; and when great sonnets cease to be produced, great poetry ceases to be produced.
(7) That all the finest poets have been either fine sonneteers or unconscious workers in the sonnet movement.
(8) That there is no poetry of the highest which does not in some sort distinguishably ally itself with sonnet poetry.
(9) That this alliance arises by the nature of poetry and not out of formalism.
(10) That fine poetry generally (excluding pure lyric) is identical with sonnet poetry.
(11) That there are occasions upon which poetry demands and insists upon the sonnet form as properly and imperatively as upon any form; and that when these occasions occur, and only when these occasions occur, great sonnets are written.
(12) That no great sonnet has ever been written out of a mere desire to exploit the form.
(13) That the "peculiar fascination" theory is fallacious and vicious.
(14) That the mean view of the sonnet implicit in such phrases as "that species of small poem," "the glow-worm lamp," "the sonnet's scanty plot of ground," and so forth, is an offence against poetry.
(15) That the highest poetry in English has been written only on three forms--(a) blank verse, (b) the decasyllabic stanza, (c) the sonnet.