By James Ashcroft Noble

(PART 1)

Note on the text: In an effort to increase readability, I have broken the essay into five pages (1, 2, 3, 4, and 5) and used a slightly larger font. The 1893 revised text of the essay is copied from The Sonnet in England and Other Essays by James Ashcroft Noble, published in London by Elkin Matthews and John Lane. Punctuation and spelling are as in the original except for the removal of quotation marks setting off block quotations.

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MANY students of literature have watched with interest the attempts which have been recently made by some of our younger poets to naturalise in England certain archaic forms of verse which were at one time popular in France, and which have of late years been revived in that country by some of the members of the neo-Romantic school. So far the attempt cannot be said to have met with much success. We have had a few rondels, rondeaux, triolets, villanelles, ballades, and the like, often deftly constructed, and sometimes exhibiting a grace so exquisite that it is on the point of passing into absolute beauty; but, after all, our English poets do not seem to move freely in these Gallican fetters, and English readers, as a body, have treated the revival with an indifference which does not promise well for its longevity. Why this is so cannot be decided hastily; but it may be considered certain that the frigid reception of the revived forms cannot be attributed either wholly or in large measure to their arbitrary character; for the sonnet, which is as arbitrary as the rondel, and which was, when first imported from Italy, quite as unfamiliar, has become completely naturalised among us, and has been chosen by so many English poets as a favourite form of expression that we have come to look upon it as little more artificial than the so-called heroic verse--the iambic pentameter--which we are accustomed to consider such a typical English vehicle. The history of the sonnet in England would be an interesting subject for a small volume, but as yet no adequate or exhaustive survey of the wide and full-eared field has been attempted; for the contributions made to sonnet literature by Leigh Hunt, Mr John Dennis, Archbishop Trench, and others, have been confessedly partial and desultory, and in the face of many contributions to poetical criticism which have of late been among the precious gifts of the years, we hope that one of the boons which the near future may have in store for us will be some work written especially for those who have taken to heart Wordsworth's exhortation, 'Scorn not the sonnet'.

The task of the writer of such a book has of late been much facilitated by the labours of Mr David M. Main, whose Treasury of English Sonnets brings, for the first time within the boards of a single volume, a really satisfying collection of as much of our sonnet work as can be considered really representative. The Treasury opens with two sonnets from Sir Thomas Wyat, to whom we owe the acclimatisation of the Italian exotic which has taken so kindly to our insular soil and air, and closes with that sonnet of terrible beauty, instinct with sombre splendour, which Oliver Madox Brown, a boy even more marvellous than Chatterton, prefixed to his weird passionate romance of The Black Swan. Between these, we need hardly say, are to be found infinite riches in a little room. Here are the dainty measures of Sir Philip Sidney; the crystals which reflect the clear though cold light of Spenser's passion; the cunningly wrought caskets, rich with varied imagery, in which Shakspeare locked his soul's secret; the grave and majestic harmonies of Milton, that 'God-gifted organ voice of England'; the solemn thoughted, passionately contemplative records of Wordsworth's retirement to 'the sonnet's scanty plot of ground'; the painted windows of 'warm gules,' rosebloom, and 'soft amethyst' through which the spirit of Keats throws a coloured radiance; and, most dear and memorable of all those nightingale melodies, those resonant heartthrobs wrought into a divine music, those ecstasies of love and grief and high aspiration, which have been left as an immortal legacy by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

There are two questions which at once put themselves to any writer upon the subject of the sonnet. First comes the query, What is a sonnet? then the further question, What are the qualities in virtue of which a sonnet takes rank and precedence? In England it was only for a short time that the first question was an easy one to answer. Into the history of the various forms of the Italian sonnet it is not necessary to travel, for we have only to do with that one form which, after many struggles, had become universally recognised as the most perfect. To a true student of sonnet development the notion that a sonnet might be advantageously written in four ordinary elegiac quatrains and a couplet, or in seven couplets, or with any other arrangement of the rhymes other than the two or three which had become established by repeated experiments would not sound one whit more absurd than the theory that a sonnet might be written in thirteen, or in fifteen, or in any other number of lines; for if, in a purely arbitrary form the canons of composition sanctioned by an established nomenclature may be violated in one particular, they may be violated in all, and when this violation is accomplished, where is the sonnet? Our present loose English theory in favour of a relaxation . . . . of nearly every law in the Italian code, except the two cardinal ones which demand that the sonnet shall consist of fourteen rhymed decasyllabic verses, and be a development of one idea, mood, feeling, or sentiment,' has the adhesion of Mr Main, from whose Preface I quote; but it is clear that it has been formulated to fit the facts, for it would naturally be unpleasant to adhere to a canon which would exclude all the sonnets of Shakspeare and a considerable number of very beautiful specimens by later poets. The superiority of the true Italian to the Shakspearian or any other sonnet form in unity, weight, and harmony, will be doubted by hardly any competent critic; indeed, with the solitary exception of Ebeneezer Elliot, it has not, so as my knowledge goes, been explicitly questioned by any well-known poet; and Elliot, though he had the genuine afflatus, is hardly an authority on a subtle delicacy of art technique. The Italian sonnet is unquestionably a difficult form of verse, and it seems probable that the early English sonneteers were repelled by the difficulties, and ignorant of the splendid successes that might be achieved were those difficulties overcome. Sir Thomas Wyat's attempts were certainly not calculated to inspire a fervent faith in the possibilities of the new vehicle, and even his fellow-worker, the Earl of Surrey, was quick to find, or to think that he had found, a form more harmonious with the genius of the English language. 'Leigh Hunt,' says Mr Main, 'has pointed out that Spenser, with all his Italian proclivities, was the first who deliberately abandoned the archetypal form of the sonnet,' but, unless we lay special stress upon the word 'deliberately,' even this sentence does not throw the appearance of the irregular English sonnet far enough back. Whether deliberately or not it is impossible to say, but the Italian code was violated by the Earl of Surrey, who died five years before the received date of Spenser's birth, and whose Songs and Sonnets were published in 1557, while Spenser's adoption of the form which Surrey had originated dates from the year 1591. The definition of a sonnet which commended itself to the author of the Faery Queen was indeed more elastic than that which has been adopted by Mr Main, for at one period he did not even consider rhyme essential, and his earliest poems published under the name of sonnets are accordingly written in blank verse. Finally, he hit upon a novelty in the shape of a sonnet in which the three quatrains are linked together by one common rhyme, and with this form he appeared to be satisfied, as he adopted it in the Amoretti; which is undoubtedly his most ambitious series of sonnets. It seems absurd to speak of the sonnet as an established and definable species of verse if we admit the legitimacy of variations like these; for such an admission leaves nothing of the sonnet but its limitation to fourteen decasyllabic lines, and even this remaining test is rendered meaningless by a neglect of the companion tests, which alone confer upon it validity, and indeed constitute its sole reason of being. The only way to untie a Gordian knot, which must otherwise be recklessly cut, is to allow the name of sonnet to be given without qualification only to those constructed on the Italian model; other fourteen-line poems being set apart by a distinguishing prefix, such as illegitimate, irregular, or Shakspearian.

The second question, concerning the qualities which give to a sonnet its special value, is one which any thoughtful writer, aware of the differences of opinion which have prevailed among eminent critics, will answer with modesty and hesitation. As one illustration of a curious divergence of taste and feeling, I have noticed lately that while one writer of fine critical genius declares that 'a true sonnet should rise into a climax in the last two lines, should kindle into flame as it expires,' another deservedly honoured authority numbers among the conspicuous beauties of Wordsworth's sonnets the fact that 'there is hardly one . . . which ends in a point. At the close of the sonnet, where the adventitious effect of the point might be apt to outshine the intrinsic value of the subject, it seems to have been studiously avoided. Mr Wordsworth's sonnet never goes off as it were, with a clap or repercussion at the close, but is thrown off like a rocket, breaks into light, and falls in a soft shower of brightness.' That such a difference upon a mere matter of sonnet composition should be possible, seems an indication that the sonnet has never received the amount of study which it deserves, and we are prepared to find that, with regard to the essential qualities of this verse-form, opinions are still more divided and equally irreconcilable. As a matter of fact this is really the case. Frequently, in Mr Main's notes, we encounter verdicts of well-known critics, assigning to certain sonnets or groups of sonnets a supremacy the notes of which are anything but easy to discover; and we are driven to the conclusion that a great deal of sonnet criticism resembles the criticism of artistically uneducated visitors to picture galleries, who, after confessing that they are quite ignorant of painting, and only know what they like, do not hesitate to commit themselves to the most uncompromising and unguarded estimates. Without doubt the first fact to be remembered in formulating canons of sonnet criticism is that a sonnet is a poem, and that, whatsoever it lacks, it must at any rate possess the qualities without which no poem can be admirable. The presentation of the motive, whether intellectual or emotional, must be adequate; its treatment must be imaginative; and the language in which it is embodied must be entirely transparent and musical-stirring instinct as to leave the impression that there can have been no choice, that every word has an inevitableness which forbids the supposition that any other might have taken its place. But a good sonnet must he something more than fourteen lines of good poetry: it must fulfil its peculiar conditions of being, both structural and vital. Of the former we have already spoken; the latter it is a more difficult task to specify without falling into commonplace, or drifting into what bears the semblance of dogmatism. The one thing most needful in the sonnet is what may be called impressive unity. I do not, with Mr Main, think it absolutely essential that it should be an utterance of one thought or one emotion, for within its bounds one thought may be opposed by another and one emotion set against its Opposite; but it is essential that the impression left by the sonnet as a whole shall be thoroughly homogeneous--that as it approaches its close the varying threads, if there have been such, should be twined together, and that the reader should be made to feel that the whole commends, amalgamates, and glorifies all the parts--that every part is, indeed, but a member of a vital organism.. Take as illustration a sonnet of Wordsworth's unequalled among his many sonnets for tender beauty; though surpassed by a few in insistent power and mastering splendour:--

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free;
The holy time is quiet as a nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquillity;
The gentleness of heaven is on the sea:
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder--everlasting]y.
Dear child, dear girl! that walketh with me here,
If thou appear untouched by solemn thought,
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year,
And worshipp'st at the Temple's inner shrine,
God being with thee when we know it not.

Now, there can be no doubt that this sonnet has that impressive unity which, as has been said, the form pre-eminently demands; but it is the unity which comes not of the expression of one mood, but of the discovery of a spiritual ground common to two moods which seem diverse and, at first sight, even inconsistent--the emotion roused, in the mind of the philosophical poet by the beating against his heart of the great heart of Nature, and the apparent apathy of the young girl who steps beside him seemingly untouched by solemn thought. True, at the beginning of the sestet the continuity of thought appears to be broken, but we are only led off along a returning curve, and when we reach the close we compass for the first time the outline of the inspiring conception which informs every line of this perfect poem.

This sonnet cannot fail to remind us of the question to which two opposing answers have been quoted, as to whether in this form of composition it is or is not desirable that we should be led on to a point or climax. Most readers, whether critical or uncritical, will agree with the first of the two verdicts--that the sonnet, like the plant which blooms in our gardens, should vindicate its right to be by the bright consummate flower which comes as the fulfilment of its promise, the culmination of its life. It is impossible, however, to lay down rules as to whether it is better that the wave of poetic emotion should gently lap or tempestuously break upon its shore; whether the sound left lingering in our ears by high poetry should be a shrill trumpet-blast or a dying fall of harp-like melody; for the winds of the spirit blow as they list, and Art, like Wisdom, is justified of her children. Still, one thing at least may be said without pedantic dogmatism--that the sonnet should, as it proceeds, gain strength and momentum instead of losing them; that its latest lines should, in sense, in sound, or in both, reach a nobler altitude than its earlier ones; and that it should leave with us a sense of victorious accomplishment, not of vague dissatisfaction. This may sometimes be achieved without anything that can with truth be called a climax: it is so achieved in Milton's great sonnet Wordsworth did, as his critic says he did, studiously avoid to avail himself of one of the most legitimate means of stamping on a reader's mind a sharp and permanent impression of the thought or mood he was moved to utter, he was guilty of an offence equally reprehensible; he was a Philistine binding only too effectually the Samson of song in the green withs of scholastic theory.

The division of the sonnet into two unequal parts, a division which our best sonnet-writers have shown an increasing disposition to maintain, is, in itself, an indication of the true mode of treatment. The first eight lines, technically the octave, seem as if they might be intended for a broad exposition of the motive; the last six, the sestet, for a special application of it. Here is a sonnet of Mr Matthew Arnold's exemplifying this method of handling:--


Even in a palace, life may be led well!
So spoke the imperial sage, purest of men,
Marcus Aurelius.--But the stifling den
Of common life, where, crowded up pell-mell,
Our freedom for a little bread we sell,
And dredge under some foolish master's ken,
Who rates us if we peer outside our pen--
Matched with a palace, is not this a hell?
Even in a palace! On his truth sincere
Who spake these words, no shadow ever came;
And when my ill-schooled spirit is aflame
Some nobler, ampler stage of life to win,
I'll stop and say: "There were no succour here!
The aids to noble life are all within."

In this sonnet a general statement of great ethical facts of life is followed by a personal appropriation which brings them home. In another, by the same poet, the process is reversed; it begins with the individual instance and passes from it to the universal lesson. The thought is a fine one, and the treatment singularly beautiful and satisfying.


'Twas August, and the fierce sun overhead
Smote on the squalid streets of Bethoal Green,
And the pale weaver, through his window seen
In Spitalfields, looked thrice disspirited;
I met a preacher there I knew, and said:
"Ill and o'er-worked, how fare you in this scene?
"Bravely!" said he, "for I of late have been
Much cheered with thoughts of Christ, the living bread."
O human soul! so long as thou canst so
Set up a mark of everlasting light
Above the howling senses' ebb and flow,
To cheer thee and to right thee if thou roam,
Not with lost toil thou labourest through the night!
Thou mak'st the heaven thou hop'st indeed thy home.

In numerous instances, however, even where the formal division is retained, there is no such perceptible break or turn as in any of the sonnets I have quoted. The theme of the octave may be prolonged through the sestet, but there will be a subtle difference of treatment. It will be carried on in a slightly changed key, or in slower or quicker time; and in most sonnets of the highest class the sestet will probably be either a concentration, or gathering together of the subject matter of the octave, or a return upon it for some new and untried point of approach, thus giving to a familiar thought or fancy the magnetic charm of which we thought accustomed wont and use had for ever deprived it. Nor is it probable that there will ever be a total failure of writers who will treat the sonnet as a simple unity, the two parts melting into one another and ceasing to be separately distinguishable, as they do in the supreme achievement of Milton, and in some of the most perfect and unapproachable efforts of Mrs Browning and Mr Rossetti, such as Substitution and the sonnet For a Venetian Pastoral. For evermore in matters like these the mighty masters will be a law unto themselves, and the validity of their legislation will be attested and held against all comers by the splendour of an unchallengeable success. next page