By James Ashcroft Noble

(PART 4)

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Between the age of Milton and the age of Wordsworth the sonnet literature of England is but a desert, with spots rather than patches of poetic verdure. Even in Mr Main's Treasury, which errs, if at all, on the side of undue copiousness, the whole period is represented by only twenty-one specimens, selected from thirteen poets, and of the best of these it can only be said in the words of Dr Johnson that they are 'not bad.' It is curious, however, to note that in the fetters of an artificial form the singers of an essentially artificial age lose much of their artificiality, and though we do not altogether escape from conventional epithets and hackneyed allusions, we find a grateful freshness and freedom which are missing in most of the poetry of the time. Perhaps one of the most interesting, though one of the least familiar of these growths of an ungenial soil, is the work of one who gained distinction by his prose rather than his verse. William Roscoe, the biographer of Lorenzo de' Medici, having met with business misfortunes, found himself compelled to bring his property to the hammer. Even his beloved books had to go, and from these he could not part without a heartpang, which found expression in this touching sonnet:--

As one who, destined from his friends to part,
Regrets his loss, yet hopes again erewhile
To share their converse and enjoy tbeir smile,
And tempers as he may affliction's dart--
Thus, loved associates! chiefs of elder Art!
Teachers of Wisdom! who could once beguile
My tedious hours, and lighten every toil,
I now resign you; nor with fainting heart;
For pass a few short years, or days, or hours,
And happier seasons may their dawn unfold,
And all your sacred fellowship restore;
When, freed from earth, unlimited its powers,
Mind shall with mind direct communion hold,
And kindred spirits meet to part no more.

One or two of Cowper's sonnets, particularly that addressed to Mrs Unwin, which begins with the line--

Mary! I want a lyre with other strings,

are worthy of remembrance. The single sonnet of Gray hardly deserved the savage treatment by which Wordsworth has immortalised it; and the sonnet work of William Lisle Bowles has a certain literary interest on account of the influence--a somewhat inexplicable one, it must be owned--which it exercised in the formation of the poetic taste of Coleridge; but, on the whole, the prospect hereabouts is hardly a cheerful one. In the study of the sonnets of Wordsworth we feel at once that we are ascending to a new altitude, and gazing round on an ampler horizon. If we take into consideration both quality and mass of work, we may well agree with Mr John Dennis that Wordsworth is 'perhaps the greatest of English sonnet writers.' Milton, indeed, reached a height which Wordsworth never gained; but, while the one takes us to a lofty and solitary peak where we can never fail to be conscious of the distance of the vale beneath, the other leads us to an elevated table-land of such expanse, that we can wander at will, and in our wanderings forget that there is a lower world. Milton, to change the figure, overshadows us: we do not lose our personality, but feel his rising before us, and shutting out all besides. Wordsworth, on the contrary, unless our mood be unalterably alien to his own, possesses us, pervades us, transfuses his spirit into our spirits, and makes us feel with him. He does this in virtue of his strong humanity, his abiding sympathy with what the author of Ecce Homo calls 'the man in men,' this being, as I take it, the living aggregate of those thoughts and passions which are distinctive of men in whom the moral development has been consentaneous with the emotional and intellectual growth. Wordsworth moves us by the sheer directness of his ethical and imaginative insight; and the craftsmanship of his sonnet-work is noteworthy, for the most part, only as a means of making this directness thoroughly impressive. Few poets so great as Wordsworth have been so deficient in what Goethe called the daemonic element, the incalculable force which touches and sways us, we know not why or how. Wordsworth's effects are all explicable and calculable; we see 'the hidden pulse of the machine': he is, save in one or two memorable instances wanting in what has been called natural magic; and the existence of this very deficiency makes the charm and power of his work all the more remarkable. Now and then, in the sonnets, he catches a splendour beyond the reach of art, as in the concluding lines of the sonnet Composed on Westminster Bridge:--

Dear God! the very houses seem asleep
And all that mighty heart is lying still;--

but, as a rule, we are struck by the collectedness of the poet; by the fact that he is the master of his conceptions, not their servant, saying to this 'Go,' and it goeth, and to another 'Stay,' and it stayeth. And yet he was throughout guided by a sure instinct. He felt, if we may so put it, the responsibilities of the sonnet; and, in spite of his imperfect theory of poetic language, which so often led him astray, the style of the sonnets, though sometimes austere, is hardly ever bald. Nor do we find here any trace of Wordsworth's other besetting sin, the sin of diffuseness and limp expatiation. The poet whose work is self-conscious, who writes what he will rather than what he must, will always feel, as Wordsworth felt, 'the weight of too much liberty,' and the fetters of an arbitrary form like the sonnet seem less like fetters than supports and wholesome restraints. In the sonnets Wordsworth's style is at its finest: it is nervous, sinewy, compact, and yet always clear and fluent. His natural language had a note of simple dignity, but its naturalness was not always preserved; for the simplicity sometimes sank into puerility and the dignity deteriorated into bombast. In the sonnets, however, these lapses are almost nonexistent. They are not dithyrambic, but they are always gravely eloquent, striking at the opening a clear resonant key-note of lofty emotion which is nobly sustained until the close. A score of the best known--and in Wordsworth's case the best known are the best--of the sonnets would be a collection of verse the companionable value of which would be in its way unsurpassed. Such poetic treasures as 'The world is too much with us,' 'Earth hath not anything to show more fair,' 'Great men have been among us,' 'Milton, thou should'st be living at this hour,' and a dozen others which linger in the memory, have a tonic and invigorating quality which it is difficult to overestimate. Critics of the Rydal poet have been wont to divide readers into Wordsworthians and non-Wordsworthians; but in the presence of these utterances, whose grace is a grace of perfected strength, these distinctions fade away. A refusal of homage would not merely stamp a man as a non-Wordsworthian, but as one for whom the highest poetical motives and the most exquisite forms have no preciousness, to whom they make no appeal. Concerning the entire body of Wordsworth's work there will always be wide differences of opinion founded on inherent and ineradicable differences of taste but upon the greatest of these sonnets only one verdict is possible--that they are an addition of inestimable value to the world's accumulated store of imaginative wealth.

The true signs of the poetic nature were perhaps more clearly discernible in Coleridge than in his great compeer; but as a sonneteer he was certainly Wordsworth's inferior. His sonnets seem to us altogether wanting in distinction and charm, with the further disadvantage of being occasionally marred by the intrusion of a quality for which, in Coleridge's time, the name 'spasmodic' had not been invented. Poor Hartley Coleridge, who promised so much and performed so little, produced many sonnets, and is, as a sonnet-writer, as far in front of his father as he is behind his father's friend. The beautiful sonnet beginning--

What was't awakened first the untried ear
Of that sole man who was all human kind?

would have been more content-giving if the interrogatory form had been dropped before the close; but many of his sonnets have indubitable quality, and one or two of them--such, for example, as 'If I have sinned in act I may repent,' and 'Let me not dream that I was made in vain'--betray a combined vigour and subtlety which makes us feel that great possibilities were extinguished by the blight which withered the singer's mournfully ineffectual career. Concerning a host of Wordsworthian sonnets, of which Sir Aubrey de Vere was the earliest and the Rev. Charles Tennyson Turner the latest producer, nothing needs to be said but that they have everything of Wordsworth save the informing power which made his sonnets so monumental and memorable. Wordsworth's work is easily imitable by congenial spirits, and these imitations--probably for the most part unconscious reproductions of the master's manner--are by no means unworthy; but they have no place in the history of art. The latter of the two poets just mentioned did, however, produce one sonnet of singular beauty, a sonnet not in the least like Wordsworth, but with a strong suggestion of George Herbert; and it seems to me to be in its own way so perfect and delightful, that I break the order of this survey to reproduce it in connection with the passing mention of its author's name.


As on my bed at dawn I mused and prayed,
I saw my lattice prankt upon the wall,
The flaunting leaves and flitting birds withal--
A sunny phantom interlaced with shade;
"Thanks be to heaven!" in happy mood I said,
"What sweeter aid my matins could befall
Than this fair glory from the East hath made?
What holy sleights hath God, the Lord of all,
To bid us feel and see we are not free
To say we see not, for the glory comes
Nightly and daily, like the flowing sea;
His lustre pierceth through the midnight glooms;
And at prime hour, behold! He follows me
With golden shadows to my secret rooms!"

Byron wrote few sonnets, but those few are good; and the sonnet On Chillon, with its fine opening and its impressive close, may, without exaggeration be called great. The London group of nineteenth century poets--the Cockney school as it was irreverently called--had its defects and weaknesses, but it certainly maintained the high traditions of the English sonnet. The far-echoing fame of Hyperion and the odes has done much to drown the faint, sweet music of the sonnets of Keats, but they remain a possession from which no lover of the precious things of verse would care to part. The best known, and among general readers the most highly esteemed, of these delicatly cut cameos of poetry is undoubtedly the sonnet On first looking into Chapman's Homer, and the singularly impressive images to which the sestet is devoted fully account for this high popular estimation; but it may be more than doubted whether the comparative rank assigned to this sonnet can be defended by disinterested criticism. The majority of discriminating judges will award the palm to that overpoweringly beautiful composition which was the poet's last legacy to the world, a sonnet rounded and perfect as the 'bright star' which it invokes, of moving conception and flawless workmanship, every line a delight, and the whole an enduring joy. It is unfortunate that so many of Keats' editors, Mr Main among the number, should, in reprinting this last sonnet, have adopted as the final line--

And so live ever or else swoon to death.

instead of the alternative reading, which has at least equal sanction--

Half passionless, and so swoon on to death.

which is so much more in keeping with the body of the sonnet, so much more characteristic, so much more beautiful. Only less fine than this supreme effort are the sonnets, 'The poetry of earth is never dead,' 'When I have thoughts that I may cease to be,' 'O, soft embalmer of the still midnight,' 'The day is gone, and all its sweets are gone,' each full of the essential music, the mobile grace of nature with which Keats was so richly dowered, and each containing at least one triumph of phrasing which touches the very heart of the matter, and masters us at once. Keats' sonnets were very frequently cast in the Shakspearian mould; but his handling is so deft, that in most of them we lose the feeling of the recurring quatrains, and even of the concluding couplet, and have the sense of inwrought unity which seems to belong as of right to the true Italian form. It is only the comparatively small mass of Keats' sonnet work, certainly not any deficiency in quality, which hinders him from taking rank among the greatest of our sonneteers, as well as among the greatest of our poets.

Shelley's contribution is still more scanty, though Mr Main has added to the number of his sonnets by printing as such the successive strophes or stanzas of the Ode to the West Wind, which are certainly written in the sonnet form, though they have too much abandonment, too little restraint and individual completeness,--have, in short, too much of the purely lyrical quality,--to find a place among genuine sonnets. Leigh Hunt, the ardent lover of both Keats and Shelley, was a nineteenth-century troubadour rather than a poet in the broadest and deepest sense of that word; but he had quick sensibilities and a nimble hand, and in one well-known wit-contest he distanced his great compeers. Everyone remembers that Shelley, Keats, and Hunt each undertook to write a sonnet on the subject of the river Nile; and whether we select Ozymanzdias, or, as we certainly ought, the more recently discovered sonnet, 'Month after month the gathered rains descend,' as Shelley's contribution, it must, I think, take either the second or the third place, the first being undoubtedly held by Hunt. Hunt's sonnet is fairly familiar, but I cannot forbear to quote it; and it may safely be said that even in his most spontaneous productions the poet never excelled this little bit of pleasant task-work:--

It flows through old hushed Egypt and its sands,
Like some grave mighty thought threading a dream,
And times and things, as in that vision, seem
Keeping along it their eternal stands,--
Caves, pillars, pyramids, the shepherd bands
That roamed through the young world, the glory extreme
Of high Sesostris, and that southern beam,
The laughing queen that caught the world's great hands.
Then comes a mightier silence, stern and strong,
As of a world left empty of its throng
And the void weighs on us; and then we wake,
And hear the fruitful stream lapsing along
'Twixt villages, and think how we shall take
Our own calm journey on for human sake.

From this time forward noticeable sonnets grow thicker and thicker in the field of English poetry, and adequate criticism within the limits of a single article becomes less and less possible. Hood's extraordinary gift of a certain kind of humour, and the insistent and tragical power of his world-famed social lyrics, have hindered many from fully recognising the flower-like grace of his more purely imaginative serious poetry, and as a sonnet-writer he is seldom mentioned, though all his sonnets are delicately and richly wrought, and at least two of them, Silence and Death, deserve an honoured place in the most select sonnet anthology. Those individual qualities which give their peculiar flavour to such poems as The Haunted House and The Dream of Eugene Aram--their pervading weirdness, their occasional grotesqueness--are here sublimated and etherealised; the body of them has vanished, but the aroma remains, and the charm is complete. To this first half of the nineteenth century belong also the names of CharIes Lamb, Bryan Waller Procter, John Clare, whose numerous sonnets are not among his best things--Thomas Noon Talfourd--whose sonnet On the Death of Queen Caroline is a noble poem on an unworthy theme--Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Samuel Laman Blanchard, and Joseph Blanco White, who, like the often-mentioned 'single-speech Hamilton,' is remembered as a poet by one solitary utterance.

White's magnificent sonnet on Night has been too often quoted for it to be necessary to reproduce it here, and so much criticised that all possible comment seems exhausted. Few will withhold a general agreement from the verdict of Coleridge, that it is 'the most grandly conceived sonnet in the language'; but it is certainly unfortunate that the execution of so great a conception should not be more perfect. The first impression it makes is almost overpowering, but it bears hardly so well as might be expected the test of repeated readings--a disappointment which is wont to occur when the strength of a poem resides in its thought rather than its craftsmanship. Concerning the two extant versions I disagree with Mr Main, who regards the first as superior to the second; but even from the latter there is absent some needed touch of perfecting grace, which, were it there, would give the sonnet an assured and unassailable supremacy.

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