By James Ashcroft Noble

(PART 5)

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As we progress farther into the century we reach another of the great sonnet groups of our literature and are compelled to make another pause. If we except Sappho, who is little more than a shade, the roll of the women poets of the world must be headed with the name of Elizabeth Barrett Browning; and her sonnets, notably the series entitled 'Sonnets from the Portuguese,' are at the apex of the mass of which is her enduring pyramid of fame. What Wordsworth in his sonnets did for the high things of thought and ethical emotion, Mrs Browning and a later poet, yet to be spoken of, have done for the deep and secret things of passion, using the word not in the more special sense to which usage has almost confined it, but as comprehending all intense and fervid outgoings of our nature towards God or country, or our human fellows, or those aspects of nature which rouse within us love or awe, wonder or hushed delight. The poet in whom emotion generates thought will almost inevitably have a narrower range than the poet in whom thought supplies a justification for emotion, and Mrs Browning's sweep is certainly less extensive than Wordsworth's; but there are in her sonnets a concentrated intensity of feeling and a piercing, resonant utterance--strong, yet with a pathetic quiver in it--which thrill and melt us as we are thrilled and melted by the voice of no other English singer. In her verse, Godward aspiration, human love and grief, the passion of sympathy and the passion for beauty, the longing of a full nature to pour out its fulness, reveal their very naked heart, and we are impressed not merely by high poetry, but by a great 'apocalypse of soul.' In the case of any human being such an apocalypse would have a strange and peculiar interest, but when the revelation is of such a soul as Mrs Browning's it becomes a thing of priceless value. As we read we know not whether we are most keenly touched by the poem or by the beating of the poet's heart behind it, by the throb of warm blood in its pulsating lines. The fine issues reveal the spirit that has been finely touched; a spirit to whom the things of the spirit were as palpable as the things of sense--to whom, as to the eye-blind but soul-seeing, Hugh Stuart Boyd:

The sensuous and unsensuous seemed one thing,
Viewed from one level--earth's reapers at the sheaves
Scarce plainer than Heaven's angels on the wing.

The purity and delicacy of Mrs Browning's nature were attested by her power of distinguishing very finely graduated shades of the higher emotions, of beholding subtle correspondences, of rendering what for most poets would be merely sighings that cannot be uttered. In such sonnets as Grief and Perplexed Music, strings which would have been snapt and silenced for ever if struck by duller hands, yield tones that are sweet and clear and full--tones to which other hearts vibrate in faint but distinguishable echoes. It is, however, in the series purporting to be 'From the Portuguese,' that Browning reveals the total potentialities of her genius. These poems are the very apotheosis of love; they form an avenue from the outermost courts of a pure and profound passion to the innermost recesses of its curtained sanctuary; and yet in no one of them is there any violation of sacred reserves, any profanation of the shrine of love; for the last solemn veil of the temple remains unlifted, though we are brought near enough to catch the odour of tbe incense which clouds the altar, and the hymeneal song of the invisible singers who chant before it.

In matters of mere art-technique the Sonnets from the Portuguese represent Mrs Browning at her point of highest achievement. Intense as was her Shakspearian enthusiasm, she clearly felt that in his so-called sonnets Shakspeare had adopted an inferior form, and she remained faithful to the nobler Italian model, which, in the hands of Milton and Wordsworth, had been turned to such triumphant account. Nor was the effect of a choice of perfect form marred by any of those eccentricities of treatment which interfere with the fulness of our delight in some of this poet's most delight-giving work. The individual flavour is as distinct as elsewhere; never was personality more clearly discernible; but the style has cleared itself of its dross, of its undue archaism, its ruggedness, its occasional grating grotesqueness, and has, without losing force, gained ease, clearness, balance, and those qualities which in the mass we call classical. To appraise this collection adequately is diflicult; to overrate it is all but impossible. The most commonplace man or woman who has known what it is to love purely and unselfishly feels that his soul or her soul, not less than the soul of Mrs Browning, finds a voice in these high poems; and it can hardly be presumptuous to predict that for generations to come the Sonnets from the Portuguese will remain, what they undoubtedly now are, the noblest anthology for noble lovers which our language has to show.

The singers of what may be called the Tennysonian period are many, and most of them have been sonneteers to a greater or less extent, but the field is too wide to be reaped or even tithed here. Lord Tennyson himself has written few sonnets, and these few include one or two of his feeblest things and none of his best. No friendly critic would ever quote such an effusion as The Bridesmaid; and even the sonnet on the Montenegrins, strong and sonorous as it is, seems more like a Miltonic or Wordsworthian echo than an original strain. Lord Tennyson's early friend Arthur Henry Hallam wrote sonnets charged with a quiet beauty; and Mr Frederick Tennyson, as well as his brother the Rev. Charles Tennyson Turner, was a sonnet-writer needing not to be ashamed. Of the sonnet-work of Alford, Faber, Clough, the younger Roscoes, John Sterling, R. S. Hawker, and many others I must not stay to speak. The sonnets of Mr Matthew Arnold, generally devoted to the crystallisation of some elevated ethical sentiment, have a simple austerity of style which may almost be called ascetic. Those of Alexander Smith, on the other hand, emulate sometimes with fair success, the rich colour and lavish imagery of Keats, who found another follower in the young Scotch poet, David Gray, whose early death robbed the world of a sweet if not of a strong singer. The sonnets of Julian Fane, particularly those addressed to his mother, are thoroughly Shakspearian both in form and flavour and are saturated with a true and touching tenderness. Mrs Pfeiffer's sonnets have been much admired, and justly so, for they are indeed admirable, but some of them would be even more admirable if the condensation and elaboration of the thought interfered less with the transparency of the expressional vehicle. Those of Miss Christina Rossetti have grace, sweetness, unction, with a pensive charm as of a violet growing on a grave. Miss Dora Greenwell is a disciple of Mrs Browning, and has caught very happily some of the delicate nuances of both her feeling and style. Mr Robert Buchanan is a poet of no mean rank, but his sonnets, though often full of his special power, impress and charm us less than some of his other work. The solitary volume of verse which we owe to Mr Edward Dowden, though it has not been much talked about, cannot be read by any genuine lover of poetry without ardent admiration, and some of the sonnets contained in it are of singularly delicate beauty. Mr Philip Bourke Marston and Mr John Payne have done some very exquisite sonnet-work; but their peculiar quality is to a large extent derivative. Their master is one who has many more followers than he perhaps cares to acknowledge--a poet of fine and subtle genius, and undoubtedly the greatest of living sonneteers--Mr Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Perhaps the most obvious positive characteristic of Mr Rossetti's poetry is its picturesqueness. He is not merely a painter and a poet, but a painter-poet, which is a different thing. He has too true a sense of the dignity of each separate art, and of the inevitable limitations of each vehicle of expression, to endeavour to paint poems or to write pictures; but his imagination is so concrete that its creations always present themselves to him as things of form and colour, and his sonnets spread themselves out like fair paintings on the walls of the gallery of the mind. Every poet's instinct prompts him to embody thoughts and feelings in sensuous symbols which can be grasped by the imagination; and one of the tests by which we award precedence in the poetic hierarchy is the measure of success with which this embodiment is achieved. In Mr Rossetti's case it is a large measure: we know of none larger, and his place is among the highest. We will not say that every one of his sonnets would provide a motive for an actual picture: both the form and colour may here and there be too faintly indicated for reproduction by palpable lines and pigments; but the effect upon the mind of any one of them is analogous to that produced by one of his own glowing canvases. There are in both the same restful harmonics, the same solemn splendour, the same sad yearning, the same bounteousness of beauty; and those of us who have been privileged to behold some of those special drawings or paintings to which certain of the sonnets are avowedly twin children of the master's art, turn from the picture to the poem and from the poem back to the picture, and know not which to choose, hecause both are so full of the qualities of delight.

Mr Rossetti's imaginative treatment is both spiritual and impassioned, the sensuous and the supersensuous are inextricably blended, and when love is the theme of his utterances it is for the most part a love of which we know not the body from the soul. There is a noteworthy integrity in his love sonnets which gives them a peculiar interest and value. No element is wanting, none is unduly preponderant. The poet can sing to the hautboy of the flame-winged passion of Love, or to the sweet notes of the white winged harpist, who is Love's Worship, declaring that--

Through thine hautboy's rapturous tone
Unto my lady still this harp makes moan,
And still she deems the cadence deep and clear.

The first twenty-eight of Mr Rossetti's sonnets, like the Sonnets from the Portuguese, form a continuous series; but in the former the situations are more varied, and the gradual transition from brightness to gloom, instead of, as in Mrs Browning's poems, from gloom to brightness, leaves us in an entirely different mood. Mr Rossetti's genius is, however, essentially sombre in tone; and even one of the earliest sonnets which are the exultant outburst of a victorious love closes with the question of mournful presage:--

O love, my love! if I no more should see
Thyself, nor on the earth the shadow of thee,
Nor image of thine eyes in any spring--
How then should sound upon Life's darkening slope
The ground-whirl of the perished leaves of Hope,
The wind of Death's imperishable wing?

This sombreness of effect is brought about in a strange and subtle manner. I have spoken of these sonnets as pictures, and in carrying out the comparison one may say that this effect is produced not by the use of dull colours, of browns and greys and faded tints, but rather by a miraculous mingling of rich and gorgeous hues. Mr Ruskin has somewhere observed that good colour cannot possibly be gay colour, and here the colour is always good, but gay never. Seldom in literature has there been such a combination of splendour and sadness, and both the splendour and the sadness are made all the more impressive by marvellous manipulative art. No poet has ever gained a greater amount of expressional effect by the mere sound quality of words, singly and in combination, than Mr Rossetti. He has a habit, not sufficiently obtrusive to become a trick, of ending the sestet, and cccasionally the octave, with a line containing some one long sonorous word of open vowels and the most producible consonants, with now and then an additional weak syllable, which prolongs the movement and gives a felt weight and solemnity. An example may be found in the lines just quoted, but there are many others:--

With sweet confederate music favourable,
His hours elect in choral consonancy.--
Follow the desultory feet of Death,--
Their refuse maidenhood abominable,--
Sleepless, with cold commemorative eyes,--
The shame that loads the intolerable day.

These and such lines as these, impinge upon sense and soul like a cannon-ball, and bury themselves so deeply in the memory that they cannot be unearthed. Then, too, Mr Rossetti is a master of monosyllabic words, generally so hazardous both to dignity and grace, and uses them freely, often through a whole line, and sometimes through two consecutive lines, and even into a third, with no loss, but a clear gain of both literary and emotional effect. These may seem trivial things; but those to whom poetry is an art as well as an inspiration know that nothing is trivial which can be used as a means for stamping fine and enduring impressions. There was inspiration enough and to spare for the tuneful breath to which we listen in such sonnets as Love-sight, Love-sweetness, Winged Hours, Secret Parting, and Mary Magdalene; but inspiration alone would never have realised their accomplished perfectness. It is the inspiration that masters us in such intense and sombre utterances as Vain Virtues, The Sun's Shame, The Refusal of Aid between Nations, and the great and terrible Lost Days; but it is art which assures to inspiration the mastery. The man who wrote the sonnet For a Venetian Pastoral by Giorgione, which for beauty, pure, absolute, flawless, has no equal in the volumes of any English poet, is above all things an artist; and for sonnet craftsmanship which leaves us with the pleasant languor of supreme satisfaction, the delicious drowsiness of fulfilled delight, we know of nothing comparable to these great gifts which we owe to Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

To survey the history of the sonnet in England is a pleasant task, for the record is one of continued and beautiful growth. There seemed little promise in the Italian exotic which Sir Thomas Wyat planted in English soil; but it has flourished and blossomed and borne fruit abundantly. Arbitrary as is the form of the sonnet, its arbitrariness must be in accord with great expressional laws, or so many poets would not have chosen it as the vehicle for their finest fancies, their loftiest thoughts, their intensest emotions. This choice, made so often and vindicated so splendidly, has produced a literature within a literature, a domain within a domain, and though it is composed of scanty plots of ground, they spread over a wide expanse through which we may wander long, and yet leave many of its flowers unseen and unculled. Rich as the sonnet literature of England is now, it is becoming every day richer and fuller of potential promise, and though the possibilities of the form may be susceptible of exhaustion, there are no present signs of it, but only of new and bounteous developments. Even were no addition made to the store which has accumulated through more than two centuries, the sonnet-work of our English poets would remain for ever one of the most precious of the intellectual possessions of the nation.

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