General Survey of the American Sonnet

From The Sonnet in American Literature (1930)

By Lewis Sterner

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One might well ask of this chronological survey of a hundred and fifty years of American sonnet writing these very specific questions: To what extent has the sonnet been used by American poets? What changes in form has the sonnet undergone? To what degree has the sonnet been a genuine poetic vehicle in American poetry, and to what extent has it been merely a convenient and conventional prosodic exercise? To what new uses, if any, has it been put, particularly by the younger, more frankly experimental, verse writers of this country?

The best answer to the first question is the long list of two hundred and three American poets who have used the sonnet form, and the formidable number of sonnets they wrote. (See pages 123-128.) The late appearance of the sonnet form in American poetry--the fourth quarter of the eighteenth century being the earliest date that can possibly be assigned to our first specimen, Addressed to My Friends at Yale College, by Colonel David Humphreys--is not remarkable in the light of the amount and nature of the poetry in general that was written in the colonies during all of the seventeenth and most of the eighteenth century. The use of the sonnet form by the few men and women of Puritan New England who wrote verse would have been to the highest degree unusual. Nothing even suggestive of such refinement of poetic expression seems possible in an atmosphere where the Rev. John Cotton found it necessary to defend church singing by scriptural citations and a carefully reasoned argument of four main and six sub-headings. A stray sonnet or two might have been expected from the Virginia colony, which must have harbored more than one reader of Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton, but apparently none was written. The Hartford wits wrote verse of a kind foreign to the genius and form of the sonnet. It was hoped by the author that a sonnet might be found among the poems of Philip Freneau, but here too he was disappointed.

Once, however, the sonnet had made an appearance in American literature, it found almost universal favor. The American poets of major or minor rank who have not, according to their ordinarily accepted collected works, used the sonnet form at all are not very numerous. The obvious danger of negative assertion prohibits a categorical list of such writers. Rather, the absence of any poet's name from the chronological survey and alphabetical lists which follow must be accepted as a tacit acknowledgment of the author's failure to locate any sonnets by that particular writer.

Such a statement of American sonneteers and their sonnets as will be found in the following pages suggests a comparison with the body of sonnet material in English literature during the corresponding period. Only a thorough investigation of the entire body of English poetry during the past hundred and fifty years would make any such comparison more than a rough approximation. It will, therefore, not be attempted. More debatable and more interesting is a comparison of the two sonnet literatures from the aesthetic rather than from the formal point of view. During the first half century of American sonnet writing there is no comparison. During this period, which may, for convenience, be bounded by 1770, the birth of Wordsworth, and 1821, the death of Keats, the sonnet was being used in England by several young men who were masters of its subtlest possibilities. By the year 1802, for example, Wordsworth alone had written at least nineteen sonnets, among them such noteworthy ones as Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, Composed by the Sea-Side Near Calais, It Is a Beauteous Evening, Calm and Free, To Touissant L'Ouverture, and London, 1802. Only forty-four of the more than seven thousand sonnets considered in this thesis can be placed before this date, the work of David Humphreys, Royall Tyler, Samuel Low, Richard Bingham Davis, Robert Treat Paine, and Peter Bayley. Historically interesting, and, at times, not lacking in worth, these sonnets are nevertheless not to be compared with those written by the youthful Wordsworth and others in England during the same period. By 1820 Wordsworth's sonnets were one hundred and sixty-seven in number. In 1821 and 1822 he composed the sequence of one hundred and thirty-two Ecclesiastical Sonnets. In the former year John Keats died, leaving behind him a very considerable sonnet achievement, including two or three of the highest order. It would be extremely difficult to point to a single American sonnet written before 1820 of more than ordinary merit. In that year Longfellow was fourteen years of age, and Lowell but two. Bryant's earliest sonnets are dated 1824, and they are not significant. Washington Allston and Henry Pickering had written their merely competent sonnets by this time, and Joseph Rodman Drake's one sonnet (see page 12) had certainly been composed--he died in 1820--although probably not published. Here the list ends.

But beginning with Longfellow, the American sonnet entered upon a distinguished career. To continue, in chronological order, to instance the more outstanding sonneteers would be to anticipate the lists which follow shortly (see page 123). Briefly, then, it is the opinion of the author of this study that once the American sonnet had passed out of its apprentice years and been given the example of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, it became a serious rival, both in bulk and in artistic worth, of its English contemporary. George Henry Boker and Lloyd Mifflin, for example, both wrote sonnets to an extent and with a technical skill and emotional fidelity and intensity comparable to those of Wordsworth. There are few individual sonnets in nineteenth century English literature of greater distinction than Longfellow's Nature, Lizette Woodworth Reese's Tears, or Edna St. Vincent Millay's Euclid Alone Has Looked on Beauty Bare. It is doubtful if any modern English sonneteer out-ranks Edwin Arlington Robinson.

Nor must any of this be construed into a statement that American sonnet poetry is uniformly excellent. Quite the reverse is the truth. The great bulk of American sonnet verse is commonplace,--suffering greatly, as does so much of all poetry, both American and English, from obviousness and sentimentality. One feels, after having read volumes of this sonnet poetry, the force of these lines by Edwin Arlington Robinson:

. . . these little sonnet men,
Who fashion, in a shrewd mechanic way,
Songs without souls, that flicker for a day,
To vanish in irrevocable night.

Our second question concerns itself with any noticeable changes in the form of the sonnet during the century and a half of its use by American authors. A careful reading of thousands of sonnets written during this period has convinced the author that no tangible development has taken place. Strictly considered, what development in the form of the sonnet is possible, at this late date, without the result's ceasing to be a sonnet? A number of different Italian verse forms were undoubtedly modified or combined by various poets, Italian, French, and English, until they became the normal Italian and English forms we know today. Milton first successfully ignored the pause between the octave and the sestet, and certainly gave the Italian sonnet a new impetus. Other poets have attempted to fuse the Italian and the English forms into such compromise or hybrid forms as will be noted hereafter. But there the possibilities of development seem to have stopped. These changes left intact the fundamental structure of the sonnet as a prosodic form, i.e., fourteen lines of five-stress verse, arranged according to some definite scheme of four to seven rimes, and, in general, treating one idea only, in a more or less logical manner. These orthodox Petrarchan, Miltonic, Shakespearean, and Compromise sonnet forms existed before American sonnet writing began, and their use is no more characteristic of one period of our literature than of another. No possible interpretation of the tables which follow could be made to show any significant attitude toward a particular form or forms at any particular time. The pleasure of the writer most often determines the form into which he casts his sonnet material. Quite a number of what their authors choose to call sonnets may be found of fifteen lines, or with one or more lines hexameters. But they are not properly developments of the sonnet, because they are not sonnets at all. With one or two exceptions, e. g., Silence, by Edgar Allan Poe, such poems have not been included in this study. With all its flexibility, the sonnet is, after all, a definite verse form, like the Spenserian stanza or the heroic couplet. There may, in the future, within the narrow compass of fourteen decasyllables of limited rime scheme, develop a new form, just as the Miltonic sonnet grew out of the normal Petrarchan. But no such development has taken place during the century and a half which constitutes the sonnet history of American literature.

A contemplation of this large body of sonnet poetry quite naturally suggests our third question. How many of the long list of American poets who used the form did so because they felt impelled to, and how many used it merely as a universally known and convenient technical exercise? It must be confessed that mere metrical skill seems by many to have been regarded as a sufficient qualification for an indulgence in the pastime of sonnet writing. Many hundreds of the sonnets listed here can be dismissed as conscientious prosodic exercises, but nothing more. Many hundreds more are not successful even as prosodic exercises. The large number of sonnets so loosely constructed that they failed to fall into the Italian, English, or Compromise groups (see pages 143 and 144) shows clearly what little calling many of their writers had to the sonnet as a form of poetic expression. Whether the cause was impatience, indifference, or incompetence, the fact remains that about one-seventh of the approximately seven thousand sonnets considered in this paper were of a more or less irregular pattern, many of them bearing the name sonnet only by courtesy.

These statements are made, moreover, with a very reasonable standard of sonnet excellence behind them. The thousands of Italian sonnets read in preparation for this study were not contrasted with a theoretical Petrarchan sonnet of strict sense division between octave and sestet, nor were they held to be conformable to the wave of flow and ebb postulated by Watts-Duncan. Furthermore, the English sonnet was accepted as having equal validity with the Italian; the author not at all agreeing with Mark Pattison, who asserted that ". . . the so-called sonnets of Shakespeare are not sonnets at all, but fourteen line stanzas."

The standard which the author tried to keep constantly in mind finds its best expression in these words by John Ashcroft Noble:

I do not think it absolutely essential that it should be an utterance of one thought or emotion, for within 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.

In other words, waiving the finely drawn and entirely theoretical criteria that have appeared from time to time in discussions of the sonnet form, the writer has expected merely this of a good sonnet: that it be a concise and homogeneous treatment of an idea or emotion adapted to such a treatment in the narrow compass of fourteen five-stress lines.

Such a happy medium between strict rigidity and too great a flexibility seems, in general, to have been the conception of the sonnet held by most of America's successful sonneteers. One of the best of contemporary poets [Arthur Davison Ficke, letter to the author] writes:

I have used it on occasions when the emotion I wished to express was fairly simple and well-unified,--when, to put it otherwise, sharpness of definition and conciseness of statement seemed to be more desirable than elaborate description of the emotion from several angles. I find nothing constricting in the arbitrary limitations of the sonnet . . . for the simple reason that I never attempt a sonnet unless I am already vaguely aware that the thing I am about to say is, by its inherent nature, suited to the sonnet form, rather than to free-verse, the ballad, or some other medium.

Any attempt, in the light of the foregoing remarks, to group categorically the more than two hundred poets here considered into those who were essentially sonneteers, thinking sonnet material in an intuitively sonnet manner, and those who wrote their fourteen line poems with a surface regard to technical accuracy, or even with little of that, but with scant innate feeling for the genius of the form, would be as foolish as it would be arbitrary. But of the place of certain writers there would be no doubt. Among our instinctive sonneteers would certainly be placed [This list, like those that follow, is in an alphabetical order.]: Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Joseph Auslander, Arlo Bates, George Henry Boker, Witter Bynner, Madison Cawein, Gladys Cromwell, Olive Tilford Dargan, Julia Stockton Dinsmore, Glenn Ward Dresbach, Arthur Davison Ficke, Robert Frost, Richard Watson Gilder, Louise Imogen Guiney, Caroline Hazard, Sophie Jewett, Thomas S. Jones, Jr., William Ellery Leonard, George Cabot Lodge, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Amy Lowell, James Russell Lowell, Lloyd Mifilin, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Charles Leonard Moore, David Morton, Louise Chandler Moulton, Lizette Woodworth Reese, Edwin Arlington Robinson, George Santayana, George Sterling, Sara Teasdale, Edith Matilda Thomas, Arthur Upson, John Hall Wheelock, Clement Wood, George Woodberry, and Elinor Wylie.

Not all of the sonnets of these poets are good. But the general technical excellence, the constant sense of Sonnet competence, added to an output generous enough to justify these conclusions, entitle them to rank as America's real sonneteers. Sonnets as good as many, and better than some written by these men and women, are abundant in our literature, but they are the work of poets who in general, as sonneteers, are merely competent craftsmen, or who have written too few sonnets to warrant any definite conclusions. In the first group, which consists of those who, in the opinion of this writer, have written some sonnets of outstanding excellence, and a number of others of a quite ordinary level, belong, among others: Stephen Vincent Benét, William Rose Benét, Florence Earle Coates, Helen Gray Cone, Babette Deutsch, Edgar Fawcett, Theodosia Garrison, Herman Hagedorn, Paul Hamilton Hayne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Helen Hunt Jackson, Joyce Kilmer, Lucy Larcom, Emma Lazarus, J. Corson Miller, Clinton Scollard, Edward Rowland Sill, William Gilmore Simms, Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, Henry Theodore Tuckerman, and Jones Very. Of these writers it seems safe to say, whatever may have been their devotion to the sonnet form, and whatever relation their work in that form may bear to the nature and bulk of their poetry in general, that they are not primarily gifted in the sonnet form. The Benéts, Holmes, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Clinton Scollard, for instance, have obviously done better work in other fields.

The other group consists of those who have won undoubted distinction as poets, but who, as sonneteers, seem of definitely minor importance because of the very limited number of sonnets they have written. In this list could be placed, without much hesitation: William Cullen Bryant, Sidney Lanier, Percy Mackaye, Edgar Allan Poe, Thomas Buchanan Read, Edmund Clarence Stedman, Bayard Taylor, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Nathaniel Parker Willis.

It was with much hesitation and rereading of his notes that the writer made these dangerous categorical statements. Not one of them is he prepared to defend further than that it represents an honest opinion arrived at after the perusal of every sonnet and much of the other verse of the authors named. The mere insistence with which some names and some sonnets recur to a mind unavoidably blurred by such a wealth of material, and the utter lack of impression made by dozens of other authors, and hundreds of their sonnets, is, in itself, no mean criterion. No one, for instance, having read once and hastily Arthur Davison Ficke's I Am in Love with High Far-Seeing Places can fail to remember the true sonnet impulse of it. On the other hand, one may read conscientiously the three score sonnets of Katherine Lee Bates without once feeling that surge and lift and final calm that mark the Italian sonnet at its best. Almost any of the "eagle" sonnets of Clement Wood have the true ring of the English sonnet, with its climactic couplet at the close; whereas the English sonnets of Jones Very seem, in spite of their technical accuracy, barren of that emotional impulse which is fundamental to the sonnet in its highest form.

The fourth and final question that would suggest itself to any student of a hundred and fifty years of American sonnet history is this: Are there discernible, in the course of this long period, anv "trends" or tendencies in the use of the sonnet as distinct from any development of its form? Has the sonnet been put to any new uses? Has it become more or less rigid? How has it been regarded by the more frankly experimental of recent and contemporary verse writers?

As has been said before, the outward form of the sonnet has remained fixed. The American sonnets written in the fourth quarter of the eighteenth century and those written in the first quarter of the twentieth are alike in prosodic execution. And it is not dismissing the matter too briefly to say that until recently they remained equally stable in spirit and in subject matter. Certain outstanding sonneteers come to have, to an ear and mind grown familiar to them by constant reading, an individuality of their own. No one would ever attribute a sonnet from Boker's Sequence on Profane Love to Longfellow, just as the latter's numerous sonnets on themes of a literary nature stand out, by reason of a sureness of technique and an adroitness of phraseology, from the hundreds of lesser sonnets similar to them in form and subject. Some of our earliest sonnets, those of David Humphreys or Samuel Low, for instance, do have a distinctly eighteenth century style, which would readily distinguish them from the great corpus of our sonnet poetry. But in the main, the average sonnet of the beginning of the nineteenth century is identical with one written at the end of the century in style and diction. The sonnet, except in the hands of those who were intuitively sonneteers, suffered from the weakness of all definitely artificial forms,--colorlessness and conventionalism.

Yet many, if not all, of the nineteenth century sonnet writers aimed above mere technical proficiency, at an intangible something that for want of a better name can only be called "sonnet diction." The reach for it is evident in hundreds of sonnets utterly without any other distinction. The subtle harmonies of Shakespeare's dramatic verse at its best are no more definitely established as a diction to be aimed at by all who write in that medium than is the clearly perceptible "manner" of the great Sonnet. A combination of worthy theme and dignified restraint of language is an integral part of American sonnet tradition from Allston to Robinson. Few of the greatest of our sonneteers have broken with it to this day, and those who, like Edna St. Vincent Millay, have done so in part have most decidedly done it with a difference. Austerity without pomposity; splendor without ostentation; imagery without conceit; depth rather than profundity; passion rather than eroticism--these seem to be characteristic of the American as of the English sonnet. The difference between the master and the artisan is here one of degree rather than of kind.

But side by side with this traditional sonnet there has, in recent years, come into being a less reticent, a less formal sonnet, with a different concept of what is the proper subject and diction of the form. The author of this study wrote a personal letter to every living American sonnet writer of any importance whatever in a frank attempt to ascertain what, if any, tendencies he saw in its use in contemporary letters. These inquiries were received with uniform graciousness, and an unexpected patience and completeness of answer. The note more frequently sounded than any other was precisely this note of a growing restiveness under the restraints of the traditional sonnet, and a tendency to make it conform in matter, style, and spirit with a large body of recent poetry.

Babette Deutsch: The sonnet has become less austere, less pompous, without being less splendid, although on occasion it lapses into frivolity. . . . In other ways, too, the sonnet shares the spoils of contemporary poetry, as in a more flexible cadence, a finer use of assonantal rhymes. . . . Concrete images, taken from our common life, enter into it more readily than before, and, I think, to the benefit of this narrow form.

William Rose Benét: If there is any trend in the present writing of the sonnet, I should say it was to make it the vehicle for expression more colloquial and fantastic than formerly.

Clement Wood: 1. Liberal use of near rhyme and assonance, instead of accurate rhymes. 2. Liberal use of more broken and fragmentary rhythm than the lock step iambic regularity of the past. [From letters to the author.]

David Morton finds the chief characteristic of the twentieth century sonnet in its informality.

The sonnet after Milton, at any rate, was reserved for such occasions as demanded formality of speech, when they did not demand positive grandeur. . . The twentieth century poet [is unwilling] to wait for a sublime subject before using the sonnet form, and . . . to put on surplice and robes of manner and language when he does use the form. I would not wish to give the impression that the note of "high seriousness" for which the sonnet was reserved in the preceding century is absent from the sonnets of our day. It is not that nobleness of thought and majesty of language have abandoned the sonnet, but that the form is used less exclusively for these things. [From The Sonnet, Yesterday and Today]

Examples of this contemporary sonnet, with what William Ellery Leonard, one of its most consistent exponents, terms "its new nuances in details of structure, and new materials for its substance," will be found in the collection which follows. These poets, among others, may be noted: Stephen Vincent Benét, Witter Bynner, Donald Evans, Robert Frost, Alfred Kreymborg, William Ellery Leonard, Donald P, Marquis, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Christopher Morley, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Louis Untermeyer, John Van Alstyn Weaver.

It must at once be added that these poets represent this tendency in various degrees of persistence, and, what is still more important, in varying degrees of success. With some, the result is hardly worth the effort. With others, as with Frost, Leonard, Robinson, and Miss Millay, it is often arresting, and never merely smart. Frost's On a Tree Fallen Across a Road (page 85), Robinson's Karma, and Miss Millay's If I Should Learn in Some Quite Casual Way are examples of this tendency at its best. And in no case, in the opinion of the writer, do these sonnets represent their authors at their finest. They are definitely not of the great sonnet tradition. In employing their poetic pattern in a new way, they have not succeeded in making it over sufficiently to justify the result. George Santayana compares the sonnet and the quatrain to the orders of Greek architecture as things that are better than anything else that has been devised to serve the same function. Much in American life and thought that was and is noble has been and is being moulded into the Italian and English sonnet forms. Whether it can likewise be fitted to receive the transitory, the trivial, and the colloquial remains to be seen. The research student must duly chronicle every use to which it is put, and have an open mind, whatever may be his personal preferences. The study he makes will become a memory, perhaps, even before the least consequential of the sonnets whose rime schemes he counted and whose authors he catalogued. But the sonnet will go on. Born in Italy, or at least perfected in Italy, as one of the finest fruits of the Renaissance, imported into England and given a new impetus by the greatest of poets, it has been loved and cultivated by almost every poet since, except during the hiatus of the eighteenth century. In America all but a very few of our outstanding poets have used it, many of them supremely well; others, less gifted, but not less earnest, perhaps, have found in its narrow ground a sure retreat for the contemplation of the beauty they saw and an expression of the passion they felt. The books are filled with men's praise of this most tangible, and yet most subtle, of poetic forms. But of all that he has read, the writer thinks this from David Morton, himself one of the most dignified of the younger poets of America, the best, and the most fitting with which to close an introduction to a study of the sonnet in American literature.

Poems in the sonnet form, as in other forms, represent moments at which life reached a passionate intensity, and was translated into speech. Such forms should be read, not as sonnet exhibits, but as poetry, as life itself projected in the living pattern that is literature. The fashion changes, the idiom alters, the technique varies, but back of these transitory things stands the human spirit. That is the presence to be sought, in the sonnet, as elsewhere, and known, there as elsewhere, by a far light that endures, by a breath upon the cheek. [From The Sonnet, Yesterday and Today]