The Victorian Sonnet

Much poetry of the Victorian period is no longer very highly esteemed, for reasons that seem apparent after reading a number of sonnets--a sentimental self-indulgence and what F. R. Leavis called an "inferiority, in rigour and force, of intellectual content." Yet, when looked at individually, the poems are often graceful and moving, and their worst, most conventional excesses seem no more ridiculous than the stock courtly love sequences of the 16th and 17th centuries. Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), who wrote Sonnets from the Portuguese to her husband (Robert Browning (1812-1889)), is probably the most genuinely popular (and critically maligned) sonneteer of this period. Other British Victorian writers included here are Thomas Hood (1799-1845), Charles Tennyson Turner (1808-1879), and his more famous brother, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892).

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), best known for "Dover Beach," wrote several sonnets. George Meredith (1828-1909) wrote a lengthy sequence, Modern Love, about the ruin of his marriage. Although the sequence consisted of rhymed sixteen-line iambic pentameter poems, ever since the poet and critic Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) praised these poems as sonnets (and Meredith used the term himself in Sonnet 30), they have been widely accepted as specimens of the form. In addition to Meredith and Swinburne, the late 19th century Pre-Raphaelite group included Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Theodore Watts Dunton (1832-1914), and William Morris (1834-1896). The Pre-Raphaelite writers, especially Swinburne, were a great influence on the poets of the "decadent" Nineties, including Ernest Dowson (1867-1900). John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) was a prominent translator of Italian sonnets and all around man of letters. Wilfred Scawen Blunt (1840-1922) and Eugene Lee-Hamilton (1845-1907) both served as British diplomats. Alice Meynell (1847-1922) and her husband Wilfred were key figures in England's Catholic Literary Revival.

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) wrote sonnets from the 1860s into the 1920s, and his characteristic irony and sensitivity as well as the concentrated ebullience of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) seem to defy literary trends of their time.

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