Nineteenth Century American Sonnets

For some commentary on the American sonnet through 1930, see a General Survey of the American Sonnet by Lewis Sterner.

The first American sonnets were written by the Revolutionary War general David Humphreys in the last quarter of the 18th century and were not published until 1804.

Some of the better known American sonneteers of mid-century were Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) (the Romantic link in the Sonnet Central chain), William Cullen Bryant (1794-1898), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892), Jones Very (1813-1880), Frederick Goddard Tuckerman (1821-1873), and Emma Lazarus (1849-1887). Also included here are many works by lesser known poets. Many of these more obscure works are taken from late 19th century anthologies, so any help with years of birth/death for the writers listed at the bottom of the page is appreciated.

Here are some selections from the introduction to American Sonnets (1889), edited by William Sharp.

It is, therefore, significant that in contemporary American verse, technically inferior to our own [British] as, in the main, it undoubtedly is, the motives of the Transatlantic poets are far oftener more wide, more strenuous—in a word, worthier. No wave of national sentiment but perturbs the waters of verse; no heroic impulse, no calamity, no great national thrill, that does not immediately find an echo in song, and not here or there, but from Louisiana to Maine, and from Maine to the shores of Erie, from the Lakes to the Sierras, and from the remote mountains of the West to the Californian Gulf. It is almost incredible to those who have not closely studied, and who do not continuously watch the course of American literary affairs, how electric the nation is, how quick to respond to the first spark of emotion. It is no doubt the case that there is not yet a sufficiently strenuous literary tradition in the United States; there is not yet that inherited, that magnetically inspired, that contagious passion for exquisiteness of utterance as well as for worthiness of motive, which is what every potent people sooner or later strains towards and achieves. But this will come in time; it is already, indeed, beginning to work like strong yeast, and the literary development of America promises to be exceptionally rapid and potent...
. . . It might be expected that the poetic voice of America would be heard at its best in the sonnet. This, however, I am not at all prepared to assert; nor do I think that the most exact scrutiny would reveal the Transatlantic sonnet to be the true index to the poetic receptivity of public sentiment, whether patriotic or intellectual. Why this should be so it is not easy to surmise, unless it be that the sonnet does not appear as naturally in a comparatively youthful as in a mature literature; though if this thesis be advanced, it has to be met by the awkward fact that the sonnet-literature of America was almost as prolific as our own up to the last few years, and that now (not altogether with joy and thanksgiving must it be admitted) it is even more redundant. I have recently waded through considerably over 200 volumes of American minor verse, by living or recently deceased authors, and have been amazed at the almost universal adoption of the sonnet, though of proof of the actual culture of this species of verse there is comparatively little. My sonnet search has convinced me, however, that a finer body of sonnets on general themes could be selected from the writings of the secondary poets of America than from those of our own minor bards.

Here is an excerpt from the Introduction to Representative Sonnets by American Poets (1890) edited by Charles H. Crandall.

The literature of America is so young that the diffusion of the sonnet form through it need hardly be considered chronologically.  The men who brought the sonnet to perfection and popularity in this country are either still living or have but recently passed away, so that the historical view of American sonnets is a brief one at best.  It is a matter for pride that the earliest of our native writers of the sonnet, as he has long been reputed to be, was so admirable a figure as Colonel David Humphreys .  He mingled both literary and patriotic ambitions, was a Yale graduate, a soldier and diplomat.

It is evident that people did not take the leisure to write many sonnets in the early days of the republic.  Such things could be obtained from England, and meanwhile there was plenty of more onerous work to be done in making of laws, hewing of forests, and building of states.  The sonnet being a product of leisurely culture, and generally preceded by simpler forms of verse, it is not surprising, then, that there were no prominent writers of the sonnet before the patriarchal group of poets who fathered the melodious period of our own time.  In this group were the accomplished Percival, the gifted Dana, the painter Allston, the versatile Willis, the dignified Bryant.  But even of these it must be noted that Dana was not a sonneteer.  Many of the older poets wrote only the Shakespearean or some irregular form of sonnet, Bryant declaring that he failed to see the superior melody of the Italan form.  Indeed, there are a number of prominent American poets who are not sonneteers.  Emerson could not bind to so rigid and intricate a form a muse that must "aye climb for its rhyme."  Poe's sonnets were few, and not noteworthy when compared with his other verse.  The idea of Walt Whitman writing a sonnet is calculated to bring a smile; and this list might be extended.  So it must not be expected that a sonnet anthology will wholly represent the poets of the time nor exactly measure the poetic capacity of those who are included.  The men, then, who have really been pioneers in the revival of the sonnet in our literature, are poets like Longfellow, Boker, Lowell, Bayard Taylor, and Aldrich.  It would only be fair to mention with them such poets among women as Mrs. Botta , Mrs. Dorr , Mrs. Preston, Mrs. Oakes Smith , etc.  But closely following these is such an array of sonnet-writers—the young and the middle-aged poets of to-day—that one would have to mention scores of names to represent the group.

It must be admitted that the sonnet in America has grown of its own vitality.  Until recent years there has been little written on the subject to stimulate production; while anthologies of poetry, generally compiled by poets out of sympathy with the sonnet, have given the little poem scant recognition indeed.  The only anthology of American sonnets yet published in this country appeared in 1867, and its editor then lamented the poverty of good material to choose from.  It notes the promising sonnets of Aldrich, a star that seemed to have just gleamed above the horizon as the book was sent to press.  But the general longing on the part of the editor is like Rowland Robinson's in the old hymn—

"Teach me some melodious sonnet."

The English collection of American sonnets made by William Sharp, and published recently (when the present compilation was about half finished), gave indication of the very respectable resources of our sonnet mines.  In it the compiler stated that he believed a finer collection of sonnets could be made from the contemporary American poets than from living English ones.  We acknowledge the charm of many current English sonnets, but we are tempted to adopt his generous opinion; for we believe that the living American poets are holding their own against our contemporary cousins in sonnets as well as in other forms of poetry.  After perusing some of the English collections of sonnets, we fancy there is a certain generic difference between the typical contemporary English sonnet and the current American one.  If one may hazard the opinion, English sonnets display most conspicuously a sedate, often deep, order of thought, occasional striking imagery, and a punctilious observance of some of the older canons of verse-making, without often attaining to as great excellence in spirited movement and melody.  The choice of subjects is not so wide, it seems, as in this country, and many of the poets appear to be still walking in the shadow of the great sonneteers who are dead.

The American sonnet, on the contrary, we believe is superior in nervous energy, in originality and movement; in a wider range of thought, though it may not be so deep and introspective.  It attains melody and flexible strength, and yet is often marred by trivial blemishes in versification or expression, which appear to be the result of hurry.  There are, of course, suggestions of imitation in some American sonnets, but this is characteristic chiefly of the work of novices.  The American sonnet at its best displays a conscious inspiration, and excuse for being; it has genuine feeling and a virility which more than atone for occasional lack of repose, profound thought, or perfectly polished lines.

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