Perhaps all has been said that needs to be said concerning the peculiar qualities of the sonnet; for, as I have said, many of its requirements are only what would be the requirements of any brief poem charged with the adequate treatment of a single theme. It must have an imaginative completeness which leaves us serenely satisfied; it must have an artistic perfectness which shall stand the test of that frequent and loving examination to which, in virtue of its very brevity, it makes a claim; it must have its every line strong, its every word harmonious: it must be concentrated yet clear, compact yet fluent; and while every phrase and image is in itself a joy-giving thing of beauty, every member must remain in sweet subordination to the total effect and impression of the whole.
One might almost assume without examination that even among the thousands of English sonnets there would be found comparatively few which fulfil all the conditions of so elaborate and exigent a form of verse. The text of Mr Main's Treasury contains 463 sonnets, chosen with true discrimination, and representing the highest achievement of every English sonneteer who had passed away before the close of the year 1879; but it would not be maintained by any critic, or even by the compiler himself, that more than a very small proportion of these can be classed among the flawless pearls of poetry. It may be doubted whether there are more than fifty of them which, if judged as sonnets, and not merely as fourteen-line poems, can be praised without implicit limitations and reserves. No amiable person will be inclined to think harshly of editorial enthusiasm, or to blame severely the critic who believes he has rescued from oblivion the work of an undeservedly neglected genius; but, as a rule, ultimate fame is fairly proportioned to desert, and if a writer has been forgotten, the presumption is, that whatever be the merits or beauties of his work, its loss of hold upon the memory of mankind is but one example of the operation of the law of the survival of the fittest. Sir Thomas Wyat's sonnets were of the true Italian type, and occasionally, as in the sonnet--
Divers doth use, as I have heard and know,
he attains that charm, a compound of ingenuity and grace, in which few cultured writers of his day were deficient. But this is all; there is a total lack of positive virtue, of quality, of distinction; nor in passing from his work to that of his compeer, the Earl of Surrey, do we make any change for the better, but remain in the same atmosphere of respectable commonplace. Indeed, among the courtly versifiers of the period--the mob of gentlemen who wrote with dignity rather than with ease we only find one, Sir Philip Sidney, whose sonnet work rises above this dead level, and though Charles Lamb can hardly be acquitted of loving exaggeration when he says that the best of Sidney's sonnets 'are among the best of their sort,' they are certainly a refreshing oasis in a desert where nothing grew but sterile flowers of strained sentiment, fantastic phrase, and far-fetched imagery. Not that Sidney is free from the conceits of his age; his verse is, as Lamb says, 'stuck full of amorous fancies,' which the genial essayist celebrates affectionately on the ground that 'True Love thinks no labour to send out thoughts upon the vast and more than Indian voyages, to bring home rich pearls, outlandish wealth, gems, jewels, spicery, to sacrifice in self-depreciating similitudes as shadows of true amiabilities in the Beloved.' Sidney's conceits, however, are humanised; they glow instead of merely sparkling, and we do not simply see the versifier in them, but feel the gentle, tender, chivalrous humanity behind them. Now and then he abandons them altogether, and his thought and language acquire the sweet naturalness and spontaneity which were the dower of both an earlier and a later age, but which in his time were for the court poets lost gifts, as in the following sonnet, which it seems strange should not have found a place among the other jewels embedded in the setting of Elia's golden eulogy. Perhaps it looked too much like an English pebble to consort well with the spoils of those 'more than Indian voyages.'
Because I breathe not love to every one, Nor do not use set colours for to wear, Nor nourish special locks of vowèd hair, Nor give each speech the full point of a groan, The courtly nymphs, acquainted with the moan Of them who in their lips Love's standard bear,-- "What he!" say they of me; "now I dare swear He cannot love. No, no, let him alone." And think so still, if Stella know my mind! Profess indeed I do not Cupid's art; But you, fair maids, at length this true shall find That this right badge is but worn in the heart: Dumb swans, not chattering pies, do lovers prove: They love indeed who quake to say they love.
Another reason for the exclusion of this sonnet from Lamb's selected twelve may be found in its occasional lapses from perfect expressional grace, several of the lines being, to say the least, susceptible of improvement either in transparency or music; but if we are to deal severely with fine points like these, there are few sonnets of the period that can escape a whipping, and, the last line betrays a penetration into the true mysteries of love which, if more general among Sidney's contemporaries, would bave slain before birth many of their 'vain amatorious poems,' which confer honour upon love, and add value to literature in an equally infinitesimal degree. Still, it must be admitted that the sonnet quoted is in workmanship inferior to at least three of Lamb's twelve--notably to that exquisitely beautiful invocation to Sleep, the felicity and grace of which might win the suffrages of many a harsher critic than the gentle Elia.
Spenser is one of our greatest poets, but he is far from being a great sonneteer, and of his sonnet-like poems Mr Main utters the opinion of most readers when he calls them disappointing. They are deficient in body, frigid in tone, and altogether wanting in the graces of manner we might naturally expect from the author of the Faery Queen. Among them all there is only one which leaves on the mind any sharp impression, and that one has certainly a dignified movement and tender chastity of diction which make it worthy of its high parentage. We may not all admit the perfect appropriateness of Lord Macaulay's characterisation of Milton's 'Avenge, O Lord' as 'a collect in verse,' but this sonnet of Spenser's has really a very appreciable affinity to the style of the collects--those unique jewels of devout aspiration.
Most glorious Lord of Life! that on this day Did'st make thy triumph over death and sin, And having harrowed hell did'st bring away Captivity thence captive, us to win: This joyous day, dear Lord, with joy begin; And grant that we, for whom Thou diddest die, Being with thy dear blood washed clean from sin May live for ever in felicity! And that thy love we weighing worthily May likewise love Thee for the same again; And for thy sake, that all like dear didst buy, With love may one another entertain. So let us love, dear love, like as we ought: Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.
As a poet in the broadest sense of the word, Drummond of Hawthornden ranks far below Spenser; but in the 'sonnet's scanty plot' he rules as of right divine, and even the lord of the world of faery must stand uncovered, before him. There is not the same weight of matter in his sonnets that there is in the irregular sonnets of Shakspeare, nor is there the same penetrative vigour of language; but there are qualities equally precious if not equally impressive--exquisite keenness of sensibility, attested by peculiar delicacy of touch; imaginative vision and notable power of rendering it; native spontaneousness happily allied with fine mastery of the secrets of metre and melody; and the rare art--carried to perfection in the sonnets of Mr Rossetti--of making his verse the expression, not of crude passion, which, as Edgar Poe pointed out, is not genuine poetic material, but rather the reflection of passion in the still deeps of imaginative reverie. In Drummond's sonnet work, we certainly miss one characteristic which is almost a constant note of high genius, the magnificent recklessness which takes no thought of finite limitations, but boldly essays the impossible. He knew what he could do and what he could not do, and the outcome of this knowledge is a pervading equality of craftsmanship. Though almost all his sonnets are beautiful, there is not one of such overmastering beauty that it storms the citadel of the soul and takes the memory captive. We feel, and cannot help feeling, that when Drummond had exhausted his expressional possibilities, he had still a store of the raw material of poetry which remained unworked and unworkable, and he therefore remains for ever what Dr George MacDonald, with fine insight, calls him--'a voix voilée, or veiled voice of song.'
In a brief study it were vain to attempt speech of the minor singers of that vocal age: of Sir Walter Raleigh, George Chapman, Robert Greene, Michael Drayton, John Donne, William Browne, and other less known poets; and if the truth must be told, there is--despite the rhapsodising eulogies of a few critics--little in their contributions to sonnet literature to repay the study of anyone but an editor or a specialist. Indeed some of the verdicts passed upon their performances even by men of real eminence, seem of use only as proofs of the dulling effect upon the finer sensibilities of long poring over essentially second-rate work. No one who has any feeling for the truly poetic in poetry can refrain from a sardonic smile when he finds one of these critics speaking of a far-fetched, extravagant, and utterly unimpressive conceit of Sir Walter Raleigh's, entitled A Vision upon the Faery Queene, as 'alone sufficient to place Raleigh in the rank of those few original writers who can introduce and perpetuate a new type in a literature.' If the false and frigid rhetoric of this Vision be the note of the new type, we certainly prefer the old; but the very badness of this sonnet seems to have fascinated its critics and made them feel that it stood in all the more need of praise. Even Mr Main, who is as a rule singularly free from extravagance, actually quotes, apparently with approval, the remark of Dr Hannah that it has received the tribute of the imitation of Milton in his sonnet on his deceased wife. Both poems certainly begin with the word 'Methought,' and both mention a tomb--'there is a river in Macedon and there is a river in Monmouth';--but that is absolutely all, and this being so, it is hardly likely that Milton's 'tribute' can add much to Raleigh's fame.
We have said that the sonnet writers of the Shakspearian age have left little really memorable work, but that little may fairly claim a recognition of its virtues. The one grain of wheat in the bushel of chaff is wheat still, and in this chaff-heap there are more grains than one, though they undoubtedly need some seeking for. One of them is an irregular sonnet of Michael Drayton's, to which Mr Henry Reed in his 'Lectures on the English Poets' does no more than justice when he says, 'From Anacreon down to Moore I know no lines on the old subject of lovers' quarrels distinguished for equal tenderness of sentiment'; though when he adds 'and richness of fancy,' we confess that we are not able to follow him. The octave is, as will be seen, entirely unadorned, and the single metaphor in the sestet is a little marred by the double personificationof Love and Passion, which is rather confusing, and which might easily have been avoided. Of fancy, however, we have enough and to spare in the poetry of that period; the charm of this sonnet lies in its perfect simplicity, in its singular directness, in its unforced pathos, in that adequacy of treatment which makes us feel that what had to be said is said in the best possible way.
Since there's no help, come let us kiss and part-- Nay, I have done, you get no more of me; And I am glad, yea glad with all my heart, That thus so cleanly I myself can free; Shake hands for ever, cancel all our vows, And when we meet at any time again, Be it not seen in either of our brows That we one jot of former love retain. Now at the last gasp of Love's latest breath, When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies, When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death And Innocence is closing up his eyes-- Now if thou would'st, when all have given him over, From death to life thou might'st him yet recover.
Another of the wheat-grains is a true sonnet by John Donne on that one subject which, with the single exception of Love, has been the most favoured motive of lyrical poets, and which for the singers of our own dreamful day, seems possessed of a peculiar fascination. It is to be doubted whether the English language has any invocation to Death which, for manliness, weight, and dignity, deserves a place beside this high utterance of the first of our miscalled 'metaphysical poets.'
Death, be not proud, though some have callèd thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow Die not, poor death; nor yet canst thou kill me. From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, Much pleasure: then from thee much more must flow And soonest our best men with thee do go-- Rest of their bones, and souls' delivery. Thou'rt slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell; And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well, And better than thy stroke. Why swell'st thou then? One short sleep past we wake eternally And Death shall be no more: Death, thou shalt die.
I know of nothing of the same kind in English poetry more impressive than this solemnly triumphant close; and the only parallel which occurs at the moment is the magnificent conclusion of Mr Swinburne's perfect lyric, A Forsaken Garden.
Here now in his triumph where all things falter, Stretched out on the spoils that his own hand spread, As a god self-slain on his own strange altar, Death lies dead.