return to sonnet central return to American 19th century

THIS sequence of sonnets by George Henry Boker, here published for the first time, are among his most enduring and interesting literary productions. The Sonnets have an immediate appeal as beautiful poetry; but to anyone interested in the personality and mental life of the poet, they derive added value from their progressive mirroring over thirty years of a heart in which love and life were inextricably knit as one. The passion and insight of these sonnets reveal the heart of the poet himself as the source of that fire which consumed his Alda, flamed to a splendid holocaust in the death of Francesca and Paolo, or became a quiet but perpetual altar-flame in the heart of Nydia; that continuous sense of love in life which inspired the most vital moments in his plays.

The discovery of these sonnets, previously unknown, was the greatest satisfaction which the present writer derived from an examination of the Boker manuscripts in the course of the preparation of his life of Boker. They formed a further justification to those critics who had already seen in Boker one of the beet American sonnet writers. Critics of his own day had expressed the opinion that he was without equal as a sonnet writer in American literature, and had compared his work with that of Wordsworth. EarlierAmerican writers of the form, like James Gates Percival, Jones Very, Park Benjamin, Washington Allston and William G. Simms, had achieved, besides a few good sonnets, a great deal of eccentricity and mediocrity. Longfellow alone, of Boker's contemporaries, became his peer in this form, and the bulk of Boker's work antedated that of Longfellow. These two, to the present day, stand pre-eminent among Americans in this field. And surely, when the present collection of 3l3 are added to the store of Boker's sonnets which have taken their place in our permanent literature, the debt of American letters to his genius becomes enormous.

These sonnets form a sequence, and an examination of its structure is closely involved with a consideration of its bearing upon the facts of Boker's life. The creation of the cycle fell within three well-marked periods in the poet's life and reflect the changes in his affairs--especially his love-affairs. The relationships represented are actual rather than imaginary, and the passionate reality of the poetry derives its power from the intensity of the poet's love life. In each period marked by the three divisions of the sonnets a different mistress is addressed, and in each case an actual relationship is reflected.

The internal evidence of these poems entirely precludes the supposition that any of them were addressed to his wife. In fact, she is in no way referred to; and this circumstance throws light on the author's character. The ordinary human temptation, to which poets have not been immune, is to find justification for the mistress in the disparagement of the wife; but during these many years of unconventional relationships Boker has not once sought self-justification in the Byronic vilification of the innocent. That such a disparagement would not have been honest seems established by an examination of his correspondence with his most intimate friends, notably Bayard Taylor, his life-long confidant. In such sources his wife is truly revealed as an affectionate, sympathetic friend, his intellectual equal and stimulus, and the centre of his active social and public life. After the first few years there is very little of the attitude of the lover in his references to her, but there is always the sense of deep obligation and need. The boy-and-girl love affair which had led to his marriage to Julia Riggs at the age of twenty-one years had soon lost its bloom of passion, but had settled down into an indispensable relationship for both of them. As one of the most handsome and distinguished men of his time, Boker exercised a powerful attraction for women which, coupled with a particular vulnerability on his part, soon led to his acquiring a reputation which his wife, being the accomplished woman of the world, would have known better than any one else; and one doubts, in examining the remaining records, that the situation ever led to more than a passing ripple in the ordered calm of their lives.

Boker 's reputation for fickleness is certainly not substantiated by the facts of his relationships with the first "lady of the sonnets." She was his mistress for at least fifteen years, during which he composed the first 282 sonnets in celebration of their love. This, as will be seen, is the bulk of the sequence, leaving only thirty-one sonnets which record the history of two less important and much later affairs. Most of the best sonnets, from the consideration of artistic power, lie in this first group, which may be considered as a separate unit. In some ways, the addition of the later poems to what was already a complete unit was a mistake, and one wonders whether the poet would not have separated the three parts had he been permitted to carry out his design to publish this work.

Another question is suggested at this point by a consideration of the sonnets published in Boker's collected Plays and Poems of 1856. In the section devoted to "Sonnets" in Volume II, the last fifty-eight apparently form a sequence addressed to a mistress. One finds an interesting consistency in the manner, material, and time of writing, between this group of sonnets and the beginning of the sequence in the present volume. As a matter of fact, the first seven of these sonnets in the Plays and Poems had been earlier published in The Podesta'a Daughter (1852), for which the manuscript had been prepared in 1851. These seven sonnets might have marked, as early as 1851, the beginning of that relationship celebrated in the first 282 sonnets of the present volume; and the time interval between is adequately covered by the additional fifty-one sonnets which were included in the Plays and Poems group. Beginning on page 393 of that volume, with the sonnet, "Not when the buxom form which nature wears," one finds the steady growth of a love revealed to its object through this artistic vehicle. At first there is simple admiration and praise, then ardent pleas for a consummation denied by the chastity or prudence of the beloved, then the suggestion of a complete union, then separation caused by social or prudential needs, then a reunion followed by a tragic quarrel which shook the poet's faith in his mistress, and finally, in the last two sonnets, a resumption of his faith and passion. It is conceivable that the present sonnets merely continue the older story. The dates would allow this theory, for the first in this volume, at sonnet XVIII, gives the year 1857, or the next after the publication of Plays and Poems. Thus we have the possibility of adding fifty-eight earlier sonnets to the record of the first passion celebrated here, and of extending its duration by five years.

Boker's first mistress was a golden-brown beauty well known in his native city. She was charming, accomplished, well-to-do, and well connected; but her marriage had not been successful. Although she had been much admired, both before and after her marriage, she was a person to whom the breath of scandal would have been a terrible experience, and one of the recurrent notes of sorrow in the sonnet sequence was evoked by the necessity for long separations of the two lovers to avert the suspicion of a relationship between them. In later times, of course, the tongue of gossip sometimes linked their names, but the direct evidence of a liaison was successfully avoided until the end.

The story of these fifteen years of mingled happiness and sorrow is plainly to be read in the sonnets themselves, but a sketch of it at this point may be given. Although the poet occasionally protests the contrary in the sonnets, his devotion to his lady was based chiefly upon a physical attraction so strong, simple, and enduring as to render it a beautiful thing in itself. It is sometimes spiritualized, but its source is always in that naive demand of the flesh which cannot be scorned unless one chooses to belittle the primitive force upon which life itself rests. The issues were clear in Boker's mind. The domestic relationship which found expression in his companionship with his wife did not in his case complete the cycle, which only found its close in the embrace of the other. The occasional sense of sin which he expresses springs only from social forces; from the danger of detection to which their love subjected his mistress in a world whose social code was too inflexible to comprehend it.

The first seventeen sonnets in the manuscript are undated, but from later internal evidence, and unless we admit the theory that they are a continuation of those previously published in Plays and Poems, would appear to have been written in May of 1857. For CCXXXI celebrates the month of May as the anniversary of the beginning of their love, and the first dated sonnet was XVIII, written June 18, 1857. The sequence is broken first after XXIV, which speaks of an enforced parting, and there is only one sonnet between this and the date of March 5, 1861. This gap of two years and a half represents the necessity of the poet's mistress to accompany her family on a journey in order not to draw suspicion upon herself; and it represents in the poet's life a time of great financial trouble, when a lawsuit instituted by the Girard Bank against his father's estate impugned his dead father's honor, endangered Boker's fortune, and rendered him too busy and distracted to write anything save The Book of the Dead, a poetic tribute to his father's honesty which was not to be published until 1882.

But from March of 1861 until March 21, 1867, there is no major break either in the time sequence or in the relationship of the lovers. Occasionally they are separated either by vacations with their respective families, or by the necessity to avert suspicion. On two occasions their relationships were so clearly suspected as to give rise to rumors which necessitated their long separation and apparent disinterest in each other when chance threw them together in public.

Sonnet CCXXIX, of March 21, 1887, records the first serious break between them. What specific cause Boker had to doubt the faith of his mistress will probably never be known, but his statement of the doubt is clear, and it is interesting to note a decided falling off in the number of sonnets after this date. Except for the gaps already explained, the sonnets of the first ten years followed each other at a fairly even rate, to the number of 228, but during the next five years they occur in groups at less regular intervals, and the total number during the period is only fifty-three sonnets. During this latter period, he even rebels at times against the control of his mistress over him, declaring his frequent resolution to make an end of it, and his harrowing inability to resist, when the strong physical attraction which she exercises recalls him to her embrace. In CCXLII he complains that his attentions to her are interfering with his creative powers, and cries passionately, in CCXLIII, "O let me break my slavehood." This sonnet is followed by a period of two years and three months broken by only one sonnet; but on February 7, 1871, there is indicated a resumption of the relationship so absorbing that the next three months are memorialized in thirty-four sonnets.

This growing feeling of dissatisfaction finally combined with certain unexpected events in the poet's life to put an end to this extended relationship. Sonnet CCLXXVIII, written on May 5, 1871, ends with the line, "Love is a wreck, like everything of earth"--and the following four sonnets, written between this date and December 30, have something of the appearance of a negligible exercise. In the intervening months the whole aspect of the world had undergone a change for Boker. On November 3, 1871, President Grant at last recognized his devoted labors for his country during the Civil War, and offered him the appointment as Minister to Turkey. His long immersion in political work and in executive duties during the war had broken the continuity of his artistic creation, and he had been unable to settle as of old to his work; besides which he had become more and more resigned to the view that the apathy of the public and the critics toward his plays and poems indicated the correct view of their value. Another career seemed to beckon him, and he sailed with his family for Constantinople early in January, 1872. This physical separation from his mistress marked the end of their relationship; an end which Boker was not loath to contemplate.

When the manuscript was continued, Boker had been several years abroad in diplomatic work, and the lady addressed was not she of the first sequence. The affair was a very casual one, lasting from June 23 until July 7, 1877, recorded in thirteen sonnets, from CCLXXXIII to CCXCVI, was not written until February 9, 1881. This sonnet signalizes the beginning of a new ardor, which survived almost until the poet's death. This time his mistress was again a lady of his own native Philadelphia, and a person of prominent position, considerably younger than the distinguished poet-diplomatist. There are only seventeen sonnets in this group. The bulk of them are memorials to the birthday of the poet's mistress, dated on February 26 of the various years--a date which precludes the possibility of confusing the last lady with the first, since the birthday sonnets in the first group, though prudently undated, fell each time between dated sonnets showing, in the instance of the narrowest margin, the dates October 8 and November 2. It is interesting to discover, among these last poems written in the poet's sixties, a survival of the old fire, together with a maturity which gave rise to what is certainly one of the most perfect and powerful creations of his brain, Sonnet CCCVIII.

The propriety of publishing so intimate a sequence at so early a time might be questioned, if it were not for the clear evidence that it was Boker 's intention to publish it. To be sure, in Sonnet XC he speaks of the pain which it would cause him to subject these sonnets to any scrutiny except that of his mistress. But in 1865 he spoke of publication in a letter to Taylor, in which he said:

"Since Countess Laura I have done nothing save to blow off an occasional sonnet for my amusement. Do you know that I have written more sonnets, chiefly of the amatory kind, than any poet in the language, except Wordsworth, and I shall outnumber him if I keep on? . . . I judiciously, and out of regard to my reputation keep all these to myself; designing them to form a portion of my 'remains,' to be edited by you with bawdy notes, and illustrations to match."

By 1877 he had gone so far as to plan the publication of the book, for after the last sonnet to his Paris mistress he composed, on July 9, 1877, a sonnet describing the entire sequence, and wrote upon the manuscript the note, "Make this the first Sonnet in the Book." When the manuscript was found, this sonnet occupied the first position. Whether the personal nature of the material caused him to give directions for a posthumous publication which was never accomplished, or what other fate caused it to be delayed so long, the addition of these sonnets must enrich the literature of the poet's country.