The Sonnet

Its Characteristics and History

(Part 1)

William Sharp

From Sonnets of This Century

FOR the concise expression of an isolated poetic thought--an intellectual or sensuous "wave" keenly felt, emotionally and rhythmically--the sonnet would seem to be the best medium, the means apparently prescribed by certain radical laws of melody and harmony, in other words, of nature: even as the swallow's wing is the best for rapid volant wheel and shift, as the heron's for mounting by wide gyrations, as that of the kite or the albatross for sustained suspension.

To bring this more clearly home to the mind of the reader unacquainted with the true scope of our sonnet-literature and of the technique of the sonnet itself, and to illustrate its development and capacity, is the aim of this introductory note.

It is no new ground that is here broken. The sonnet has had many apologists and critical historians, and has been considered from many points of view. Chief among those of our countrymen who have devoted themselves to the special study of this fascinating poetic vehicle may be named the following: Capel Lofft, who in 1813-14 published under the title of Laura a valuable and interesting but very unequal and badly arranged anthology of original and translated sonnets; R. H. Housman, who in 1833 issued a good selection, with an interesting prefatory note; Dyce, whose small but judiciously compiled volume was a pleasant possession at a time when sonnet-literature gained but slight public attention; Leigh Hunt, who laboured in this field genuinely con amore; Mr. Tomlinson, whose work on the sonnet has much of abiding value; Mr. Dennis, whose "English Sonnets" served as an unmistakable index to the awakening of general interest in this poetic forrn; Mr. D. M. Main, an accomplished student of literature and a critic possessing the true instinct, whose honour it is to have produced the most exhaustive sonnet-anthology--with quite a large volumeful of notes--in our language (for Capel Lofft's Laura is largely made up of Italian sonnets and translations); Mr. S. Waddington, who a year or two ago produced two pleasant little volumes of selections; and, finally, Mr. Hall Caine, whose Sonnets of Three Centuries at once obtained the success which that ably edited compilation deserved. To all these writers, but more especially, of course, to Mr. Main--from the student's point of view--the present editor is indebted, as must be every future worker in this secluded but not least beautiful section of the Garden of Poetry. There are, moreover, one or two students who have done good service in this cause without having published in book form either their opinions or any sonnet-anthology; especially among these should reference be made to the anonymous writer of two admirable papers on the sonnet in The Quarterly Review (1866); to the anonymous author of the thoughtful and suggestive article in The Westminster Review (1871); and to the anonymous contributor of the two highly interesting papers on sonnet-literature which appeared in The Dublin Review for 1876 and 1877; to Mr. Ashcroft Noble, a capable and discriminating critic, whose article in The Contemporary Review attracted considerable notice; to the late Rector of Lincoln College, Mr. Mark Pattison, who prefaced his edition of Milton's sonnets with a suggestive essay to the late Archbishop Trench, the value of whose edition of Wordsworth's sonnets is heightened in the same way; to Mr. J. Addington Symonds; and to Mr. Theodore Watts, whose influence in this direction is very marked. Nor should I omit to mention two charming French anthologies, La Monographie des Sonnets of Louis de Veyrières and Le Livre des Sonnets of M. Charles Asselineau; nor, again, Dr. Karl Lentzner's able treatise, Uber das Sonett und Seine Gestaltung in der englischen Dichtung bis Milton (1886).

There are two leading reasons for now issuing a new collection: to show how much of the poetic thought of our own time has been cast in the mould of the sonnet, and how worthy that mould is of the honour; and to meet, by the formation of an anthology of which the first and only absolute principle is the inclusion of no sonnet that does not possess--of course in varying degree--distinct poetic value, the widespread and manifestly increasing appreciation of and liking for this metrical form. Even yet no more can with justice be said than that it is limitedly popular, for not only is there still a general ignorance of what a sonnet really is and what technical qualities are essential to a fine specimen of this poetic genus, but a perfect plague of feeble productions in fourteen-lines has done its utmost, ever since Wordsworth's influence became a recognised factor, to render the sonnet as effete a form of metrical expression as the irregular ballad-stanza with a meaningless refrain.

Concerning every method of expression, in each of the arts, there is always a pro and contra, but few metrical forms have been more fortunate than the sonnet, for its contras have generally been pronounced either by persons quite ignorant of what they were discussing or incapable of appreciating any excellence save when meted out, as it were, by the yard. On the other hand, those who have studied it love it as the naturalist loves his microscope--and veritably, like the microscope, it discloses many beautiful things which, if imbedded in some greater mass, might have been but faintly visible and incoherent . Then some of the greatest of poets have used it, not a few having selected it as the choicest mould into which to cast their most personal, their most vivid utterances: thus did Petrarca, and thus in less exclusive degree did Dante and Milton; thus Shakespeare did, and Mrs. Browning, and Wordsworth, and Rossetti, and many another true poet in our own and other lands. The stirring of the poetic impulse is very markedly at work among us at present, and there is no more remarkable sign of the times than the steadily growing public appreciation of the sonnet as a poetic vehicle. For one thing, its conciseness is an immense boon in those days when books multiply like gossamer-flies in a sultry June; it is realised that if good a sonnet can speedily be read and enjoyed, that if exceptionally fine it can with ease be committed to memory, and that if bad it can be recognised as such at a glance, and be relegated to oblivion by the turning of a single page. There is no doubt that a writer in The Dublin Review is correct when he regards "the increasing attention bestowed on the history and structure of the sonnet as an indication of the growth of a higher and healthier poetical taste." It may be remembered that Leigh Hunt makes a statement to the effect that the love of Italian poetry has always been greatest in England when English genius has been in its most poetical condition; this has, as I think most will agree, been true in the past, even up to so late a date as the middle of this century, and, if a renascence of this interest have a prophetic quality, then we should be on the eve of a new poetic period, for once again early Italian poetry is claiming its students and its many admirers. And perhaps nothing in Italian poetry is better worth study than its beautiful sonnet-literature. Whether in Italy or in England, "no form of verse," as Mr. Waddington has well remarked, "no descnption of poetic composition, has yielded a richer harvest than the sonnet." One can agree with this without fully endorsing Menzini's statement that the sonnet is the touchstone of great geniuses; for it must not be overlooked that some of our truest poets, living as well as dead, are unable to write sonnets of the first class--noticeably, for instance, two such masters of verbal music as Shelley and Coleridge--nor must it for a moment be forgotten that no one form has a monopoly of the most treasurable poetic beauty, that the mould is a very secondary matter compared with the substance which renders it vital, and that a fine poem in not altogether the best form is infinitely better than a poor or feeble one in a flawless structure. As a matter of fact, poetic impulse that arises out of the suddenly kindled imagination may generally be trusted to instinctively find expression through the medium that is most fitting for it. To employ a humble simile, a poetic idea striving towards or passing into utterance is often like one of those little hermit-crabs which creep into whatever shell suits them the moment they are ready to leave their too circumscribed abodes. Poetry I take to be the dynamic condition of the imaginative and rhythmical faculties in combination, finding expression verbally and metrically--and the animating principle is always of necessity greater than the animated form, as the soul is superior to the body. Before entering on the subject of the technique of the sonnet, on its chief types, and on its legitimate and irregular variations, a few words may be said concerning the derivation of its name and its earliest history.