The Sonnet

Its Characteristics and History

William Sharp

From Sonnets of This Century


After the sonnets of Shakespeare till those of Milton Ihere is not much to chronicle concerning the history of the 'onnet. Its chief intermediate composer was Drummond ( Hawthornden, a graceful poet, but assuredly not the master he has again and again been represented to be. His usential weakness may be seen in his inability to adopt my pure mould: his sonnets may either he regarded as English bastards of Italian parentage, or as Italian refugees disguised in a semi-insular costume. Hitherto, and this aDtwithstanding several noblc examples by Shakespeare of a more impersonal scope, m9st English sonnets were ~atory-amatory to such an extent indeed that "sugred DIIettes" became as much the stereotyped medium of lovers' prayers and plaints as was the border-ballad that of 'he virile energies of a semi-civilised people. In this state they stilt were after the close of the Elizabethan period-hdeed they were, with the minor poets, fast degenerating hto ~orid and insipid imbecilities. But when Milton recDg!Lised the form as one well suited even for the voice vhich was in due time to chant the rebellion of the Prince of Evil, he took it up to regenerate it. In his hands it wbecame a trumpet." Recognising the rhythmical beauty of the normal Italian type he adopted its rhyme-arrangi ment, discarding both the English sonnet and all basta intermediates: but~ either from imperfect acquaintance wid or understanding of the Italian archetype (which seems ill probable, considering the circumstances of his life and th breadth of his culture), or out of definite intention, he dii not regard as essential or appropriate the break in th melody between octave and seste~ And here, accord~ to Mr. Mark Pattison, he "missed the very end and aim a the Petrarcan scheme." He considered-so we may infi -that the English sonnet should be like a revolving sphe" every portion becoming continuously visible, with no bre~ in the continuity of thought or expression anywhere appar~ Sir Henry Taylor described this characteristic well as ti' absence of point in the evolution of the idea. I need 'ii quote one of these "soul-animating strains," as Wordswwi sympathetically styled Milton's sonnets, so familiar as tb~ are to all lovers of English poetry: but I may point to a admirable sonnet in the Miltonic mould in this volw~I which readers may examine with advantage-viz., the ~ press ive ~' Democracy Downtrodden" of Mr. Will. Michael Rossetti. A second reference may here appropriately be made I Mr. Hall Caine's claim for the inherent independence d the English sonnet. This gentleman is so accomplislid and generally so acute a critic that I differ from him o~ after the most careful consideration of his arguments. Ti the independent existence of the English sonnet as such I am, of course, as will have been seen, no opponent; II there is a difference between a poetic form being nationd and its being indigenous. An English skate, for exam~ is at once recognisable from that of any other nort~ country, has, in a word, the seal of nationality impressed a its familiar aspect; but every one knows that origin~ 2 __ ___ _ __________ that delightful means towards "ice-flight" came to us flu the Dutch, and was not the invention of o~i~ coun~"~~' So is it with the national sonne~ Wyat and invent the __ of sonnet t~e - ~ ~ it it wer~ traflslat~~iLintO our literature; Drummond-haifi~ian,-half-English, reg~rded~cri~tically-used it variously; the Elizabethan sonneteers piped through it their real or imaginary amatory woes; and at last came Milton~ and made it shine newly, as if he had cut his diamond in suc~h~a :~~- that dnly~~&rie luinin6us ]ight were visible to us. The Shaltespearian~6r ~hglish sonnet is no bastard form, nor is the Miltonic; each is derivative, one more so than the other to all appearance-and the only bastard forms are those which do not belong to the pure types-those so~nets, &i instance, which have the octave regular and a sestet ~nsisting of a quatrain and a couplet, or those which, like the Love-Sonnds of Proteus, are irregular throughout. Mr. Hall Caine was desirous to remove the charge of illegiti acy against the English sonnet: where I differ from~ him is ulythat I can see no real basis for bringing up the charge aaainst the pure types at ~l. What is known as the Contemporary, and sometimes as the Natural sonnet, was first formulated by Mr. Theodore. Watts. With the keen insight that characterises the ajtical work of this writer, and that no less gives point to hi. imaginative faculty, he recognised not only the absolute metrical beauty of the Petrarcan type, but also that it was based on a deep melodic law, the law which may be observed in the flow and ebb of a wave; and, indeed, the ~Onnet in question was composed at a little seaside village in Kent, while the writer and a friend were basking on the ibor~ It was Mr. Watts who first explained the reason vhy the separate and complete solidarity of the octave was so essential tp perfect harmony, finding in this metrical arrangement nothing less than the action of the same law that is manifested in the inflowing wave solidly gathering into curving volume, culminating in one great pause, and then sweeping out again from the shore. This is not~only a ~ne conception, but it was accepted at once by Rossetti, ~lr. J. ~ Symonds, Mr. Mark Pattison, Mr. Caine, Karl 'Intzner (in his treatise on the sonnet before mentioned), and by others who have given special attention to the miie~ "The striking metaphorical symbol," says Mr. J. lii IHE SONNE7: A. Symonds, "drawn by Mr. Theodore Watts from the observation of the swelling and de~ining wave can even, i! some examples, be applied to sonnets' on the Shakespeari~ rnod~, for, as a wave may fall gradually or abruptly, so th sonnet may sink with stately volume or w~th precipitatc subsidence to its close." In France, the revival of the sonn~ has been only less marked than in England, and a~o~ French poets it is also now recognised as indtthi~ble ~h the octave must be in the normal mould, and' th~t the sesta should have no more doubtful variation than' ~ corn' mencir couplet. Mr. Theodore Watts' theory naturally excitE much comment; and his sonnet on the Sonnet, whereli that theory was first form, ulated, may be appropriately quo~ here. THE SONNET's VOIcL (A metrtcal lesson ~ Ine' s~a ~Aore.) Yon silvery billows breaking on. the beach ~ Fall back in foam beneath the star-shine clear, b The while my rhymes are murmuring in your ear A restless inre like that the billows teach ; For on these sonnet-waves my soul would reach ~ From its own depths, and rest within you, dear, b As, through the billowy voices yearning here, ~ Great nature strives to find a human speech. ~ A sonnet is a wave of melody : From heaving waters of the impassioned soulo A billow of tidal music one and whole V Flows in the "octave;" then returuing freca Its ebbing surges in the "sestet" roll ~ Back to the deeps of Life's tumultuous sea. ~ -. At the same time Mr. Watts is no mere formalist, an he has hims~f expressed his conviction both in ~ Athen~um and in the Eneydo~~dia Britannica, that ~ same form is not always the best for every subject. I, k my part, think that, broadly speaking, the Contemporm ISonnet, as formulated by Mr. Watts, may be regarded in dual ligh~ W~en it is a love-~onnet, or the emotion i - the musid sweet rather thu  pause, and then the broken resilient wash of the wave (the sestet): when, on the other hand, it is intellectually or passionately f('rceful rather than tender or pathetic, dignified and with impressive amplitude of imagery rather than strictly beautiful, then it will correspond to the law of ebb and flow i.e., of the steady resilient wave-wash till the culminating moment when the billow has curved and is about to pour sh~eward' again (the octave), and of the solid inflowing ~ wave, sweeping stron~y forward (the sestet)-in Keat's words Swelling loudly Up to its climax, and then dying proudly. Exam~es of either will be found among the sonnets in this volume, e.g., "The Dream" (p.247) of flow and ebb, "Natura Benigna'~ (P 245) of ebb andftow. It is thus evident that the contemporary type is no variauon ftom the Petrarcan, but is simply an artistically understood development thereof. Readers will already have gathered that there can thus' only be three genuine sonnet-types. T~ P~RA~cAN or NATURAL SONNET (comprehending the C,"trmi'rary). TitK ENGUSH 0, SHAKEsPEARIAN SONNET. t~E MILTONIc SONNET (any Sonnet, whetber in the Petrarcan or Shakespearian mould, with unbroken continuity, me otherwise, in its presentation). trically and In the wide scope thus afforded no poet can with justice complain of too rigid limitations; such objection~making must simply h~ an exem~ification of the well-known say ing as to the workman and his tools. To these, moreover, may he addressed Capel Loift's words (who, howeve; adapted them from Menzini~" ~o Procrustes has obliged 70U to be lopped to the measure of this bed Paniassus will notbe in ru not here ins even if you should not publish a attempt any adequate survey of the hi~ toly Qf the sonnet in England from Milton to the present day. A cursory glance must be sufficient. With Milton the Italian influence in our literature and that of France (inaug'irated by Dryden) took it A corresponding change in the poetic temperament took place. After Milton the sonnet almost languished out ence in this country. Many years after the great poet was laid in his grave, Gray wrote an often-prai' to me, I must confess, a very indifferent) soDnet death of "Mr. Richard West," and Mason and several of fair quality. Cowper, who died as ma~ membered in the last year of the eighteenth centur~ one fine poem of this class to Mary Unwin. Gradu sonnet began to awake from its poetic hibernati though one or two women writers not altogether un handled it, and though William Roscoe and Brydges even used it with mode~ate success, the breath of spring came in the mild advent of Wilh.~' Bowles His sonnets move us now hardly at all, I we remember the seasQn of their production we regard them with more kindly liberality. Bowles just eight years before William Wordsworth, to wh than any one else, is due the great revival and i study and appreciation of the sonnet Coleridge fine sonnets, though he just missed writing one of su cellence (vide Notes). Blanco White concentrat noetic powers in one great effort, and wrote a son With Milton the Italian influence in our literatur~ and that of France (inaugurated by Dryden) took ii A corresponding change in the poetic temperament took place. After Milton the sonnet almost languished out ence in this country. Many years after the great poet was laid in his grave, Gray wrote an often-prai' to me, I must confess, a very indifferent) sonnet death of "Mr. Richard West," and Mason and several of fair quality. Cowper, who died as ma' membered in the last year of the eighteenth centur one fine poem of this class to Mary Unwin. Grad' sonnet began to awake from its poetic hibernati though one or two women 'writers not altogether un handled it, and though William Roscoe and Brydges even used it with moderate success, the f breath of spring came in the mild advent of Willia Bowles. His sonnets move us now hardly at all, b we remember the seasQn of their production we ~ regard them with more kindly liberality. Bowles w just eight years before William Wordsworth, to who than any one else, is due the great revival and in study and appreciation of the sonnet Coleridge ~ fine sonnets, though he just missed writing one of sup~ cellence (vide Noks). Blanco White concentrate' poetic powers in one great effort, and wrote a sonm will live as long as the language, as in French ~ Filix Arvers will be remembered always for his u~ ample, that beautiful sonnet comm encing"Mon~ secret, ma vic a son mys'e're." Leigh Hunt, true degree as be was, did truer service by his admirat in critical literature towaids the popularisation of t~ and after him (by "after" reference is made sequence) came a constantly increasing number t~ whom will be found represented in this volum~~ most important being Sir Aubrey de Vere, little k a true poet and a fine sonneteer, Byron (who ~ l'alf~ozen compositions of this dass, and 'wrotE too, notwithstanding his real or pretended dis  ~HE SONAE~ lv form), Barry Cornwall, Shelley (whose "Ozymandias" is a fine poem but not a fine sonnet), and Keats. Though Keats has never been and probably never will be a really po~ular poet, his influence on other poets and on poetic temperaments generally has been quite incalcula~e. Some of his sonnets are remarkable for their power and beauty, while others are indifferent and a few are poor. With all his love for the beauty of isolated poetic lines-music condensed into an epigram more concise than the Greeks ever uttered-as, for example, his own splendid verse, T~~re is a ~~dding morrow i': mid-,'igm-and with ~l that sense of verbal melody which be manii~ested so remarkably in his odes, it is strange that in his sonnets be should so often be at fault in true harmony. Even the beautiful examples which ate included in this anthology aflord instances of this; as in "Ailsa ~ock,~ where the penultimate word of the ninth line and the penultimate word of the tenth (not forming part of the rhyme-sound, the two terminals indeed being antagonistic) are identical: as in the "E]gin Marbles," where "weak" midway in the first line~ has an unpleasing assonantal 'elation with "sle~," the terminal of the second line: as in "To Homer," where after the beautiful eleventh line already quoted, ending in "mid-nigh4" there succeeds "sight" midway in the twelfth. These are genuine di'-. cords, and those who are unable to perceive them simply prove their deficiency in ear. Born a year later than Keat; Hartley Coleridge, the poetic son of a greater father, finely f~ilfilled the impulse that had come to him from Word~ worth, making an abiding name for himself through his sonnet work alone. His "Birth of Speech "-as I have styled one of his best-known but unnamed sonnets-is a line example of a sonnet in the Miltonic mould. Thomas Hood, that true poet~so little understood by the public geucrally-not only wrote some fine sonnets, but wrote two d special excellence, one of them ("Silence") taking place in the very front rank. Ten years younger than Hood Was Charles Tennyson-Turner. Charming, even perma  lvi THE SONNET'. nently beautiful as many of his sonnet-stanza, ar; form cannot be admired: if we have been correct Ir sidering the so-called pure types to be the true expr of certain metn'cal laws, then certainly these compos of his are not sonnets, but only (to repeat Mr. As Noble's appropriate term for similar productions) s( stanzas. The rhythm is much broken up, and the of assured expectancy is destroyed, But a greate than Tennyson-Turner, true singer as the latter was, into the world about the same time. No more impass soul ever found expression in rhythmical speech Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and there is nothing i poetry which is finer than that famous love4ecord, ti called "Sonnets from the Portuguese. '~ Impetuous ~ her genius, hasty and frequently careless as she " production, she never found the archetypal sonne circumscribed for her. The pathetic beauty, the fascit personality, the pure poetry displayed in these 501 have touched many and many a heart since the tired was laid to rest under the cypresses not far froit beloved river whose flow she had so often followE thought down to the far-off Pisan seL Only those have thoroughly studied contemporary poetry, and no the poetry which is familiar to many but that also wh quite unknown, and by minor writers of no te~uta likelihood of reputation, can realise the potency b Browning's influence, especially among women. E mention by name all those who have charmed, or inte or transiently attracted us by thefr sonnets through last fifty years, would take up much more space than. to spare, nor can I even refer in deta~ to those who longer with us. One name, however, stands out ft others since Wordsworth and Mrs. Browning, like I tree out of a number of graceftil larches. Dante ( Rossetti is not only one of the great poets of the c~ but the one English poet whose sonnet-work can ger be weighed in the balance with that of Shakespe~ with that of Wordsworth. No influence is at presen marked than his: its stream is narrower than that of' son and Browning, but the current is deep, and its fertilising waters have penetrated far and wide into the soil. The author of The ll~use of Lift thus holds a remarkable place in the literary and artistic history of the second Victorian epoch. No critic of this poet's work will have any true grasp of it who does not rec6gnise that "Rossetti" signifies something of greater import than the beautiful productions of one man-the historian of the brilliant period in question will work in the dark if he be unable to perceive one of the chief well.springs of the flood, if he should fail to recognise the relationship between certain radical characteristics of the time and the man who did so much to inaugurate or embody them. Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Mrs. Browning, Ros'etti Italy herself cannot present a finer body of poetry ID the mould of this form than is to be found in the collective sonnets of these great English writers. As to the vexed qilestion of priority among these sonneteers, I need not attempt to gauge the drift of capable opinion. For myself ~ this I set forward the less reluctantly as I know the opinion is shared by so many better judges than I claim to ~I would simply say (I) that the three greatest sonneteers Cf our language seem to me to be Shakespeare, Wordsworth, ud Rossetti; (2) that the two greatest, regarding thefr work mas~ and not bv this or that qOflfl~ nr th;~ n~ son and Browning, but the current is deep, and its fertilising waters have penetrated far and wide into the soiL The author of The House of L:ft thus holds a remarkable place in the literary and artistic history of the second Victorian epoch. No critic of this poet's work will have any true grasp of it who does not rec6gnise that "Rossetti" signifies something of greater import than the beautiful productions of one man-the historian of the brilliant period in question will work in the dark if he be unable to perceive one of the chief we]~-spflngs of the flood, if he should fail to recognise the relationship between certain radical characteristics of the time and the man who did so much to inaugurate or embody them. Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Mrs. Browning, kosletti. Italy herself cannot present a finer body of poetry ID 'he mould of this form than is to be found in the collective Pvpw3f