Something on Sonnets

From the Southern Literary Messenger

February 1838

Text from the Making of America collection.

"Scorn not the Sonnet! Critic, you have frown'd
Mindless of its just honors: with this key,
Shakspeare unlocked his heart: the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch's wound:
A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound:
Camöens soothed with it an exile's grief
The Sonnet glittered, a gay myrtle leaf,
Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned
His visionary brow: a glow-worm lamp,
It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faery-land
To struggle through dark ways: and, when a damp
Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand
The thing became a trumpet, whence he blew
Soul-animating strains--alas, too few!" Wordsworth.

A most admirable review of the poetry of William Wordsworth, in the first pages of the December Messenger, contains some reflections upon the Sonnet, which have set me upon the whim-wham of weaving a chaplet of those delightful poems for the pages of the February number. I do not mean to prove, or disprove anything in this undertaking, more than to prove my own love of that species of verse, and to disprove, if I can, the validity of the arguments which critics are too much in the habit of using, while attempting to decry it. The remark, for instance, of the Wordsworth critic in the Messenger, in relation to Milton, that his sonnets "have been nobly redeemed from oblivion by a few happy ideas, grand thoughts, and eminently poetical lines: but--not wrought with the fine polish and artist-like finish which become the Sonnet;"--is one to which I must begin this (anything but critical) article, with taking a decided exception. And I shall transcribe one of the great poet's Sonnets to bear me out.


"When I consider how my light is spent!
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent, which is death to hide,
Lodged with me, useless, though my soul were bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he, returning, chide:
'Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?'
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies,--'God does not need
Either man's work, or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke,--they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean, without rest.
They also serve, who only stand and wait.'"

Nor can I quite agree with the critic when he describes the merits of Shakspeare's sonnets as "independent, if not in despite, of their form." I had occasion to turn over Steevens the other day to find some clue to one of Shakspeare's disputed passages, while preparing an article upon the Text of Shakspeare for the Messenger, and I remember to have met, among the notes of that critic, this same idea, in a more extended form: and I could not help turning to the following, as pregnant proofs of the invalidity of the criticism. He is addressing an imaginary mistress, the eidolon of nearly all his sonnetizing.

"Oh how much more doth beauty beauteous seem,
By that sweet ornament which truth doth give!
The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem,
For that sweet odor which doth in it live.
The canker-blooms have full as deep a dye
As the perfumed tincture of the roses,--
Hang on such thorns,--and play as wantonly
When summer's breath their masked bud discloses:
But, (for their virtue only is their show,)
They live unwoo'd, and unrespected fade,--
Die to themselves. Sweet roses do not so:
Of their stweet deaths are sweetest odors made:
And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth,
When that shall fade, my verse distils your truth."

But if that be all a Sonnet should be, what degree of worth shall this be measured by, that follows?

"When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh for lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste.
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long-since-cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish'd sight.
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I now pay, as if not paid before.
But if, the while, I think on thee, my friend,
All losses are restored, all sorrows end."

I have in my possession a beautiful edition of "Specimens of English Sonnets," dedicated to Mr. Wordsworth, in the notes of the editor of which, the Rev. Mr. Dyce, I observe the Sonnets of Wordsworth classified as "in power and poetic feeling, superior to all similar compositions in the language, save those of Shakspeare and Milton." Of Milton's, the same editor remarks, that "in easy majesty, and severe beauty, they are unequalled by any other compositions of the kind:" and of Shakspeare's, he says: "they contain such a quantity of profound thought as must astonish every reflecting reader; they are adorned by splendid and delicate imagery; they are sublime, pathetic, tender, or sweetly playful; while they delight the ear by their fluency, and their varied harmonies of rhythm." Wordsworth himself says of the Sonnet,

"---With this key
Shakspeare unlocked his heart:"

And, again, that,

"---when a damp
Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand
The thing became a trumpet, whence he blew
Soul-animating strains,--alas! too few!"

But all this is apart from the main object of this paper. I have only indulged in this seeming controversial strain, by way of claiming for those two noble poets that justice in comparison, which the otherwise very discriminating critic of the Messenger is willing to allow them, by themselves considered. With every word he says of the Sonnet, per se, the writer I have mentioned will find me fully and deeply sympathising;--and as to Wordsworth's sonnets, he has but deepened the admiration I have always felt while poring over those richest gemns of modern poetry. He has copied many of the best of these in his sparkling article. Yet there is one, he omits, but which, from its very resemblance to those of his two illustrious exemplars in Sonnet-writing, has ever been supreme upon my list of favorites. I mean that which he addressed "To the Lady Beaumont."

"Lady! the songs of spring were in the grove
While I was shaping beds for winter flowers:
While I was planting green unfading bowers,
And shrubs to hang upon the warm alcove,
And sheltering wall; and still, as fancy wove
The dream, to time and nature's blended powers
I gave this paradise for winter-hours
A labyrinth, Lady! which your feet shall rove.
Yes! when the sun of life more feebly shines,
Becoming thoughts, I trust, of solemn gloom,
Or of high gladness, you shall hither bring:
And these perennial bowers, and murmuring pines,
Be gracious as the music and the bloom,
And all the mighty ravishment of spring!"

The Lord Surrey first introduced the Sonnet into the English language, about the middle of the sixteenth century. He published his "Songes and Sonnettes" in the year 1557. But it is the most ancient form of Italian poetry: and at a still earlier period was in use by the Provençals. In Italy it was first cultivated by the poet Fra Guittone, and was nearly a century in attaining the perfection, (for so it must be considered,) to which Petrarch elevated it. In France, the Sonnet has never gained a worthy celebrity, being, in that country, a mere vehicle for that sportive kind of verse which we call crambo,--(or something like it,)--a desecretion, indeed! In Germany, it has been cultivated to some extent, but the language of that country is ill-adapted to its rules. In Spain, as in Italy, it has been more successful, although, in both those countries, there have been poets who have done that beautiful form of verse no honor. The same may be said of many of the writers in the Anglo-Saxon tongues both in England and at home, who have essayed

"To bend the iron bow of Cœur de Lion,
And wield the club of Hercules."

These "climbers upon Richmond, fancying it Parnassus," to borrow a quaint conceit of Charles Lamb, (dear Elia!) look at the Sonnet, and, finding it mathematically described in the books, as consisting of so many lines, and so many parts, and so many syllables, and so many rhymes, take comfort to themselves that they know their Cocker, and can count their fingers and thumbs, and form capital letters, in round Italian hand; and so they settle themselves to write Sonnets: and "hinc illæe lachrymæ!"

Lieber very tersely defines the Sonnet thus: (after describing the proper construction of the lines, &c. according to the rules, q. v.) "it generally contains one principal idea, pursued through the various antitheses of the different strophes, and adorned with the charm of rhyme."

Montgomery (the elder) in his beautiful Lecture on "The Form of Poetry," says, "There is not a popular one in the English language: there are hundreds in the Italian." This is true, yet deceptive. It is true, just as it is to say that poetry is popular in Italy, but not in England; and if it applies to the Sonnet more than to any other verse, it is only because that, in Italy, there is no verse so commonly in vogue. Yet the Englislh Sonnet is as popular, perhaps, as any other form of English poetry, if we except the Ballad; and the preference given to that form arises more from the story of which it is usually the vehicle, than from the verse itself. The native language of the Italian is Music-Poetry, and he

"Lisps in numbers, and the numbers come."

Yet even our rigid critic, just quoted, agrees that there are some specimens extant, which "have redeemed the English language from the opprobrium of not admitting the legitimate Sonnet, in its severest, as well as its most elegant construction." And here is one in proof, by Wordsworth, which the critic of the Messenger and myself have both as yet left unquoted. It is the Answer of the Men of Tyrol to the French foe, who has demanded the surrender of their Alpine homes.

"This land we, from our fathers, had in trust,--
And to our children will transmit, --or die!
This is our maxim: this our piety!
And God and Nature say that it is just!
That which we would perform in arms, we must!
We read the dictate in the infant's eye,--
In the wife's smile,--and in the placid sky,
And at our feet, amid the silent dust
Of them that were before us. Sing aloud
OLD SONGS,--the precious music of the heart!
Give, herds and flocks! your voices to the wind,
While we go forth, a self-devoted crowd,
With weapons in the fearless hand, to assert
Our virtue, and to vindicate mankind."

This is beyond, above, and out of all reach of comparison or of criticism. It is THE SONNET, par excellence. Yet, reader, stay one moment longer for this jewel of John Leyden's: and those of you who do not remember who John Leyden is, read Lockhart's Life of Walter Scott.


"With silent awe I hail the sacred morn,
That slowly wakes while all the fields are still!
A soothing calm on every breeze is borne;
A graver murmur gurgles firom the rill;
And echo answers softer from the hill;
And softer sings the linnet from the thorn;
The skylark warbles in a tone less shrill.
Hail, light serene! hail, sacred Sabbath morn!
The rooks float silent by, in airy drove;
The sun a placid yellow lustre throws;
The gales, that lately sighed along the grove,
Have hushed their downy wings in dead repose;
The hovering rack of clouds forgets to move.--
So smiled the day when the first morn arose!"

Who says that this is not a genuine Sonnet? But I have detained my patient (perhaps I should say my sleepy) reader, too long, and must even now let go his button; but this I will not do without again repeating the refrain of my droning song about Sonnets in his ear:

"Scorn not the Sonnet!"

J. F. O.