Hunt and Lee, comps. The Book of the Sonnet. 1867.
An Essay on the Cultivation, History, and Varieties of the Species of Poem called the Sonnet
V. Of Other Legitimate but Obsolete Forms of the Sonnet, particularly the Comic Sonnet
THE FORM of sonnet to which this Essay has hitherto referred admits of varieties little suspected by those who have not happened to wander out of the customary tracks of Italian reading. When I first met with them, they struck me with some such agreeable surprise as we experience when we find grave acquaintances unexpectedly amusing; and as the intimacy advanced, and I saw into what extravagances they could run, I seemed to be admitted among the same acquaintances when they were indulging in pastimes at once organized and extravagant, such as the High Jinks recorded of Counsellor Pleydell and his friends, in the delightful pages of Walter Scott.
The prevailing form itself, when it took its precedence in old times, did not hinder poets, for a long while, from writing sonnets in lines of eight syllables or less, from adding a line or two to the fourteen by way of supplement, or even from interspersing supplementary lines to the quatrains and terzettes, under the denomination of Codas, or Tails; so that to a modern English reader, the octave which is made of these quatrains looks sometimesunder the impression of that idealike a barristers wig with the two tails jerked sideways, and the whole sonnet like a wig tasselled with tails throughout. Among others of inferior note, there were Duodenary Sonnets, or sonnets in the twelve-syllabled lines called by the sensitive Italian ear versi sdruccioli, slippery or sliding verses, on account of their terminating in dactylstènr, Vènr; Mute Sonnets, a term characteristic of almost all Sonnets written in English, the muteness consisting of rhymes in one syllable; Continuous or Iterating Sonnets, which had but one rhyme throughout, or sometimes no rhyme at all, every line terminating or commencing with the same reiterated words, or word; Answering Sonnets, or sonnets in answer to other sonnets, the rhymes of which were repeated in exact correspondence but with dissimilar meanings; Retrograde Sonnets, which read the same way forwards and backwards, somewhat after a like fashion of some verses of the ancients; Chained or Linked Sonnets, in which every successive verse began with the rhyme or last word of its antecedent; Interwoven Sonnets, in which the lines not only rhymed as usual, but in the middle or other parts of the verse also; Crowning Sonnets, or a series of them joined together for purposes of panegyric, so as to form a supposed crown for the head of the person lauded; lastly, Caudated or Tailed Sonnets, which, besides including the forms under that name above mentioned, gradually took augmentations which were increased ad libitum, and on the strength of that privilege established themselves as the regular Comic Sonnet, and became very popular.
The reader will have observed that several of these forms are mere puerilities, and require no further notice. When written on serious subjects, one is surprised how poets of any worth could put sober thoughts into frames so fantastic; and yet this was done by all the four great poets of Italy with the exception of Ariosto,a man, be it observed, who combined the comic faculty with the serious, and therefore understood the boundaries that divided the sublime from the ridiculous; though from the very enjoyment of the knowledge he sometimes took a pleasure in steering closely between them. In Dantes miscellaneous poems, besides worse though shorter vagaries of a similar kind, there is a dull pleasantry or piece of gravity, one hardly knows which, in which the changes are rung upon five terminating words through a series of seventy-six lines.
Petrarca condescended to the like trifling, in the more ordinary shape of sestine; that is to say, stanzas of six blank verses, with terminations common to them all; and Tasso has a Sonnet on the death of a prince, in which the only terminating words of the lines are peace and war,pace and guerra.
What was absurd, however, when gravely intended, became amusing as a jest. The following is a specimen. It is a sonnet with no greater variety in its terminations than those of the sonnet of Tasso; but the jest makes all the difference. The author of it was a wit of the noble family of the Pazzi. Varchi, the Florentine critic and historian, who was the subject of it, and who was himself a distinguished writer of sonnets, must have felt inclined to apply to it the epithet which Falstaff gives to the iteration of his bantering Prince Hal. Varchi had used a freedom in criticising Petrarcas famous Canzoni on the eyes of Laura which gave offence to the poets admirers; at least so I gather from the story, for I have not seen the criticism. Pazzi took up their cause, and sung the critics name in his ears after the following provoking fashion:
Varchi, who was a conscientious critic and a great admirer of Petrarca, was very angry; and Pazzi, who notwithstanding his jest, appears to have been a good-natured man, gave him the soft answer which turneth away wrath.
The Mute Sonnets, or comic sonnets rhyming in monosyllables, are mostly without the coda; tails, though frequent adjuncts, not being necessities to sonnets of a comic nature. It is impossible for English readers to be as much entertained by these mute sonnets as Italians are. The abundance and flowing beauty of dissyllables in the Italian language caused their rhymes in general to be dissyllabical: English rhymes, on the contrary, are for the most part monosyllabic; and hence, by a curious contrariety in their association of ideas, the Englishman thinks he doubles the jest of his verse by doubling the rhyme, while the Italian, to enforce the point of his, reduces his two syllables to one. The terminating dissyllable, to the Englishman,at least whenever he chooses to think so,easily acquires a tone of levity and the ludicrous. He respects the short and decided step, the firmness and no-nonsense of his monosyllable. To the Italian, on the other hand, the repetitions of it on these occasions jar against all his feelings of gravity. They affect him much as if he saw a man taking a series of unexpected jolting steps down a staircase, or receivingor givingso many equally unlooked for punches in the stomach. It would take a long residence in England or America to enable an Italian to see the jest of the double rhymes in Hudibras; and it would take no less time in Italy to qualify the Englishman for a perception of the fun residing in the monosyllables of Berni or Casti. As imagination however may help the reader in either case, especially if he has a turn for the ludicrous, and as I wish to make this Essay as complete in itself as I can, I here give a specimen of the mute sonnet from this scapegrace Casti. A long poem, all in masterly double rhymes, would be thought a great feat in English verse. Casti has written two hundred sonnets on one subject, all in masterly single rhymes, and in a style which his countrymen admire for its idiomatic purity and its classical correctness. It is a pity he had not written all his works in the like unobjectionable vein. The jovial poet pretendsor perhaps the subject was founded on some actual poetical fact not incredible in the annals of a man of his way of lifethat he was dunned by an implacable creditor for the sum of three Giuli; that is to say, for some fifteen pence or thereabouts. A Giulio is a small silver coin of one of the Popes of that name,Julius. Casti says that he is waylaid by this creditor at every turn; that the debt mingles with all his thoughts, and has made his life miserable; that he sees no way of escaping from it; that the mans death will not deliver him, because he is a married man with children, therefore will leave heirs to the demand, who from their tenderest infancy will be little creditors,creditorelli,all tormenting him for the fifteen pence with hereditary importunity; and so he goes on piling up the agony through his two hundred sonnets; which he ends not by paying the debt, but with bidding his creditor good-night forever. It is true, he bids farewell to the Giuli also, but only as a theme parted with, not as an account settled. To settle the account would have been to destroy its immortality.
Gray, in the course of his Long Story, ingeniously says, Here five hundred stanzas are lost. A reader of Castis Giuli Tre may wonder that he did not close his book with a sonnet of the species before-mentioned, called the sonnet with a tail. It is one commencing with the usual fourteen lines, but possessing an unbounded privilege of adding to their number; so that the poet might have dismissed his book into space, like a paper-kite, furnished with a tail beyond that of a comet.
Of the Tailed Sonnet, or sonnet with a coda, England has been in possession of a specimen for these two hundred years, without knowing it. The author is no less a person than Milton, and the sonnet has received an abundance of notes from his editors, though, strange to say, not one of those gentlemen, albeit they included readers of Italian, knew what it was. They all put it under the head, not of his Sonnets, but of his Miscellaneous Poems. Warton, it is true, speaks of it as forming an irregular sonnet; but this only shows that he was not aware of its being a regular one; for such, of its kind, it is. It is a comic sonnet after the regular Italian fashion, in all its forms; that is to say, a composition consisting of fourteen lines of the usual structure, followed by a coda or tail, of one or more joints of eight syllables rhyming with its precursor, and two others of the customary length rhyming by themselves. Generally the tail is shorter than the body; sometimes, as before observed, much longer. I have a comic sonnet of Bernis now before me, with a tail extending beyond a couple of pages.
The inventor of this class of sonnets was moved by a genuine comic impulse. Humor is by its nature overflowing. The writer felt a disposition to run out of bounds; the bounds themselves produced a temptation to break them; the very restriction thus became a warrant for the license; and the form of the grave sonnet was preserved, in order to enhance the gayety of its violation.
It is curious, that the solemn and stately Milton should have been the first English writer to introduce a comic stranger to his countrymen. The stranger however, it must be owned, has become unusually, solemn in his company. He jests; but his jest is too fierce and bitter to have a comic impression. The sonnet is the famous attack on the Presbyterians of the Long Parliament, beginning
Because you have thrown off your Prelate Lord.
The present book would have contained it; but as ladies, it is hoped, as well as gentlemen, will read the book, and the sonnet of the indignant poet contains a word, which however proper for him to utter in his day, and with the warrant of his indignation, is no longer admitted into good company, the effusion has been left out. A similar objection, oddly enough, applies to the only other sonnet of the kind in our language. It contains a phrase equally warrantable on the writers part, yet equally difficult to read aloud.1 Another stately poet, Tasso, has a comic sonnet of this description on Cats. At least, he intends it to be comic; and it would have been particularly appropriate for insertion in this part of the Essay, because it closes with an analogy between the tails of cats and the tails of sonnets. But it is too poor; especially in comparison with his other and famous sonnet to Cats. The only other specimens of the Tailed Comic Sonnet, to which I can refer at present, with one exception, are those in the collection of poems called the Parnaso Italiano, and are chiefly the production of Berni, the greatest Italian master of burlesque; but they are too full of local and personal allusion to interest the general reader,indeed, are not thoroughly intelligible to anybody without the help of notes; and the editor of that work, like too many editors of his nation, had an absurd habit of seldom giving any headings to what he selected. You read sonnet after sonnet, and ode after ode, without knowing the persons to whom they are addressed, or, often, what they are about. I therefore take the specimen furnished me by the same critical work, in which I found the sonnet on Varchi. It is the production of Grazzini the novelist; and is one of those caricatures of a personal discomfort, which, having a foundation in truth, please us the more, the more they are exaggerated by the animal spirits, which thus enable us to bear the annoyance.
We do not understand the meaning of the last line about a plague on Bronzino. It seems either a proverbial execration, or an allusion to his contemporary and friend, a brother humorist of that name, author of some witty verses in the Parnaso Italiano on an imaginary present of a horse. Perhaps it was in a bedroom belonging to Bronzino, that the suffering from the gnats was experienced, owing to the want of a gnat-net, or zanzaliere.
We return a moment to the sonnet on Varchi, with its limitations of the verses to a couple of terminating words, in order to say that Crescimbeni, in the third book of Commentaries on his History of Italian Poetry, has given his readers a specimen of the sonnet which iterates but a single word. Every line of it terminates with the word Argo. It is the solution of a riddle on the ship of the Argonauts; but is not worth repeating. That no form of sonnet, however, which has appeared, and which is of the least interest, even as a curiosity, may be wanting to these pages, I shall make bold, on the strength of the Anglo-American nature of the book, to finish the present portion of my theme with a sonnet of my own, written on the same plan, but on a subject which can be devoid of interest nowhere.3 I can speak thus of it with the less immodesty, inasmuch as the reader will see that it is a thing easy for anybody to write, the plan and the subject being once found.
ITERATING SONNET, Written during the Talk of a War between England and the United States.
War between England and the United States!
Impossible! Pshaw! Stuff!United States!
Why, they themselves are the United States:
London and Boston are United States:
New York and Liverpool United States:
Cotton and spinning very United States:
Progress and liberty, United States:
Their names, fames, books, bloods, all United States.
But bloods are up in the United States?
Well;wouldst have low bloods in the United States?
Note 1. An oath, to wit, of an honest seaman, who thinks that the eyes of Italians have no right to be saved, if they look with scorn on the fogs of his native country. The sonnet, which is full of humor, is addressed to a Fog. It appeared in the first volume of Bentleys Miscellany, page 371; and was written by my lamented young friend Egerton Webbe, whose wit, scholarship, and rare powers of reflection, would have rendered him one of the ornaments of the nation. Mr. Webbe was as thorough a gentleman in his own language as in every other respect; but when describing characters, he thought it incumbent on him, like Smollett and others, to omit nothing characteristic that pens were considered privileged to repeat. [On reflection, I have put this sonnet in these volumes, leaving a space to be filled up, or otherwise, by the reader with words of his own, according to his notions of propriety. Ladies themselves, or their brothers for them, can easily find some three monosyllables as innocent in their eyes as the originals are in those of the seaman.] [back]