Hunt and Lee, comps. The Book of the Sonnet. 1867.
American Sonnets and Sonneteers
TURNING from the Italian and English sonnet-writers and their productions to the poets of America who have contributed something to the same department of verse, we feel as though we were about to pass out of a region of the most abundant and delicate bloom into a field comparatively barren and uninviting.
The same causes which have hitherto prevented the appearance in this country of any truly great poema poem like the masterpieces of English imagination, expressing the culture, the knowledge, the matured genius of a great nationhave operated to prevent also the cultivation of the legitimate sonnet. For the requisitions of the drama, nay, even of the epic itself, are not proportionably greateras I think the former part of this work has provedthan the requisitions of this little poem of fourteen lines. A perfect sonnet cannot often be dashed off at a heat, but demanding the nicest polish, and considerable patience in its composition, the majority of our poets, influenced by the eager, restless spirit of their age, neglect it altogether, to embody their conceptions in more obvious and popular forms.
Unwilling to trust to the remote awards of posterity, tinged with the materialism, and sharing the intense unrest of his people, the American poet has seldom, like Coleridge, looked upon his art as its own exceeding great reward, nor has he been content to live and work as a poet only. Even where no constraining necessity exists, we find him in the ranks of some practical profession, devoting, in all probability, the best portion of his energies to labors which unfit him for the pursuit of the highest purposes of his art.
It is not thus with the painter and sculptor: why should it be with the poet? If he be poor,and alas! genius and poverty, married ages ago, seem, notwithstanding their conjugal incompatibility to have no chance of a divorce,the reason is plain enough; but what if he be rich, or possessed of a competence? Would it not be wiser in one thus circumstanced, feeling the divine impulsion within him, to labor serenely and with singleness of aim in his vocation, disregarding the transient fashions of his time, and slowly building up unto perfection poems with the pith of immortality in them.
Had this been done, we might not now have been destitute of THE great American poem, whatever its metrical form, concerning which so many prophecies have been ventured upon, and so much premature enthusiasm expended.
At all events, our literature would have been richer in poetry of a much higher stamp than that which at present distinguishes it. I feel assured that the Sonnet especially would have been amply and beautifully represented; that anybody undertaking the task which now employs me, instead of experiencing a sentiment akin to mortification, as he compares the sonnets by his countrymennot few in numbers, but careless in structure, and often commonplace in thought and designwith the masterly performances of this kind which adorn the literature of England and the Continent, would, on the contrary, have had every reason to be proud of the national achievements in an admirable and unique branch of art.
As it is, the American poet, under the conditions implied, circumscribed in his efforts, and democratic in his principles, has been satisfied with the production of verses which, for the most part, are easily written and quite as easily read. He addresses the masses, not a select circle of scholars,the audience coveted by Milton, fit, though few. The complex in thought and rhythm he has had apparently neither the leisure nor the inclination to cultivate. True, since the advent of Edgar A. Poe, whose influence on the poetry of the country was marked and peculiar, a taste for labored eccentricities of metrical mechanism has repeatedly displayed itself; but it has been confined to a host of imitators,the poetasters of gazettes and magazines.
The architectural eccentricities of Poes system of versification it was not difficult to copy; and we have, in consequence, during the last decade, been tormented by legions of illegitimate Ravens, and been invited to enter so prodigious a number of Haunted Palaces, that they may really be said to compose a municipality of their own, governed by a genius of grotesque diablerie.
Perhaps a better mode could not be found of bringing certain classes of the literary public to a clear perception of what is the true and beautiful in poetic art, than by calling them to the candid study of such sonnets as those of Wordsworth in English, and of George H. Boker in American literature.
While the ear, if moderately correct, would be charmed by their rhythmical harmony, the pleasure derived from them, instead of evaporating in a sensuous delight, would be intensified by the communication of those grave thoughts, great thoughts, which are seldom more striking and effective than when delivered through the medium of a sonnet worthy the name.
My business, however, is not to regret that the legitimate sonnet has been neglected amongst us, nor yet to suggest a remedy for depraved literary taste, but to give as detailed a narrative of the earliest appearance and of the progress of the sonnet in America as my scanty materials will allow.
The first American sonnet was writtenat what precise date I have no means of ascertainingby David Humphreys, LL. D., who was born at Denby, Connecticut, in 1753. He ranks among our Revolutionary heroes, and was educated at Yale College, with Barlow, Dwight, Trumbull, and others of historical fame.
Griswold, in the Poets and Poetry of America, informs us that, soon after being graduated, in 1771, he joined the army under General Parsons, with the rank of captain. He was for several years attached to the staff of Putnam, and in 1780 was appointed aid to General Washington. He continued in the military family of the Commander-in-Chief until the close of the war, when he went abroad with Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson, as one of the commissioners appointed to negotiate treaties of commerce with foreign powers.
On his return to the United States, in 1786, he renewed his intimacy with his old friends, the authors of the Columbiad and McFingal, and with Dr. Samuel Hopkins, with whom he engaged in writing the Anarchiad, a political satire, in imitation of the Rolliad, a work attributed to Sheridan and others, which he had seen in London.
An interest attaches to the first known sonnet produced by an American author, as well as to the author himself, entirely independent of the artistic merits of the one, or the amount of poetical genius possessed by the other. Colonel Humphreyss sonnet, however, on the subject of The Soul, is by no means a contemptible performance. It shows the writer to have been a clever versifier, and a correct thinker. Its conclusion, particularly, is stately and sonorous. One other sonnet by him has come down to us, in the form of an address to the Prince of Brazil, whose acquaintance Colonel Humphreys made during his residence as Minister in Lisbon. It bears the date of July, 1797, and is a manly, unaffected effusion, expressed in scholarly terms, and with some musical and rhythmic facility.1
The next American sonnets, in the order of time, are those by Richard B. Davies, a native of New York, who died when quite a young man, in 1799; and those by Robert Treat Paine, a poetaster, famous in his generation, whose verses have long since deservedly sunk into oblivion. His sonnets, like everything else he wrote, are formal and lifeless, though ambitious. No feeling more intense than vanity seems to have inspired them, and in, execution they lack both taste and imaginative force. I have reproduced them, together with the sonnets of Paines immediate predecessor, Davies, as literary curiosities only.
From the period at which we have now arrived to the rise of those generally considered the fathers of our poetic literature, namely, Allston, Dana, Bryant, Longfellow, etc., I have been unable to find, after consulting all the sources at my command, a single sonnet, good, bad, or indifferent.2 It is therefore with the sonnets of Washington Allston that our critical task properly begins.
One would have supposed that a man of Allstons delicate and true feeling for beauty, his fine yet vigorous imagination, and the opportunities he enjoyed of studying Italian poetry among the scenes and associations that gave it birth and passionate life, would naturally have shown some partiality for the sonnet in its highest, most artistic forms. When, however, we examine the few sonnets he has left us, we are disappointed, not merely in the paucity of their numbers, but in their want of constructive care.
The thought is always appropriate, often suggestive, occasionally full of the insight and force of imagination characteristic of the writer in his happiest moods; but the same sort of dissatisfaction which Mr. Hunt expresses while reverting to the sonnets of Milton is apt to be felt, I think, after an impartial perusal of those by Allston. He could have done so much better, had he willed it. His genius, endowed with the constructive faculty, might have found herein one of its fittest modes of strictly poetical expression; and, indeed, after very just deduction from the merits of his sonnets, as they now remain, they are perhaps the best specimens of his poetic works.
The sonnets by William Cullen Bryant are only four in number. Of these, the subjects have been drawn chiefly from impressive aspects of the natural world, associated with the moral ideas and feelings of which such aspects are suggestive. They are delicate and beautiful productions; belonging, it is true, to the illegitimate school, yet so thoroughly possessed by the laconic soul of the sonnet that none but a hypercritical reader would pause to note the defect of form. Nevertheless, turning hypercritical ourselves for the moment, we venture to hint how much all Bryants sonnets would have gained in melody, if the concluding terzettos had not invariably been burdened by a couplet. The effect of such a close, even in sonnets in other respects perfect, is to give an incongruous tone to the versification, very much resembling the discord that would follow upon the introduction of a deep bass note at the end of a lyric that should be sung throughout in tenor. As for the sentiment, the fancy, the genuine philosophical perception of Bryants sonnets, they could hardly be overrated.
In a somewhat different strain are the sonnets of Longfellow. As might have been anticipated from the peculiar genius and culture of the poet, they have generally adapted themselves to the legitimate model, and are, moreover, admirable specimens of a rare descriptive power and picturesque imagination. The too frequent desire to illustrate by material images and comparisons what is abstract in thought and emotionas when, for example, the stern thoughts and awful of the Florentine are likened to Farinata rising from his fiery tombconstitutes, perhaps, the only reasonable objection that can be brought as an offset to their unquestionable grace, purity, and purple richness of diction. For gorgeousness of color and language The Evening Star is remarkable.
In the last edition of Percivals Poems there are many sonnets of merit. It surprised me to remark the general finish and grace of their execution; for the authors impulsive fancy, ready command of language, and, I may add, false principles of art, have caused him in the majority of his works to err on the score of diffuseness, and a careless ease of manner and expression. He says himself, in one of his prefaces, that his verse is very far from bearing the marks of the file and burnisher; and that he likes to see poetry in the full ebullition of feeling and fancy, foaming up with the spirit of life, and glowing with the rainbows of a glad inspiration.
Believing thus in original genius, unrestrained and unmodified by the moulding powers of art, it is not astonishing that Percival should have left so little poetryconsidering of course the quantity of verse he has publishedthat is likely long to survive him.
His sonnets are beautiful productions. Illegitimate in form, they yet show a true conception of what the sonnet ought to be, in tone, general structure, and character of melody. In several cases the poet has invented a form of his own, by a novel and a not ineffective disposition of rhymes, as, for example, in the following:
The finest of Percivals sonnets are the purely descriptive. To him the glories of Nature never appealed in vain. They were
His inspiration and his deep delight.
When fully possessed by his theme, this poet, like Wordsworth, and some of the earlier English sonneteers, employs the sonnet as a stanza, as in the admirable poem beginning,
I stand upon the mountains mid a sea;
and also the series of six sonnets on the subject of his love, which form a connected composition of exquisite tenderness and feeling. Regarded by itself, the sonnet with which this performance opens is the most perfect in every respect of Percivals minor poems. In the delicate elaborateness of its structure, moulded upon the strictest Petrarcian model, in its melodious rhythmical flow, and subtle earnestness of passion, it is alone a sufficing answer to those who maintain that the English Sonnet is adapted solely to topics of a sublime and tragic, or, at all events, of a wholly solemn nature. I quote it entire, and beg the reader to note how successful the author has been in the rather dangerous experiment of changing his rhymes to dissyllables in the terzettos.
If on the clustering curls of thy dark hair,
And the pure arching of thy polished brow,
We only gaze, we fondly dream that thou
Art one of those bright ministers who bear,
Along the cloudless bosom of the air,
Sweet, solemn words, to which our spirits bow,
With such a holy smile thou lookest now,
And art so soft and delicately fair.
A veil of tender light is mantling oer thee;
Around thy opening lips young loves are playing,
And crowds of youths, in passionate thought delaying,
Pause, as thou movest by them, to adore thee;
By many a sudden blush and tear betraying
How the heart trembles when it bends before thee!
Percival was not merely a poet. He was an accomplished linguist and savant. His special scientific attainments procured for him the office of State Geologist of Connecticut. It was probably when he first determined to devote his time and labor to geological researches that the following sonnet was written:
Now to my task!be firm,the work requires
Cool reason, deep reflection;and the glow
Of heart that pours itself in restless flow
Must sleep, and fancy quench her beaming fires,
And all my longings, hopes, and wild desires
Must seek their slumberous pillow, and be still;
But energy must mantle oer my will,
And give the patient toil that never tires;
For Nature stands before me, and invites
My spirit to her sanctuary, and draws
Aside her pictured veil from where she writes
In living letters her eternal laws;
And as I stand amid the countless wheels
That roll the car of being on its way,
A deep serene my silent bosom feels,
I seem a portion of the viewless ray,
And oer me flows the light of pure, unfading day.
The writings of Halleck and Richard Henry Dana are destitute of sonnets. So far as Mr. Dana is concerned, we regret the fact, because we think him endowed with those peculiar qualities of intellect and heart which enter into the composition of all the higher order of sonneteers. The union in his nature of the elements of idealism and deep thoughtfulness of character, resulting in a chastened intellectual and moral power, is precisely that union of forces which finds a fitting manifestation and embodiment in the sonnets of Wordsworth, and other poets whose mental structure resembles his.
I now come to a late period of our literature, which, fortunately for us, exhibits some specimens of the sonnet that would do no discredit to the art, taste, and genius of the classic writers of Italy and Great Britain.
Abandoning anything like an attempt at chronological order, I shall in the first place introduce to the reader thosevery few in numberwho have earned the right to be called Legitimate Sonneteers; and, secondly, thosenot so few in numberwho have practised, with more or less success, the diverse forms of the illegitimate sonnet.
Among the former class, George H. Boker, of Philadelphia, better known as a dramatist of great merit,3 deserves in my judgment the most prominent position. His sonnets (seventy-eight of which appear in the second volume of his Plays and Poems, published by Messrs. Ticknor and Fields, Boston, 1856) are, with hardly an exception, composed in accordance with the established Italian rule. Wordsworth himself was not more scrupulous in following the classical standards.
But Mr. Boker has not pursued a conventional system of versification from any blind reverence for authority, but because of the evident sincerity of his faith in the variety, flexibility, and beauty of the English tongue. With those, indeed, who are accustomed only to the more prominent rhymes, and the more marked forms of verse, the melody of these sonnets may often fall as on a dull ear. But to a cultivated taste, and to the secret sense of hearing, apt for the music of poetry, we would cheerfully commit almost any one of Mr. Bokers sonnets, without an apprehension that the sweetness and variety of its harmony would pass unheeded. He has vindicated the justness of his views, by the production of sonnets as perfect in structure as they are instinct with thought and beauty.
Mr. Bokers sonnets may be divided into three general classes: first, the political sonnets, or those which treat of topics nationally important; second, the philosophical; and third, the love-sonnets. There are also sonnets of a miscellaneous kind.
Of the political sonnets, it may be fairly said, that they are full of a vigorous spirit, hardihood, and energy. Never overstepping the modesty of Nature, and always with a reserve of power in their passionate expression, they appeal to the enthusiasm that is latent in all healthful blood, quickening the pulse, enlivening the brain, and imparting the heat of a fine lyrical fire to every impulsive or susceptible nature. What! the poet exclaims, referring doubtless to some period in our history when the fear prevailed of a European invasion,
What! cringe to Europe! Band it all in one,
Stilt its decrepit strength, renew its age,
Wipe out its debts, contract a loan to wage
Its venal battles,and by yon bright sun,
Our God is false, and Liberty undone,
If slaves have power to win your heritage!
Look on your country! Gods appointed stage,
Where mans vast mind its boundless race shall run.
For that it was your stormy coast He spread,
A fear in winter,girded you about
With granite hills, and made you strong and dread.
What an honest ring and strength of indignation in these last three lines! The scorn seems to be a vital thing, smiting like a blow in the face the cowards whose supposed treachery has roused the poets anger! The subject is continued thus:
What though the cities blaze, the ports be sealed,
The italicized parts of this sonnet are assuredly very striking, breathing as they do the noblest spirit of resistance to invasion, and drawing significant incentives for unyielding action from the angry roar of the cataract, and the eternal thoughts begotten by the flight of eagles.
None of Mr. Bokers sonnets, whatever the subject, are without a firm body of thought. Having mastered his idea, he clothes it with language simple, sensuous, passionate, developing its cognate relations with a clear, logical sequence, an admirable appropriateness of illustration, which give to his poems in this form the charm of great natural force, directness, and lucidity.
Whatever meritsand I have said they are many and peculiarMr. Bokers sonnets may possess, I am disposed to rank his love-sonnets first. Though each is a perfect lyric in itself, they form altogether an elaborate poem, connected by the one bright thread of passionate and tender associations. The author has infused into them the aroma of the sonneteers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries,
The spacious times of great Elizabeth.
The quaintness bordering on conceit, but never degenerating into affectation; the air of devoted self-abnegation and abstraction, half sensuous, half metaphysical; the terse verbal felicities,all serve to remind us of Wyatt, Sidney, and Spenser. Steeped in the flush and springtime of youth, these sonnets suggest the hey-day of the blood, that delicious season when, according to Charles Lamb, true love thinks no labor to send out thoughts upon the vast, and more than Indian voyages, to bring home rich pearls, outlandish wealth, gems, jewels, and spicery, to sacrifice in self-depreciatory similitudes, as shadows of true amiabilities, to the Beloved. They are full of the tender gallantry of the old cavalier lyrists,a gallantry the result of chivalric sentiment, touched by a certain grace of euphuism, which in its very exaggeration we feel to be possessed by the noblest elements of courtly sincerity.
It is impossible to read such sonnets without marvelling at the manner in which their author has identified himself in spirit with the great models he has chosen. For example, might not the following sonnet be mistakenso far as the cast of thought and the nature of the imagery are concernedfor an amatory sonnet by Spenser, nay, by Spensers master?
The fantastic, but ingenious similes which render this sonnet a curiosity in its way, derive their parentage from the poetical vocabulary of Sidney and Shakespeare. Indeed, the more minutely we examine this portion of Mr. Bokers writings, the stronger does the proof become of the enthusiasm with which he has thrown himself into the study of Elizabethan literature. It is refreshing to meet at this time, and in America too, with an author so vigorous, natural, and English. The solid richness of Mr. Bokers imagination, his discreet judgment, large command of expression, and manly sensibility to what is beautiful and true in the nature without, and the passionate heart within us, are nowhere exemplified to so great an extent as in his sonnets.
There is something very impressive in this comparison of waning love to the evening of a boreal day,
That on the edge of night hangs doubtfully.
All its associations are in keeping with the nature of the fear it typifies,desolation, loneliness, intolerable cold, and solitude made the more awful by the mockery of light. Thus it is that the poet, the interpreter of lifes mystery and passion, by a single suggestive image or simile, defines the most complex conditions of feeling, or reveals to their depths the emotional phenomena of the soul!
We must here take leave of Mr. Boker, satisfied that enough has been said and quoted to justify the high estimation we have placed upon his sonnets; but equally satisfied that their merits can only be appreciated to the full by the reader after a close study of the poems themselves.
The sonnets of James Russell Lowell are chiefly, like the foregoing, legitimate; but they cannot, like them, be divided into particular classes, because of their miscellaneous character. They treat a variety of subjects, and are distinguished for subtle thoughtfulness, sensibility, and a delicate grace of imagination. The love-sonnets, of which he has written a few, contrast remarkably with those by Mr. Boker; for they celebrate an assured affection, an affection placed above the throes of doubt, jealousy, passion, and are exquisitely earnest and confiding. Although of a subjective tendencyas such poems must bethey have the merits of an enlarged suggestiveness and reflection, whereby the special love of the individual is made significant of love itself; and a moral of universal force and value is elicited from a personal experience.
Mr. Lowells sonnet to The Spirit of Keats I must indulge myself and the reader in quoting entire:
Great soul! thou sittest with me in my room,
Uplifting me with thy vast, quiet eyes,
On whose full orbs with kindly lustre lies
The twilight warmth of ruddy ember-gloom:
Thy clear strong tones will oft bring sudden bloom
Of hope secure, to him who lonely cries,
Wrestling with the young poets agonies,
Neglect and scorn which seem a certain doom:
Yes! the few words which, like great thunder-drops,
Thy large heart down to earth shook doubtfully,
Thrilled by the inward lightning of its might,
Serene and pure like gushing joy of light,
Shall track the eternal chords of destiny
After the moon-led pulse of ocean stops.
Not only grand as a sonnet, but truthful as a criticism! The electric suggestiveness of which poetry is capable is admirably shown in the first terzetto, and it is worth pages of tame prose disquisition. Almost every phrase is typical, comprising a picture of not merely some peculiar trait of Keatss character and genius, but by its emphatic appropriateness bringing vividly to sight the whole man, as man and as artist. The prominent features of Lowells sonnets may be briefly summed up, as extreme sensibility to moral and spiritual beauty; imagination, not so bright in its coloring, as clear, defined, harmonious in its outlines; insight, metaphysically acute; and, finally, in their mechanical construction, a degree of care and scholarly finish, which we often fail to perceive in his other and longer poems.
Of the American writers of the illegitimate sonnet, in its countless multiplicity of forms, I do not think it necessary to speak at length. Their number, as intimated, is considerable; but their productions exhibit, on the whole, so little saliency, that I shrink from the task of individually criticising, or attempting to criticise them, that is to say elaborately.5 It is, however, essential to my plan that something should be said, in a cursory way, of the merits and demerits of these authors.
Mr. George Hilla native, Mr. Griswold tells me, of Guilford on Long Island Sound, and an eminent graduate of Yale Collegeis, I believe, the eldest of them. The style of his poetry, as exemplified in his dramatic piece, called Titania, and in a poem on the Ruins of Athens,in the Spenserean stanza,justifies Griswold in terming it severe; but Mr. Hills sonnets are somewhat loosely composed; and, moreover, they lack originality, both in the subjects selected and in the poets mode of treating them.
Mr. Jones Very, known as having formerly filled the post of Tutor in Greek in Harvard College, is responsible for a larger number of sonnets than any other writer of New England. Mr. Very is also the author of three essays,on Epic Poetry, Shakespeare, and Hamlet. They are fine specimens of learned and sympathetic criticism. His sonnets appeared in a collection of his works in prose and verse, issued in 1839, and belong to the extreme conventional type of the illegitimate sonnet.
Mr. Verys tone is deeply devotional. No matter what his topic, he unconsciously imbues it with the religious sentiment. The old metaphysical rhapsodists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as Donne, Herbert, Vaughn, &c., are evidently his poetical models. He has studied them with faithful attention, and has reproduced their style, more in its faults, however, than in its excellences. Donne, I take it, is his favorite. He could not, in many respects, have chosen a worse master. Mr. Very shows no real power of invention, and his range of subjects, like his range of thought, is limited. Nevertheless, in his highest moods, he is sincere, tender, fanciful; and the flow of his verse, though at one time monotonous, at another involved, is for the most part musical and pleasing. Nevertheless, his great fault, as a sonneteer, is a vague mysticism of reflection, encouraged by, if not absolutely derived from, his too familiar acquaintance with the poets we have mentioned. The sonnets which bear his name in this collection have been chosen because of their freedom from this characteristic obscurity.
Mr. Park Benjamin was the first American, so far as I can learn, who employed the sonnet as a vehicle of humorous description.6 A keen sense of the absurd and bizarre is displayed in the following:
To see a fellow of a summers morning,
With a large fox-hound of a slumberous eye,
And a slim gun, go slowly lounging by,
About to give the feathered bipeds warning,
That probably they may be shot hereafter,
Excites in me a quiet kind of laughter;
For though I am no lover of the sport
Of harmless murder, yet it is to me
Almost the funniest thing on earth to see
A corpulent person breathing with a snort,
Go on a shooting frolic all alone;
For well I know that when hes out of town,
He, and his dog, and gun will all lie down,
And undestructive sleep till game and light are flown!
This is not, however, a characteristic sonnet. There are others among the few Mr. Benjamin has written whichbeside being more nearly adapted to the right sonnet-formare, in themselves, clever and thoughtful poems. Here is one of them, addressed simply to
The sonnets of William H. Burleigh possess, as Leigh Hunt says of Shelleys Ozymandias, the right comprehensiveness, and I have doubtedtheir structure is in some cases so correctwhether they might not be fairly ranked among the legitimate sonnets. The Brook, and Solitude, both to be found among our selections, will justify this remark.
The most original and salient of the irregular sonneteers of the South is William Gilmore Simms, whose fertile genius has contributed so much to the vindication of the intellect and patriotism of his part of the country. His sonnets are numerous and of every variety of construction. Their chief merit resides in the character of the thought, which is seldom otherwise than strong, suggestive, and perspicuous. A rugged and impetuous power, and, where the topic admits of it, a passionate intensity of feeling, rising almost into vehemence, leave the author no time to consider the proprieties of verse; he rushes on with the energy of the improvvisatore, so that frequently he constrains himself to make use of the sonnet as a stanza, the limit of fourteen lines appearing to be insufficient to the full exercise either of his imagination or his enthusiasm. Yet many of his sonnets are complete and rounded, possessing a fine metrical balance, and leaving consequently little to desire in reference to their construction. The following is a good example:
Mr. Simms in the choice of his subjects adheres mostly to the gravest themes. The solemn or fearful aspects of national events, the dark mysteries of human fate and experience,demanding in their consideration the exercise of the metaphysical faculty,these are the burden of his sonnets.
The thing, as Wordsworth expresses it, becomes a trumpet in his hands,when he would awaken the dormant patriotism of his people; or it serves him as the medium of philosophical inquiry in those regions of speculation which only imagination, sublimated by faith, should dare to enter.
In a word, the sonnets of this writer are valuable, not as matured art-products, but as stern embodiments of individual will and passion, no less than as specimens of genuine subtlety and reach of thought.
Henry T. Tuckerman is the author of about twenty-eight sonnets of a miscellaneous nature, written in the form of three quatrains, concluded by the usual heroic couplet. Griswold says that Mr. Tuckermans sonnets display some of the most perfect examples of that kind of writing that adorn American literature. I cannot subscribe to this assertion, which proves how superficial Griswolds knowledge of the sonnet, and its requirements, must have been; nor do I believe that Mr. Tuckerman himselfwhose candor as a critic equals his abilitywill quarrel with me for denying it. Let us admit, however, that his sonnets, if not worthy this degree of praise, are unquestionably graceful, polished, and pleasing compositions. Every line seems to have been carefully revised, and the ultimate effect is a Pope-like ease and flow of rhythm, and great propriety of diction, not without a special charm of their own. I call the readers special attention to the sonnets entitled To One Deceived, Freedom, Sleep, and The Balcony,all included in this work, and all confirming, I think, what has been said.
Mr. Epes Sargent, in his Summer Voyage to Cuba, has employed a stanza of fourteen lines, the last line of which is invariably a rhymed Alexandrine,which brings his stanzas technically under the head of the most irregular of quatorzens. Some of them are so picturesque that I have thought proper to extract them into our volume.
The younger poets of America, who have won distinction in other departments of their art,I refer here particularly to Bayard Taylor, Aldrich, and Stoddard,have published few sonnets, but those few are meritorious. I instance Taylors manly and earnest dedication to George H. Boker, which introduces his Poems of Home and Travel,a sonnet not unworthy of Boker himself; also his sonnet to Life, and To the Mountains.
Since this essay was planned and almost executed, Mr. T. B. Aldrich has risen so rapidly into poetical fame, through the deserved honors bestowed upon him both in this country and in England, that I would call particular attention to such of his sonnets as I have quoted from his Poems, published by Messrs. Ticknor and Fields in 1865. Hitherto Mr. Aldrich has been distinguished for the exquisite beauty of his lyrics, and the grand passages to be found in his Scriptural poem of Judith, rather than for any achievements in the peculiar and difficult branch of poetry of which I treat. I think, however, that a careful consideration of the sonnets hereafter quoted will convince the reader that Mr. Aldrich occupies no second rank amongst living sonneteers, and that the care and polish which he has bestowed upon his works give promise of a higher future excellence in this department. I refer to the sonnets entitled respectively Egypt and Accomplices, as admirable specimens of Mr. Aldrichs powers. According to the strict rules laid down by the Italian writers, these sonnets are not constructed on the legitimate model, but they approach it so nearly in form, and are so far elevated above mere forms by the genius which embodies them, as to disarm extreme criticism, and content us with their own beauties. A further study and cultivation of the Sonnets scanty plot will add not only to Mr. Aldrichs growing reputation, but to the literary wealth of America in a branch of refined poetical art in which she grievously needs representation.
I cannot but regret, more than in the case of any other American poet, that Stoddard has not cultivated the Sonnet to its utmost limits. There is that in his delicate touch, his rich yet subdued coloring, the conscientious labor which he bestows upon his details, and the general faithfulness and harmony of the entire handling of his subjects, which would have gained for him a foremost place among the sonnet-writers not only of our own country and of our own time, but among those of any country and of any time. Every one of his exquisite lyrics, every line of melodious blank-verse, establishes the justness of the regret, and awakens the hope that hereafter he may bend graceful genius into a form of poetry for which all his powers are so eminently fitted.
Amongst the poets of the South, Paul H. Hayne occupies a pre-eminent place, not only as a sonneteer, but as a writer of narrative and lyrical poetry. In the year 1860 Messrs. Ticknor and Fields, of Boston, published a volume of poems by Mr. Hayne, entitled Avolio, a Legend of the Island of Cos, with Poems Lyrical, Miscellaneous, and Dramatic, which contains about sixty specimens of his sonnets. They treat of the whole range of subjects to which the Sonnet can be properly applied. In the selection of his subjects Mr. Hayne exhibits the rare taste and judgment of the true sonneteer; since there are certain subjects, and certain subjects only, that naturally fall within the limits of this form of poetry. Mr. Hayne has studied faithfully the structure and capabilities of the Sonnet; and the result, as shown in his writings, has been, that, although he has not chosen to adhere strictly to the Italian rules of composition, he has nowhere permitted the spirit of his great models to escape him. His sonnets are genuine sonnets in everything, except in the mere arbitrary disposition of the rhymes and the grammatical pauses. Considering the poverty of our language in rhymes, when compared with the Italian, an English sonneteer should perhaps not be held culpable in seeking to escape from their hard trammels at a sacrifice of form. Many examples may be shown where even the greatest of English poets have been obliged to wring their language until it winced, in order to preserve the due succession of rhymes so readily obtained by their Italian teachers. If this be a defect in Mr. Haynes sonnets, it is greatly overbalanced by the display of all the other merits which he found in his prototypes. Simple, passionate, direct, neither overloaded with ornament nor without its graces, each one of his little poems stands before us as a complete work in itself, owing nothing to an epigrammatic turn of surprise, nor to the too ponderous weight of the last line. His political sonnets are filled with patriotic fire and martial vigor; his philosophical sonnets are imbued with serene thoughtfulness and a far-reaching insight into the secrets of humanity; his personal sonnets are touching with the tender self-denial of pure friendship, or vivid with the burning flame of a righteous scorn; and his love sonnets are passionate with the instincts of youth, colored with the glow of early imagination, and subdued by the delicate modesty of a chastened yet evident desire.
I call the readers attention to these sonnets, with the assurance that he will find them amongst the best that have been written in America, and that a perusal of them will send him to Mr. Haynes volume in eager search for more poetry of the same high quality.
In a volume of charming poetry, by Henry Timrod, which appeared about a year since from a Boston house, there are fourteen sonnets, which, for richness and grace of imagination, beauty of thought, and a warm, natural glow of sentiment and of passion, are not surpassed, I think, by the most perfect sonnets in this collection. Mr. Timrod has been long distinguished for his rare poetic gifts, and all the sonnets I have mentioned are nothing more than fair illustrations of them. Here is one of his sonnets on Love, remarkable for subtle suggestiveness and harmonious diction:
I have at length reached a delicate and difficult part of my subject,for my next duty is to speak of the Female Sonnet-writers of America. Some critics, when called upon to discuss the works of lady-authors, invariably assume a tone of half-bantering deference, or an air of sarcastic patronage, which any sensible woman must, and ought to resent. For my part, I have determined to show the respect I entertain for the fair sex, by alluding to their productions with gravity and candor. Acting upon this principle, I am constrained to observe at the outset, that the Sonnet has not been especially glorified by our countrywomen, many of whom exhibit but a feeble idea of the fine artistic uses to which it may be put. Nevertheless, sonnets of decided merit will be found in this section of my work.
Those of Mrs. E. Oakes Smith and Mrs. Kemble7 come first in the order of selection, because among the published poems of these ladies the Sonnet occupies a position of unusual prominence. In reading them, one is struck by their general similarity of feeling. They seem to be the offspring of disappointed, if not gloomy spirits. Betrayed affection, aspirations overthrown, the nothingness of human deeds, and the vanity of human desires,such are the favorite themes of these two sonneteers.
If the true purpose of poetry were to enervate and depress, instead of exalting the soul, I should commend such strains in terms of no measured praise. As it is, I think them false to nature, and false to art. Let me not, however, be unjust. Whenever these writers permit themselves to rise into more healthful regions of thought,whenever they cease to cry aloud vanitas vanitatum and to amplify the mournful proverb thus,
O weary, weary world, how full thou art
Of sin, of sorrow, and all mournful things,
we listen to their singing with pleasure, for both are possessed of fancy, culture, command of words and imagery, and of good musical perception.
The sonnets of Miss Anne C. Lynch are written in a better and wiser strain than the foregoing. They are grave, but not sombre, and the spirit of a pure, gentle philosophy breathes through them all. Take the following as a specimen of this ladys style:
To Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale the credit is due of having bestowed more than ordinary pains upon the construction of her sonnets, all of which are legitimate. They treat of the domestic affections, and of the sphere and influence of Woman. The titles she has given themsuch as The Daughter, The Sister, The Wife, The Motherindicate clearly enough their scope and purpose.
Of the higher (perhaps I ought to say, the essential) elements of poetryinvention, imagination, passionMrs. Hales sonnets are destitute; but their feminine tenderness, and the universal value of the sentiments they inculcate, must always invest them with a certain interest and value. No one can doubt their earnestness, and they furnish a gentle voice to feelings that are common to our race, and are in themselves everlasting.
Mrs. Mary Noel McDonald, of New York, is one of the most copious of our sonneteers. A quick eye for the picturesque, and a capacity to grasp and describe correctly the obvious aspects of nature, have rendered her sonnets locally popular. Beyond these excellences, they have no poetical, and but little artistic, value. Their phraseology is of the conventional type, reminding me of the peculiar poetic diction of Hayley and the Della-Cruscan school. She describes the butterflies of June as flying like winged jewels neath the skies; and the summer rills are to her fancy like chains of liquid diamonds. Gaudy, artificial similes occur so frequently in her verses as greatly to mar whatever merits they may be deemed to possess.
The remaining sonnets in our collection, by various female authors, exhibit so little individuality of thought or structure, that to characterize them particularly would be a tedious and useless task. Three of these sonnets, however, the productions respectively of Mrs. Emma C. Embury, Mrs. Elizabeth F. Ellett, and Mrs. Anna Maria Lowell, strike me as being worthy of mention.
I must here bring this essay to a close. It is necessarily imperfect. The difficulty of obtaining material, and the still greater difficulty of properly digesting and arranging it, have caused me much care and trouble. Then, the general character of the sonnets themselves, so few of which possess the vigor and originality which offer salient points for criticism, has embarrassed me throughout.
I trust, therefore, that my readers will make the due allowances. Had I exercised a severe critical judgment, the American portion of the volume would have been greatly reduced; but in that case, many hundred lines of really respectable verse would have been excluded, leaving hardly a sufficient number of sonnets to justify their publication in connection with a work like that by Mr. Hunt.
Note 1. The principal poems of Colonel Humphreys are An Address to the Armies of the United States, written in 1772; a poem on The Happiness of America, written during his residence in London and Paris; The Widow of Malabar, or the Tyranny of Custom; and lastly, a Poem on Agriculture. His Miscellaneous Works were published (in octavo) in New York City, first in 1790, and again in 1808. As regards his style, he seems to have aimed only at an elegant mediocrity, and his pieces are generally simple and correct in thought and language. (Griswolds Poets and Poetry of America.) [back]
Note 2. Since the above was written, I have accidentally discovered in the columns of the old Charleston City Gazette and Daily Advertiser, for Wednesday, February 14, 1798, an original sonnet, signed W. R., and no doubt intended as a valentine. It reads thus:
They tell me that in opening life the hue
Of rosy health bloomed on my glowing cheek;
That my full eye sparkled with liquid blue,
And seemed with strong intelligence to speak:
They tell me too, that in luxuriance wild
Waved my dark locks; perchance they tell me truth,
Note 3. Mr. Boker has achieved signal success in both departments of the drama. His comedies are easy and sparkling, but it is in the more difficult walk of the Tragic Muse that his strength is best displayed. Francesca da Rimini and Leonor de Guzman are magnificent efforts,far better, we think, than any other tragedies of modern times. In them the author shows his profound knowledge of the human heart, with its sentiments and passions, its love, rage, jealousy, ambition, despair. In them, too, he charms us with the beauty and harmony of poetic diction, or rouses us with eloquence of the highest order. [back]
Note 4. This is one of the few illegitimate sonnets contained in Mr. Lowells works. I quote it in consideration of its present appropriateness. [back]
Note 5. Our Female Sonneteers I have grouped together in the latter part of the work, not from discourtesy to them, but because the material needed for the preparation of that portion of my essay reached me last, and after my work was almost completed. [back]
Note 6. Unless we consider the following, by Robert Treat Paine, as an attempt in the same style:
SONNET TO ELIZA.
Ah! do the Muses, once so coy and shy,
Pursue Menander as hard as legs can lay?
By heavens! Menander swears, he will not fly,
But meet their gentle ladyships half-way.
What! shall this coward bard turn pale with fear?
When clinging round his knees these virgins lie,
Is he afraid of drowning in a tear,
Or being blown to atoms by a sigh?
No, dear Eliza, with expanded arms
I turn to clasp the fair one that pursues;
But, struck with such divinity of charms,
Shrink from alliance with so bright a muse.
Yet weep not, that from Hymens yoke I ve slipped my neck,
For you ve escaped a bite, while I have lost a spec.
Note 7. Although an Englishwoman by blood and birth, so much of Mrs. Kembles life has been spent in the United Statesshe has identified herself so thoroughly with our peoplethat it seems to me we have a right to claim her as a countrywoman by adoption. Hence her introduction in this place. [back]