An Essay on the Sonnet.

From: Sonnets and Canzonets (1882)
Author: A. Bronson Alcott
Published: Roberts Brothers 1882 Boston


“SCORN not the sonnet,” said Wordsworth, and then gave us at least fifty noble reasons why we should not,—for so many at least of his innumerable sonnets are above languor and indifference, and all of them above contempt. Milton was more self-restrained than Wordsworth, and wrote fewer sonnets, every one of which is a treasure, either for beauty of verse, nobility of thought, happy portraiture of persons, or quaint and savage humor,—like that on “Tetrachordon,” and the elongated sonnet in which he denounces the Presbyterians, and tells them to their face, “New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large.” Shakespeare unlocked his heart with sonnets in another key than Milton’s,—less conformed to the model of the Italian sonnet, but more in keeping with English verse, of which Shakespeare had the entire range. His sonnets are but quatrains following each other by threes, with a resounding couplet binding them together in one sheaf, and his example has made this form of the sonnet legitimate for all who write English verse,—no matter what the studious or the pedantic may say. Surrey also, who first used the sonnet in English, wrote it in this free manner of Shakespeare, as well as in the somewhat stricter form that Sidney employed, and it is only of late years that they have tried to shut us up to one definite and unchanging sequence and interplay of rhyme. Mr. Alcott in these new sonnets, the ripe fruit of an aged tree, has used the freedom that nature gave him, and years allow: he has written with little uniformity in the order and number of his rhymes, but with much regard to the spirit of the sonnet as a high form of verse. I fancy that Dante (who may be called the father of the sonnet, though not the first to write it) chose this graceful and courteous verse, because it is so well suited to themes of love and friendship. When he would express sorrow or anger, or light and jesting humor, he had recourse to the canzonet, the terza rima, or what he called the ballad,—some-thing quite unlike what we know by that name. Mr. Alcott has followed in the same general course; his sonnets are one thing, his canzonets another: though the difference in feeling, which prompts him to use one form rather than the other, cannot always be definitely expressed. It is felt rather than seen, and seen rather by the effect of the finished poem than by the light of any rule or formal definition.

  Definiteness, in fact, must not be looked for in these poems; nor is it the characteristic of the highest poetry in any language. Verse may be powerful and suggestive, or even clear in the sense of producing a distinct impression on the mind, without being definite, and responding to all the claims of analysis. I take it that few readers will fail to see the central thought, or the vivid portraiture in each of these sonnets and canzonets; but fewer still will be able to explain precisely, even to their own minds, what each suggestive phrase and period includes and excludes in its meaning. For this fine vagueness of utterance, the sonnet has always given poets a fair field, and our present author has not gone beyond his due privilege in this respect, though he has availed himself of it more frequently than many would have done. The mottoes and citations accompanying each sonnet may help the reader to a meaning that does not at once flash in his eyes. But he must not expect to conquer these verses at a single reading. The thought of years, the labor of months, has been given to the writing of them; and the reader ought not to complain if he take as much time to comprehend them as the author took to write them. They are worth the pains of reading many times over, and even of learning them by heart, for which their compendious form well fits them.

  It may be complained that these sonnets lack variety. This is indeed a fault into which sonneteers often fall,—our best collection of American sonnets hitherto—those of Jones Very—being open to this censure. It will be found, perhaps, that the sameness of rhyme and thought is often but an appearance,—the delicate shade of meaning being expressed, in a vocabulary of no large extent, by a rare process of combining and collocating words. Certain phrases recur, too, because the thought necessarily recurs,—as when the oratory of Phillips and of Parker, as of others, is characterized by the general term, eloquence. In the poverty of our language, there is no other term to use, while the qualifying words and their connection sufficiently distinguish between one person and another. The critical are referred to Homer, who never fails to repeat the same word, or the same verse, when it comes in his way to do so.

  But to return to the sonnet itself. Landor, to whom as to Thoreau, Milton was the greatest English poet, thought that the blind Puritan had made good his offence against the Psalms of David, by the sonnet on the slaughtered saints of Piedmont. “Milton,” he says, “was never half so wicked a regicide as when he lifted up his hand and smote King David. He has atoned for it, however, by composing a magnificent psalm of his own, in the form of a sonnet. There are others in Milton comparable to it, but none elsewhere.” And then the wilful critic goes on to say, putting his words into the mouth of Porson: “In the poems of Shakespeare, which are printed as sonnets, there is sometimes a singular strength and intensity of thought, with little of that imagination which was afterward to raise him highest in the universe of poetry. Even the interest we take in the private life of this miraculous man, cannot keep the volume in our hands long together. We acknowledge great power, but we experience great weariness. Were I a poet, I would much rather have written the ‘Allegro,’ or the ‘Penseroso’ than all those.” Monstrous as this comment seems to us, there is a certain truth in it, the sonnet in large quantities always producing weariness; for which reason, as I suppose, Dante interspersed his love sonnets in the “Vita Nuova” and the “Convito,” with canzonets and ballads. His commentaries—often of a singular eloquence—also serve as a relief to the formal verse, as his melodious Tuscan lines do to the formality of his poetical metaphysics. A person, says Landor, “lately tried to persuade me that he is never so highly poetical, as when he is deeply metaphysical. He then quoted fourteen German poets of the first order, and expressed his compassion for Æschylus and Homer.” Dante’s metaphysics were of a higher cast, and so interfused with love and fair ladies, that they only weary us with a certain perplexity as to where are the limits of courtship and of logic. Mr. Alcott also is quaintly metaphysical in Dante’s fashion; like the sad old Florentine, but with a more cheerful spirit, he addresses himself

“To every captive soul and gentle heart,”
(A ciascun alma presa e gentil core,)

and would fain inquire of those who go on a pilgrimage of Love (O voi che per la via d’ Amor passate) and of the fair ladies who have learned love at first hand (Donne che avete intelletto d’ amore). His doctrine is that of the wise man whom Dante quotes and approves in the “Vita Nuova,”—

“One and the same are love and the gentle heart.”
(Amor e’ l cor gentil sono una cosa.)

  Other Americans have written sonnets in this ancient faith,—as he, who thus (in that happy season so aptly described by Mr. Alcott, as

“Youth’s glad morning when the rising East
Glows golden with assurance of success,
And life itself’s a rare continual feast,
Enjoyed the more if meditated less,”)

addressed his own cor gentil:—

“My heart, forthlooking in the purple day,
Tell me what sweetest image thou may’st see,
Fit to be type of thy dear love and thee?
Lo! here where sunshine keeps the wind away,
Grow two young violets,—humble lovers they,—
With drooping face to face, and breath to breath,
They look and kiss and love and laugh at death:—
Yon bluebird singing on the scarlet spray
Of the bloomed maple in the blithe spring air,
While his mate answers from the wood of pines,
And all day long their music ne’er declines;
For love their labor is, and love their care.
‘These pass with day and spring; ‘the true heart saith,—
‘Forever thou wilt love, and she be fair.’”

  In the same Italian vein, another and better poet, but with less warmth, touches the same theme,—

“Thou art like that which is most sweet and fair,
A gentle morning in the youth of spring,
When the few early birds begin to sing
Within the delicate depths of the fine air.
Yet shouldst thou these dear beauties much impair,
Since thou art better than is everything
Which or the woods or skies or green fields bring,
And finer thoughts hast thou than they can wear.
In the proud sweetness of thy grace I see
What lies within,— a pure and steadfast mind,
Which its own mistress is of sanctity,
And to all gentleness hath been refined.
So that thy least breath falleth upon me
As the soft breathing of midsummer wind.”

  In the changes of time and the fitful mood of the poet, sadness succeeds to this assured joy, and he sings,—

“The day has past, I never may return;
Twelve circling years have run since first I came
And kindled the pure truth of friendship’s flame;
Alone remain these ashes in the urn—
Vainly for light the taper may I turn,—
Thy hand is closed, as for these years, the same,
And for the substance naught is but the name.
No more a hope, no more a ray to burn.
But once more in the pauses of thy joy,
Remember him who sought thee in his youth,
And with the old reliance of the boy
Asked for thy treasures in the guise of truth.”

  Here is another voice, chanting in another strain,—

“Thy beauty fades, and with it, too, my love,
For ‘twas the selfsame stalk that bore the flower;
Soft fell the rain, and, breaking from above,
The sun looked out upon our nuptial hour;
And I had thought forever by thy side
With bursting buds of hope in youth to dwell;
But one by one Time strewed thy petals wide,
And every hope’s wan look a grief can tell;
For I had thoughtless lived beneath his sway,
Who like a tyrant dealeth with us all,—
Crowning each rose, though rooted in decay,
With charms that shall the spirit’s love enthral,
And, for a season, turn the soul’s pure eyes
From virtue’s bloom that time and death defies.”

  Out of this valley of sadness the spirit rises on bolder wing, as the melancholy mood passes away,—

“Hearts of eternity, hearts of the deep!
Proclaim from land to sea your mighty fate;
How that for you no living comes too late,
How ye cannot in Theban labyrinth creep,
How ye great harvests from small surface reap,
Shout, excellent band, in grand primeval strain,
Like midnight winds that foam along the main,—
And do all things rather than pause to weep.
A human heart knows naught of littleness,
Suspects no man, compares with no one’s ways,
Hath in one hour most glorious length of days,
A recompense, a joy, a loveliness;
Like eaglet keen, shoots into azure far,
And always dwelling nigh is the remotest star.”

  Here, as Landor said, “is a sonnet, and the sonnet admits not that approach to the prosaic which is allowable in the ballad.” For this reason Mr. Alcott, who began his poetical autobiography, when he was eighty years old, in a ballad measure, has now passed into the majesty of the sonnet, as he has come to those passages of life which will not admit prosaic treatment. Moderately used, and not worked to death, as Wordsworth employed it, the sonnet is a great uplifter of poesy. It calls to the reader, as the early Christian litanies did to the worshipper, Sursum corda, Raise your thoughts! The canzonet lets us down again into the pathetic, the humorous, or the fanciful,—though in this volume the canzonet generally betokens sadness. It may easily become an ode, as in the verses on Garfield: indeed the ode may be considered as an extended canzonet, or the canzonet as a brief ode. It is the sonnet that chiefly concerns us now, and that form of the sonnet which deals with love; since the germ of this book was a romance of love, seeking to express itself in the uplifting strain and tender cadence of successive sonnets; which lead us though green pastures and beside the still waters, and then to the shore of the resounding sea,—itself worthy of a sonnet which I have somewhere heard:—

“Ah mournful Sea! Yet to our eyes he wore
The placid look of some great god at rest;
With azure arms he clasped the embracing shore,
While gently heaved the billows of his breast;
We scarce his voice could hear, and then it seemed
The happy murmur of a lover true,
Who, in the sweetness of his sleep, hath dreamed
Of kisses falling on his lips like dew.
Far off, the blue and gleaming hills above,
The Sun looked through his veil of thinnest haze,
As coy Diana, blushing at her love,
Half hid with her own light her earnest gaze,
When on the shady Latmian slope she found Fair-haired Endymion slumbering on the ground.”

  This is one picture in the kaleidoscope of Aphrodite, who was a sea-born goddess, and partial to her native element. Yet it is not through the eye alone that she ensnares us, but with the music of birds,—and in poetry her own darling bird is not the dove, but the nightingale,—a stranger to our orchards and forests, but familiar to the groves of the Muse. A poet, by no means happy in his love in after years, thus saluted this bird, with music as sweet as her own,—

“O Nightingale, that on yon bloomy spray,
Warblest at eve, when all the woods are still,
Thou with fresh hope the lover’s heart doth fill,
While the jolly Hours lead on propitious May.
Thy liquid notes, that close the eye of day,
First heard before the shallow cuckoo’s bill,
Portend success in love; O, if Jove’s will
Have linked that amorous power to thy soft lay,
Now timely sing, ere the rude bird of hate
Foretell my hopeless doom in some grove nigh;
As thou from year to year hast sung too late
For my relief, yet hadst no reason why;
Whether the Muse, or Love call thee his mate,
Both them I serve, and of their train am I.”

  This is plainly a fabricated song, not poured out from the heart, though full of melodious fancy. More natural and earnest is the tone in which our poet soon after praises one who had passed unheeding by the bower of love, and devoted herself to a life of piety and good deeds. We cannot guess who she was, but such saints are seen in every land and age.

“Lady, that in the prime of earliest youth
Wisely hast shunned the broad way and the green,
And with those few art eminently seen
That labor up the hill of heavenly truth,—
The better part with Mary and with Ruth,
Chosen thou hast; and they that overween,
And at thy growing virtues fret their spleen,
No anger find in thee, but pity and ruth.
Thy care is fixed, and zealously attends
To fill thy odorous lamp with deeds of light,
And hope that reaps not shame. Therefore be sure
Thou, when the bridegroom with his feastful friends
Passes to bliss at the mid hour of night,
Hast gained thy entrance, virginwise and pure.”

  It is a truth for the initiated that love begins with worship, and favors piety in its first approaches; and we need not wonder if the devout poet in due time paid his amorous addresses to this bride of the Spirit, whose lamp must have been dim, indeed, if it did not reveal to her the lover in disguise of the brother in Israel. A poet of our day, in a sonnet somewhat faulty in form, but true to the faith of your pilgrim-vow, ye happy palmers of Love,—

“O voi che per la via d’ Amor passate!”

has written as follows:—

“‘As calmest waters mirror Heaven the best,
So best befit remembrances of thee
Calm holy hours from earthly passion free,
Sweet twilight musing,—Sabbaths in the breast.
No stooping thought, nor any grovelling care,
The sacred whiteness of that place shall stain,
Where, far from heartless joys and rites profane,
Memory has reared to thee an altar fair.
Yet frequent visitors shall kiss the shrine,
And ever keep its vestal lamp alight;
All noble thoughts, all dreams divinely bright,
That waken or delight this soul of mine.’
So Love, meek pilgrim! his young vows did pay,
With glowing eyes that must his lips gainsay.”

  A higher gospel is preached in the sonnet of another American poet, who has written too few verses,—or rather has published too few of the many he has composed.

“As unto blooming roses, summer dews,
Or morning’s amber to the tree-top choirs,
So to my bosom are the beams that use
To rain on me from eyes that Love inspires;
Your love,—vouchsafe it, royal-hearted Few,—
And I will set no common price thereon;
O, I will keep, as Heaven his holy blue,
Or Night her diamonds, that dear treasure won.
But aught of inward faith must I forego,
Or miss one drop from Truth’s baptismal hand,
Think poorer thoughts, pray cheaper prayers, and grow
Less worthy trust, to meet your hearts’ demand:
Farewell! your wish I for your sake deny;
Rebel to love in truth to love am I.”

  A poet who has been more than once quoted in this essay, saw no sharp hostility between Love and Death,—those reputed foes,—but thus addressed the last earthly benefactor of mankind:—

“O Death! thou art the palace of our hopes,
The storehouse of our joys,—great labor’s end.”

  His friend, confronting the same inevitable guest, questioned the dark angel, in these lines, that conform to the rule of the sonnet in spirit, if not in rhyme:—

“What strange deep secret dost thou hold, O Death!
To hallow those thou claimest for thine own?
That which the open book could never teach,
The closed one whispers, as we stand alone

By one, how more alone than we!—and strive
To comprehend the passion of that peace.
In vain our thoughts would wind within the heart,
The heart of this great mystery of release!—
Baptism of Death—which steepest infant eyes
In grace of calm that saints might hope to wear,
Whose cold touch purifies the guilty brow,
And sets again the seal of childhood there—
Our line of life in vain would sound thy sea,
That which we seek to know,—we soon shall be.”

  Let me now close this garland of sonnets with two choice flowers from that garden of Elizabeth which no modern botanist and no anthologist of ancient fame can equal in fragrance and amaranthine beauty. Both breathe the sweetness of Love,—the first, from the “Parthenophe and Parthenophil” of Barnaby Barnes, with some flavor of discontent,—but the second, taken from the warm hand of Shakespeare, is full of that noble confidence, which he, of all poets, most naturally inspires.

“Ah, sweet Content! where is thy mild abode?
Is it with shepherds and light-hearted swains,
Which sing upon the downs and pipe abroad,
Tending their flocks and cattle on the plains?
Ah, sweet Content! where dost thou safely rest?
In heaven? with angels which the praises sing
Of Him that made and rules at his behest
The minds and hearts of every living thing?
Ah, sweet Content! where does thy harbor hold?
Is it in churches with religious men,
Which please the gods with prayers manifold,
And in their studies meditate it then?
Whether thou dost on heaven or earth appear,
Be where thou wilt, thou wilt not harbor here.”

  And now upon this delicious disconsolate strophe, hear the brave turn and reply of Shakespeare’s antistrophe,—and take it for your consolation, lovers and poets!—

“Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world, dreaming on things to come,

Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.
The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,
And the sad augurs mock their own presage;
Incertainties now crown themselves assured,
And peace proclaims olives of endless age.
Now with the drops of this most balmy time
My love looks fresh, and Death to me subscribes,
Since, spite of him, I’ll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o’er dull and speechless tribes:
And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent.”

F. B. S.

FEBRUARY 6, 1882.

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