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and rather silly versifiers who really expressed themselves in the trite stupidities of their pseudo-lyrics. They wanted to be "bards" but did not know how, and Milton's octosyllabics furnished a way out of the difficulty by affording a mould in which their banalities could quickly and easily be turned into something that looked like poetry, something they thought was poetry. A ludicrous picture of the way some of their effusions were composed is drawn in Horace Walpole's account of the Batheaston vase.
Near Bath is erected a new Parnassus, composed of three laurels, a myrtle-tree, a weeping-willow, and a view of the Avon, which has been new christened Helicon. . . . They hold a Parnassus fair every Thursday, give out rhymes and themes, and all the flux of quality at Bath contend for the prizes. A Roman vase dressed with pink ribbons and myrtles receives the poetry, which is drawn out every festival; six judges of these Olympic games retire and select the brightest compositions, which the respective successful acknowledge, kneel to Mrs. Calliope Miller, kiss her fair hand, and are crowned by it with myrtle, with - I don't know what. You may think this is fiction, or exaggeration. Be dumb, unbelievers! The collection is printed, published. Yes, on my faith!1
The collection to which Walpole referred, Poetical Amusements at a Villa near Bath, eventually consisted of four volumes (1775–81), one of which actually reached a third edition. They are filled with octosyllabics and personified abstractions, with "avaunt's" and "come's" and other bits of the Allegro-Penseroso recipe for producing a poem at short notice on any subject. It was persons who belonged to literary circles like this and indited poetical effusions upon the slightest provocation, that gave Milton's octosyllabics much of their vogue. But obviously such popularity could not last. It passed away soon after the passing of the century, whereas the influence of Paradise Lost and of the sonnets remains.
Yet Allegro and Penseroso were of considerable assistance to Parnell, Dyer, Collins, Gray, the Wartons, and other true if minor poets, men who had something to say and ability to say it but who were timid and inexperienced. To such men, who were feeling towards the lyric, Milton's shorter poems furnished an inspiration and a guide. If the guide could not take them all the way into the land of wonder, mystery, and rapture, it did lead them as far as they were ready to go.
1 Letter to H. S. Conway and the Countess of Ailesbury, Jan. 15, 1775.
2 One of the poems (see below, Bibl. II, 1775, Burgess) could hardly be closer to Allegro than it is.
MILTON AND THE SONNET
WITH A HISTORY OF THE SONNET IN THE EIGHTEENTH
In taking up the study of the eighteenth-century sonnet we enter terra incognita. A few scholastic explorers, to be sure, have viewed the region from afar, but even had theirs been the Pisgah vision we should have needed others to spy out the land. Such, however, there have not been, principally, it would seem, because those who have scanned the country from the neighboring summits have reported no Canaan flowing with milk and honey, but a small and desert waste. And so it is that the rich fields of the Elizabethan sonnet with their monotonously fantastic vegetation have been repeatedly traversed, but not a few of the deserts, quiet valleys, and sunny meadows of this demesne a far wider one than has been suspected have these many years scarcely felt the print of a human foot. The last four decades of the eighteenth century are probably the most neglected period of English literature, and within this period the greatest neglect has befallen the sonnet.
Before we can understand the eighteenth-century sonnet we must know what preceded it, that is, what antecedent influences were at work upon it. These influences were, in the main, three-the Elizabethan, the Miltonic, and the Italian sonnets. The quatorzain of the Elizabethans is, as a rule, made up of three elegiac quatrains followed by a couplet, riming a b a b c d c d e f e f g g; but this, the Shakespearean form, is by no means the only one. Spenser's Amoretti have the linked rimes a babbcbccdcde e; and some writers even dispense at times with the couplet-ending, perhaps the most universal and distinctive feature of the Elizabethan sonnet.1 Yet few even approximate the strict Italian arrangement and very rarely does any one achieve it. This matter of rime-scheme is not the slight, external affair that it is commonly regarded, for it often determines the structure and modifies the idea of the sonnet. Each quatrain, for example, is usually more or less separated from what follows by a pause and a slight change in thought; and the final couplet is likely to be isolated from the rest of the poem, because
1 Sidney has twenty-five quatorzains that do not end with a couplet, and, like Wyatt, he uses the Petrarchan arrangement of the octave more than any other.
ordinarily it is preceded by a strong pause and is devoted to an epigrammatic turn or a sententious summing up of the whole subject.
As to contents, the outstanding feature of the Elizabethan quatorzain is the presence of exaggerations and conceits. Samuel Daniel asks Delia to
Yield Cytherea's son those arcs of love;
Bequeath the heavens the stars that I adore,
and Sidney queries,
When Nature made her chief work, Stella's eyes,
To be effective, conceits must be novel. Unfortunately, those in Elizabethan sonnets are repeated until they become mannerisms: the lady's eyes are always stars, her breast always ice or marble, her teeth always pearls, and we are usually asked to believe that her beauties will live eternally in her lover's verse. The unoriginal character of these figures and hyperboles (the greater part of which were borrowed from the French or the Italian) has no bearing on the present discussion, for it was not realized by eighteenth-century writers. They must, however, have felt the lack of originality manifest in the subjects chosen, - one is tempted to say the subject, for the poems recall the daisy oracle, "He loves me, loves me not, he loves me, loves me not." A number of quatorzains, to be sure, are on sleep, on the moon, on abstract or religious themes, and there are some in commendation of books or addressed to friends or patrons; but in comparison with the poems on love the others are few.
Although the Elizabethan sonnets furnished the key with which Shakespeare is said to have unlocked his heart, and although in his day they concerned themselves mainly with the heart, they are not, as a rule, moving. On the whole, they belong to the poetry of ingenuity rather than of feeling. The greatest of them, of course, Shakespeare's, Sidney's, and such noble ones as that attributed to Sylvester, are for us the most tender of love-poems, the most perfect expressions of feeling. But we are accustomed to Elizabethan literature; its vocabulary, its ornate style, its point of view, are so familiar to us that we can ignore the conceits and see only the beauty. Even to-day it is not so with the untrained reader, with the average undergraduate, for instance; and it was not so with the cultivated in Pope's and Johnson's time, when lyric beauty fell on rather dull ears and far-fetched figures and other exaggerations met with little favor. 2 Astrophel and Stella, vii. 1-2.
1 Delia, xix. 2-4.
In style the Elizabethan sonnet is marked by elaboration and adornment, by rich sweetness, grace, delicate loveliness and charm, and a copious, slow-moving flow of pleasing words. Shakespeare's work has also a stateliness and a splendor rarely met with in the quatorzains of his contemporaries; yet, when contrasted with the sonnets of Milton and Wordsworth, Shakespeare's are seen to have a sweeter, richer, more graceful beauty which stamps them as indubitably Elizabethan.
Such, in general, was the English sonnet up to 1630. Of course the description here given does not fit all Elizabethan quatorzains; nor is it necessary that it should, for, so far as influence upon the eighteenth century is concerned, little counts except the work of Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare, and only the best that even these men wrote. It is very difficult for us of the twentieth century to realize the ignorance and indifference of our ancestors towards earlier English literature. Striking instances of how little they knew or cared to know may be found in the absurd mistakes that writers of the standing of Pope and Warburton made in their editions of Shakespeare. Theobald and Steevens were among the few men of the time who were familiar with Elizabethan prose and poetry; the rest gloried in their ignorance and sneered at what they held to be stupid and profitless grubbing. Of Steevens and Dr. Grey (the editor of Hudibras) John Pinkerton wrote, "Both are fellow labourers in the congenial mines of dulness; where no man of taste or science ever dirtied himself." In 1764 a critic in a leading English review had never heard of Spenser's Epithalamium, and nine years later the Gentleman's Magazine printed Herrick's famous Corinna's Going a Maying as an unknown poem by an unknown author. But most astonishing of all is an opinion expressed in the Monthly Review of 1797, "Milton was, we believe, the first Englishman that was induced to attempt the sonnet in the language of our island."
The principal reason for such gross ignorance was that eighteenthcentury readers did not like most of the early literature they knew. It seemed to them Gothic and uncouth, it did not square with the rules of Aristotle and Boileau, it lacked the elegance and refinement introduced by Waller and perfected by Pope. Strange as it may appear, even the sonnets of the greatest Elizabethan did not meet with their approval. As late as 1793 Steevens omitted from his edition of Shakespeare all the sonnets and other poems because, as he was good enough to tell us, "the strongest act of Parliament that
1 Robert Heron [i. e., Pinkerton], Letters of Literature (1785), 315.
could be framed, would fail to compel readers into their service.” 1 About all Malone can say in their favor in 1790 is that he thinks "they have been somewhat under-rated," and Boswell is very cautious in his praise even in 1821, when Tennyson and Browning were schoolboys. Inasmuch as these editors of the poet might be expected to have an undue partiality for his works, their remarks indicate an astounding attitude on the part of the public at large. No publisher, moreover, would have left out the poems if there had been any demand for them. How little the demand was may be surmised from Nathan Drake's comment in his popular Literary Hours (1798). "The sonnets of Shakspeare," he writes, "are buried beneath a load of obscurity and quaintness; nor does there issue a single ray of light to quicken, or to warm the heavy mass. . . . his last Editor has, I think, acted with greater judgment, in forbearing to obtrude such crude efforts upon the public eye: for where is the utility of propagating compositions which no one can endure to read?" And so with Spenser. "It is scarcely necessary to say," Drake remarks, "that he has completely failed. In his long series of sonnets, the critic will recognise many of the trifling conceits of the Italian, but find little to recompense the trouble of research." As late as 1803 George Henderson wrote that the Elizabethan quatorzains included in his sonnet anthology were inserted not because of their excellence, for "few" of them "could be found agreeable to modern taste," but "to illustrate the progressive refinement of this species of versification. . . . Until the time of Drummond," he continues, "we can advance slender claim to any degree of elegance in this species of versification . . . in too many instances... our early Sonnets abound with sentiments so hyperbolically uttered, and resemblances so extravagantly and uncouthly drawn, as must necessarily render them disgusting to any but a rude or uncultivated taste."
1 "Advertisement," p. vii. For Steevens's dislike of the sonnet form, see p. 521 below.
2 See his edition, x. 296.
3 Boswell's Malone (1821), xx. 222. "The poetical merits of Shakspeare's Sonnets," he writes, "are now, I believe, almost universally acknowledged. . . . Whatever may be the reader's decision, he has here an opportunity... of judging for himself.” The italics are mine.
♦ Third ed. (1804), i. 107–8. Yet for Milton's sonnets Drake has high praise.
Petrarca, pp. vii, viii, xxi, xxii. It is by no means a mere coincidence that the first person in the eighteenth century to care for Shakespeare's sonnets seems to have been William Blake, the first poet of the century with a real gift for song. In 1806 B. H. Malkin (A Father's Memoirs of his Child, p. xxxiv) mentioned "Shakspeare's Venus and Adonis, Tarquin and Lucrece, and his Sonnets" as "poems, now little read, [which] were favourite studies of Mr. Blake's early days."