Page images

Negative evidence quite as important as these outspoken criticisms is to be found in the striking absence of references to Shakespeare's quatorzains in the literature of the period, even in the many poems and essays that laud his plays. Miss Seward, for example, in her numerous discussions of sonnets, apparently mentions those of Shakespeare and Spenser but once, and then only to speak of their conceits, their "quaintness" and "quibbling." Yet she thought Shakespeare's dramas the highest productions of human genius.' If Englishmen of the eighteenth century held so poor an opinion of the poems of the greatest writer of their past, is it any wonder that they neither knew nor cared to know those of his contemporaries?

The sonnets of Milton differ in almost every respect from those of the Elizabethans. Most of them are stamped with the Puritanism of their author, than which nothing can be more alien to the sonnet sequences of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Instead of showing the light grace, the richness and ornate beauty, of the earlier type, they are distinguished by vigor, dignity, and exaltation. They are more sonorous and direct, they have what Wordsworth termed "republican austerity," 2 they are restrained and classic; in a word, they are Miltonic, for they are marked by the characteristics that distinguish Milton the man and the poet. Yet, notwithstanding the greatness of many lines, they lack the grace, loveliness, and sheer beauty of Shakespeare's quatorzains, of Comus, Lycidas, and the octosyllabics, a deficiency which was strongly but not unpleasantly felt by the eighteenth century. Miss Seward, a profound admirer of the poems, praises their "hardnesses," their "energetic plainness," and compares them to "the pointed and craggy rock, the grace of which is its roughness." The elegance of the more intimate ones, the suggestion of Horace in that to Lawrence and the first to Cyriack Skinner, and the somewhat stately grace of the one to Lawes and that to "a virtuous young lady" seem to have left no trace upon the eighteenth-century quatorzain.

The changes which Milton made in subject-matter have received final phrasing from the pen of Landor:

He caught the sonnet from the dainty hand

Of Love, who cried to lose it; and he gave
The notes to Glory.

1 Letters (1811), v. 159, 188-9. Henry White's remarks on the sonnet, in the Gentleman's Magazine for 1786 (lvi. 1110), mention neither Shakespeare nor Spenser. 2 Letter to Landor, April 20, 1822.

3 Letters, i. 201, ii. 257-8. Sir Egerton Brydges (Censura Lileraria, 1808, vi. 415) says that people spoke of the "harsh and bald deformities" of Milton's sonnets. • To Lamartine, in Last Fruit.

Of his "Petrarchian stanzas" in English, only the one to the nightingale deals with love, and that but briefly. Half of them are addressed to friends, an important point as regards influence; the rest are devoted to an attack on the Presbyterians, an appeal for protection, the defense of a pamphlet, the author's birthday, his blindness, his dead wife, and the Piemontese martyrs. It is this widening → and ennobling of its theme that constitutes Milton's greatest service to the sonnet. Obviously, with subjects like these the elaborate trifling, the conceits and exaggerations, of the Elizabethans could have no place. Instead we find seriousness and directness, simplicity and truth. The poems plunge immediately into the subject, eleven of them beginning with vocatives, a feature borrowed by many later writers. They impress us not with their author's cleverness but with his sincerity; they do not savor of art for art's sake, of something written to while away an idle hour, to fill out a sequence, or to follow a fad. Each, we feel, was called forth by some actual event or strong emotion without which it would not have been written. Hence, though spread over a period of twenty-five or thirty years, they are but nineteen in all. Those on the writer's blindness and his dead wife reveal a deep pathos; while the one entitled On the New Forcers of Conscience and the second on Tetrachordon flame with the indignation which in the nobler cause of the Piemontese martyrs glows like a deep fire. In several, indeed, intensity is a distinguishing feature.

Structurally Milton's sonnets mark a return to the Petrarchan form. Aside from three of those in Italian, which from the point of view of influence are almost negligible, — only one concludes with a couplet, the rest having a legitimate rime-scheme throughout.3 Oddly enough, the two respects in which Milton departs from the structure of his Italian models are among the very few in which his English predecessors almost always followed it. Thus, in most Elizabethan sonnets the pauses at the end of the first quatrain and the octave are preserved, whereas in six of Milton's English sonnets the first of these pauses is omitted and in nine the second. More than this, in six cases, instead of a pause at the end of the octave,

1 Milton uses this phrase regarding his sonnet, On his being Arrived at the Age of Twenty-three, in a letter quoted in Masson's Life (1881), i. 325.

2 One other has a vocative after the first word. In seven cases, as usually with Milton's followers, the vocative is a proper name.

'That is, they rime in the octave a b b a a b b a, and in the sestet c d c d cd, or c d e cde, or cded ce, or cd dc dc, or cd ceed, or cd dcee. Milton has one tailed sonnet (an Italian form of twenty lines), On the New Forcers of Conscience, the 13th and 14th lines of which do not form a couplet but the 19th and 20th do.

[ocr errors]

Milton has a run-over line. Such lines occur so frequently in all parts of all his sonnets as to furnish another difference between his work and that of his predecessors. Still further, the Italians and Elizabethans - though the latter are less rigorous in this particular - avoided strong pauses within the line, a principle which Milton disregarded entirely. According to the punctuation of Wright's edition, the nineteen English sonnets have twenty-eight strong pauses (indicated by semicolons, colons, periods, or interrogation-points) within the line, eleven of which mark the ends of sentences. In other words, the prosody of Milton's sonnets is much like that of his blank verse. With this prosody goes, not unnaturally, that inversion of the normal word-order which is a marked feature of Paradise Lost.1 It is important to bear in mind that Milton ended one of his English sonnets, the famous one to Cromwell, with a couplet. Any later sonnet which has this form cannot, therefore, be said to follow the Elizabethans rather than Milton. The difficulties of the Petrarchan form loomed so large in the eighteenth century, a period of little metrical facility, that many of the poets who regarded Milton's usage as authoritative were glad to avail themselves of his sanction of the couplet-ending. We read in the Gentleman's Magazine for 1786: "Of Milton's English sonnets, only that to Oliver Cromwell ends with a couplet; but that single instance is a sufficient precedent. However, in three out of his five Italian ones, the two concluding lines rhime to each other." 2 Many persons regarded the Petrarchan rime-scheme as the ideal and made an effort to conform to it,3 their

1 These innovations are probably undesirable in a poem so brief, and therefore so highly finished, as the sonnet.

2 lvi. 1110. The article is by the Rev. Henry White, a cousin of Miss Seward, whose ideas it represents and who, though an uncompromising devotee of the Miltonic sonnet and of what she regarded as the legitimate form, ended approximately half of her own effusions with couplets. "Little elegies, consisting of four stanzas and a couplet," added White, "are no more sonnets than they are epic poems."

3 Charlotte Smith wrote in the preface to her "Elegiac Sonnets" (1784), most of which are Shakespearean or nearly so, "The little poems which are here called Sonnets, have, I believe, no very just claim to that title." She held that the Petrarchan structure was too difficult for any but poets of "uncommon powers" to handle in English. Capel Lofft urged Kirke White to use the legitimate form and not to call quatorzains sonnets (see White's Remains, ii. 57). The Critical Review held in 1786 (lxi. 467) that, so far as rimes were concerned, Mrs. Smith's poems were not sonnets at all, and in 1793 (new arr., ix. 383) agreed with William Kendall that only poems written "according to the strict rules of that species of versification" were entitled to be called sonnets. Charles Lloyd, the friend of Lamb and Coleridge, thought the same (see his Nugae Canorae, 1819, pp. 167-74). For the decided opinions of Miss Seward and her circle, see the preceding note, and pp. 500-502 below. George Henderson quoted Miss Seward's utterances with approval in his Petrarca (1803, pp. xxvii, xxix, xxx), as the Monthly Review (enl. ed., xxix. 361-4) had previously done. There were many, on the other hand, who heartily disliked the Petrarchan form.

irregularities being not intentional variations but attempts at the legitimate scheme which fell wide of the mark. The order of their rimes is as near Petrarch's as writers with a feeble sense of form, little metrical skill, less inspiration, and almost no literary fastidiousness would be likely to get.

The influence from Italy has been left to the last, because for the present purposes Italian sonnets may be regarded as Elizabethan quatorzains with the Miltonic rime-scheme.1 This does not imply that they are distinguishable from the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries merely by their language and their arrangement of rimes; it means that so far as their influence goes this is the case, that it is hardly possible by internal evidence alone to decide whether the style, subject-matter, or method of treatment of a poem is derived from the Elizabethans or the Italians. Fortunately there is no need of making this distinction, for English poets of the eighteenth century knew little about Italian sonnets and did not like what they knew. To be sure, Laura, "Vaucluse's vale," and the poet who celebrated them are frequently mentioned; but, as the Gentleman's Magazine observed, "the strains of Petrarch" were "more talked of than imitated."2 From Miss Seward's letters and poems, for example, one would surmise that the Swan of Lichfield often floated on the waters of the Arno; yet she wrote of Petrarch's sonnets, "Judging of them by the translations and imitations of them, which I have seen, they want... pathetic simplicity." That is, from her slight knowledge of them she had an unfavorable impression. Coleridge seems to have voiced the general ignorance and the general prejudice when, though he "did not understand a word of Italian" and knew Petrarch "only by bald translations of some half-dozen of his Sonnets," he wrote, "I have never yet been able to discover either sense, nature, or poetic fancy in Petrarch's poems; they appear to me all one cold glitter of heavy conceits and metaphysical abstractions.” 4

[ocr errors]

Translations of about twenty Italian sonnets were printed between 1690 and 1776; and between 1777 and 1790, outside of magazines and of two books which apparently no one read, about thirty

1 J. S. Smart, in his valuable Sonnets of Milton (Glasgow, 1921, pp. 19-34), points out that there was considerable freedom as to the rime-scheme in Italian sonnets, that a number of Elizabethan quatorzains approach the less rigid Italian arrangements, and that run-over lines, internal pauses, and disregard of regular pauses characterize the work of Giovanni della Casa (d. 1556), a copy of whose sonnets Milton owned.

2 lvi. 334 (1786).

3 Letters, v. 58; cf. i. 261, ii. 304, and Sonnets, nos. 25, 64, 86.

4 "Introduction to the Sonnets," Poems (2d ed., 1797), 71.

seem to have appeared.1 When it is remembered that over one hundred and thirty persons were composing quatorzains at this time, and that a single writer sometimes produced between fifty and a hundred, it will be seen how ridiculously few the translations were. There were more in the last decade of the century, but the number was still small. I know of some sixty-five; but, as the dates of many sonnets are uncertain, the number outside of magazines may be between one and two hundred. Furthermore, eighteenth-century bards who translated Italian sonnets usually did only one or two, and apparently worked those up for the occasion in order to make an impression upon their readers, for the translating rarely left any mark on the author's original productions. The truth is, the Englishmen of the time missed in Petrarch and his countrymen the things for which they cared most, and they cared little for many of the qualities which the Italian poems possess. The latter seem to have affected the English quatorzain principally by strengthening the influence of Milton towards the legitimate form.

One feature of the Italian sonnet which seems not to have been understood in England until the nineteenth century is the bipartite structure, or the turn in thought which should come at the beginning 、of the sestet. Such a turn, though frequent in Elizabethan quatorzains, is apparently accidental. Any short, non-stanzaic poem is likely to fall into two parts, Goethe's "Ueber allen Gipfeln," for example, where the first six lines describe the peace of nature, the last two the peace to which man looks forward. There is, accordingly, no warrant for concluding that, because Coleridge devoted the first eight of his lines To the Autumnal Moon to describing the moon and

[ocr errors]

1 I know of but seventeen before 1777, but I did not record those that appeared in magazines after 1742. The two books referred to — which I have been unable to see and to which later writers do not refer - are an anonymous Sonnets and Odes (1777) and W. Lipscomb's Poems (Oxford, 1784).

2 A surprising feature of these translations is that they are rarely from Dante, and that many of them are from little-known Italian poets of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Lofft's Laura (1813-14) contains translations of sonnets many of them previously published - by 118 Italian writers. A Dublin dramatist and slave of the pen, William Preston, who died of overwork in 1807, included twentyseven dull, stilted sonnets in the two volumes of Poetical Works which he published in 1793. Five of these are translations from Petrarch, and almost all the rest deal with the poet's love for a young lady whose death several of them lament. None have the couplet-ending, and all but two use the legitimate octave. Prefixed to the sonnets is a preface (to which Coleridge took violent exceptions, see Poetical Works, Globe ed., pp. 542-3), that does not mention the quatorzains of Shakespeare, Milton, or any eighteenth-century writers, but contains a strong defence of Petrarch. It seems clear, therefore, that Preston drew his inspiration mainly from the great Italian poet. I am indebted to the Boston Athenaeum for the use of the copy which the author presented, with a glowing tribute, to George Washington.

« PreviousContinue »