1798
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

On Sonnet-Writing.

Literary Hours or Sketches Critical and Narrative, by Nathan Drake, M.D.

Dr. Nathan Drake


In the sixth essay of Literary Hours Nathan Drake dismisses Spenser's sonnets: "Our romantic Spenser, likewise, has endeavoured to transfuse the ease and amenity of the Petrarchian stanza. It is scarcely necessary to say 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" p. 107. And Spenser's sonnets are preferred to Shakespeare's! While posterity has not vindicated this judgment, it might be recalled that Shakespeare's sonnets were but recently published by Edmond Malone and little known when Drake was writing.

Spenser is briefly mentioned in Drake's essay on "Gothic Superstition."




La brevita del sonetto non comporte, che una sola parole sia vane, et il vero subietto e materia del sonetto debbe essere qualche acute e gentile sentenza. narrate attamente, ed in pochi versi ristretta, e fuggendo la oscurita e durezza.

Commen. di Lor. de Med. sopra i suoi Sonetti.

LORENZO de Medici has thus, in few words, accurately defined the true character of the Sonnet, a species of composition which has lately been cultivated with considerable success in England. Italy, however, may boast the honour of giving birth to this elegant and elaborate little poem, which, confined as it is to a frequent return of rhyme, and limited to a certain number of lines, imposes no small difficulty on the poet.

Among the Ancients nothing makes so near an approach to the Sonnet, as the Greek Epigram; the simplicity, sweetness and perspicuity of these compositions, which are generally occupied in illustrating a single idea, want little but the metrical arrangement and restriction of the Italians, to form the legitimate sonnet. The praise of a picture, a statue, or a poem, will be round in the Anthologia to be a common subject of these exquisite pieces, which, in many instances, display so much beauty of sentiment, and such a delicious vein of expression, that with all who possess great delicacy of taste, they must ever be favourites. Yet few touches of the picturesque, or of what has been termed still-life painting, so common in the effusions of the modern writer of sonnets, are discoverable in the Greek Epigram. There are, however, two short Greek poems that, in this respect, have infinite merit, namely, the fifth and seventh Idyllia of Moschus, which, as well in sentiment, as in description, may be deemed indeed unrivalled; they are, in fact, merum nectar.

Dante, though not the inventor of the sonnet, was the first illustrious Italian who succeeded in the composition of it. The same severe and sublime spirit which pervades his wonderful production, the Comedia, may be perceived in these smaller poems, though a few, written in early life, sparkle with pleasure, and youthful gaiety. A striking similitude exists between this great poet and our immortal Milton, whose sonnets partake much more of the genius of Dante than of Petrarch. Both were fond of the gloomy and the terrible, both were judges and lovers of music, both were deeply immersed in the politics of their times, and both felt the vengeance of irritated faction. That Milton was familiar with the writings of his great Predecessor the following beautiful passage in his Epistles will fully evince. "Ego certe istis utrisque linguis non extremis tantummodo labris madidus; sed siquis alius, quantum per annos licuit, poculis majoribus prolutus, possum tamen nonnunquam ad illum DANTEM, et Petrarcham, aliosque vestros complusculos, libenter et cupide comessatum ire. Nec me tam ipsae Athenae Atticae cum illo suo pellucido Ilisso, nec illa vetus Roma sua Tiberis ripa retinere valuerunt, quin saepe Arnum vestrum, et Fae ulanos illos Colles invisere amem."

The sonnets of Milton, like those of Dante, are frequently deficient in sweetness of diction and harmony of versification, yet they possess, what seldom is discernible in compositions of this kind, energy and sublimity of sentiment. The sonnets to Cyriac Skinner, to Fairfax, Cromwell and Vane, are remarkable for these qualities, and for vigour of expression, whilst those addressed to the Nightingale and to Mr. Laurence, can boast, I may venture to assert, both of melody in language and elegance in thought. It should also be observed that Milton has altogether avoided the quaint and metaphysic concetti of Petrarch.

The sonnets of this far-famed Italian have met with more applause perhaps than they deserve. Simplicity, that first of all graces in composition, he has usually violated, and considering the multitude of his productions in this species of poetry, it is astonishing how few can be selected which have any just claim to novelty of illustration, or variety in idea. Were twenty culled by the hand of Taste, the residue would have little, except purity and grace of style, to recommend it. In these, however, Petrarch is a model.

One of the best and earliest attempts in England to naturalize the sonnet, is to be found in the pages of the gallant Surrey, whose compositions in this department, making due allowance for the imperfect state of the language in which he wrote, have a simplicity and chastity in their style and thought which merit every encomium. Our romantic Spenser, likewise, has endeavoured to transfuse the ease and amenity of the Petrarchian stanza. It is scarcely necessary to say 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.

These Opuscula of the gentle poet of the Fairy Queen are, however, far superior to the attempts of the mighty Father of the English Drama. The sonnets of Shakspeare 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, Mr. Malone has once more given them to the press, but 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.

The Author of our motto, the patriotic Lorenzo De Medici, has lately, through the splendid eloquence and well-directed exertions of Mr. Roscoe, attracted much of the attention of the literary world. His poetry, hitherto little noticed, either in his own, or other countries, has now been brought forward with merited applause; and numerous pieces, unknown even to the Literati of Italy, have, for the first time, been published in the elegant volumes of our countryman. Lorenzo has admirably exemplified the truth of his own definition, by writing a number of beautiful sonnets in accordance to its precepts. If his language be not so pure as that of Petrarch, his sentiments are more natural, and his descriptions more spirited, and more faithfully drawn. "If," remarks his ingenious Biographer, "the productions of Dante resemble the austere grandeur of Michael Angelo, or, if those of Petrarca remind us of the ease and gracefulness of Raffaello, the works of Lorenzo may be compared to the less correct, but more animated and splendid labours of the Venetian school."

Camoens, the Homer of Portugal, condescended to the production of a vast number of these elegant morsels. Mr. Hayley has favoured the public with a translation of three which certainly possess considerable merit. This small specimen, however, being the only one I have seen of the minor poems of this accomplished Bard, and which are so numerous as to occupy, along with the Commentary of Manuel di Faria, two volumes in folio, I shall only add that Hayley, when applauding the epic powers of the portuguese poet, has regretted that our country is still a stranger to the lighter graces and pathetic sweetness of his shorter compositions.

Among the Spaniards numerous have been the cultivators of Sonnet-Writing, and several of their poets have attained great excellence in the composition of these beautiful and often spirited little pieces. That prolific versifier Lope de Vega, has written some hundred, though few are entitled to much celebrity. An elder bard, Garcilaso de la Vega, has a claim to superior notice, several of his sonnets being truly elegant and interesting; but none of the spanish poets, in this province of the muse, rival the efforts of Lupercio Leonardo de Argensola and his brother Bartolome. These very amiable relations lived in the sixteenth century, and their productions, though incorrect and inartificial in design, possess many a pleasing, many a brilliant and pathetic passage. Some of their sonnets have been well translated in a valuable monthly publication. Two, by Lupercio, beautiful for their reflection and sentiment, can require no apology for their introduction into this essay.

I.
The sun has chas'd away the early shower,
And now upon the mountain's clearer height,
Pours o'er the clouds, aslant, his growing light.
The husbandman, loathing the idle hour,
Starts from his rest, and to his tally toil.
Light-hearted man, goes forth; and patient now
As the slow ox drags on the heavy plough,
With the young harvest fills the reeking soil.
Domestic love his due return awaits,
With the clean board bespread with country cates;
And clust'ring round his knee his children press;
His days are pleasant, and his nights secure.
Oh, cities! haunts of power and wretchedness.
Who would your busy vanities endure.

II.
Content with what I am, the sounding names
Of glory tempt not me; nor is there ought
In glittering grandeur that provokes one wish
Beyond my peaceful state. What tho' I boast
No trapping that the multitude adores
In common with the great; enough for me
That naked, like the mighty of the earth,
I came into the world, and that like them
I must descend into the grave, the house
For all appointed; for the space between,
What more of happiness have I to seek
Than that dear woman's love, whose truth I know,
And whose fond heart is satisfied with me?

The first among the poets of Great Britain who attained to excellence in the formation of the sonnet was Drummond of Hawthornden; and it may, without hazard of contradiction, be asserted, that many of his pieces equal, if not excel, the more celebrated effusion, of the Italian school. "If any poems," observes Mr. Pinkerton, "possess a very high degree of that exquisite doric delicacy which we so much admire in Comus, &c. those of Drummond do. Milton may often be traced in him; and he had certainly read and admired him. And if we had no Drummond, perhaps we should never have seen the delicacies of Comus, Lycidas, II Penseroso, L'Allegro." To the charms of simplicity in these little poems is frequently added that attractive tenderness in sentiment and expression which usually accompanies the man of genius, and which was in Drummond, from early disappointment in love, cherished with more than common enthusiasm.

Various have been the efforts since the time of Drummond to excel in these "nugae dificiles," as they have been termed; Milton we have already noticed. After his death a long chasm intervened in this department of poetry, but within the last forty years numerous cultivators of sonnet writing have sprang up. Among these we may mention with peculiar distinction, Charlotte Smith and Mr. Bowles.

As the singular arrangement, and frequent return of rhyme in the Italian sonnet, suit not well the genius of English poetry, the two authors last mentioned have in general, dismissed such restrictions, still, however, confining themselves to the number of fourteen lines, but assuming the elegiac measure. They have, on this plan, acquired for the sonnet greater sweetness and harmony of versification, and, as their subjects are usually of the plaintive kind, the tender tones of the elegy have happily been chosen, In unaffected elegance of style, aim in that pleasing melancholy which irresistibly steals upon and captivates the heart, they have excelled all other writers of the sonnet, and have shewn how erroneous are the opinions of those who deem this species of composition beneath the attention of genius.

The four sonnets which are appended to these observations [omitted], are merely introduced here in pursuance of the plan chalked out in the preface, and with no presumptuous idea of their challenging a comparison with the definition of Lorenzo.


[(1800) 1:103-14]