1827
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

["Scorn not the Sonnet."]

The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth. 5 vols.

William Wordsworth


"Mild" Spenser appears in a catalogue of sonneteers (Shakespeare, Petrarch, Tasso, Camoens, Dante, Spenser, Milton). In this self-consciously retrospective vein, compare Thomas Warton's "Sonnet written in a Blank Leaf of Dugdale's Monasticon": "Nor rough, nor barren, are the winding ways | Of hoar Antiquity, but strown with flowers" Poems (1777) 77.

C. H. Townshend: "When we read the sonnets of Milton, or of Warton, we feel that each of them is the result of more thought, and more tends to produce thought in others, than many a long poem which has issued from a mind of weaker stuff. On this ground, more than on account of their nonconformity to the sonnet rules, I should deny the name of sonnet to the compositions of Bowles, or Mrs. Charlotte Smith. They may be pretty songs, or pathetic elegies, but they are not sonnets. They were popular, for they neither resulted from deep thought, nor required deep thought for the comprehension of them. The sonnets of Shakspeare and Milton (however admired by the few) have never been popular, because they address themselves to the understanding as well as the heart, to the imagination rather than to the fancy. Of this stamp are the sonnets of Wordsworth. They may therefore fail to delight the popular palate in an equal degree with (as some wit called them) 'Mrs. Charlotte Smith's whipt syllabubs in black glasses;' but they will be dear to the lovers of original excellence as long as any thinking minds can be found in the community" Blackwood's Magazine 26 (December 1829) 907-08.

Newcastle Magazine: "The sonnet when well written way afford as much pleasure as any other species of verse in our language; some critics, indeed, have condemned it as forced and unnatural; but the sonnets of Professor Warton, Milton, Shakspeare, and Wordsworth, are strong evidence, I think, to the contrary" "Poetry of Spenser" NS 9 (June 1830) 282.

Felicia Hemans: "I have passed a delightful morning to-day in walking with him about his own richly-shaded grounds, and hearing him speak of the old English writers, particularly Spenser, whom he loves, as he himself expresses it, for his 'earnestness and devotedness'" to an anonymous correspondent,1830; in Memorials, ed. Chorley (1836) 2:112-13.

George Saintsbury: "The finished sonnets themselves, of which the Amoretti are so much the most perfect examples that we may confine our remarks to them, have on the whole received insufficient justice. Wordsworth's reference to them, in his famous sonnet-history of the sonnet, is a little patronizing, and even suggests them as a sort of anti-climax to the Faerie Queene" History of English Prosody (1906-10) 3:361.

John Wilson: "NORTH. Wordsworth often writes like an idiot; and never more so than when he said of Milton, 'his soul was like a star, and dwelt apart!' For it dwelt in tumult, and mischief, and rebellion. Wordsworth is, in all things, the reverse of Milton — a good man, and a bad poet. TICKLER. What! That Wordsworth whom Maga cries up as the Prince of Poets? NORTH. Be it so; I must humor the fancies of some of my friends. But had that man been a great poet, he would have produced a deep and lasting impression on the mind of England; whereas his verses are becoming less and less known every day, and he is, in good truth, already one of the illustrious obscure. TICKLER. I never thought him more than a very ordinary man — with some imagination, certainly, but with no grasp of understanding, and apparently little acquainted with the history of his kind. My God! to compare such a writer with Scott and Byron! NORTH. And yet with his creed, what might not a great poet have done? That the language of poetry is but the language of strong human passion! That in the great elementary principles of thought and feeling, common to all the race, the subject matter of poetry is to be sought and found! That enjoyment and suffering, as they wring and crush, or expand and elevate men's hearts, are the sources of song! And what pray has he made out of this true and philosophical creed? A few ballads, (pretty at the best,) two or three moral fables, some natural description of scenery, and half a dozen narratives of common distress or happiness. Not one single character has he created — not one incident — not one tragical catastrophe. He has thrown no light on man's estate here below; and Crabbe, with all his defects, stands immeasurably above Wordsworth as the Poet of the Poor. TICKLER. Good. And yet the youngsters, in that absurd Magazine of yours, set him up to the stars as their idol, and kiss his very feet, as if the toes were of gold. NORTH. Well, well; let them have their own way awhile. I confess that the Excursion is the worst poem, of any character, in the English language. It contains about two hundred sonorous lines, some of which appear to be fine, even in the sense, as well as the sound. The remaining 7300 are quite ineffectual. Then what labor the builder of that lofty rhyme must have undergone! It is, in its own way, a small Tower of Babel, and all built by a single man!" Blackwood's Magazine (September 1825) in Noctes Ambrosianae (1857) 2:101-02.

Wordsworth's sonnet, "'Blest Statesman He' (1838) 14 adapts, and in one version quotes, FQ V ii 36, with an acknowledging note" W. J. B. Owen, Spenser Encyclopedia (1990) 736.

For an amusing example of a critic "scorning the sonnet," see "Leisure Amusements: On the Sonnet" in the European Magazine 45 (January 1804) 24-26.



Scorn not the Sonnet: Critic, you have frowned,
Mindless of its just honours; with this key
Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch's wound;
A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound;
With it Camoens soothed an exile's grief;
The Sonnet glittered a gay myrtle leaf
Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned
His visionary brow: a glow-worm lamp,
It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faery-land
To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp
Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand
The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew
Soul-animating strains — alas, too few!

[Poetical Works (1836-37) 3:50]