1804
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Preface to Laura: a Collection of Sonnets.

Laura: or an Anthology of Sonnets, (on the Petrarcan Model,) and Elegiac Quaruorzains. 5 vols. [Capel Lofft, ed.]

Capel Lofft


The first of the five volumes of Capel Lofft's anthology is devoted entirely to a discussion of the form of the sonnet and the history of its continental practitioners. This massive preface has very little to say about Spenser, because Lofft's definition of the sonnet, derived from the Petrarchan model, excludes both Shakesperian and Spenserian sonnets: "The SONNET is a perfect LYRIC Composition. consisting of a POEMATIUM, or small Poem, of a determinate length, divided into two SYSTEMS: the one of LIGHT, the other of six verses: the major System consisting of a double QUADERNARIO, or Quatrain, of two Rhimes twice repeated in each Division; the minor of a double TERZINO, Ternary, or TERZETTE, interwoven by having one line in each of its Divisions which has a correspondent line rhiming to it in the other" 1:iii.

Lofft refers to the Spenserian sonnet as a "quatuorzain" rather than a sonnet, though in an appendix he defines it as one of general three kinds of sonnet, a form "connected by like rhime running through it." Given this definition, he proceeds to specify all such interlaced patterns — a number of them are listed in tabular form — as "Spenserian."

One might contrast Samuel Taylor Coleridge's remark in the third edition of his Poems (1803) that "Respecting the metre of a Sonnet, the Writer should consult his own convenience. — Rhymes, many or few, or no rhymes at all — whatever the rapid expression of his feelings will permit; — all these things are left at his own disposal."

Ladies' Monthly Museum: "The lovers of the Sonnet will be gratified with a very copious account of its rise, structure, &c. and will be put in possession of a biographical and critical Catalogue of the Italian Authors who have cultivated this species of Poetry. It seems Mr. Lofft has been deterred by his Publisher from continuing his series through the Spanish &c. Writers of the Sonnet. We would certainly have wished to have seen the series complete; and we think it might have been completed in nearly the present limits, as considerable part of what has been inserted might have been easily compressed" NS 17 (September 1814) 171.

Gentleman's Magazine: "Mr. Lofft is rather inclined to class Shakespeare's Poems with the Quatuorzains than with the Sonnets; and however beautiful he considers Spenser's, he decides his Sonnets to be of the second or imperfect order" 84 (November 1814) 453.




The COLLECTION here offer'd to the Public has been slowly form'd. It is twelve Years since it has commenc'd: and during that Period it has been no slight part of the Gratification of many happy and of the Solace of many anxious hours. If it produces any proportion of similar effects to any of my Readers, I shall have sufficient cause to be well content in having publisht it.

That it may, I have reason to expect: when I consider not only the influence of POETRY in general, but that the shortness and the variety of these Compositions adapts them peculiarly to the vast diversity of the circumstances of Life and of the state of the Mind; its Feelings and its Sentiments; its Passions and its Affections.

I have nam'd the Selection, LAURA: in affectionate and respectful remembrance of PETRARCH, and of that mysterious Passion to which we owe that the SONNET has such celebrity; and to which, in a great measure, we are indebted for the Taste and Refinement form'd and diffus'd by his delicate and cultivated Genius, by whose peculiar amenity, purity, tenderness, calm and graceful elevation, the Style, the Poetry, the Sentiments and the Manners of ITALY, and progressively of EUROPE, have been so happily influenc'd.

A farther Consideration had its share in determining the Choice of the Name: which is, that many FEMALE POETS have grac'd this elegant Department of Poetry: many of whose beautiful Productions will be found in these Volumes.

Having said thus much of the Name of this Publication, I wish to speak more in the Detail of that Genus of Poetry of which it is compos'd — SONNETS and QUATUORZAINS.

These agree in one general Character; — that of being Poems limited to fourteen lines. In every other which has respect to their Form they are essentially different.

The SONNET is a perfect LYRIC Composition. consisting of a POEMATIUM, or small Poem, of a determinate length, divided into two SYSTEMS: the one of LIGHT, the other of six verses: the major System consisting of a double QUADERNARIO, or Quatrain, of two Rhimes twice repeated in each Division; the minor of a double TERZINO, Ternary, or TERZETTE, interwoven by having one line in each of its Divisions which has a correspondent line rhiming to it in the other.

Such is the SONNET in its strict Form: as compos'd by GUITTONE D'AREZZO, CINO DA PISTOJA, BUONACCORSO DA MONTE-MAGNO, GIUSTO DE' CONTI, PETRARCA, VERONICA GAMBARA, DANTE, the TASSO'S, SANNAZARO, VITTORIA COLONNA, LEONARDO DA VINCI, MICHEL ANGELO, and other distinguisht Successors. — Such it is as introduc'd into our Language by SPENSER, SYDNEY and MILTON: and continued in our days, by Mrs CHARLOTTE SMITH in some exquisite Examples, EDWARDS, GRAY, MASON, WART0N, Mrs. ROBINSON, and HENRY KIRKE WHITE. In this enumeration I purely confine myself to the DEAD: though in the Selection itself I have drawn my Materials from many living Authors whom Posterity will not forget. But let those who affect to laugh at Sonneteers and despise this whole Class of Authors as unworthy of the Name of Poets, learn a little whom and what it is that they despise. Perhaps they may blush at the mere sight of a List which includes Names which they can not be wholly ignorant stand in the first Order of human Excellence.

I have not mention'd SHAKESPEARE as an Author of the strict SONNET: because his Poems (except one or two, and those scarcely perfect in the Form,) are rather reducible under the class of QUATUORZAINS than of strict SONNETS.

And even those of SPENSER, as we shall see hereafter, are SONNETS of the 2d or imperfect Order: which although beautiful even in Rhythm, and exceedingly so in Sentiment and Imagery, are not conform'd to the perfect GUIDONIAN and PETRARCAN MODEL.

From this Account two circumstances are naturally, as I think, deducible: one, that the SONNET has a close Analogy to the regular GRECIAN ODE with its major and minor, its odic and epodic System, its Strophe and Antistrophe; the other, that besides this it has another yet more particular and more curious Analogy to MUSIC. . . .

I have now a Remark to offer respecting the Form of the ENGLISH SONNET principally observable in these Volumes. This will be found to be regularly constructed on the PETRARCAN Model. And such has been the Practice in general of the most eminent Poets in our Language. There are but few Exceptions, and perhaps only SHAKESPERE is necessary to be particularly notic'd. And his Deviation and the intermediate SPENSERIAN SONNET which is sui Generis, have both been already the subject of Investigation here.

Many of those of Sir PHILIP SYDNEY are strictly PETRARCAN: and the Rhythm of this great Man is both in Prose and Verse wonderfully fine. The admirable SONNETS of DRUMMOND and of MILTON are PETRARCAN also. And such are those of the elegant and exquisitely refin'd Taste of BAMFYLDE; such the noble Compositions of COWPER; such the splendid and animated Productions of Miss SEWARD; such several of the most excellent of Mrs. CHARLOTTE SMITH; such those of WARTON, delightful to the ear and imagination; such the sweet and pathetic Series compos'd by Mrs. ROBINSON; such the elegant, animated, and tender of Mr. HAY DRUMMOND; of those of HAYLEY, and frequently of ROSCOE, PARK and of BRYDGES, of EDWARDS, of GRAY, of LANGHORNE, of Mr. MICKLE, Lord STRANGFORD, Sir BROOKE BOOTHBY, of Mrs. WEST, Mr. EDWARD CARTWRIGHT, Mr. DAVENPORT, and other elegant and admirable Poets. If the Practice and the Judgement of the late Mr. KIRKE WHITE, and of BOWLES, of SOUTHEY, and COLERIDGE be opposed to me, — and uncandid it would be to suppress the difference, formidable as it is, — the practice is not absolutely uniform, (Mr. KIRKE WHITE was at least partly a Convert to the PETRARCAN SONNET) and the Judgement founded on the suppos'd incongruity of the strict Sonnet to our Language appears to me to be contrary to the experienc'd Fact. I do not see that the Writer of a SONNET acquainted with the resources of our Language as to Rhyme, and habituated to the use of them, needs to express himself otherwise or worse, to be less natural, less poetical; or his rhymes to be less correct, than if he had adopted the elegiac Quatuorzain. The Rhymes, certainly, being reduplicated in the Sonnet, require to be at least as just; and especially the two which are immediately conjoin'd, as in the common Couplet. But, as Sir PHILIP SYDNEY, in his ingenious and beautiful Defence of Poetry, has observ'd, which appears to me to be such as TASSO would have written in English, we abound in Rhymes of every species — the Male or Monosyllable Rhymes; the Female, where the Accent falls on the penultimate, and the sliding or "sdniccioli" where it is thrown back to the antepenultimate. And if the SONNET encourages occasional Inversion, this to be a blemish must become so by the injudicious or the unskilful use of it. It agrees well in its occasional use with the Dignity of the SONNET: and is capable, as observ'd already, of being conducive to the Energy of Expression, and to the highest rhythmical Beauties. And although the Quatuorzain in highly accomplisht hands has Charms which none perhaps more feel or more willingly acknowlege than I shall do, I can not in itself give it the preference or so much as an equality to the true PETRARCAN SONNET: feeling as I do, and as many others feel, the charms of it's graceful TEXTURE, it's rhythmic Unity, it's majestic Flow and Cadance, the Beauty and refin'd Dignity and Loveliness of it's Movement. . . .

NOTE TO THE PRECEDING TABLES.

. . . Thus it appears that there are three principal Modes of the SONNET, two proper and one improper. The Guidonian, Petrarcan, or music-sytematic; the Spenserian, or Diasynartete (connected by like rhime running through it) and the Asynartete, or disconnected throughout; there being no Tessitura of like Rhimes pervading its structure. It appears also that of the regular Sonnet there are at least 52, and of the irregular 54 species; to which more might be added even from this Collection. Sixteen are tabled of the Spenserian Texture. 106 distinct Varieties in combining rhimes of 14 lines is in no respect an uninteresting contemplation.

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