Year in Sonnets

Reflecting on a Year in Sonnets

Two years after Constance Naden published her Year in Sonnets sequence she wrote about how ‘Sun and rain are translated by imagination into smiles and tears; the glow of summer and the gloom of winter seem to express the joy and grief of the world-spirit. Man sees himself mirrored in nature, and bows down before his own image, which seems to respond to his devotion.’ (‘What is Religion?’ in Further Reliques of Constance Naden, p. 118). This description of pantheism encapsulates much of what Naden does in these poems, pushing against religion and seeking to replace it with a more material understanding of the world, looking for meaning in the natural rather than the supernatural. As her ideas developed further Naden went on to reject the spiritual feelings that underlie such a pantheist view and instead focused on the natural cycle of life and death that represents simply a transfer of energy.

When I set out to write a blog about Naden’s Year in Sonnets at the beginning of 2015 I did so with the intention of bringing to light some of the least appreciated poems from an under-appreciated Victorian poet. These twenty poems do not have the comic spark of Naden’s ‘Evolutional Erotics’, the atheistic vehemence of ‘A Priest’s Warning’, or the awestruck wonder of ‘Starlight I’ and ‘Starlight II’; what they offer instead is a sustained reflection upon our place in the natural world. Despite having spent several years researching Naden’s work, I began this project with the view that these were perhaps her least innovative poems, conventional verses on flowers being the stereotypical stock-in-trade of Victorian women writers. Looks can be deceiving, however, and delving deeper into the sonnets one at a time over the course of twelve months gave each one room to breathe, opening up deeper themes of energy in dormancy, life in death.

In 1881, when Songs and Sonnets of Springtime was published, Naden was on the cusp of a new chapter of her life, for this was the year in which she began studying at Mason College of Science. In the years leading up to this – during which she wrote these poems – Naden had spread her intellectual net far and wide, developing interests in continental philosophy, modern and classical languages, and the boundaries of scientific knowledge. These influences are not always obvious in her Year in Sonnets, but her propensity to expand her understanding of the world underlies them all. In an obituary essay William R. Hughes described Naden’s precocious curiosity, recalling how at the age of six she would imagine ‘“talks” with the trees, birds, and butterflies, out of which grew questionings as to “How?” and “Why” these were; what was our relation to them, and theirs to ours; questionings to the solution of which [Naden] devoted her life’ (Constance Naden: A Memoir, pp. 8-9). It is this inquisitive enthusiasm that echoes through the sequence of poems discussed in this blog.

I fully intend to return to Naden’s Year in Sonnets, and my readings of them, over the course of this year, and hope others will be inspired to do the same. Many things have changed in the 140 years since these poems were written, but nature’s seasonal cycle is changeful yet changeless. Her meditations on nature thus continue to resonate with renewed meaning with every passing month.

Naden bust & plaque

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Year in Sonnets

Precocity or Industry? Constructing Narratives of Attainment in Victorian Life Writing

My blog post for The Victorianist about how Constance Naden’s friends constructed her legacy in response to contemporary conversations about precocity.

The Victorianist: BAVS Postgraduates

Clare Stainthorp is a third-year AHRC-funded PhD student at the University of Birmingham. Her thesis is on the writer Constance Naden (1858-1889), focusing on the unifying project through which Naden sought to draw together poetry, philosophy, and science. Clare is also Editorial Assistant for Modernist Cultures, and postgraduate committee member for the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar. She tweets about her research via @ClareGS87 and blogs at

Precocity or Industry? Constructing Narratives of Attainment in Victorian Life Writing

At a fascinating panel at the BAVS conference in September 2015 Rebecca Mitchell, Roisín McClosky, and Hannah Field spoke on the topics of precocity and backwardness. Their research illuminated the Victorian construction of childhood intelligence and, in various ways, the tension between industry and idleness in relation to attainment and giftedness.[1] Mitchell concluded that when precocity is viewed as a consequence of a sensuous faculty (for example a…

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Year in Sonnets

December, 1879

In ‘December, 1879’, the concluding poem in the Year in Sonnets cycle, Constance Naden describes her conception of Earth personified and reflects on our potential for hidden depths. The feminisation of Earth follows the Mother Earth trope, Naden admiringly describing her appearance and character in a manner that evokes the sonnet’s traditional role as a love poem.

The octave begins with an image of Earth ‘stripped of all her gems and vestures gay’, a pious characterisation in which the renunciation of adornments in order to ‘Giv[e] thanks to Heaven’ is suggestive of the actions of a nun. The second half of this line – ‘while weaklings can but pray’ – is difficult to parse, but it suggests that while humans can only voice their thanks to God, the Earth annually prostrates itself and is therefore superior in its commitment to worship. In addition Naden engages with the concept of geological time as she acknowledges that the passing of a year barely registers in the context of the Earth’s history, again indicating our insignificance in comparison to the grand scale of the Earth. However the line ‘For she is young as on her primal day’ also evokes the sonnet’s courtship tradition as a vehicle for flattery that tends towards hyperbole and even insincerity.

Throughout this poem it is suggested that we should look to the Earth as a source of wisdom, hence allegorical lines such as ‘December [is] not less rich than May’ and ‘still beneath the snow her heart is warm’. These statements are true both literally (the entirety of the seasonal cycle is necessary in order for the natural world to be maintained; the soil incubates ‘The Seed’) and when applied metaphorically (the aging process does not undermine worth; compassion and/or desire may underlie a woman’s cool exterior). In this poem, perhaps more than any other in this cycle, there is therefore a sense that the sentiment being communicated is personal rather than philosophical.

The idea of hidden depths continues in the sestet, particularly in the final two lines where the conceit of describing the snow-covered Earth starts to fall away and the description of a woman comes into focus. There is, I think, an implied affinity between the poet and these traits: ‘Rich in hid wealth, and strong in secret power, / Silent with joy, and pure with perfect love.’ Clearly this continues to evoke the dormant power of the Earth in winter, awaiting the ‘fuller radiance’ of spring sunshine to encourage new growth. And yet it is difficult to escape the feeling that in ‘December, 1879’, as Naden awaited her 22nd birthday on the eve of a new decade, the sense of potential and new beginnings resonated with her on a personal level. Like the Earth, Naden ‘lies dreaming of her destined hour’ at which point she will show her true nature to the waiting world.

While the 1870s was a period of transition for Naden, in the 1880s she began to live more independently and publically follow her passions. In 1881 Naden enrolled at the Mason College of Science in Birmingham, published her first volume of poetry (which included her Year in Sonnets), and committed herself to writing about her freethinking philosophy. We know from other pantheist poems in this sequence, such as ‘Sunshine’ and ‘September, 1880’, that Naden felt a connection with the Earth that was founded in a shared energy, and the dormant power that courses through this poem evokes the self-belief that bolstered her successes in the following decade.

Year in Sonnets

November, 1878

Digitised by the Victorian Woman Writers Project, Indiana University.

Digitised by the Victorian Woman Writers Project, Indiana University.

In this, the penultimate poem in Constance Naden’s year in sonnets, we see several of the preceding poems echoed as she looks both forwards and backwards. The sombre opening invokes lack and desolation, even the boisterous wind of spring and autumn has almost fallen silent.

The shift in tone at the volta is more dramatic than any we’ve seen over the course of the cycle, ‘And yet’ clearly indicating the movement from despair to optimism. This is, however, foreshadowed in the preceding stanza. The ‘constant, faint, unchanging hum’ gestures towards Naden’s own poetic voice, ‘constant’ punning on the name Constance, and the ‘hum’ aligning itself with the poetic song behind these very lines. Indeed the usually regular beat of iambic pentameter is flattened here, reflecting the mood expressed in these opening lines.

Naden becomes one with nature, which follows on from a similar sense of identification and unity in the previous sonnet. Her poetic voice ‘seems the voice of the despairing earth’, and over the course of this sonnet cycle we have learned how closely Naden identifies emotionally with the changing seasons. In these lines this reciprocity is almost complete, as she seemingly comes to speak for the earth itself.

There is an introspective side to this sonnet, however, the caveat ‘to me’ being an acknowledgement that not all will share her perspective. But nonetheless the evocative imagery of ‘Their lace‐like twigs half‐seen, half‐hid with snow’ provides the reader with an insight into Naden’s personal vision of the encroaching winter. A fundamental concept within her philosophy is that empathy underlies human relationships, as described in the following excerpt of her 1884 essay ‘Hylo-Idealism: The Creed of the Coming Day’ which goes some way to demonstrating how her poetic sensibilities suffuse her philosophical prose.

Two interlocutors are like opposite mirrors. Each, among other objects, reflects its vis-à-vis, and therefore reflects its own reflexion. The mirrors may be cracked or clouded, convex or concave […] Still, in however distorted a form, each may be said to contain its opposite neighbour, and, were mirrors sentient beings the mutual inclusion would be psychical as well as physical. (Induction and Deduction, p. 174)

The idea of mentally absorbing that with which we interact is central to ‘November, 1878’, in which the boundaries between poet and nature are comprehensively blurred.

The closing couplet leaves the reader with a real sense of hope; we return to the familiar imagery that highlights the living energy inherent in what is seemingly dormant, reminding us of both ‘The Seed’ and ‘To the First Snowdrop’. And yet the resonance is slightly different in this instance, for the ‘red chrysanthemum’ is symbolic of love, optimism, and rest; this is therefore also a poem about the resilience of these ideals. The biting frost signifies the inevitability of challenges they might face, but we are left safe in the knowledge that while this flower will inevitably be killed off by the winter’s cold, many more will rise again in its stead.

Year in Sonnets

October, 1879

As we are plunged into the depths of autumn Constance Naden looks to the beauty in nature to find joy in the world around her. On the surface it is perhaps one of her most commonplace sonnets, as she draws on the usual descriptors of autumn, with its rich red and gold tones. Naden’s facility with descriptive language and handling of metre, however, means that even the listing of trees with the colour of their leaves in the octave remains compelling.

There is a fascinating shifting between emotional states across this sonnet. In the opening lines we move from the ‘dolorous year’ to ‘ever-living loveliness’, the alliterative chime of the latter phrase reinforcing the sense that this is the more accurate view. In the closing lines this movement is echoed, albeit softened, as the melancholy image of ‘lonely flowers’ in fact brings cheer; we have been told in the preceding stanza that the azalea’s ‘sunny flowers are fallen’ and so this potential to find new rather than decaying life brings optimism. In turn these flowers become a simile for ‘new joys that spring when hope is dead’, at which point the reader is drawn outside the autumnal scene and led to reflect more broadly on the relationship between hope and despair. ‘[S]pring’ at this juncture therefore serves to remind us of the cycle of the seasons as well describing joyful movement.

This is also a secular poem, in which Naden chooses not to look to pantheistic or Christian vocabulary to bolster her emotional connection with the forces of nature, in contrast to ‘September, 1880’ and ‘Sunshine’, for example. Here the act of creating a wreath-crown from leaves provides us with an image of the poet clothing herself in garments provided by the trees. In doing so she becomes akin to a dryad, communing and mingling with the trees: the ‘branchlets of the golden‐tressëd birch’ echo the ringlets of a golden-haired woman, the ‘beech‐leaves ruddy brown’ are reminiscent of skin burnished by bracing country air.

It is notable that rather than being in the wider natural setting of most of her sonnets, here Naden is writing explicitly about her own garden: ‘Still is my garden with such beauty fraught’. The connection made between the poet and the plants in this poem is therefore all the more strong, an idea underscored by the ‘bright azaleas [that] flash me back my thought’. This is a poem about finding strength in the power of nature, and in ‘October, 1879’ Naden shows how absolutely she feels her mind and body to be intertwined with the ‘changeful, yet changeless’ world around her.

Detail from ‘Autumn Leaves’ John Everett Millais (1855-56) City Art Galleries, Manchester & Detail from my London garden, October 2015.

Year in Sonnets

The Seed

‘The Seed’ is one of Naden’s most literal renderings of botanical knowledge within her poetry. Its description of the formation of the seed, followed by its period of dormancy in the soil over winter, is closely tied to the availability of light. The presence and absence of light is not as straightforward as one might suppose, however’ Naden reminds us in the opening lines that ‘No light of sun or moon can reach the seed / That blindly in the bosom of a flower / Ripens through summer’, and returns to this image of the seed lying in the flower’s ‘fragrant gloom’ immediately after the volta. As she would have been well aware from her Botany classes taken at the Birmingham and Midland Institute, it is not simply the availability of light that stimulates growth, since during the height of summer the seed lies in the flower-head’s ‘fragrant gloom’. Instead the ‘embryo life’ must wait for spring that ‘shall not speed’, resulting in the climactic line ‘And every child of Day shall find the sun.’ There is certainly a moralistic tone to this conclusion that patience is a virtue and yet the positioning of this within a scientifically informed register indicates Naden’s unwillingness to accept socio-cultural platitudes.

It is notable that ‘child of Day’ echoes a Biblical phrase, contributing to the sense of didacticism evident in the closing couplet. While, in isolation, the final line would therefore imply that the seed’s eventual germination is a metaphor for revelation and redemption upon accepting the light of religion, its pairing with the preceding line ‘Yet Night shall keep her own, and lose not one’ undermines this. Rather than the Bible’s proclamation ‘Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness’ (Thessalonians 1.5) Naden sees the value and necessity of both light and dark, day and night, winter and spring. The dark soil may seem ‘cold’ and ‘lifeless’, but it is protective; by gendering night as female it becomes equated with the ‘mother earth’ figure that often underlies pantheistic philosophies.

Naden personifies the seed, drawing parallels between a plant’s life cycle and human emotions such as hopelessness, and yet she does so in a way that highlights our essential oneness with nature in our urge for the right kind of light. This is borne out of the earlier sonnet in the cycle, ‘To the First Snowdrop’, which celebrates how when ‘the sun appears’ there ‘[n]ow springs to life and light each buried joy’, indicating how these poems gesture both forwards and backwards, to the year that has passed and the year that is to come. The pairing of ‘life and light’ that is traceable across Naden’s Year in Sonnets is fundamental to her engagement with the natural world and the influence of the changing seasons both intellectually and emotionally, reaching beyond the commonplace towards the realm of materialist knowledge and universal truth.

NB At the Birmingham and Midland Institute Naden sat the Elementary and Advanced Botany exams in 1881 (achieve a first-class certificate in the subject) – these exams were set by the Science and Art Department, and so diagrams such as this would have been used by Naden to study botany.

Year in Sonnets

Songs Before Daybreak

Unusually for Constance Naden this sonnet is principally about the perception of nature’s sounds, rather than its sights. Even in a poem that is overtly about what is audible, however, we find that light’s ‘rays of glory’ play an important role, since the ‘songs’ in question are the dawn chorus and therefore tied to diurnal rhythms dictated by the sun. Indeed sound begets sight, her senses being interwoven so that the bird song allows her to ‘feel, before I see’. This poem that describes the ‘dusky twilight’ is suffused by the vocabulary of light, Naden having chosen to use negative modifiers rather than describe the darkness directly, for example ‘not morn’ rather than ‘night’ and ‘untinged with gold’ rather than ‘dark grey’.

The first stanza’s description of the birds’ song ringing out into the night is very evocative, and Naden is particularly struck by the intelligence that this demonstrates on their part. We know from a notebook that she kept in 1878-79 that one of her fundamental reservations about Christianity was that it teaches that humans have souls but all other organisms do not. While Naden was a materialist who rejected the very idea of spirit, she was also uncomfortable with the idea that humans are fundamentally different from other animals, and so by granting the birds in this poem human-like intuition she unsettles the distinction between the animal and human world as taught by the Bible. She also plays on the double meaning of the word ‘divine’ to indicate that the birds have insight but are also creatures worthy of reverence.

The repetition of ‘though’ four times in the octave creates an air of uncertainly, which means that statements are perpetually undermined. This enacts the feelings that Naden is describing, whereby the birds intuit that the sun will soon rise, while she can only wait and rely on her knowledge of the sun’s movement as cycle. The shift in tone upon reaching the sestet is marked, beginning with a resounding ‘Yes’. Here Naden comes to the realisation that even if she cannot perceive directly what it is the birds can sense, their dawn chorus enables her to join with them in the sense of ‘hope’ that it engenders. The clear sense of oneness with nature speaks of Naden’s pantheist leanings, and takes the place of conventional religious faith in this poem.

This culminates in the final three lines that demonstrate the sense of unity achieved. She feels able to ‘translate’ the song into ‘gladsome words’, evoking the very nature of the poetic medium in which she expresses these feelings. The harmony felt is literalised, as the sounds of bird song, raindrops, and the wind come together in a single composition which resonates deeply with Naden’s self. Thus, as the night lengthens and winter draws in, hers is no longer ‘a voice forlorn’, it has become part of the dawn chorus.