Year in Sonnets

To a Hyacinth in January

In this sonnet Naden is, again, looking ahead to the coming of Spring. The hyacinth acts as a beacon of hope in the depths of Winter, since their bulbs are often kept indoors in the dark to force the plant into flower around Christmas and into January. Light has a key presence in the poem, encompassing the buds’ ‘snowy gleam’, the ‘fireside glow’, and the sun’s ‘pallid noon-day beam’. In the act of growth, the hyacinth flowers are likened to the sun as the cluster ‘dawns and brightens’, emerging from behind the leaves like the sun rising over the horizon; they are therefore symbolic of the promise of new life that accompanies the warmth and light of Spring. Despite this, there is an unnerving presence of death in this sonnet as Naden insists upon characterising the ‘New Year’s wind […] and rain and hail’ as having the power to destroy ‘tender life’.

Important here is the presence of nature as an external force which is pitted against the safety that humanity can offer. The domesticity of the fireside is linked to the ability to shelter the hyacinth ‘from the frosty air’, and yet such protection is only required because of the poet’s choice to cultivate the flower in winter and so subvert natural seasonal cycles. The dominance of humans over nature is also demonstrated by Naden’s inclusion of botanical terminology – ‘raceme’ is the technical word for the hyacinth’s distinctive flower cluster (the separate flowers attached by short equal stalks to a broader central stem). The botanist’s approach to obtaining knowledge is one in which of hierarchy and power is implicit, they (to use Wordsworth’s phrasing) ‘murder to dissect’ and group their objects of study into strict classifications, asserting order over the natural world.

Nature asserts itself in return, however, as the heady scent of the hyacinth has a strong presence that bookends the poem. The evocative description of the perfume stealing like ‘dainty breath’ in the first two lines captures the way in which the seemingly innocuous flower will immediately make its living presence known in a room. Smell is strongly linked with the recollection of vivid memories, and in the midst of winter it is this burst of fragrance that draws Naden back to previous Springs and allows her to look forward to the ‘promised joy’ to come. There is an interesting parallel with ‘January, 1879’ in these final lines, since perhaps the ideal of Spring (a ‘delicate hidden hope’ inherent in the hyacinth’s perfume) is being held up above the reality of the actual Spring yet to come.

Do you think the forces of nature or of humankind win out in this sonnet? Or does the cultivated hyacinth gesture towards some happy (or indeed strained) medium?

Hyacinths, from "Barr & Sugden's Spring Seed Catalogue and Guide to the Flower and Kitchen Garden" (1868) p.66

Hyacinths, from “Barr & Sugden’s Spring Seed Catalogue and Guide to the Flower and Kitchen Garden” (1868) p.66.

Year in Sonnets

January, 1879

And so we start Naden’s year in sonnets on a lovely note of optimism. Despite the ‘stab and sting’ of frost, which those of us in the Northern hemisphere are currently experiencing, she looks towards the coming Spring ‘[w]ith bounding heart’. Indeed the poem sets off with a bouncing iambic rhythm that reflects the action of her heart, and yet she struggles to sustain this. The act of walking through snow seeming to slow her down as the sonnet takes a more reflective turn and the vowels lengthen as we move towards the octave.

The poem’s form is much like the other nineteen we shall encounter over the course of the cycle, sticking rigidly to the Petrarchan construction (see ‘Contexts’ for more details about the sonnet form in the nineteenth century). This balance of eight and six line stanzas with a break (or volta) to mark a change in rhyme scheme and focus underlines the distinction to be made between the quite literal description of present Winter and remembered Spring, and the broader statement being made about the futility of pessimism.

Here, as elsewhere, Naden sees life in what is dormant and uses this as a metaphor for the need to ‘look on the bright side’. By focusing on the ‘ideal’ beauty and natural energy of birds singing and flowers coming into bloom, even when they are not physically present, Naden exhorts the reader to look pass the leafless branches and remember that Spring is just around the corner. Indeed, not simply remember but actively ‘create’ the ‘ethereal image’ of Spring in heart and mind to combat ‘sad Winter’, her ‘foe’.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that Naden rejects the very idea of grieving and is imbued with this sense of optimism – in January 1879 she would have just turned, or be about to turn, 21 years old, and had recently returned from travelling in Europe. After a few years away from formal education, she was developing an interest in philosophy, science, and languages and would soon enrol in Botany and Latin classes at the Birmingham and Midland Institute. The world was opening up before her, and Naden was keen to experience all it had to offer.


Year in Sonnets

Songs and Sonnets of Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter.

In 1881 Constance Naden published her first volume of poetry, Songs and Sonnets of Springtime, which is a far more varied collection than the title might have you believe. See the ‘Contexts’ page for further discussion of this.

Embedded in this collection is a series of twenty sonnets that describe the shifting seasons, beginning with ‘January, 1879’ and ‘To a Hyacinth in January’, and closing with ‘December, 1879’. Through these Naden observes the natural world, describing beauty and life alongside dormancy and death. It is therefore a sonnet cycle in the fullest sense of the term: the twenty poems demand to be read in sequence, not because they offer a narrative but because they embody the cycles of the natural world that have no true beginning or end.

These sonnets are, at turns, charming, melancholy, reverent, and philosophical. Naden skilfully captures the seasonal sights and sounds of flora and fauna in just fourteen lines, and uses these to focus her reflections on life.

This is a year-long project, for which I shall post each sonnet in the appropriate month, along with some commentary, close reading, and context. I warmly encourage you to read along with me, and engage in further discussion of the poems in the comments or over on Twitter @ClareGS87.

Read More:

If you’d like to position these sonnets in the context of her life and works, head over to the ‘About Naden’ page for some background on the poet herself. ‘About Me’ provides some more information about my current PhD research on Naden as a poet, philosopher, and student of science.

The sonnets are printed sequentially on pages 109 to 128 of Naden’s Complete Poetical Works, which is freely available through the wonderful Victorian Women Writers Project (hosted by Indiana University).