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.



4 thoughts on “January, 1879

  1. It’s interesting how, having set herself against winter in favour of spring in the octave, she seems to switch around: she loves ‘[t]hese homely scenes’ – if you assume, as I think it’s possible to do, that she’s referring to the wintry ones – and loves them ‘forever’ because they present an image of permanence, in contrast with the ephemeral ‘leaves and blossoms’ which die. So though she loves spring, she loves it most as an imagined presence – an ‘ethereal image’ – predicated on the wintry scene which negates it. It’s quite a complex dynamic; it reminds me of some Wallace Stevens poems, like ‘The Snow Man’ and ‘The Course of a Particular’. Then again, perhaps she turns it inside out again in the last two lines, because – pursuing the Platonism of the ‘ideal form of beauty’ – those who live in the cave of appearances (in this scheme, winter) forget the reality of the sunlit world (here, spring). There’s a lot more going on in here than New Year’s optimism!


    • Thanks for sharing this Henry, I really appreciate hearing other people’s readings of Naden’s poems – you’re right there are definite complexities within the sestet in particular. The quite jarring presence of grieving in the final two lines also shifts the tone quite dramatically by shaking the sense of security fostered by the preceding lines.
      I hadn’t thought of her loving primarily the imagined presence of Spring before; the poems that follow and document the coming of Spring are much more solidly grounded in the reality of the natural changes the season brings. I’ll take a look at Wallace Stevens, I don’t think I’ve come across ‘The Course of a Particular’ before. Perhaps my leaning towards the optimistic also had something to do with the frame of mind I was in while writing this post (winter’s not my favourite time of year)!


  2. Pingback: To a Hyacinth in January | Changeful, yet changeless

  3. Pingback: Stratford-on-Avon, May 14th, 1880 | Changeful, yet changeless

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