Year in Sonnets


After the specificity of the previous two sonnets, in which Naden described a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon, we are returned to her more usual style in which she observes familiar aspects of the natural world. The action of sunlight is the central image, and Naden slips between describing its effect on the landscape (visually) and herself (emotionally). In this poem, therefore, light is an active force; illumination causes transformation, whether it is creating ‘the tints wherewith thou robest copse and hill’ or ‘teaching my heart to glow’.

The creative act is central to this sonnet, for in the act of writing a poem Naden also aspires to paint (‘Oh that my hand had cunning to combine / The tints’) and produce music (‘dreaming notes I cannot sing’). She often writes in this reflexive way, engaging with the artistic process in other poems such as ‘Undiscerned Perfection’ and ‘The Painter To The Musician’. In ‘Sunshine’, however, Naden is preoccupied with her inability to create something that accurately represents the beauty and truth found in nature. This anxiety is reflected in the form of the sestet, for while the indentation of the lines suggests regular steps towards attaining higher knowledge, the rhyme scheme (CDECED) demonstrates that Naden ‘may not build [Truth’s] shrine’, as it tumbles back down upon itself.

There are several uses of religious vocabulary in this sonnet – ‘praise’, ‘spirit’, ‘worshipping’, ‘glory’ – and yet sunlight is the object of this fervour. This perspective on physical energy emphasises Naden’s interest in pantheism (asserting an identification between god and nature), which formed a stepping stone to her development of an atheist philosophy called Hylo-Idealism. Here light is inextricably paired with truth, gesturing towards the etymologies of philosophical and theological terms such as enlightenment and revelation. As Naden recognises, this is not a unique connection to make: she is ‘not as one apart, / But with the kindred throng who love the light’. It does, however, form the basis of her interdisciplinary philosophy that identifies the way in which light is a unifying concept that is at the heart of scientific, philosophical, and artistic conceptions of the world.

This view of nature is more clearly aligned with Romanticism than themes one might expect to encounter in a poem published in 1881. Naden was certainly influenced by the Romantics – both the art and philosophy of the British and German schools – and this will form the basis for one of my thesis chapters. There’s not room in this blog post to develop this further, but I’d love to discuss it in the comments if you have any thoughts about situating Naden as a (very) late Romantic!

Year in Sonnets

In the Lanes Between Stratford and Shottery, May 14th, 1880

This sonnet opens with the image of Naden walking along the country lanes between Stratford (William Shakespeare’s birthplace and final resting place) and Shottery (the family home of Anne Hathaway, his wife). Victorian visitors were encouraged to make the short walk, an 1865 guide to the town suggesting that ‘there is something rather romantic in this boy-lover episode in the life of the poet, and one naturally feels a desire to visit the scenes connected with it’, describing Shottery as ‘the very spot on which the boy lover, with all the ardour of a Romeo, pleaded his cause with Ann [sic] Hathaway’ (p. 29). Naden seems caught up in this romanticised version of events, day-dreaming about an eighteen year old Shakespeare courting Hathaway in the picturesque countryside.

The compression of time between Shakespeare’s lifetime and Naden’s own, which began in ‘Stratford-on-Avon, May 14th, 1880’, continues in this sonnet. The ‘dreamful meads’ of 1880 are described as retaining the spirit of the young Shakespeare, who walked the same lanes 300 years earlier. The ‘changeful, yet changeless’ theme persists, the sky-lark’s call quickening her own heart and his.

After the previous sonnet in which Naden played a little with her usual sonnet form, in this poem we are returned to familiar ground; although the rhyme scheme is the same as in ‘Stratford-on-Avon, May 14th, 1880’ there is a marked volta and clear shift in focus in the sestet. While the first stanza engages with the place of a person in relation to natural world, emphasising their fundamental connection, the second stanza shifts the focus inwards to draw out the internal feelings of a poet in love. In the final line ‘nature’ comes to refer to the human spirit rather than the countryside.

In this sonnet we have Naden’s most straightforward description of love, one that revels in the ‘passion of desire, / High hopes, deep thoughts’ of young love without the complicating social factors that mar poems such as the ‘Evolutional Erotics’, or the theme of loss that overshadows ‘Yearning’ and ‘The Abbot’, for example. Since the specificity of place and date encourages the reader to think of this sonnet as a kind of diary entry it is tempting to suggest that the twenty-one year old Naden is projecting her own experience of romantic love onto the figure of the boy-poet. Until recently there was no evidence for such a relationship, however some recent manuscript discoveries dating from the late 1870s indicate that this may indeed be the case.

It is interesting in this context that Naden does not imagine Anne Hathaway herself, who is only an abstract presence in the sonnet. Instead Naden seeks to identify herself with, and draw inspiration from, Shakespeare himself. This speaks to her independence and the sense of intellectual and creative purpose that runs through all her writings. Whether or not Naden’s sense of oneness with Shakespeare stems from a contemporaneous romance on her part, the feeling of ‘boundless life’ that Naden ascribes to the boy-poet is, I think, equally applicable to the effect that ‘deep thoughts’ being given room to ‘live and grow’ were having on Naden herself as she embarked on a career of poetry, philosophy, and science.

Year in Sonnets

Stratford-on-Avon, May 14th, 1880

The first thing that you might notice about this poem is that despite the subject Naden has chosen not to embrace the Shakespearean sonnet style (which would require a rhyme scheme abab cdcd fefe gg). Sticking with the Petrarchan formula certainly makes the sonnet more in keeping with the rest of the year-in-sonnets cycle, and makes clear that while Naden feels inspired by her proximity to Shakespeare’s grave, she is not interested in pastiche. Readers who are better acquainted with Shakespeare’s sonnets than I may perhaps be able to identify echoes or parallels between Naden’s pair of poems and his famous sonnet sequence – I’d love to hear from you in the comments if you’ve got thoughts on this!

This is also the only poem in the cycle without a clear volta – neither the syntax nor the typography indicates its existence, although the rhyme scheme still breaks after the eighth line. As for the shift in subject or mood that we’ve come to expect from Naden’s sonnets, this is also lacking. Indeed, the central theme of the sonnet as a whole is unity, the phrase ‘round young Shakespeare wove / Their spells’ acting as inspiration for the imagery, and also the rhyme scheme of the final six lines: efegfg comprehensively weaving the lines together.

For a poem about visiting a church and contemplating a grave this is a surprisingly lively and active poem. The first three and a half lines establish the setting, offering due reverence to ‘that blind, silent, lifeless denizen’ that is Shakespeare’s mortal remains; the note that he ‘sleeps within’ a nod to the well-known epitaph that promises to curse any who move his bones. The shift to contemplating evidence of his ‘living soul’ therefore comes unexpectedly, but it is about this that Naden feels inspired to write a poem. Surrounded by the new life that spring has brought to the churchyard, Naden embraces a pantheist sense of the cycle of life and death, returning to the familiar theme that first appears in ‘January 1879’ of the ‘frost and snow’ of winter inevitably giving way to ‘sweet May-time joyance’.

The final four lines provide a sense of how Naden saw herself as a young poet, for surely is hers is one of those ‘fresh hearts, that wake and quiver’. She is not suggesting that she will be the next Shakespeare, but is nevertheless keenly aware that he was just a man who once stood in the same spot as she now did next to the River Avon. The connection with the past is tangible, the ‘rippling, daisy-bordered river’ as ‘Changeful, yet changeless, e’en as life and love’, and she is encouraged by this to embrace the opportunity to follow in his footsteps.

I chose the closing phrase of this sonnet as the name for my blog because it really encapsulates Naden’s view of the world as expressed by her sonnets. Human nature and the natural world run on intertwined life cycles that have been happening for millions of years; each year, each human life is unique, and yet Naden chooses to focus upon the underlying similarities, making connections that are both comforting and inspiring.


A visit to Stratford-upon-Avon, 14 May 1880

This is the first of three blogs posts centred around the 14th May, since Constance Naden included a pair of poems with this date in her year-in-sonnets sequence. They are unusual for their specificity, allowing us to locate Naden in Stratford-upon-Avon on this day in 1880, and even trace her visit to the two main tourist spots – the Holy Trinity Church in which Shakespeare is buried, and Anne Hathaway’s cottage in nearby Shottery. This is a brief introductory post to provide some background to Victorian tourism and the cult of Shakespeare, however if you’d like to skip ahead to read my discussion the poems themselves you can find them here and here.

Julia Thomas has written a book about the Victorian invention of the Stratford tourist trail, called Shakespeare’s Shrine, which traces the memorialisation of and capitalisation upon Shakespeare’s birthplace, a committee having been established to buy and restore the house in the mid-nineteenth century (which still exists today). Thomas emphasises the aura of mysticism around the birthplace, and how it acted as a place of pilgrimage for many visitors. Naden is certainly partaking in this tourist trail, and yet she does not record visiting the birthplace on Henley Street; rather she write of his grave and then taking the 25 minute walk from the church, along the lanes to Shottery to his wife’s birthplace.

I do not think the date ‘14th May’ has any specific significance, to Naden or in relation to Shakespeare, however her choice to record this detail indicates how meaningful it was for her to have (likely) taken the train from Birmingham to Stratford-upon-Avon and gone to these sites. As I will discuss in the forthcoming posts, this pair of sonnets act as a kind of diary entry, recording her visit and vividly imagining Shakespeare as both ‘the boy-poet’ in the lanes around Shottery and ‘lifeless denizen’ of the famous grave.

Year in Sonnets

May, 1879

Spring has truly sprung, and for Naden this means the appearance of flowers that ‘perfume and brighten’ the countryside. The four flowers that she identifies specifically do indeed begin blooming in May, and when I find a proliferation of flower-names in a Victorian poem I am compelled to look them up in one of the many language-of-flowers reference pages on the internet, and attempt a floriographic reading. It’s a tricky one, since often you find that one of the meanings doesn’t quite fit the narrative you’re building from the others. Here for example, hawthorn represents hope, bell lilies (usually called lily-of-the-valley) represent sweetness and the return of happiness, and cowslips represent winning grace and also pensiveness. Together these therefore seem to evoke quite accurately the themes of this sonnet. And yet, buttercups stand for ingratitude, childishness, and desire for riches.

So what are we to make of this? Do we draw out a second, underlying tone of Naden questioning her poetic project documenting the shifting seasons, or do we take the pragmatic view that May flowers generally have positive connotations such as hope and return to happiness due to the very fact that they are spring flowers that herald the more temperate months. In the latter case this simply goes to show that Naden’s joy in the beauty of a country lane in May is an essential, human response. I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to this – do let me know your thoughts in the comments!

The shift borne out by the volta is particularly marked in this sonnet, as it pulls us back from the simple pleasures of spring flowers to a meditation on the ‘song of death’, ‘wild winds’, and ‘living seed entombed’ that came before. The final four lines are addressed directly to ‘coy Spring’, entreating ‘Sing thou of life’. Interestingly, though, the whole octave is a single sentence, meaning that although an abrupt shift, from death to life, it being described, it exists as one unit of meaning, a single breath. The chanting winter winds only differ in intensity, not kind, from the inspiring breath that spring offers.

This transition is paradigmatic of the whole of Naden’s sonnet sequence, highlighting the changeful, yet essentially changeless nature of the world. Ours is a closed system into which elements cannot be added or taken away, the shifting seasons simply change their forms, bringing some into play while others remain dormant. This long-view of the yearly cycle indicates why Naden feels obliged to draw out each concept’s equal and opposite; even the ‘sun-bright buttercup’ casts a shadow.