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.