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.