Songs and Sonnets of Springtime (1881)
The twenty calendar-based sonnets that are the focus of this blog are not explicitly separated from the other fifteen poems in the ‘Sonnets’ section of the volume. However, the poems from ‘Undiscerned Perfection’ to ‘Starlight II’ make up a fascinating but distinct sonnet cycle that draws upon Naden’s philosophical awakening, developing the themes of truth and unity that are central to her later work on Hylo-Idealism (principally documented in her philosophy essays).
Although the sonnet cycle runs from ‘January, 1879’ to ‘December, 1879’ it is important to note that they do not cover a single year, since some poems’ titles date them from 1878 and 1880 as well. This emphasises that they are not a catalogue of her responses to the shifting seasons in one specific year; instead they describe the ‘changeful, yet changeless’ way in which nature transforms itself over the course of every twelve months.
These sonnets were composed by Naden in her early twenties, during a transitionary period in her life. This will be developed further as I draw upon relevant elements of her biography, alongside my discussions of poetic form and content.
Perspectives on Constance Naden
None of Naden’s Year in Sonnets cycle has been subject to scholarly analysis before now, and only a small percentage of Naden’s 120+ poems have been written about in an academic context. Despite the Complete Poetical Works being freely available online, the limited selection of poems that appear in anthologies (such as Victorian Women Poets: An Anthology , and Nineteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology , and Decadent Verse ) have dictated which of her works have received the majority of attention. As a result the themes of evolution, religion, and feminism have shaped most readings of Naden’s poetry, and while these are certainly relevant to understanding her writing they limit her potential value within Victorian studies. This blog (and my doctoral research) seeks to develop and expand upon the terms that are currently used to define Naden’s work.
See below for a short bibliography of existing work on Naden.
The Nineteenth-Century Sonnet
The sonnet was a pervasive but miscellaneous feature of the Victorian literary landscape. The focus of most nineteenth-century essays on the sonnet was its restrictive form; indeed some commentators went into great detail about the importance of these strictures. William Sharp, in his long introduction to Sonnets of This Century (1886), sets out ‘the Ten Commandments of the Sonnet’, including rules of basic form (‘must contain fourteen decasyllabic lines’), exacting standards of metre (‘continuous sonority must be maintained from the first phrase to the last’) and contents (‘no vagueness of conception […] It must be absolutely complete in itself.’), and admissible rhyme schemes (illustrated by a table of the seventeen variants on the ‘a-b-c:-a-b-c’ rhyme scheme of the ‘sestet of the true sonnet’ that are ‘entirely permissible and more or less appropriate’). All this led to poets’ fascination with the reflexive nature of the mode, their awareness of the structure and resources of the form feeding into their themes and subjects. This is epitomised by the numerous sonnets on the sonnet, perhaps the most famous being Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘A Sonnet’, which begins: ‘A Sonnet is a moment’s monument’.
Traditionally the sonnet is often thought of as a love poem, however, as Natalie Houston (2003) emphasises, ‘rather than expressing romantic attachments, they tended to focus on descriptions of landscape and especially scenes of travel; portraits of famous people, friends, and family; moral or political reflections on specific event or issues; and moments from everyday life.’ Naden follows this model, never publishing anything that could be traditionally termed a love poem. Indeed, while she often writes on and around the themes of gender and relationships elsewhere, Naden perhaps embraced the sonnet because (as Houston concludes) the formal qualities of the sonnet ‘mean that the texts themselves have little obvious political content or even any gendered pronouns. They resist political interpretation and demand that we expand out methodologies for thinking about Victorian women poets and their relationship to aestheticism, and to literary form more generally. […] By the end of the nineteenth century, the sonnet form was widely used by male and female aesthetic poets to describe similar themes and enact similar aesthetic principles’.
Perspectives on Constance Naden:
John Holmes, Darwin’s Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), pp. 189-97.
Charles LaPorte, ‘Atheist Prophecy: Mathilde Blind, Constance Naden, and the Victorian Poetess’, Victorian Literature and Culture 34 (2006), pp. 427-441.
Philip E. Smith II, ‘Robert Lewins, Constance Naden, and Hylo-Idealism’, Notes and Queries 223 (1978), pp. 303-09.
Philip E. Smith II and Susan Harris Smith, ‘Constance Naden: Late Victorian Feminist Poet and Philosopher’, Victorian Poetry 15 (1977), pp. 367-70.
Andrea Kaston Tange, ‘Constance Naden and the Erotics of Evolution: Mating the Woman of Letters with the Man of Science’, Nineteenth Century Literature 61 (2006), pp. 200-40.
Marion Thain, ‘Love’s Mirror: Constance Naden and reflections on a feminist poetics’ English Literature in Transition (1880-1920) 41.1 (1998), pp. 24-41.
Marion Thain, ‘“Scientific Wooing”: Constance Naden’s Marriage of Science and Poetry’, Victorian Poetry 41.1 (2003), pp. 151-69.
Marion Thain, ‘Birmingham’s Women Poets: Aestheticism and the Daughters of Industry’, Cahiers Victoriens and Edouardiens 74 (2011), pp. 37-57.
The Victorian Sonnet:
Natalie M. Houston, ‘Towards a New History: Fin-de-Siècle Women Poets and the Sonnet’, in Essays and Studies: Victorian Women Poets, ed. Alison Chapman (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003), pp. 145-64.
Joseph Phelan, The Nineteenth-Century Sonnet (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
William Sharp, Sonnets of This Century (London: Walter Scott, 1886).