Year in Sonnets

September, 1880

This poem marks the transition from summer to autumn, and upon reaching this point Constance Naden looks both backwards and forwards. Her approach is mirrored in the form of the sonnet, as the octave refers back to the seasons that have passed, and then after the volta she turns towards the coming winter. Autumn is described as a time of contrasts for it is both ‘prosperous’ (evoking the harvest) and redolent of ‘decay’. And yet cyclical nature is emphasised, for the decay is described as ‘rich’, reminding us that decomposition must occur to fertilise soils and ensure the following year’s plant growth.

The world here is in flux; leaves are falling but cannot settle because ‘thine own winds whirl [them] away’. This unrest is reflected in the structure of the poem, which provides the reader with one version of September but pulls this out from under us in the sestet, the sharp ‘Nay’ rejecting the ‘dream of joy’ that transposed the traits of spring onto autumn and installing in its place a more realistic perspective of the seasonal changes.

As a result it is not clear what we are to make of the wishful thinking Naden communicates in the first half of the sonnet. Although she ultimately rejects this view of September, she nonetheless adds her own voice to the ‘wild conjubilant psalm’, the exclamation mark implying that this very verse is offered in harmony with the birds’ own song. We know from the earlier sonnets in the sequence, such as ‘April, 1879’ and ‘May, 1879’ that Naden prized the spring above all other seasons, so perhaps this can be read as an insight into her unhappiness about the passing of ‘fresh beams and breezes’. Nevertheless she appreciates that this is an irrational view because, as the sonnet concludes, the seasons are of course cyclical. Do let me know your reading of this dilemma in the comments!

This is a pantheist poem, in which each of the seasons are personified and the forces of nature are sole stimulus for change, growth, and renewal. This dismissal of Christian faith is introduced by the description of bird-song as a psalm, thus bestowing natural sounds with quasi-religious meaning, and rendering a sacred verse secular. It is most clear, however, in the sonnet’s closing lines as Naden looks forward to ‘Winter […] / Renewing Earth by terror and hope’. Here the tired image of ‘Old Man Winter’ is transfigured into something God-like by recalling both the terror of the Old Testament and the hope of the New Testament. The natural world has become Naden’s Bible, and without explicitly stating her rejection of religion she is able to communicate how her non-conformist background has given way to a pantheistic agnosticism, which over the course of the 1880s was to become an avowed atheism.

Standard
Year in Sonnets

Sunset

‘Sunset’ is Naden’s August poem, a month that often signals the end of summer, and yet the approaching autumn is not brought into focus. Unlike many of Naden’s sonnets, in which she sees death and decay in the midst of burgeoning life, here even the setting of the sun is not paired with impending darkness. Instead the sun maintains its splendour, and while it has lost its ‘noonday heat’ the brightness remains, giving off the ‘pure’ white light of hot summer days. Even the shadows cast by the trees are playful and the ‘broader gray’ has no negative connotations of darkness, due in part to the rhyme scheme’s linking of it to ‘gay’ and ‘play’.

This is therefore a joyous poem, which when read on an inclement August day makes one yearn for bright sun and long evenings spend outdoors. The lull between day and night is captured in the line ‘This radiant hour, when peace and passion meet’, and encourages the reader to see sunset as facilitating and embodying the unification of distinct concepts. Naden’s desire to draw opposites together and bring them into harmony continues past the volta, as ‘peace’ and ‘strife’, and ‘heart and mind’ are brought into communion with each other.

Light undoubtedly suffuses the whole poem, which culminates in Naden’s repetition of the word in the two penultimate lines. Bright light envelopes us, and Naden uses the liquid imagery of ‘sea of light’ and ‘o’erflowing’ to express the way in which the sunset bathes the land and poet herself, who is a strong presence in this poem as the third line describes how sunlight guides both her physical and metrical feet.

Naden leaves space for a religious interpretation of this light,as it streams from an empyreal, peaceful sky that evokes restful rapture. However, while she plays on Christian descriptors of heaven here, she resists fully articulating these tropes and as a result indicates how her pantheistic appreciation of the natural world’s beauty is an equally acceptable way to understand and engage with the universe.

 

Standard
Year in Sonnets

July, 1878

This sonnet marks a shift in tone from ‘Yellow Roses’, as Naden highlights that the first half of the year has now passed and the seasons are now waning. The joy taken in summer flowers has quickly been lost. Picking up on the line ‘fragrant flowers, withering too fast’ in the preceding sonnet, she describes summer as characterised by ‘Scorched buds and flowers, that tell what might have been’, undermining spring’s promise of lush new life.

As this attests, Naden is rarely able to maintain an unwaveringly positive tone; death (and analogously, winter) is always on the horizon, the necessary corollary of life (and spring). Summer thus manifests in ‘dust and blight’, and leaves only the ‘barren splendours of July’. It is redolent of missed opportunities and hopes undermined by realities – ‘The promised loveliness’ never materialises, and Naden wistfully dwells on ‘what might have been.’

The ‘waves that rise and fall’, describe the shimmering heat and recall the movement of leaves in spring breezes such as those of ‘March, 1878’ and ‘April, 1879’. And yet this phrase also gestures towards the rise and fall of iambic pentameter that underlies the sonnet form; Naden therefore draws out how poetic metre echoes and reflects the rhythms she finds in the natural world around her.

After the volta a ray of hope is introduced: the scorching sun brings skies of ‘tender blue’, ‘the red leaves bud anew’, and ‘Fresh, brilliant hope bursts forth’. It is interesting that Naden chooses to frame this as ‘glowing speech’, again likening her description of nature to the textual mode that she employs to capture it. Nevertheless, the octave’s final line ends with ‘die’, which the rhyme scheme pairs with the very word ‘July’, demonstrating her realist approach to natural cycles (although in a somewhat heavy-handed way).

Her fixation upon this perhaps seems odd for a twenty-year-old, privileged woman with many opportunities ahead of her. While I don’t wish to offer a biographical reading of these sonnets, it may be relevant to note that her mother died when Naden was an infant and she was brought up by grandparents who were nearing the ends of their lives, making her intimate with the realities of loss and old age. In addition, her move away from organised (though dissenting) religion towards pantheistic and then agnostic philosophies encouraged her to dwell on what might be termed ‘The Big Questions’.

As is clear in this poem, and the Year in Sonnets sequence as a whole, Naden is preoccupied with the changeful cycling between life and death that is mirrored in the seasons. The sonnet form itself supports this perspective, as we find its unity and balance is an outcome of two distinct but interdependent stanzas. In this way, we are encouraged by Naden to identify and reconcile ourselves with the reciprocal relationship between natural opposites, and seek to find and accept the decay already visible in summer that heralds inevitable winter.

Standard
Year in Sonnets

Yellow Roses

‘Yellow Roses’ is one of my favourite poems by Constance Naden. To me it stands out among her year-in-sonnets cycle as, first and foremost, exceedingly beautiful. Delving deeper, however, the reader finds that there are many facets to her lyrical description of the act of painting a bunch of flowers.

Following on from ‘In the Garden’, this sonnet demonstrates how Naden’s urge to preserve the roses’ beauty is founded upon the ever-present natural cycle of growth and decay. And yet ‘Yellow Roses’ implicitly shift the readers’ thoughts from flowers and seasonal changes to human lifecycles, the fragility of beauty, and the inevitability of death. The line ‘the deep joy, so near akin to grief’ is particularly important in refocusing our attention, for while the sentiment is too overstated for a reflection on wilting flowers, it resonates clearly with the act of remembering departed loved ones.

The amatory sonnet tradition clearly informs this poem, particularly in the vocabulary used – ‘sweet’, ‘fair’, ‘loving care’ – and the act of trying to preserve beauty through art, which is a familiar trope of this genre. As we have come to expect from Naden, these motifs are not used unquestioningly; here the object of desire is a literal flower, rather than a woman being described as akin to one. (The preservation of beauty, and the merging of woman and nature, are concepts developed and brought firmly into the late nineteenth century by Naden in ‘To Amy, On Receiving Her Photograph’, in which photography’s ability to capture beauty is questioned.)

Naden was an accomplished painter of flowers, and her ‘Bird’s Nest and Wild Roses’ was shown at the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists Spring Exhibition in 1878. In this sonnet we therefore get an insight into the process behind this quintessentially feminine aspect of Victorian art. And yet, she also rejects much of what would be deemed womanly, by refusing to beautify herself – ‘I will not braid / Soft leaves and fragile blossoms in my hair’ – and assuming the active role of painter and poet, rather than passive muse or object of romantic attention.

In the act of painting Naden sees past the materiality of the roses and instead focuses throughout upon the action of light upon the ‘sun-reflecting leaf’. This is not an ordinary way of looking and it demonstrates her scientific knowledge; she foregrounds the physical act of perception, indicating her awareness that one does not, and cannot, visually perceive the physical object, only the light waves that bounce off it and enter the eye. As Naden writes in her essay ‘The Brain Theory of Mind and Matter’ (first printed in The Journal of Science in 1883): ‘Far more truly than the painter “creates” the picture from elaborated materials already provided by “Nature”, every one of us creates “Nature” herself, in a tiny cerebral studio, without pencil and without pigment. We make the mountains, and the sea, and the sun himself; for sunshine is nothing if not visible, and if there were no eye and no brain, there could be no sunshine.’ Light, therefore, is an artistic medium for Naden and thus something to be shaped for the purpose of perception and communication.

The blending of her scientific education and artistic instruction underlies the act of creating the poem ‘Yellow Roses’, and while it ends with the assertion that her painting ensures we ‘may not lose’ the memory of the flowers, in actuality the sonnet has proved to have more longevity. Only two paintings attributed to Naden survive, both in private hands, and neither of yellow roses (though they show that she applied a botanist’s eye, and painted the details of individual flowers very precisely). We shall therefore never know how successfully she captured the ‘golden light and shade’ of these ‘sweet sun-tinted roses’, and yet through this poem we have a far more nuanced insight into these ‘few bright hours’ in Naden’s life than a watercolour could ever offer.

The yellow roses currently blooming in my front garden.

The yellow roses currently blooming in my front garden.

Standard
Year in Sonnets

In the Garden

The title of this sonnet – ‘In the Garden’ – implies specificity, but the poem itself lacks details describing place and context when compared to earlier sonnets. Here the flowers are simply ‘gold or blue’, which contrasts to the lilies, buttercups, and cowslips of ‘May, 1879’, for example. Through this Naden emphasises the universality of the experience she describes.

While the first line offers a multisensory description of ‘sounds, and scents, and colours’, the rest of the poem turns to focus solely on visual perception. She returns repeatedly to the act of looking itself, moving from the literal (her appreciation of plants’ ‘form’ and ‘hue’) to the figurative, whereby the search for higher knowledge is put in terms of the ‘soul, far gazing’. The physical eye and the mind’s eye is therefore brought together, and Naden cites the natural world as having a strong, though ‘tender’ and ‘subtle’, influence on emotion and thought. There is no divine inspiration here only a pantheistically-inclined materialism, gesturing towards her developing Hylo-Idealist philosophy.

This view of the world, which highlights the importance of scientific understanding when explaining the universe, is drawn out in the sestet. Here Naden’s understanding of physics and physiology come to the fore, as she perceives when looking at the flower garden the process by which wave lengths in ‘pure uncoloured beams’ are variously absorbed and reflected by petals so that the eye observes different colours. Through this the flowers become the ‘poets and revealers of the light’, and therefore take an active and creative role in the scene being described, placing them on the same plane as Naden herself.

In the final three lines the focus shifts away from the plants and towards the source of light itself. This is indicative of Naden’s preoccupation with life cycles and the inescapable truth that all living things must fade and die. In the phrase ‘your life-work is done’ she puns on the word ‘dun’ (greyish-brown) to describe the inevitable decay of the flowers’ bright tints. ‘[T]he eternal splendour of the sun’ is therefore invoked in the last line because although its rising and setting is a paradigmatic example of natural cycles its static place in the universe provides a permanent locus. While we, earth-bound human observers, lose sight of the sun for several hours a day and it is therefore a constantly shifting presence, it is actually a reliable constant that the rest of the solar system is orbiting around. In this way Naden is advocating for taking a universal and scientific, rather than individual and personal, view of the world, and it is these larger truths that her soul seeks.

Standard
Year in Sonnets

Sunshine

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!

Standard
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.

Standard