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

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.