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.

Year in Sonnets

March, 1879

In ‘March, 1879’ Naden returns to, and substantially reworks, some of the central concerns of ‘March, 1878’, which I identified in the previous blog post. The first line returns us to the singing bird motif but subverts it by questioning its (and ostensibly our) natural urge to rejoice as the world transitions from winter into summer. The beginning of the sonnet consequently takes the tone of a parable, as Naden warns that to link one’s mood to external forces is unwise, since clouds are as common as sunshine. Through this Naden is taking her first steps away from an unquestioning attachment to nature; whereas in previous poems the coming of spring explicitly heralded personal joy, here she demonstrates confidence in shaping her own perceptions of the universe. (This act of creation can also be linked to the act of writing poetry; the reference to ‘your form’ gestures towards the precisely crafted nature of the sonnet, which I have elaborated upon here.)

This is a significant development because it is indicative of the philosophy that Naden developed in association with Robert Lewins, a retired army surgeon who she had met and begun corresponding with in 1876. He encouraged Naden to continue her education, with a particular focus upon philosophy and science, as well as German, so that she could engage with the original writings of major thinkers. This philosophy was called Hylo-Idealism and it hinged upon taking a scientific view of mind and matter, which drew upon idealism (we each perceive a unique universe) and materialism (physical matter [hyle, or substance] is the sole basis of the universe). Naden understood that our perception of the world results solely from nerve impulses stemming from physical stimulation of the sense organs. She therefore reconciles materialism and idealism – fundamentally opposed perspectives – by stressing that the only way we can engage with the universe (made entirely of matter, i.e. rejecting ‘God’) is via our nervous system (again made entirely of matter, i.e. rejecting ‘soul’) which creates what we understand to be reality.

Naden first published on Hylo-Idealism in 1881 in the Journal of Science, and had not reached all of these conclusions by 1879, however during this period her correspondence with Lewins involved seriously discussing the nature of the universe via philosophy, science, and the rejection of received religious ideas. Extracts from his letters were later published as Humanism versus Theism, or Solipsism (Egoism) = Atheism in 1887, with an introductory essay from Naden called ‘Hylo-Idealism: The Creed of the Coming Day’. The transition in tone between ‘March, 1878’ and ‘March, 1879’ can therefore be read in relation to this ongoing engagement with philosophy. In particular, the sestet articulates Naden’s idealist understanding of the universe, since everything that can be perceived – ‘creatures’, ‘form’, ‘music’ – ‘in [her] soul have birth/ And in [her] very life … live’. Naden thus emphasises the active creative powers of perception in ‘March, 1879’, in contrast to the passivity in ‘March, 1878’ which ends on the sentiment ‘I can wait’. This progression is also reflected in the unusual half indentation of ‘March, 1879’s final couplet, which is suggestive of urging forwards to a new, alternative understanding of the world rather than the closing line of ‘March, 1878’ which (typographically) takes the poem back to the beginning to complete the customary cycle.

I hope you forgive today’s slightly longer post, however because I take the view that Naden’s poetry is closely linked to the rest of her intellectual endeavours, I wanted to introduce the core elements of Hylo-Idealism (which I’ll return to as they often appear in the Year in Sonnets). I’d be very interested to hear what you think of reading her poetry through this lens, so let me know in the comments.

Year in Sonnets

March, 1878

This is the first of a pair of poems, the second being titled ‘March, 1879’. They are printed on facing pages in Songs and Sonnets of Springtime, and indicate Naden’s desire to show how her view of the world was developing during this period. The late 1870s were a transitional time for her, as she moved from occupying herself principally with recreational reading and painting flowers to resuming her education. It is not possible to know whether this sonnet was written in March 1878 (the title specifying date of composition), or if it is a retrospective poem. Whichever is the case, by the time Naden published it in 1881 she would have had the chance to return to the sonnet, deciding whether it was to be published, determining its position in the collection, and perhaps rewriting aspects.

The pairing of concepts in the final two lines point strongly towards a sense of progression, as the positive ‘smiles’, ‘golden hues’, and ‘bloom’ replace the negative concepts that precede them. And yet, it is the transition that is emphasised above all else – foresight of what is to come and the act of waiting are key, as the seasonal shift between winter and spring makes Naden keenly aware of the inevitability of change and the need for patience in the midst of yearning.

However, as is becoming the familiar format of these sonnets, while the sestet takes this more personal and philosophical tone, Naden begins with her observations of nature. The blackbird that ‘pipes his love-notes’ in a budding tree symbolises reproduction and new life. And yet even in this there is a sense of loss as well as gain, as the ‘dark tracery’ of the branches ‘soon ‘mid fresh green leaves […] disappear’. Nature is thus unsettled, and unsettling, as the wind ‘now soft, now keen’ inspires both ‘hope and fear’; ‘it plays’ with ‘almond flowers’, the modifying ‘unsheltered’ indicating the human urge to protect what is vulnerable despite an understanding that the cycle of bud, to blossom, to fruit is both inevitable and necessary.

The indwelling knowledge possessed by ‘birds and blossoms […] that Spring is here’ is keenly perceived by Naden, and her identification with nature and its processes is proclaimed immediately after the volta. The parenthetical ‘too’ in this line indicates how for her it is not simply a vague sense recognition but a true kinship or oneness with nature. This pantheistic energy runs through much of Naden’s early poetry as she moved away from the organised religion of her childhood towards a more equivocal understanding of humans’ place within the universe; a little later this became a clearly atheistic stance, which she was keen to declare and promulgate in essays such as ‘What is Religion? A Vindication of Freethought’ (1883).

In the next blog post I shall consider more closely how these themes are returned to and developed by Naden in ‘March, 1879’.