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.

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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!

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