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.

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.

Year in Sonnets

Stratford-on-Avon, May 14th, 1880

The first thing that you might notice about this poem is that despite the subject Naden has chosen not to embrace the Shakespearean sonnet style (which would require a rhyme scheme abab cdcd fefe gg). Sticking with the Petrarchan formula certainly makes the sonnet more in keeping with the rest of the year-in-sonnets cycle, and makes clear that while Naden feels inspired by her proximity to Shakespeare’s grave, she is not interested in pastiche. Readers who are better acquainted with Shakespeare’s sonnets than I may perhaps be able to identify echoes or parallels between Naden’s pair of poems and his famous sonnet sequence – I’d love to hear from you in the comments if you’ve got thoughts on this!

This is also the only poem in the cycle without a clear volta – neither the syntax nor the typography indicates its existence, although the rhyme scheme still breaks after the eighth line. As for the shift in subject or mood that we’ve come to expect from Naden’s sonnets, this is also lacking. Indeed, the central theme of the sonnet as a whole is unity, the phrase ‘round young Shakespeare wove / Their spells’ acting as inspiration for the imagery, and also the rhyme scheme of the final six lines: efegfg comprehensively weaving the lines together.

For a poem about visiting a church and contemplating a grave this is a surprisingly lively and active poem. The first three and a half lines establish the setting, offering due reverence to ‘that blind, silent, lifeless denizen’ that is Shakespeare’s mortal remains; the note that he ‘sleeps within’ a nod to the well-known epitaph that promises to curse any who move his bones. The shift to contemplating evidence of his ‘living soul’ therefore comes unexpectedly, but it is about this that Naden feels inspired to write a poem. Surrounded by the new life that spring has brought to the churchyard, Naden embraces a pantheist sense of the cycle of life and death, returning to the familiar theme that first appears in ‘January 1879’ of the ‘frost and snow’ of winter inevitably giving way to ‘sweet May-time joyance’.

The final four lines provide a sense of how Naden saw herself as a young poet, for surely is hers is one of those ‘fresh hearts, that wake and quiver’. She is not suggesting that she will be the next Shakespeare, but is nevertheless keenly aware that he was just a man who once stood in the same spot as she now did next to the River Avon. The connection with the past is tangible, the ‘rippling, daisy-bordered river’ as ‘Changeful, yet changeless, e’en as life and love’, and she is encouraged by this to embrace the opportunity to follow in his footsteps.

I chose the closing phrase of this sonnet as the name for my blog because it really encapsulates Naden’s view of the world as expressed by her sonnets. Human nature and the natural world run on intertwined life cycles that have been happening for millions of years; each year, each human life is unique, and yet Naden chooses to focus upon the underlying similarities, making connections that are both comforting and inspiring.

Year in Sonnets

May, 1879

Spring has truly sprung, and for Naden this means the appearance of flowers that ‘perfume and brighten’ the countryside. The four flowers that she identifies specifically do indeed begin blooming in May, and when I find a proliferation of flower-names in a Victorian poem I am compelled to look them up in one of the many language-of-flowers reference pages on the internet, and attempt a floriographic reading. It’s a tricky one, since often you find that one of the meanings doesn’t quite fit the narrative you’re building from the others. Here for example, hawthorn represents hope, bell lilies (usually called lily-of-the-valley) represent sweetness and the return of happiness, and cowslips represent winning grace and also pensiveness. Together these therefore seem to evoke quite accurately the themes of this sonnet. And yet, buttercups stand for ingratitude, childishness, and desire for riches.

So what are we to make of this? Do we draw out a second, underlying tone of Naden questioning her poetic project documenting the shifting seasons, or do we take the pragmatic view that May flowers generally have positive connotations such as hope and return to happiness due to the very fact that they are spring flowers that herald the more temperate months. In the latter case this simply goes to show that Naden’s joy in the beauty of a country lane in May is an essential, human response. I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to this – do let me know your thoughts in the comments!

The shift borne out by the volta is particularly marked in this sonnet, as it pulls us back from the simple pleasures of spring flowers to a meditation on the ‘song of death’, ‘wild winds’, and ‘living seed entombed’ that came before. The final four lines are addressed directly to ‘coy Spring’, entreating ‘Sing thou of life’. Interestingly, though, the whole octave is a single sentence, meaning that although an abrupt shift, from death to life, it being described, it exists as one unit of meaning, a single breath. The chanting winter winds only differ in intensity, not kind, from the inspiring breath that spring offers.

This transition is paradigmatic of the whole of Naden’s sonnet sequence, highlighting the changeful, yet essentially changeless nature of the world. Ours is a closed system into which elements cannot be added or taken away, the shifting seasons simply change their forms, bringing some into play while others remain dormant. This long-view of the yearly cycle indicates why Naden feels obliged to draw out each concept’s equal and opposite; even the ‘sun-bright buttercup’ casts a shadow.

Year in Sonnets

April, 1879

In ‘April, 1879’, Naden shifts her focus from earth to skies. Gone are the flora and fauna of the preceding sonnets, and in their place are sun, wind, and clouds. On first reading the octave accurately evokes the optimism that a warm spring day brings – upon opening the curtains to ‘clear, golden, soft’ sunshine it is hard to believe that good weather isn’t here to stay. The effect of light upon emotions is made particularly clear; the sun’s radiance soothes and gladdens, acting directly upon the eyes, brain, and heart in a visceral way.

Naden pulls away from this optimistic mood however, the negative construction of lines 5 to 8 introducing a sense of uncertainty to the poem. This is compounded by the awkwardness of the second and third lines, which introduce an additional syllable into Naden’s usually regular pentameter. The hard of rhyme ‘mingle’ and ‘dingle’ also seem out of place in the otherwise lilting, dream-like tone of the octave, bringing a sense of unease into the seeming tranquillity of the scene being described.

In the sestet, the naivety of the octave is made clear, as the reader is pulled back to recall the ‘cold March winds’ that we encountered in the previous two sonnets, and forced to think ahead to the ‘cloud […] rain and storm’ that must inevitably return. The aphoristic final couplet reveals that the whole poem is a meteorological metaphor for the inevitability of a life-cycle that all-too-quickly transitions from birth to death. This is a surprisingly pragmatic end to a sonnet that heralds the coming of spring that Naden so longs for in the earlier sonnets in the cycle; does this shift your expectations for the poems to come?

Year in Sonnets

To a Hyacinth in January

In this sonnet Naden is, again, looking ahead to the coming of Spring. The hyacinth acts as a beacon of hope in the depths of Winter, since their bulbs are often kept indoors in the dark to force the plant into flower around Christmas and into January. Light has a key presence in the poem, encompassing the buds’ ‘snowy gleam’, the ‘fireside glow’, and the sun’s ‘pallid noon-day beam’. In the act of growth, the hyacinth flowers are likened to the sun as the cluster ‘dawns and brightens’, emerging from behind the leaves like the sun rising over the horizon; they are therefore symbolic of the promise of new life that accompanies the warmth and light of Spring. Despite this, there is an unnerving presence of death in this sonnet as Naden insists upon characterising the ‘New Year’s wind […] and rain and hail’ as having the power to destroy ‘tender life’.

Important here is the presence of nature as an external force which is pitted against the safety that humanity can offer. The domesticity of the fireside is linked to the ability to shelter the hyacinth ‘from the frosty air’, and yet such protection is only required because of the poet’s choice to cultivate the flower in winter and so subvert natural seasonal cycles. The dominance of humans over nature is also demonstrated by Naden’s inclusion of botanical terminology – ‘raceme’ is the technical word for the hyacinth’s distinctive flower cluster (the separate flowers attached by short equal stalks to a broader central stem). The botanist’s approach to obtaining knowledge is one in which of hierarchy and power is implicit, they (to use Wordsworth’s phrasing) ‘murder to dissect’ and group their objects of study into strict classifications, asserting order over the natural world.

Nature asserts itself in return, however, as the heady scent of the hyacinth has a strong presence that bookends the poem. The evocative description of the perfume stealing like ‘dainty breath’ in the first two lines captures the way in which the seemingly innocuous flower will immediately make its living presence known in a room. Smell is strongly linked with the recollection of vivid memories, and in the midst of winter it is this burst of fragrance that draws Naden back to previous Springs and allows her to look forward to the ‘promised joy’ to come. There is an interesting parallel with ‘January, 1879’ in these final lines, since perhaps the ideal of Spring (a ‘delicate hidden hope’ inherent in the hyacinth’s perfume) is being held up above the reality of the actual Spring yet to come.

Do you think the forces of nature or of humankind win out in this sonnet? Or does the cultivated hyacinth gesture towards some happy (or indeed strained) medium?

Hyacinths, from "Barr & Sugden's Spring Seed Catalogue and Guide to the Flower and Kitchen Garden" (1868) p.66

Hyacinths, from “Barr & Sugden’s Spring Seed Catalogue and Guide to the Flower and Kitchen Garden” (1868) p.66.