Year in Sonnets

November, 1878

Digitised by the Victorian Woman Writers Project, Indiana University.

Digitised by the Victorian Woman Writers Project, Indiana University.

In this, the penultimate poem in Constance Naden’s year in sonnets, we see several of the preceding poems echoed as she looks both forwards and backwards. The sombre opening invokes lack and desolation, even the boisterous wind of spring and autumn has almost fallen silent.

The shift in tone at the volta is more dramatic than any we’ve seen over the course of the cycle, ‘And yet’ clearly indicating the movement from despair to optimism. This is, however, foreshadowed in the preceding stanza. The ‘constant, faint, unchanging hum’ gestures towards Naden’s own poetic voice, ‘constant’ punning on the name Constance, and the ‘hum’ aligning itself with the poetic song behind these very lines. Indeed the usually regular beat of iambic pentameter is flattened here, reflecting the mood expressed in these opening lines.

Naden becomes one with nature, which follows on from a similar sense of identification and unity in the previous sonnet. Her poetic voice ‘seems the voice of the despairing earth’, and over the course of this sonnet cycle we have learned how closely Naden identifies emotionally with the changing seasons. In these lines this reciprocity is almost complete, as she seemingly comes to speak for the earth itself.

There is an introspective side to this sonnet, however, the caveat ‘to me’ being an acknowledgement that not all will share her perspective. But nonetheless the evocative imagery of ‘Their lace‐like twigs half‐seen, half‐hid with snow’ provides the reader with an insight into Naden’s personal vision of the encroaching winter. A fundamental concept within her philosophy is that empathy underlies human relationships, as described in the following excerpt of her 1884 essay ‘Hylo-Idealism: The Creed of the Coming Day’ which goes some way to demonstrating how her poetic sensibilities suffuse her philosophical prose.

Two interlocutors are like opposite mirrors. Each, among other objects, reflects its vis-à-vis, and therefore reflects its own reflexion. The mirrors may be cracked or clouded, convex or concave […] Still, in however distorted a form, each may be said to contain its opposite neighbour, and, were mirrors sentient beings the mutual inclusion would be psychical as well as physical. (Induction and Deduction, p. 174)

The idea of mentally absorbing that with which we interact is central to ‘November, 1878’, in which the boundaries between poet and nature are comprehensively blurred.

The closing couplet leaves the reader with a real sense of hope; we return to the familiar imagery that highlights the living energy inherent in what is seemingly dormant, reminding us of both ‘The Seed’ and ‘To the First Snowdrop’. And yet the resonance is slightly different in this instance, for the ‘red chrysanthemum’ is symbolic of love, optimism, and rest; this is therefore also a poem about the resilience of these ideals. The biting frost signifies the inevitability of challenges they might face, but we are left safe in the knowledge that while this flower will inevitably be killed off by the winter’s cold, many more will rise again in its stead.

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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Year in Sonnets

To the First Snowdrop

In ‘To the First Snowdrop’ Naden personifies the plant in a way that was completely resisted in the preceding poem, ‘To a Hyacinth in January’. As the ‘sunny-hearted child’ of ‘mother Earth’ the snowdrop demonstrates fortitude in the face of winter storms. Perhaps this conception of the snowdrop arises from Naden’s apparent connection with nature from an early age – in the Memoir of 1891 a friend remembers her ‘“talks” with the trees, birds, and butterflies’, alluded to in Naden’s poem ‘Six Years Old’.

Despite this difference in framing, similar themes reappear as she describes the transitioning from winter to spring, from bulb to bud, however another transition is also introduced, the movement from longing to fulfilment. This third element is brought in with the shift in focus at the volta, as is usual in a sonnet. We therefore move from focused description of the flower and the season, to a reflection upon life and love. Imagery is repeated from the previous stanza – tears, blossoms, buried – but put in an alternative context whereby the budding snowdrop becomes a metaphor for burgeoning love.

The idea of growth and development is central to Naden’s view of the world, but her re-use of certain images implies some unchanging essence too. This is most clearly shown by the shift in her description of the snowdrop. In the first line the ‘sunny-heart’ identifies the white flower’s bright yellow stamen as something joyful and bound to natural processes, whereas by the final line this same appearance has become a heart ‘lit with vestal fire’. It is therefore transformed into a kind of light and heat that has been harnessed by humans and serves a specific social function (specifically related to religion, gender roles, and class). I’d certainly be interested in discussing in the comments what you think Naden is suggesting here!

There is a further significance to this descriptive imagery, since the sun and fire underscore how light is an orientating concept for Naden. In the first line of the sestet she pairs ‘life and light’, the first-syllable rhyme cementing the words’ bond. There is of course a fundamental scientific truth in this, and Naden’s attachment to this model is a theme that I shall return to in future posts.

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