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

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

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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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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