Year in Sonnets

December, 1879

In ‘December, 1879’, the concluding poem in the Year in Sonnets cycle, Constance Naden describes her conception of Earth personified and reflects on our potential for hidden depths. The feminisation of Earth follows the Mother Earth trope, Naden admiringly describing her appearance and character in a manner that evokes the sonnet’s traditional role as a love poem.

The octave begins with an image of Earth ‘stripped of all her gems and vestures gay’, a pious characterisation in which the renunciation of adornments in order to ‘Giv[e] thanks to Heaven’ is suggestive of the actions of a nun. The second half of this line – ‘while weaklings can but pray’ – is difficult to parse, but it suggests that while humans can only voice their thanks to God, the Earth annually prostrates itself and is therefore superior in its commitment to worship. In addition Naden engages with the concept of geological time as she acknowledges that the passing of a year barely registers in the context of the Earth’s history, again indicating our insignificance in comparison to the grand scale of the Earth. However the line ‘For she is young as on her primal day’ also evokes the sonnet’s courtship tradition as a vehicle for flattery that tends towards hyperbole and even insincerity.

Throughout this poem it is suggested that we should look to the Earth as a source of wisdom, hence allegorical lines such as ‘December [is] not less rich than May’ and ‘still beneath the snow her heart is warm’. These statements are true both literally (the entirety of the seasonal cycle is necessary in order for the natural world to be maintained; the soil incubates ‘The Seed’) and when applied metaphorically (the aging process does not undermine worth; compassion and/or desire may underlie a woman’s cool exterior). In this poem, perhaps more than any other in this cycle, there is therefore a sense that the sentiment being communicated is personal rather than philosophical.

The idea of hidden depths continues in the sestet, particularly in the final two lines where the conceit of describing the snow-covered Earth starts to fall away and the description of a woman comes into focus. There is, I think, an implied affinity between the poet and these traits: ‘Rich in hid wealth, and strong in secret power, / Silent with joy, and pure with perfect love.’ Clearly this continues to evoke the dormant power of the Earth in winter, awaiting the ‘fuller radiance’ of spring sunshine to encourage new growth. And yet it is difficult to escape the feeling that in ‘December, 1879’, as Naden awaited her 22nd birthday on the eve of a new decade, the sense of potential and new beginnings resonated with her on a personal level. Like the Earth, Naden ‘lies dreaming of her destined hour’ at which point she will show her true nature to the waiting world.

While the 1870s was a period of transition for Naden, in the 1880s she began to live more independently and publically follow her passions. In 1881 Naden enrolled at the Mason College of Science in Birmingham, published her first volume of poetry (which included her Year in Sonnets), and committed herself to writing about her freethinking philosophy. We know from other pantheist poems in this sequence, such as ‘Sunshine’ and ‘September, 1880’, that Naden felt a connection with the Earth that was founded in a shared energy, and the dormant power that courses through this poem evokes the self-belief that bolstered her successes in the following decade.

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Year in Sonnets

The Seed

‘The Seed’ is one of Naden’s most literal renderings of botanical knowledge within her poetry. Its description of the formation of the seed, followed by its period of dormancy in the soil over winter, is closely tied to the availability of light. The presence and absence of light is not as straightforward as one might suppose, however’ Naden reminds us in the opening lines that ‘No light of sun or moon can reach the seed / That blindly in the bosom of a flower / Ripens through summer’, and returns to this image of the seed lying in the flower’s ‘fragrant gloom’ immediately after the volta. As she would have been well aware from her Botany classes taken at the Birmingham and Midland Institute, it is not simply the availability of light that stimulates growth, since during the height of summer the seed lies in the flower-head’s ‘fragrant gloom’. Instead the ‘embryo life’ must wait for spring that ‘shall not speed’, resulting in the climactic line ‘And every child of Day shall find the sun.’ There is certainly a moralistic tone to this conclusion that patience is a virtue and yet the positioning of this within a scientifically informed register indicates Naden’s unwillingness to accept socio-cultural platitudes.

It is notable that ‘child of Day’ echoes a Biblical phrase, contributing to the sense of didacticism evident in the closing couplet. While, in isolation, the final line would therefore imply that the seed’s eventual germination is a metaphor for revelation and redemption upon accepting the light of religion, its pairing with the preceding line ‘Yet Night shall keep her own, and lose not one’ undermines this. Rather than the Bible’s proclamation ‘Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness’ (Thessalonians 1.5) Naden sees the value and necessity of both light and dark, day and night, winter and spring. The dark soil may seem ‘cold’ and ‘lifeless’, but it is protective; by gendering night as female it becomes equated with the ‘mother earth’ figure that often underlies pantheistic philosophies.

Naden personifies the seed, drawing parallels between a plant’s life cycle and human emotions such as hopelessness, and yet she does so in a way that highlights our essential oneness with nature in our urge for the right kind of light. This is borne out of the earlier sonnet in the cycle, ‘To the First Snowdrop’, which celebrates how when ‘the sun appears’ there ‘[n]ow springs to life and light each buried joy’, indicating how these poems gesture both forwards and backwards, to the year that has passed and the year that is to come. The pairing of ‘life and light’ that is traceable across Naden’s Year in Sonnets is fundamental to her engagement with the natural world and the influence of the changing seasons both intellectually and emotionally, reaching beyond the commonplace towards the realm of materialist knowledge and universal truth.

NB At the Birmingham and Midland Institute Naden sat the Elementary and Advanced Botany exams in 1881 (achieve a first-class certificate in the subject) – these exams were set by the Science and Art Department, and so diagrams such as this would have been used by Naden to study botany.

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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.

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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

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.

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