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.

Advertisements
Standard
Year in Sonnets

Songs Before Daybreak

Unusually for Constance Naden this sonnet is principally about the perception of nature’s sounds, rather than its sights. Even in a poem that is overtly about what is audible, however, we find that light’s ‘rays of glory’ play an important role, since the ‘songs’ in question are the dawn chorus and therefore tied to diurnal rhythms dictated by the sun. Indeed sound begets sight, her senses being interwoven so that the bird song allows her to ‘feel, before I see’. This poem that describes the ‘dusky twilight’ is suffused by the vocabulary of light, Naden having chosen to use negative modifiers rather than describe the darkness directly, for example ‘not morn’ rather than ‘night’ and ‘untinged with gold’ rather than ‘dark grey’.

The first stanza’s description of the birds’ song ringing out into the night is very evocative, and Naden is particularly struck by the intelligence that this demonstrates on their part. We know from a notebook that she kept in 1878-79 that one of her fundamental reservations about Christianity was that it teaches that humans have souls but all other organisms do not. While Naden was a materialist who rejected the very idea of spirit, she was also uncomfortable with the idea that humans are fundamentally different from other animals, and so by granting the birds in this poem human-like intuition she unsettles the distinction between the animal and human world as taught by the Bible. She also plays on the double meaning of the word ‘divine’ to indicate that the birds have insight but are also creatures worthy of reverence.

The repetition of ‘though’ four times in the octave creates an air of uncertainly, which means that statements are perpetually undermined. This enacts the feelings that Naden is describing, whereby the birds intuit that the sun will soon rise, while she can only wait and rely on her knowledge of the sun’s movement as cycle. The shift in tone upon reaching the sestet is marked, beginning with a resounding ‘Yes’. Here Naden comes to the realisation that even if she cannot perceive directly what it is the birds can sense, their dawn chorus enables her to join with them in the sense of ‘hope’ that it engenders. The clear sense of oneness with nature speaks of Naden’s pantheist leanings, and takes the place of conventional religious faith in this poem.

This culminates in the final three lines that demonstrate the sense of unity achieved. She feels able to ‘translate’ the song into ‘gladsome words’, evoking the very nature of the poetic medium in which she expresses these feelings. The harmony felt is literalised, as the sounds of bird song, raindrops, and the wind come together in a single composition which resonates deeply with Naden’s self. Thus, as the night lengthens and winter draws in, hers is no longer ‘a voice forlorn’, it has become part of the dawn chorus.

Standard
Year in Sonnets

Sunset

‘Sunset’ is Naden’s August poem, a month that often signals the end of summer, and yet the approaching autumn is not brought into focus. Unlike many of Naden’s sonnets, in which she sees death and decay in the midst of burgeoning life, here even the setting of the sun is not paired with impending darkness. Instead the sun maintains its splendour, and while it has lost its ‘noonday heat’ the brightness remains, giving off the ‘pure’ white light of hot summer days. Even the shadows cast by the trees are playful and the ‘broader gray’ has no negative connotations of darkness, due in part to the rhyme scheme’s linking of it to ‘gay’ and ‘play’.

This is therefore a joyous poem, which when read on an inclement August day makes one yearn for bright sun and long evenings spend outdoors. The lull between day and night is captured in the line ‘This radiant hour, when peace and passion meet’, and encourages the reader to see sunset as facilitating and embodying the unification of distinct concepts. Naden’s desire to draw opposites together and bring them into harmony continues past the volta, as ‘peace’ and ‘strife’, and ‘heart and mind’ are brought into communion with each other.

Light undoubtedly suffuses the whole poem, which culminates in Naden’s repetition of the word in the two penultimate lines. Bright light envelopes us, and Naden uses the liquid imagery of ‘sea of light’ and ‘o’erflowing’ to express the way in which the sunset bathes the land and poet herself, who is a strong presence in this poem as the third line describes how sunlight guides both her physical and metrical feet.

Naden leaves space for a religious interpretation of this light,as it streams from an empyreal, peaceful sky that evokes restful rapture. However, while she plays on Christian descriptors of heaven here, she resists fully articulating these tropes and as a result indicates how her pantheistic appreciation of the natural world’s beauty is an equally acceptable way to understand and engage with the universe.

 

Standard
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.

Standard
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.

Standard
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!

Standard
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?

Standard