Year in Sonnets

Reflecting on a Year in Sonnets

Two years after Constance Naden published her Year in Sonnets sequence she wrote about how ‘Sun and rain are translated by imagination into smiles and tears; the glow of summer and the gloom of winter seem to express the joy and grief of the world-spirit. Man sees himself mirrored in nature, and bows down before his own image, which seems to respond to his devotion.’ (‘What is Religion?’ in Further Reliques of Constance Naden, p. 118). This description of pantheism encapsulates much of what Naden does in these poems, pushing against religion and seeking to replace it with a more material understanding of the world, looking for meaning in the natural rather than the supernatural. As her ideas developed further Naden went on to reject the spiritual feelings that underlie such a pantheist view and instead focused on the natural cycle of life and death that represents simply a transfer of energy.

When I set out to write a blog about Naden’s Year in Sonnets at the beginning of 2015 I did so with the intention of bringing to light some of the least appreciated poems from an under-appreciated Victorian poet. These twenty poems do not have the comic spark of Naden’s ‘Evolutional Erotics’, the atheistic vehemence of ‘A Priest’s Warning’, or the awestruck wonder of ‘Starlight I’ and ‘Starlight II’; what they offer instead is a sustained reflection upon our place in the natural world. Despite having spent several years researching Naden’s work, I began this project with the view that these were perhaps her least innovative poems, conventional verses on flowers being the stereotypical stock-in-trade of Victorian women writers. Looks can be deceiving, however, and delving deeper into the sonnets one at a time over the course of twelve months gave each one room to breathe, opening up deeper themes of energy in dormancy, life in death.

In 1881, when Songs and Sonnets of Springtime was published, Naden was on the cusp of a new chapter of her life, for this was the year in which she began studying at Mason College of Science. In the years leading up to this – during which she wrote these poems – Naden had spread her intellectual net far and wide, developing interests in continental philosophy, modern and classical languages, and the boundaries of scientific knowledge. These influences are not always obvious in her Year in Sonnets, but her propensity to expand her understanding of the world underlies them all. In an obituary essay William R. Hughes described Naden’s precocious curiosity, recalling how at the age of six she would imagine ‘“talks” with the trees, birds, and butterflies, out of which grew questionings as to “How?” and “Why” these were; what was our relation to them, and theirs to ours; questionings to the solution of which [Naden] devoted her life’ (Constance Naden: A Memoir, pp. 8-9). It is this inquisitive enthusiasm that echoes through the sequence of poems discussed in this blog.

I fully intend to return to Naden’s Year in Sonnets, and my readings of them, over the course of this year, and hope others will be inspired to do the same. Many things have changed in the 140 years since these poems were written, but nature’s seasonal cycle is changeful yet changeless. Her meditations on nature thus continue to resonate with renewed meaning with every passing month.

Naden bust & plaque

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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

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.

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Year in Sonnets

September, 1880

This poem marks the transition from summer to autumn, and upon reaching this point Constance Naden looks both backwards and forwards. Her approach is mirrored in the form of the sonnet, as the octave refers back to the seasons that have passed, and then after the volta she turns towards the coming winter. Autumn is described as a time of contrasts for it is both ‘prosperous’ (evoking the harvest) and redolent of ‘decay’. And yet cyclical nature is emphasised, for the decay is described as ‘rich’, reminding us that decomposition must occur to fertilise soils and ensure the following year’s plant growth.

The world here is in flux; leaves are falling but cannot settle because ‘thine own winds whirl [them] away’. This unrest is reflected in the structure of the poem, which provides the reader with one version of September but pulls this out from under us in the sestet, the sharp ‘Nay’ rejecting the ‘dream of joy’ that transposed the traits of spring onto autumn and installing in its place a more realistic perspective of the seasonal changes.

As a result it is not clear what we are to make of the wishful thinking Naden communicates in the first half of the sonnet. Although she ultimately rejects this view of September, she nonetheless adds her own voice to the ‘wild conjubilant psalm’, the exclamation mark implying that this very verse is offered in harmony with the birds’ own song. We know from the earlier sonnets in the sequence, such as ‘April, 1879’ and ‘May, 1879’ that Naden prized the spring above all other seasons, so perhaps this can be read as an insight into her unhappiness about the passing of ‘fresh beams and breezes’. Nevertheless she appreciates that this is an irrational view because, as the sonnet concludes, the seasons are of course cyclical. Do let me know your reading of this dilemma in the comments!

This is a pantheist poem, in which each of the seasons are personified and the forces of nature are sole stimulus for change, growth, and renewal. This dismissal of Christian faith is introduced by the description of bird-song as a psalm, thus bestowing natural sounds with quasi-religious meaning, and rendering a sacred verse secular. It is most clear, however, in the sonnet’s closing lines as Naden looks forward to ‘Winter […] / Renewing Earth by terror and hope’. Here the tired image of ‘Old Man Winter’ is transfigured into something God-like by recalling both the terror of the Old Testament and the hope of the New Testament. The natural world has become Naden’s Bible, and without explicitly stating her rejection of religion she is able to communicate how her non-conformist background has given way to a pantheistic agnosticism, which over the course of the 1880s was to become an avowed atheism.

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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.

 

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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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