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

In the Lanes Between Stratford and Shottery, May 14th, 1880

This sonnet opens with the image of Naden walking along the country lanes between Stratford (William Shakespeare’s birthplace and final resting place) and Shottery (the family home of Anne Hathaway, his wife). Victorian visitors were encouraged to make the short walk, an 1865 guide to the town suggesting that ‘there is something rather romantic in this boy-lover episode in the life of the poet, and one naturally feels a desire to visit the scenes connected with it’, describing Shottery as ‘the very spot on which the boy lover, with all the ardour of a Romeo, pleaded his cause with Ann [sic] Hathaway’ (p. 29). Naden seems caught up in this romanticised version of events, day-dreaming about an eighteen year old Shakespeare courting Hathaway in the picturesque countryside.

The compression of time between Shakespeare’s lifetime and Naden’s own, which began in ‘Stratford-on-Avon, May 14th, 1880’, continues in this sonnet. The ‘dreamful meads’ of 1880 are described as retaining the spirit of the young Shakespeare, who walked the same lanes 300 years earlier. The ‘changeful, yet changeless’ theme persists, the sky-lark’s call quickening her own heart and his.

After the previous sonnet in which Naden played a little with her usual sonnet form, in this poem we are returned to familiar ground; although the rhyme scheme is the same as in ‘Stratford-on-Avon, May 14th, 1880’ there is a marked volta and clear shift in focus in the sestet. While the first stanza engages with the place of a person in relation to natural world, emphasising their fundamental connection, the second stanza shifts the focus inwards to draw out the internal feelings of a poet in love. In the final line ‘nature’ comes to refer to the human spirit rather than the countryside.

In this sonnet we have Naden’s most straightforward description of love, one that revels in the ‘passion of desire, / High hopes, deep thoughts’ of young love without the complicating social factors that mar poems such as the ‘Evolutional Erotics’, or the theme of loss that overshadows ‘Yearning’ and ‘The Abbot’, for example. Since the specificity of place and date encourages the reader to think of this sonnet as a kind of diary entry it is tempting to suggest that the twenty-one year old Naden is projecting her own experience of romantic love onto the figure of the boy-poet. Until recently there was no evidence for such a relationship, however some recent manuscript discoveries dating from the late 1870s indicate that this may indeed be the case.

It is interesting in this context that Naden does not imagine Anne Hathaway herself, who is only an abstract presence in the sonnet. Instead Naden seeks to identify herself with, and draw inspiration from, Shakespeare himself. This speaks to her independence and the sense of intellectual and creative purpose that runs through all her writings. Whether or not Naden’s sense of oneness with Shakespeare stems from a contemporaneous romance on her part, the feeling of ‘boundless life’ that Naden ascribes to the boy-poet is, I think, equally applicable to the effect that ‘deep thoughts’ being given room to ‘live and grow’ were having on Naden herself as she embarked on a career of poetry, philosophy, and science.

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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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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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