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.

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.

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?

Year in Sonnets

To the First Snowdrop

In ‘To the First Snowdrop’ Naden personifies the plant in a way that was completely resisted in the preceding poem, ‘To a Hyacinth in January’. As the ‘sunny-hearted child’ of ‘mother Earth’ the snowdrop demonstrates fortitude in the face of winter storms. Perhaps this conception of the snowdrop arises from Naden’s apparent connection with nature from an early age – in the Memoir of 1891 a friend remembers her ‘“talks” with the trees, birds, and butterflies’, alluded to in Naden’s poem ‘Six Years Old’.

Despite this difference in framing, similar themes reappear as she describes the transitioning from winter to spring, from bulb to bud, however another transition is also introduced, the movement from longing to fulfilment. This third element is brought in with the shift in focus at the volta, as is usual in a sonnet. We therefore move from focused description of the flower and the season, to a reflection upon life and love. Imagery is repeated from the previous stanza – tears, blossoms, buried – but put in an alternative context whereby the budding snowdrop becomes a metaphor for burgeoning love.

The idea of growth and development is central to Naden’s view of the world, but her re-use of certain images implies some unchanging essence too. This is most clearly shown by the shift in her description of the snowdrop. In the first line the ‘sunny-heart’ identifies the white flower’s bright yellow stamen as something joyful and bound to natural processes, whereas by the final line this same appearance has become a heart ‘lit with vestal fire’. It is therefore transformed into a kind of light and heat that has been harnessed by humans and serves a specific social function (specifically related to religion, gender roles, and class). I’d certainly be interested in discussing in the comments what you think Naden is suggesting here!

There is a further significance to this descriptive imagery, since the sun and fire underscore how light is an orientating concept for Naden. In the first line of the sestet she pairs ‘life and light’, the first-syllable rhyme cementing the words’ bond. There is of course a fundamental scientific truth in this, and Naden’s attachment to this model is a theme that I shall return to in future posts.

Year in Sonnets

January, 1879

And so we start Naden’s year in sonnets on a lovely note of optimism. Despite the ‘stab and sting’ of frost, which those of us in the Northern hemisphere are currently experiencing, she looks towards the coming Spring ‘[w]ith bounding heart’. Indeed the poem sets off with a bouncing iambic rhythm that reflects the action of her heart, and yet she struggles to sustain this. The act of walking through snow seeming to slow her down as the sonnet takes a more reflective turn and the vowels lengthen as we move towards the octave.

The poem’s form is much like the other nineteen we shall encounter over the course of the cycle, sticking rigidly to the Petrarchan construction (see ‘Contexts’ for more details about the sonnet form in the nineteenth century). This balance of eight and six line stanzas with a break (or volta) to mark a change in rhyme scheme and focus underlines the distinction to be made between the quite literal description of present Winter and remembered Spring, and the broader statement being made about the futility of pessimism.

Here, as elsewhere, Naden sees life in what is dormant and uses this as a metaphor for the need to ‘look on the bright side’. By focusing on the ‘ideal’ beauty and natural energy of birds singing and flowers coming into bloom, even when they are not physically present, Naden exhorts the reader to look pass the leafless branches and remember that Spring is just around the corner. Indeed, not simply remember but actively ‘create’ the ‘ethereal image’ of Spring in heart and mind to combat ‘sad Winter’, her ‘foe’.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that Naden rejects the very idea of grieving and is imbued with this sense of optimism – in January 1879 she would have just turned, or be about to turn, 21 years old, and had recently returned from travelling in Europe. After a few years away from formal education, she was developing an interest in philosophy, science, and languages and would soon enrol in Botany and Latin classes at the Birmingham and Midland Institute. The world was opening up before her, and Naden was keen to experience all it had to offer.