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

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

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

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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