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

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

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

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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