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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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’.