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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