The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Elizabeth C. Kinney/The Sonnet

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There are people who seem to think that an intellectual taste for certain kinds of poetry, or an ear for Italian music are to be acquired; like a physical relish for olives, tomatoes, or macaroni! That even cultivated minds cannot appreciate some styles of poetic composition, so as to feel the sentiment conveyed in them, till familiarized to the form of conveyance: and that no ear—however delicately attuned by the great Master—can naturally enjoy the soul of melody that gushes from the throats of Italia’s songsters, because Art commingles the melting strains into harmonious passages, giving unity to multiplicity of sound; as it weaves into musical feet the inborn idea—the breathing thought of poesy. We should like to have all who say they can enjoy natural, but not artistic music, visit an aviary in the season of song; when some fifty vocal throats—pitched on as many keys—are striving to drown one another’s tones: we never hear such a discord “of sweet sounds” from Nature’s undrilled troupe, without thinking, if it were possible for Art to harmonize the warblers’ voices together, what a tide of affluent melody would overpower the senses! And would it be less Nature’s music than before?

The truth is, that such as hear only artificial tones from Italy’s born-songsters—made artists by study and practice—have not the ear for natural melody that they boast of; but one in sympathy with discordant sounds. So he that cannot recognise at once the native soul of poetry, in whatever form presented, has imagined himself an admirer of poetry, when only in love with certain forms of expression and musical cadences, while insensible to the spirit and power of the poetic thought they embody; and he is so constituted in mind as never to acquire any true appreciation of at least one form of the beautiful. We noticed recently in a periodical paper a Sonnet introduced by the following paragraph:

“We have an utter, relentless, unmitigated dislike, aversion, horror, for those fourteen-lined effusions, called Sonnets. They remind us of a child struggling to walk in swaddling clothes. They are puny ideas on stilts. They have a central thought, which, like the centre of gravity, is never seen. The poor thing flounders about like a man running tied up in a sack. It is a puzzle for children of a larger growth. Like a glass thread, one wonders how it is spun, or how the apple got into the dumplings!”

Nor is the above the expression of an uncommon sentiment regarding Sonnets. Now, no lover of the Sonnet will affirm that even its beautiful form of composition, ever so artistically wrought out of rich material, can affect the human mind, unless the vital spark animates the whole, any more than other forms of art through which no spiritual meaning is conveyed. But he, who in a true Sonnet can see nothing but the imaginary laborious process of its execution, would probably stand before a Grecian temple calculating the labour and manner of its construction; while the lover of Art, blind to its processes, in silent awe worshipped the grandeur of its complete manifestation.

A Sonnet, in the highest sense, naturally obeys the law of art, which is to conceal its processes. And where, in the Sonnets of Petrarch, of Milton, of Shakspeare, of Coleridge, or of Wordsworth, can any “anointed eye” see the least shadow of constraint, or trace of effort? So unconstrainedly do the poetic language and imagery arrange their metrical feet in the beautiful order of the Sonnet,—while the one luminous idea, like electricity, runs through the whole,—that the mind which can perceive, sees only the radiant thought, yet feels that a harmonious chain is its conductor.

Nor is the Sonnet such an effort to the poet, as the machine poetaster or mechanical reader may suppose. All will allow that love utters itself through the most natural forms of expression. Petrach’s love for Laura gave birth to the Sonnet: it was not the invention of mechanical genius; but a living creation, that owes its being to the strong emotions of hopeless passion. And, if, when reproduced in its original likeness, its beauty and vital power are unfelt, depend upon it, the fault is not in the Sonnet.

Born in Italy—and how can anything lack music or warmth that originated under those glowing skies?—and introduced into England by Lord Surrey, the Sonnet has for centuries been the medium of conveying and receiving the richest gems of poetic thought and fancy. In our opinion, Wordsworth’s Sonnets, save one or two Odes, are worth all his other poems; and he has said,

“Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,
 Mindless of its just honours; with this key
 Shakspeare unlocked his heart; the melody
 Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound;

 A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound;
 Camoens soothed with it an exile’s grief;
 The Sonnet glittered a gay myrtle leaf
 Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned
 His visionary brow: a glow-worm lamp,
 It cheered mild Spenser, called from Fairy-land
 To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp
 Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand
 The thing became a trumpet, whence he blew
 Soul-animating strains—alas, too few!”

But the Sonnet is not confined to the Old World:—certain also of our own poets have with this magic “key” unlocked the heart; with this “glow-worm lamp,” shed light into the enshrouded mind; with this “pipe,” awakened tones musical as the shepherd god sent through Arcadian vales; with this “myrtle leaf,” made green again the cypress-crowned brow; with this “trumpet,” sounded the victory of the spirit over human passions and earth-born hopes.

“And what shall we say more? Time would fail us to tell of” all that the Sonnet has effected—of all who have made it the mighty instrument for the soul’s unwritten music.