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‘Transcripts of the private heart’: The Sonnet and Autobiography

  • Joseph Phelan

Abstract

Between the publication of Poems in Two Volumes in 1807 and Wordsworth’s death in 1850, he remained without question the single most important practitioner of the sonnet in the English language. His critical reputation rose steadily throughout the 1820s and 1830s, and the reputation of his sonnets rose along with it. In a review of poems by Alfred and Charles Tennyson in The Tatler of March 1831, Leigh Hunt observed a propos of the Petrarchan sonnet: ‘It has been doubted whether that construction suits the genius of the English language: but the doubt is anterior to the publication of Mr. Wordsworth’s sonnets, and after that it would be difficult to repeat it.’1 By 1833, when his critical reputation was approaching its zenith, many of his contemporaries would have agreed with Alexander Dyce’s verdict: ‘The success with which [the sonnet] has been recently cultivated by Mr. Wordsworth, would alone have conferred an enduring celebrity on his name, even if he had achieved no other triumphs’.2 During this period Wordsworth did not simply repeat the gestures of 1807; he continued to experiment and innovate with the form. In 1820 he published a set of sonnets which returned to the ‘loco-descriptive’ tradition of Bowles, tracing the course and character of the River Duddon, and followed this up with other series recording tours to Scotland and the continent.3

Keywords

Early Nineteenth Century Male Tradition English Poetry Adverbial Clause Ultimate Drift 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Reprinted in Leigh Hunt’s Literary Criticism, eds L.H. Houtchens and C.W. Houtchens (New York: Columbia UP, 1956), p. 359.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Alexander Dyce, Specimens of English Sonnets (London: William Pickering, 1833), p. vi.Google Scholar
  3. 8.
    Coleridge, ‘On Poesy or Art’, in R.A. Foakes ed., Lectures 1808–19 on Literature (Princeton UP, 1987), II, p. 224.Google Scholar
  4. 10.
    Walter Jackson Bate, ‘Keats’s Style: Evolution towards qualities of permanent value’ in M.H. Abrams ed., English Romantic Poets: Modern Essays in Criticism, 2nd ed. (OUP, 1975), pp. 413–4.Google Scholar
  5. 11.
    Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and the English Romantic Imagination (OUP, 1986; rpt 1989), p. 183.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 12.
    See eg. Miriam Allott ed., Keats: The Complete Poems (Harlow: Longman, 1970); Bate, Romantic Imagination, p. 182; Keats’ sonnet alludes to Shakespeare’s sonnets 64 and 107 as well as 12.Google Scholar
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    Richard Monckton Milnes ed., The Life and Letters of John Keats (1848; rpt. London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1927), p. 162.Google Scholar
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    See T. Hall Caine ed., Sonnets of Three Centuries: A Selection, including Many Examples Hitherto Unpublished (London: Elliot Stock, 1882), p. 310.Google Scholar
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    Both were published by Taylor and Hessey and knew and admired one another’s work, though they never met; see Jonathan Bate, John Clare: A Biography (London: Picador, 2004), pp. 188–90.Google Scholar
  11. 19.
    From a letter of 5 January 1824 to his publisher John Taylor; cited in R.K.R. Thornton ed., The Rural Muse, Poems by John Clare (1835; rpt. The Mid Northumberland Arts Group and Carcanet New Press, 1982), p. 11.Google Scholar
  12. 20.
    Bate, John Clare, p. 379; Eric Robinson, David Powell and P.M.S. Dawson eds, John Clare: Northborough Sonnets (Ashington: Mid Northumberland Arts Group/Carcanet Press, 1995), p. xi. Thomas Bewick (1753–1828) was an artist famous for his woodcuts of rural life and labour.Google Scholar
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  21. 45.
    A.W. von Schlegel, Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, tr. John Black (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1846), p. 352. Schlegel’s lectures quickly became well known; Leigh Hunt, for instance, referred to them in the Preface to Foliage (1818); see Houtchens, Leigh Hunt’s Literary Criticism, pp. 140–141.Google Scholar
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  24. 52.
    John Keble, review of ‘Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott’, The British Critic xxiv (1838), 435; the importance of Keble’s theory of poetry for the history of the devotional sonnet in the nineteenth century is discussed in ch. 4.Google Scholar
  25. 53.
    The term ‘poetess’ was widely used at the time, and has been revived during the last decade or so as a way of referring to L.E.L. and Felicia Hemans in particular; see eg. Anne Mellor, ‘The Female Poet and the Poetess: Two Traditions of British Women’s Poetry, 1780–1830’, Studies in Romanticism 36 (1997), 261–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 337–9; Armstrong notes the affinity between Tractarian poetics and the ‘expressive’ tradition at work in women’s writing.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See Richard Cronin, ‘Felicia Hemans, Letitia Landon e il “dominio della donna”’ in Le poetesse romantiche inglesi, eds Lilla Maria Crisafulli and Cecilia Pietropoli (Roma: Carocci, 2002), p. 250: ‘è possibile che Felicia Hemans divenne la più popolare scrittrice della Gran Bretagna producendo delle poesie che mettono a nudo la vanità distruttiva dei valori più cari ai suoi lettori?’ [Could Mrs Hemans possibly have become the most popular woman writer in Britain producing poems which exposed the destructive worthlessness of the values held most dear by her readers?]Google Scholar
  28. 59.
    From a letter of 23 November 1842 to Mary Russell Mitford; cited in Susan J. Wolfson, Felicia Hemans: Selected Poems, Letters, Reception Materials (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton UP, 2000), p. 590. See also her poem ‘Felicia Hemans: To L.E.L., referring to her monody on the poetess’, which mocks the tone and diction of L.E.L.’s poem.Google Scholar
  29. 64.
    Marjorie Stone, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1995), ch. 2.Google Scholar
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    Letter of 20 October 1842; her hatred for it intensified with time; by 1853 she was describing the whole collection as ‘that horrible ghost of the Seraphim which makes me sicker than other ghosts when I see it on a table’; Scott Lewis ed., The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Her Sister Arabella, 2 vols (Waco, Texas: Wedgestone Press, 2002), ii, p. 21.Google Scholar
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    Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1759), p. 110; on Barrett’s development of the Romantic motifs of the Double and the Sublime as a way of articulating her sense of her relation to the male poetic tradition, Google Scholar
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    Letter of 2–3 July 1845; Daniel Karlin ed., Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett: The Courtship Correspondence (OUP, 1989), p. 78.Google Scholar
  35. 78.
    Helen Cooper, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Woman and Artist (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988), p. 102; Google Scholar
  36. See also Angela Leighton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Brighton; Harvester, 1986).Google Scholar
  37. 79.
    There is an interesting account of some of the intertextual relations between the two sequences in Sharon Smulders, ‘“Medicated Music”: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese’, Victorian Literature and Culture 23 (1996), 193–213; Smulders argues that Barrett Browning actualises the trope of feminine infirmity in order to chart her own emergence from a ‘genre plagued by infirmity’.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Cooper, Woman and Artist, p. 100; on the myth of rescue see Daniel Karlin, The Courtship of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Oxford: OUP, 1985).Google Scholar
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    Natalie M. Houston, ‘Affecting Authenticity: Sonnets from the Portuguese and Modem Love’, Studies in the Literary Imagination 35 (2002), 99–122.Google Scholar
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    Margaret Reynolds has suggested that ‘the tone and the imagery which colours the Sonnets [from the Portuguese] is derived from a fairytale stock; there are palaces inhabited by her princely lover, gifts of ruby crowns and golden thrones, magic kisses which wake the enchanted Sleeping Beauty…’; ‘Love’s Measurement in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese,’ Studies in Browning and His Circle 21 (1997), 54–5.Google Scholar

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© Joseph Patrick Phelan 2005

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  • Joseph Phelan

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