The Devotional Sonnet

  • Joseph Phelan


In the Elizabethan period, the religious sonnet followed on from and to a certain extent developed out of the amatory sonnet; the conventions established in the latter were self-consciously transferred to the former in the attempt to find a contemporary idiom for religious devotion. This order of priority is reversed in the nineteenth century, with the religious sonnet appearing earlier than its amatory counterpart. The main reason for this can, again, be traced to the pre-eminence of Wordsworth. If, as Arline Golden has suggested, ‘the power of the Wordsworthian-Miltonic sonnet’ prevented ‘the renascence of the amatory sonnet’ until the appearance of Sonnets from the Portuguese, it also enabled the development of a specifically religious sonnet which gained in currency and popularity throughout the century.1 This sonnet does not derive directly from Wordsworth’s own specifically religious poems — although the much-derided Ecclesiastical Sonnets foreshadow, as we shall see, some of the main lines of the development of religious poetry — but rather from the atmosphere of reverence which suffuses his meditative poetry, and which was recognised by Wordsworth’s contemporaries as the counterpart of the religious revival of the early nineteenth century in the sphere of feeling. Wordsworth’s ‘natural piety’ modulates into the meditative and introspective sonnets of Christina Rossetti and Gerard Manley Hopkins, which function as a space in which the poets can reflect on and examine the progress of their own souls.


Erary Concealment Woman Writer Religious Revival Religious Devotion Spiritual Crisis 
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  1. 1.
    Arline Golden, ‘Victorian Renascence: The Revival of the Amatory Sonnet Sequence, 1850–1900’, Genre 7 (1974), 133–4.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    The phrase is from John Henry Newman’s famous discussion of the origins of the Movement in Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864; rpt. New York: Chelsea House, 1983), pp. 116–8.Google Scholar
  3. 11.
    The significance of this sonnet is recognised by Wordsworth’s biographer Mary Moorman, who describes it as a ‘challenge’ to which Keble responded; see Brian W. Martin, John Keble: Priest, Professor and Poet (London: Croom Helm, 1976), p. 75.Google Scholar
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    Margaret Johnson, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Tractarian Poetry (Aldershot, Hants, and Brookfield Vermont: Ashgate, 1997), p. 21.Google Scholar
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    John Keble, Review of ‘Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott’, 431; 426–7; 435. Keble’s theories are discussed in M.H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp (1953; rpt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 144–8; Tennyson, Victorian Devotional Poetry, ch. 2.Google Scholar
  6. 27.
    Kathleen Jones, Learning Not to be First: The Life of Christina Rossetti (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1991), p. 37; Google Scholar
  7. Jan Marsh, Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), p. 55.Google Scholar
  8. 28.
    Cynthia Scheinberg, Women’s Poetry and Religion in Victorian England: Jewish Identity and Christian Culture (CUP, 2002), p. 9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 30.
    Tennyson, Victorian Devotional Poetry, 198; Joel Westerholm, ‘In Defence of Verses: The Aesthetic and Reputation of Christina Rossetti’s Late Poetry’, Renascence 51.3 (1999).Google Scholar
  10. 32.
    See for instance Germaine Greer, Slip-shod Sybils (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995), ch. 11, ‘The Perversity of Christina Rossetti’, in which she sees Rossetti’s ‘invalidism’ as a hysterical symptom caused by her simultaneous indulgence and repression of her own emotional nature. For an argument against this understanding of religious sentiment as sublimation in her work, Google Scholar
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    See William Michael Rossetti, ‘Memoir’, in The Poetical Works of Christina Rossetti (1904), p. lxvi. Christina first met her fellow Christian poet Dora Greenwell during a visit to the family of William Bell Scott in Newcastle in 1858.Google Scholar
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    Keble, ‘Sacred Poetry’ (1825), rpt. Occasional Papers and Reviews, p. 81; see also John Griffin, ‘Tractarians and Metaphysicals: The Failure of Influence’, John Donne Journal 4 (2) (1985), 291–302.Google Scholar
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    On the use of repetition in Rossetti’s poetry, see esp. Sylvan Esh, ‘Not speaking the unspeakable: Religion and repetition in Christina Rossetti’s Monna Innominata sequence’, Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900; Autumn 1994.Google Scholar
  15. 44.
    Wagner, Moment’s Monument, p. 174; the term ‘terrible’ sonnets is usually used to refer to the four poems sent to Hopkins’ friend Robert Bridges on a half-sheet of sermon paper in 1885 or 1886: ‘To seem the stranger’, ‘I wake and feel’, ‘Patience’, and ‘My own heart’ (see Edward H. Cohen, ‘The Chronology of Hopkins’s “Terrible Sonnets’”, Victorians Institute Journal 21 (1993), 191–200).Google Scholar
  16. 45.
    Gary M. Bouchard notes that critics have become ‘preoccupied with constructing a narrative to explain the emotional innards of Hopkins’s later sonnets’ and have in consequence neglected their formal dimension; ‘What Gets Said in a Narrow (ten-by-fourteen) Room: A Reconsideration of Hopkins’s Later Sonnets’, in Francis Fennell ed., Rereading Hopkins: Selected New Essays (English Literary Studies: University of Victoria, 1996), pp. 180–92.Google Scholar
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    See esp. Robert Bernard Martin, Gerard Manley Hopkins (London: HarperCollins, 1991); Margaret Johnson, Hopkins and Tractarian Poetry.Google Scholar
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    J. Hillis Miller, The Disappearance of God (New York: Schocken, 1965), p. 280; Miller gives examples from Hopkins’ journals of his construction of word sequences by changing consonants or nouns as a way of investigating the hidden relations between words.Google Scholar
  19. 56.
    As pointed out by Lois W. Pitchford in ‘The Curtal Sonnets of GMH’, Modern Language Notes 67 (3), 1952, 165–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Joseph Patrick Phelan 2005

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