Thought’s pure diamond’: The Sonnet at the End of the Century

  • Joseph Phelan


The years around 1880 saw a ‘Sonnettomania’ to rival that of the closing decades of the previous century.1 ‘Into whatsoever ballroom you went,’ writes Max Beerbohm in ‘1880’, his satirical portrait of the high noon of the aesthetic movement, ‘you would surely find, among the women in tiaras and the fops and the distinguished foreigners, half a score of comely ragamuffins in velveteen, murmuring sonnets, posturing, waving their hands.’2 Beerbohm no doubt had in mind young men like Wilfred Scawen Blunt, whose Sonnets and Songs appeared (under the aesthetic pseudonym Proteus) in 1875. The volume’s fashionably yellow front cover is decorated with a sun-motif, and the motto: ‘By thy light I live’. Proteus is (to use the terms of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience) more of a ‘fleshly’ than an ‘idyllic’ poet; his volume consists of reminders that ‘[the] day of love is short, and every bliss/ Untasted now is a bliss thrown away’.3 He also, as his dedication to the sun implies, follows Swinburne in looking to a revived Paganism as an alternative source of values to Christianity. ‘Truce to thee, soul’ laments the effect of Christian asceticism on humanity, and looks forward to a time when the physical and sensual side of existence will be accepted and celebrated: ‘Poor Body, I must take some thought of thee’ (1. 14).


Crystal Sphere British Troop Pure Diamond Sensual Side Famous Formulation 
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  1. 2.
    Max Beerbohm, ‘1880’ in Works (1896; rpt. London: The Bodley Head Ltd, 1930), pp. 38–9.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    Pater, The Renaissance (Harmondsworth, Middx.: Penguin, 1986), pp. 52–3.Google Scholar
  3. 7.
    Cp ‘Laurence’ in W.H. Mallock’s The New Republic (1877; rpt. Leicester University Press, 1975), p. 194: ‘The mind, if I may borrow an illustration from photography, is a sensitised plate, always ready to receive the images made by experience on it. Poetry is the developing solution which first makes these images visible.’Google Scholar
  4. 10.
    Some of these effects are noted by Yopie Prins, ‘Voice Inverse’, Victorian Poetry 42 (2004) 43–60, although she does not interpret them as an attempt at metrical mimesis.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 11.
    The role of the anthology in developing the theory of the sonnet is examined in Natalie Houston, ‘Valuable by Design: Material Features and Cultural Value in Nineteenth-century Sonnet Anthologies’, Victorian Poetry 37 (1999), pp. 243–272.Google Scholar
  6. 12.
    T. Hall Caine, Sonnets of Three Centuries: A Selection, including Many Examples Hitherto Unpublished (London: Elliot Stock, 1882), p. xxii; Google Scholar
  7. Watts-Dunton’s metaphor is also adopted by William Sharp in his preface to Sonnets of this Century (London: Walter Scott, 1886), which states that ‘[for] the concise expression of an isolated poetic thought — an intellectual or sensuous “wave” keenly felt, emotionally and rhythmically — the sonnet would seem to be the best medium, the means apparently prescribed by certain radical laws of melody and harmony, in other words, of nature: even as the swallow’s wing is the best for rapid volant wheel and shift, as the heron’s for mounting by wide gyrations, as that of the kite or the albatross for sustained suspension’ (p. xxiii; see also pp. lii-liii).Google Scholar
  8. 15.
    Theodore Watts-Dunton, Poetry and the Renascence of Wonder (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1916), p. 183; this essay on the sonnet was first published in Chambers’s Encyclopaedia for 1891.Google Scholar
  9. 20.
    Richard Chenevix Trench, ‘The History of the English Sonnet’ in The Afternoon Lectures on Literature and Art, 4th series (London: Bell and Daldy, 1867), p. 154.Google Scholar
  10. 24.
    David G. Riede, Dante Gabriel Rossetti Revisited (New York: Twayne, 1992), p. 128.Google Scholar
  11. 27.
    Brigid Boardman ed., The Poems of Francis Thompson (London and New York: Continuum, 2001), pp. 384–6; this sonnet sequence was not published during Thompson’s lifetime. The text of Swinburne’s sonnets is taken from Literature Online (Chadwyck-Healey).Google Scholar
  12. 32.
    Augusta Webster, Mother and Daughter: An Uncompleted Sonnet-Sequence (London: Macmillan, 1895); this edition is available electronically as part of the University of Indiana’s ‘Victorian Women Writer’s Project’. The quotation is taken from an article by Watts-Dunton in The Athenaeum of 24 January 1880.Google Scholar
  13. 40.
    E.M. Forster, ‘Racial Exercise’ in Two Cheers for Democracy (London: Edward Arnold, 1951), p. 30.Google Scholar
  14. 43.
    Watts-Dunton, Renascence of Wonder, p. 172; Bernard Bergonzi, Poetry 1870–1914 (Harlow: Longman, 1980), p. 185.Google Scholar
  15. 45.
    Holbrook Jackson, The Eighteen Nineties (London: Jonathan Cape, 1927), pp. 66–7.Google Scholar

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© Joseph Patrick Phelan 2005

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  • Joseph Phelan

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