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crustes*, which the limbs of the victims laid thereon were made to fit by being either stretched or amputated, as the case required. They object to its being limited to a precise number of lines ; as if the same objection might not be made to every other form of verse. The sonnet is one stanza of fourteen lines, as the Spenserian measure is one stanza of nine lines. have been constructed entirely of sonnet-stanzast. Though the Spenserian stanza is much shorter, it is generally complete in itself, and the sound and sense are wound up together by the concluding Alexandrine, in a way that fully satisfies both the ear and the mind. Even in eight and four line stanzas there is usually a certain unity and completeness both of thought and music. These laws of verse are not arbitrary or casual, but depend on certain fixed principles, discovered by the intuitive taste and discrimination of genius. Capel Lofft has ingeniously insisted on the perfection of the sonnet construction, and its analogy to music; and has remarked that it is somewhat curious that the two Guidi or Guittonni, both of Arrezzo, the birth-place of Petrarch, were the fathers, the one of the sonnet, and the other of the modern system of musical notation and solmization. He has proved, at least to my satisfaction, that the sonnet is as complete and beautiful a form of verse as any that has been yet invented. I of course allude to the strict Petrarchan or Guidonian sonnet. The little poems of Bowles and Charlotte Smith are merely elegiac four line stanzas, with a concluding couplet; and though very pretty and pleasing compositions, possess not the charm which they would have acquired by a more rigid adherence to the Italian model. Of later years a more intimate acquaintance with Italian literature has opened the eyes of our poets to the superior beauty of the legitimate construction. The true Italian sonnet is a labyrinth of sweet sounds. It has all the variety of blank-verse, with the additional charm of rhyme. There is no precise limit to the number or position of the pauses, and the lines may so run over into each other, that the cloying effect of a too frequent and palpable recurrence of the same terminations need never be experienced, if the poet turn his skill and taste to a proper account. The sonnet is not adapted to all subjects, but to those only which may be treated in a small compass. A single sentiment or principle may be expressed or illustrated within its narrow limits with exquisite and powerful effect, but it is not adapted for continuous feeling or complex thought. Pastorini's celebrated sonnet to Genoa, and the equally celebrated sonnet to Italy, by Filicaja, are examples of the capability of the sonnet to give effect to a single burst of feeling or to one pervading idea, suggested by a single scene, or circumstance. Wordsworth, who is the most legitimate and by far the finest sonnet-writer in the English language, since Milton, has produced several perfect specimens of the force and unity of this species of composition. I content myself with adducing one beautiful example.
* It was Ben Jonson who first made use of this now stale comparison; “ He cursed Petrarch for redacting verses into sonnets, which he said was like that tyrant's bed, where some who were too short were racked, others too long cut short." But Ben Jenson's taste was not infallible. According to Drummond's report of his conversations “ Spenser's stanzas pleased him not, nor his matter," while, “ for some things, he esteemed Doune the first poet in the world.” + Spenser's “ Ruines of Rome,” and “ Visions of Petrarch," &c. are examples.
COMPOSED ON WESTMINSTER BRIDGE.
Earth has not any thing to show more fair :
The reader feels as this fine sonnet is wound up with the sublime concluding image, that there is no want of an additional line or an additional illustration. Both the ear and mind are satisfied. The music of thought and the music of verse are exquisitely blended, and seem to arrive together at a natural termination. It reminds me of the Portuguese aphorism, that the sonnet ought to be shut with a golden key. The Italians say that it should be a body of sweetness with a sting, by which they do not mean that its tenderness or beauty should merge into an actual epigram, but that it should end with point and spirit. When a sonnet fails to exhibit a unity and finish, it is the fault of the artist. The question put by George Steevens, in allusion to Shakespeare's sonnets of “what have truth and nature to do with sonnets ?” is scarcely worthy of an answer. Truth and nature are not confined to any particular form of verse, and may be as well embodied in the 14-line stanza as in any other; they depend on the poet's genius, and not on his choice of metre.
It is true that the sonnet imposes many peculiar difficulties on the poet, but it is his glory to overcome them; and we do not find that bad sonnets necessarily contain more nonsense than 14 lines of bad blank verse*.
* In the notice of Robert Walpole's poetical translations from the Greek, Spanish, and Italian, in the Edinburgh Review, (1805) it is observed that “ This species of composition has been called by an excellent writer, the most exquisite jewel of the Muses. With us it has never been completely naturalized. Milton and Gray, who have cultivated it with most success, both drank from the sweet streams of Italy, where a single sonnet can give immortality to its author, while the longer poems of his contemporaries are buried in oblivion.” In adding that the strict laws of the sonnet ought not to be departed from, the reviewer remarks,
Gray has observed them scrupulously.” I cannot understand this prominent notice of Gray as a sonnet-writer. He wrote only one, and even that is omitted in Chalmer's collection! Though a very good sonnet, its excellence is by no means extraordinary. Milton's sonnets are unquestionably the best in our language, and possess a severe dignity that may be referred to as a triumphant disproof of the vulgar notion, that this form of verse is necessarily confined to ingenious conceits or maudlin sentiment.
But it is time to draw the reader's especial attention to the sonnets (for such I must call them) of Shakespeare. If I regret their defects as sonnets, the truly Shakesperian beauties, with which they are so profusely sprinkled, make me delight in them as poems, without any reference to their peculiar class or construction. I shall commence with pointing out what I conceive to be specimens of their poetical merit, and shall afterwards proceed to offer some observations upon the difficult question of to whom are they addressed, which seems to have turned the heads of some of the poet's commentators.
Mr. Steevens has asserted, that “ the sonnets are composed in the highest strain of affectation, pedantry, circumlocution and nonsense.”
Now I shall endeavour to make the reader acquainted with the real nature of the poetry thus spoken of, and then leave him to his indignation and astonishment at such critical blasphemy in one who set himself up as a commentator on Shakespeare and a pretender to taste. Leigh Hunt has well described Steevens as
an acute observer up to a certain point, but who could write like an idiot when he got beyond it.” As the chief merit of Shakespeare's fourteen-line stanzas does not consist in their continuity or completeness, but in the freshness, force, beauty and abundance of the thoughts and images, I shall not confine my extracts to entire sonnets, but give occasionally such detached lines and short passages as seem most remarkable, and may be most easily separated from the context. I commence, however, with a complete poem, in which the writer persuades his friend to marry.
“When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
How much more praise deserved thy beauty's use,
- This fair child of mine
The following lines, in which the same subject is continued, contain one of those vivid images that are flashed from the fancy of the genuine poet only.
“ Thou art thy mother's glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime :
“Those hours, that with gentle work did frame
Where in any modern poem may we look for such a description of sun-rise as the following ? There is a freshness of imagery, a masculine simplicity and strength of diction, and a noble freedom of versification, in this passage, that could hardly be over-praised.
“ Lo, in the orient when the gracious light
up his burning head, each under eye
Attending on his golden pilgrimage.”
• When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;