What Are Sonnets, Anyway? (Part Two)

About the time Johnson wrote his definition, however, the sonnet was being revived in a way that makes his reference to “any man of eminence” seem ironic.  Although the “Big Five” Romantic poets Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats would make considerable use of the form, this tight-knit group of men were introduced to the sonnet by a group of women spanning the generation before Wordsworth and Coleridge.  Of particular interest in this connection are Charlotte Smith and Mary Robinson, who in radically different life situations began to use the sonnet form in similar ways and for similar purposes.

Their great literary rival, Anne Seward, was known to Johnson; Seward engaged in an acrimonious literary dispute with Johnson and famously defended the literary superiority of the “legitimate sonnet,” providing us with a key to the importance of the sonnet to these women and later writers.  Smith and Robinson both, in publishing their sonnets, respond in two different ways to Seward’s insistence on the “legitimate” (Petrarchan) sonnet.  On the one hand, they did not consider themselves bound by Seward’s strictures; Smith translates Petrarch from the Italian but also writes in multiple variants of the sonnet.  On the other hand, their use of the form accomplishes two goals at once, granting them the sort of “legitimate” poetic reputation Seward also sought while bypassing the fading Augustan consensus that heroic verse was the proving-ground of great poets.

Seward, Smith, and Robinson lived as the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution were disestablishing natural social bonds and replacing them with a revolutionary rationalism whose “science” would declare women physical and psychological inferiors well into the 20th Century.  This cultural consensus would perhaps reach the height of its strength in the 19th Century, as seen in the vogue of pseudoscientific understandings of human development such as phrenology, popular applications of Darwinism to individual and socio-cultural development, and the reduction of women to perpetual minors in the Napoleonic Code; but in the late 18th Century these determined (and sometimes desperate) women were already finding ways to defend their dignity and make their voices heard.  Rather than strive against the memory of Pope and Dryden and the criticism of Johnson, writers like Smith and Robinson chose to work in the tradition of undoubtedly great English writers that many Augustans failed to appreciate.  Shakespeare’s reputation, and Milton’s, had languished for years, but they had never really disappeared; and the formative years of the “Big Five” Romantics would also see the rehabilitation of Milton as a hero for an age of revolutionary radicalism.  As part of that formative period, poets like Smith and Robinson wrote in the form of Sidney’s still-popular work, a form appealing both for the Italianate flavor of Petrarch’s originals and for the English variants innovated by Shakespeare and Spenser and Milton.  By leapfrogging their contemporaries in favor of a “legitimate” form practiced by major writers of the past, Smith and Robinson secured their place in literary history—and became key figures in the revival of the sonnet.

Since the late 18th Century, the sonnet has never completely gone out of fashion.  Even in the United States after Walt Whitman’s promotion of free verse, writers as different as Edna St. Vincent Millay, e.e. cummings, and Gwendolyn Brooks have all made significant use of the sonnet form.  Rupert Brooke’s promise that, if he dies in battle, “some corner of a foreign field” will be “for ever England” comes from a sonnet; even horror fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft put together an odd sonnet cycle titled Fungi from Yuggoth.  In more than a few of these cases, the poets use the sonnet in ways Smith and Robinson would recognize.  Like most traditional forms, the sonnet embodies a range of cultural and personal habits of expression, a means of sharing certain insights that both gives them shape and selects them; in choosing the form, the writer of the sonnet takes on those habits and uses those means, and gains the opportunity to innovate by modifying the expectations evoked by the form.