Reprint: Prefatory Remarks on The Sonnet by Charles Harpur

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The Sonnet is, perhaps, the best metrical form yet invented for the terse embodiment of any truth which is spherical by reason of its comprehensiveness, or which is great and general enough to be simple, and thence amenable to the brevity of treatment almost aphoristic. Nor is there any better form for the musical setting forth of any strikingly individual idea, or fact, or love-fancy. It is also eminently suitable as a vehicle for literary compliment, or biographical incident, and when spirited with the light of some memorable event, or by the stirring influence of some heroic name, it may indeed, as in the hands of Milton, become "a trumpet," and thence a fit medium for blowing "soul-animating strains" into the ears of all men.

But apart from its subject there must, in the mere construction and vehicular capacity of the Sonnet, be always exhibited an absolute mastery over means. This, I say, is an indispensable requirement, admitting of no incompleteness either of thought or expression;   no slip-slop, no inversion purely for rhyme's sake; not even one superfluous word. Its very metrical mode and set limits admit of no "beating about the bush." Nay, the subject of it must be handled so bravely and openly as to make directness of treatment a result inevitable. And thus a perfect sonnet will be as it were a microcosm -- whole in itself, both in form and spirit the spherical mould and integument of a spherical subject -- the one exactly enclosing the other, without either diffuseness or over compression, and so shutting it up for ever in a "measureful content."  

Moreover, the untransgressible limits of the sonnet often tend to induce that closeness of expression, and that sublimation of imagery which are proper to the highest kind of enduring poetry, namely, that kind which is suggestive rather than decscriptive, or which by a few select images, intensified in the putting, suggests infinitely more than could be circumstan- tially described, or otherwise than wearisomely; and which, therefore, while it amply recompenses the imagination of the reader, exercises it as well, and thereby quickens and strengthens it for direct conception upon its own account, or as an individual and self-sustained faculty. And, having, as I think, this tendency, of course these exact limits prevent in an equal degree that verbal delusion of the sense which is the besetting weakness of most modern writers, both in a verse and prose. Not but a well- phrased amplification in the manner of setting forth a thought may be sometimes advisable. If novel, or many-sided, or somewhat obscure from its very comprehensiveness, it may even demand a double draught of expression. But to flood it with words, however well chosen or elegant in themselves, is not to clarify, but simply to drown it. Nay, though in itself as vivid and nimble as a sunbeam, it may be dulled and deadened, like an ill-mixed potation, by a few irrelevant or superfluous words -- or even by one word, if it should happen to be at all repugnant as well as needless to the sense.

Ordinary readers object to the Sonnet on account of its shortness and individuality. It is not long enough, nor many-featured enough to produce, or minister to, popular excitement. With the modern novel -- pampered many it is only a poetic "nobbler"-- an apology for a dram. It has not grip enough for their coarse mental cravings - and apropos of this - A country Englishman was partaking of some fruit with members of a family of my acquaintance, which consisted of two sorts -- some nectarines of exquisite flavour, but singularly small, and a quantity of large slipstone peaches of so bad a quality as to be almost tasteless. But after demolishing two or three of the nectarines at a mouthful, the countryman was observed to give them up with a look of some disappointment, and devote himself exclusively to the peaches. He was asked the reason why-for, said his questioner, the nectarines are excellent, but the peaches scarcely eatable. "Ess," replied the clown, "the nectons be main good loike -- but then there be no grip on 'em." Quantity rather than quality was evidently the ticket for him. And the literary taste of those readers who cannot relish the Sonnet merely because it is short and one-thoughted, is every whit as rustical, not to say vulgar, as was this fellow's gastric appetite, all their pretensions to refinement notwithstanding.

In most of the ensuing sonnets the arrangement of the rhymes is somewhat different from the run of them in that form which has been adopted from the Italian poets by many of the best writers of the Sonnet in English. But in devising this different arrangement of the rhymes, I have been actuated by no mere desire to innovate upon a usage so imposingly established. In the pure Italian form the reduplication of the rhymes is upon the whole, as it appears to me, not only too distant, but too couplet- like in their recurrence, to tell thoroughly well; and to follow out this form, in one of its varieties, so far as to rhyme the ninth and fourteenth lines (as is often done by Wordsworth) is tantamount in English to not rhyming them at all. It is perceived to be a rhyme only by the eye -- and by the eye itself only upon trying back. On the other hand, the old English or Shaksperian mode of constructing the Sonnet is obviously defective in oneness, both as to artistic appearance and musical effect, it being indeed, but a series of three separate quatrains based upon a closing couplet. Hence the rhyme-arrangement in this form is manifestly an unsuitable one. It is not sufficiently carried through, inter-currently, to impress either the ear or the eye with a feeling of wholenes and homogeneity, however single-thoughted and individual in itself (when critically after-considered) may be the subject of the poem. Now the form in which the first three, and several other of the ensuing sonnets, are written, partakes somewhat of both the forms above referred to, and after having carefully tried it by my own ear, I do verily believe that it is a better compacted one than either, and altogether fitter for the English Sonnet, or rather the Sonnet in English.

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 7 November 1866

You can read the 10 sonnets, which then followed this piece, here.

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on December 2, 2011 7:30 AM.

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