"Scorn Not the Sonnet": Pushkin and Wordsworth

By Ober, Kenneth H.; Ober, Warren U. | Wordsworth Circle, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

"Scorn Not the Sonnet": Pushkin and Wordsworth


Ober, Kenneth H., Ober, Warren U., Wordsworth Circle


In 1831, when Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin (1799-1837) asked a friend to have a St. Petersburg bookseller "send me Crabbe, Wodsworth [sic], Southey, and Schakspear [sic]" (Shaw, 2:482), he had already read Wordsworth, with sympathetic comprehension, for during the previous year he had written a sonnet closely modeled on one of Wordsworth's. Pushkin's three sonnets--four, if the "Elegy" in seven rhymed iambic pentameter couplets is included--were written in 1830. Though not a line-by-line translation of Wordsworth's "Scorn not the sonnet; Critic, you have frowned," one sonnet parallels it throughout, even using the first line as a subtitle.

Pushkin first encountered Wordsworth's sonnet in the pirated 1828 Paris edition of his Poetical Works published by John Anthony and William Galignani, presumably based on the first English collected edition of 1827, in which "Scorn not the Sonnet ...," first appeared. (Pushkin also had in his library the Paris editions in English of, e. g., Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats; Crabbe; Hazlitt; Washington Irving; Thomas Moore; Walter Scott; and Southey [Wolff, 495, 497, 503, 504, 510, 517, 518].) Wordsworth ruefully acknowledged that the Galignani pirated edition, which follows, "is printed with admirable accuracy, I have not noticed a single error that I am not myself answerable for" (Moorman, 550 note):

   Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,
   Mindless of its just honours;--with this Key
   Shakspeare unlocked his heart; the melody
   Of this small Lute gave ease to Petrarch's wound;
   A thousand times this Pipe did Tasso sound;
   Camoens soothed with it an Exile's grief;
   The Sonnet glittered a gay myrtle Leaf
   Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned
   His visionary brow: a glow-worm Lamp,
   It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faery-land
   To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp
   Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand
   The Thing became a Trumpet; whence he blew
   Soul-animating strains--alas, too few!

   (Wordsworth, 119)

In 1803, the English Annual Review had dismissed sonnets as "at best ... but stiff difficult trifles, and surely more remote from the simplicity which they often affect than any other class of poems in our language" (Havens, 521-22). In this sonnet Wordsworth refutes such critics, along with Samuel Johnson, who characterized Milton as "a genius" who "never learned the art of doing little things with grace" (Hill, 4:305). Similarly, in 1793, George Steevens, rejected the sonnets from his edition of William Shakespeare because, he said, the "strongest act of Parliament that could be framed, would fail to compel readers into their service" (Havens, 48081). And dismissing the sonnets of Edmund Spenser in 1798, Nathan Drake wrote, "the critic will recognise many of the trifling conceits of the Italian, but find little to recompense the trouble of research" (Havens, 481).

In "Scorn not the sonnet ...," Wordsworth regards the form as a vehicle for either public or private themes. Milton for him exemplifies the "public" sonneteer, while private themes preoccupy the other poets he lists, all of whom drew solace from the sonnet as either exiles or lovers (or both) (Johnson, 39). His omitting the great French sonnet writers, Du Bellay, Marot, or Ronsard, would be inexplicable except that, as William Hazlitt noted in The Spirit of the Age, Wordsworth "condemns all French writers (as well of poetry as prose) in the lump" (Howe, 11:93). Wordsworth himself, in his sonnet "Great men [Milton and some of his contemporaries] have been among us ..., "says,

   ... France, 'tis strange,
   Hath brought forth no such souls as we had then.

   No master spirit, no determined road;
   But equally a want of books and men!

   (De Selincourt & Darbishire, 3:116-17)

Still, in his vindication of the sonnet Wordsworth, he marshalled a distinguished array of continental poets, Petrarch, Tasso, Camoes, and Dante, alongside the British Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton, the last revered by Wordsworth as the preeminent creator of sonnets springing from "the strife/That animates the scenes of public life" (Wordsworth, 125). …

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