The Victorian sonnet has too often been seen as a poor derivative of the great Renaissance and Romantic achievements in the genre, lacking the stylistic complexity and the political force of its predecessors. Despite its reputation, the Victorian sonnet is deeply preoccupied with questions of social justice and sexual equality. It is also far more innovative and experimental than is generally recognized. The most challenging and innovative sonnets are those written by George Meredith and Gerard Manley Hopkins, both of whom radically transform its scope and structure.
A glance at the few scattered sonnets that appear in the collected poems of Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning might be cause for thinking that the Victorian sonnet is an enfeebled, outmoded form, possessing neither the strong, impassioned rhetoric nor the bold thematic diversity that Romantic poets were able to bring to 'the Sonnet's scanty plot of ground'. (1) Wordsworth's prolific output as a writer of sonnets after 1802 did not always have a salutary influence on his successors and there are dozens of execrable imitations of his best-known efforts in the genre. In addition to the many contrived and uninspiring sonnets about the sonnet in the later nineteenth century, there are numerous anthologies of sonnets, introductions to the sonnet, and scholarly essays on the history of the sonnet. (2) Much of this material is laboured and prescriptive, conveying a general impression that the sonnet, while undoubtedly popular, has ceased to have a vital, dynamic connection with contemporary culture.
Modern criticism has done little to alter the prevailing view of the Victorian sonnet as antiquated and derivative. Although there have been extensive studies of the well-known sonnet sequences by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Christina Rossetti, these have tended to concentrate on the traditional features of the amatory sequence from the Renaissance onwards, often neglecting what is most innovative and original in nineteenth-century examples of the genre. There are promising signs, however, of a revival of interest in the Victorian sonnet. Jennifer Ann Wagner, for instance, argues that later nineteenth-century poets were empowered rather than overwhelmed by Wordsworth's immense and authoritative control of the form, and that they considerably extended the intellectual and aesthetic preoccupations of the Romantic sonnet. In A Moment's Monument: Revisionary Poetics and the Nineteenth-Century English Sonnet, she traces what she sees as 'the second life' of a form that had enjoyed its original heyday three centuries earlier. She argues persuasively that 'the history of the sonnet in the nineteenth century is more than a decorative strand in this century's textual history', and she shows how the sonnet becomes the exemplary form for poets who are deeply preoccupied with ideas of subjectivity and temporality. Even so, she claims that there is a diminution of the political force of the Romantic sonnet, and that 'the sonnet is not as primary an arena for politics in the late nineteenth century as it had been previously'. (3)
We need, perhaps, to broaden our conception of politics if we are to appreciate the full extent to which Victorian poets modified the sonnet form in response to their own most urgent social and cultural needs. What proves to be most interesting is the way in which the dialectical structure of the sonnet suggests to writers a way of confronting and exploring the controversial issues of the time, including problems of democracy and social class. The ideas that were to coalesce in Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy also found an outlet in a remarkable series of sonnets that Arnold composed at moments of personal and social crisis in the 1840s and 1860s. These are profoundly political poems, even if their politics are essentially reformist rather than revolutionary. …