In 1839, one of the oil paintings on display at the Annual Exhibition of the Royal Academy in London was The Sonnet by the Irish-born artist William Mulready (1786-1863). The oil on panel, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, shows a young man and woman sitting at the waterside, surrounded by a landscape of light greens, browns, and yellows. Dressed in vibrant red, the woman is holding a piece of paper in her right hand, which presumably contains the sonnet of the title and was taken by the young man from the small notebook that is lying open on a piece of rock next to him. While her eyes are fixed on the poem, "the youth," as the Art-Union reported in May, "is fiddling with his shoe-tye, but casting upwards a sly look, to ascertain what effect his lines produce upon the merry maid who reads them. His face is hidden, but we can guess his feelings, when he finds her placing her hand before her lips to suppress her laughter." (1) That Mulready should have singled out the sonnet as the subject of his painting is hardly a surprise given the almost iconic status of the genre in amatory poetry since the early Renaissance and its renewed popularity from the late eighteenth century onwards. What is quite remarkable, however, is the Art-Union critic's confident assumption in 1839 that the woman's pose is one of subdued mockery. In 1891, by contrast, in an overview of Mulready's work, the Saturday Review described her as "earnestly reading" the poem, while her lover "in an attitude of devoted abandonment, clasping his ancle with his hands, gazes up at her." (2) What had happened in the intervening decades that caused such a profound shift in interpretation?
Since the 1980s, poetry scholars have been documenting the revival and developments of the sonnet genre in the long nineteenth century. Jennifer Ann Wagner in A Moment's Monument: Revisionary Poetics and the Nineteenth-Century English Sonnet (1996) was among the first to discuss the outburst of what the New Monthly Magazine in January 1821 termed "sonnettomania," a disease much like "the bite of rabid animal" that had recently affected English poets and for which no cure had yet been found: "born with the latent heat of inspiration, the os magna sonaturum, they must (il faut) scratch head, bite nail, and sonnettize." (3) The rapidly expanding press in particular proved a fertile breeding ground for aspiring authors as the number of sonnets gracing the pages of newspapers and magazines rose to unprecedented heights. A quick search of the term "sonnet" limited to content marked as "poems" in the online ProQuest British Periodicals database reveals that their number increased spectacularly from 87 in 1770-79 to 845 in 1790-99. The absolute peak was reached in 1820-29 with 986 items. (4) Quality, a prevalent dictum among the literary critics of the day ran, was suffering accordingly. The Monthly Magazine for January 1830 commented:
Every editor of periodical publications, complains, not of the
dearth, but the superabundance of his poetic contributions. On an
average there must be from fifty to sixty thousand Rosinas,
Stellas, Lysymachuses, and Lysanders, undergoing the monthly
mortification of seeing their sonnets returned on their hands; the
very wings of their immortality clipped at once; the elixir of
perpetual youth dashed from their lips, and glory at all entrances
quite shut out. (5)
The Art-Union similarly believed the young man in Mulready's painting to be a poet of inferior rank "undergoing the ... mortification of seeing" his sonnet silently ridiculed by his beloved. The notebook by his side, moreover, suggested that he had written more and might well be the prototypical "sonnettomaniac" mocked not just by her but by a significant body of contemporary literary criticism.
While amateur sonnets grew rampant alongside the burgeoning print culture of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many established and aspiring poets, including a significant number of women, took up the form in an attempt to gain legitimacy and respectability in the literary world, expressing thoughts and emotions within its strictly prescribed limits. …