Contested Bounds: John Clare John Keats, and the Sonnet

Article excerpt

THE NINETEENTH CENTURY WITNESSED AN EXTRAORDINARY SONNET boom. The revival began in the mid-eighteenth century; among its most prominent exponents were Charlotte Smith, Helen Mafia Williams, and William Lisle Bowles. Smith, influentially, sought a new English form for the sonnet, a form that would emphasize intensity of feeling rather than rhetorical stateliness. Reacting against the formal constraints of the Petrarchan sonnet, both Smith and Bowles developed a free approach to the Shakespearean model that tolerated a variety of irregular and hybrid constructions. As Paula Feldman and Daniel Robinson note, however, the popularity of these experiments "incurred the inevitable conservative backlash against innovation" (1) and, by the early nineteenth century, when Wordsworth announced his "conversion" (2) to the sonnet and arose as its modem patron, the self-styled inheritor of Milton's "trumpet, whence he blew / Soul-animating strains--alas too few!," the Petrarchan sonnet was once again the dominant model. The sonnet was a form framed for self-reflexive meditation on the constraints and pleasures of form itself; it was also a form framed for comparison. In an age when periodicals, annuals, and anthologies made short poems especially valuable, the sonnet--brief, precious, attemptable by all but perfected by few--was a highly marketable, collectable object, a gem consciously set off by its clarity and brilliance beside similar stones. To publish a sonnet was inevitably to enter into this market and a structure of" comparative evaluation that reflected historical, national, literary, and political allegiances.

John Clare was a major sonneteer. His three published collections contain, respectively, twenty-one, sixty, and eighty-six sonnets. Among his unpublished works, particularly the material designed for a projected volume, The Midsummer Cushion (1832), there are over three hundred sonnets. As early as 1820, Clare announced to his publisher John Taylor, "I have been terribly plagued with the muses since I saw you I think I have wrote 50 Sonnets." (3) They were important to him. In 1821, he instructs Taylor regarding his second book, The Village Minstrel, "have a good care over the Sonnets & I think you will find first & last a Selection far superiour to the first book" (4) and again "be careful in perusing the Songs & Sonnet as they are my favourites." (5) By 1824, he was planning an ambitious project akin to Wordsworth's 1820 sequence of sonnets on the River Duddon. Whatever the success of The Village Minstrel, he told Taylor, he planned to take a sabbatical of 8 to 10 years to hone his skills and make literary experiments. In that interval, he writes,

   I have made it up in my mind to write one hundred sonnets as a set
   of pictures on the scenes & objects that appear in the different
   seasons & as I shall do it soly for amusment [sic] I shall take up
   wi gentle and simple as they come whatever in my eye finds any
   [inter] est these things are resolves not merely in the view for
   publication but for attempts. (6)

It was presumably with a view to such a sonnet sequence that Clare began, in 1824, a manuscript entitled A Collection of Sonnets Descriptive of Appearances in the Seasons and other Pictures in Nature. If Clare had published this sonnet sequence in the 1820s, he would have been ahead of the curve in what became a sonnet rush: of some 250 sonnet sequences published between 1800 and 1900 only 27 were published before 1830. (7)

Various critics have considered aspects of Clare's sonnets, particularly the view of place and of the natural world that they espouse. (8) However, this essay will argue, we have not as yet done justice to Clare's theoretical and practical engagement with a heated contemporary debate about the proper form and style of the sonnet: Clare's sonnets should be seen as interventions in a market that was also a battleground. The sonnet is a means for Clare of exploring the limits of established form: of constructing his own place within a tradition, but also signaling his departure from widely-held conventions. …


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