The Book of Sonnet Sequences

By Houston Peterson | Go to book overview

IV -- WILLIAM WORDSWORTH
[1770-1850]

IN MILTON'S nineteen English sonnets, related to one another only by the same dignity and technical perfection, the form (with the Italian current in English poetry) attained a noble consummation and then went into an eclipse for a century and a half. It was not even attempted, apparently, by Dryden and Pope, the monarchs of the two succeeding periods, and employed but a few times by Thomson, Gray, and Cowper. In Main's standard Treasury of English Sonnets, containing four hundred and sixty-three examples, from Sir Thomas Wyatt to Oliver Madox Brown, there are only twenty-one between Milton and Wordsworth.

A new dawn for poetry, and for the sonnet in particular, was timidly announced by William Lisle Bowles's little volume, Fourteen Sonnets, published in 1789. It is now difficult to see more than a certain harmless grace in those simple verses, but in an age of sterile pseudo-classicism they were deeply stirring to young Coleridge and many of his contemporaries. Years later he described "the genial influence of a style of poetry, so tender and yet so manly, so natural and real, and yet so dignified and harmonious, as the sonnets and other early poems of Mr. Bowles."

With the publication in 1797 of Coleridge's and Words worth 's Lyrical Ballads the romantic movement was in full swing and Wordsworth's great flowering decade began. In spite of his revolutionary views about form and diction, "the sonnet's scanty plot of ground" attracted him early and his long cultivation of it resulted in more than four hundred sonnets. As might be expected, some of them were thoroughly bad and many simply mediocre, but a dozen or more, such as those beginning "The world is too

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