The Book of the Sonnet


Edited by LEIGH HUNT and S. ADAMS LEE. Boston : Roberts Brothers.
WHETHER Leigh Hunt was a man of genius, or only of surpassing talent, is a question which we willingly leave to the critics who find tweedledee different from tweedledum in kind as well as degree. We are content with the fact that he has some virtue which makes us read every book of his we open, and which leaves us more his friend at the end than we were before. Indeed, it would be hard not to love so cheerful and kindly a soul, even if his art were ever less than charming. But literature seems to have always been a gay science with him. We never see his Muse as the harsh step-mother she really was: we are made to think her a gentle liegc-lady, served in the airiest spirit of chivalric devotion ; and in the Essay in this “ Book of the Sonnet ” her aspect is as sunny as any the poet has ever shown us.
The Essay is printed for the first time, and it was written in Hunt’s old age ; but it is full of light-heartedness, and belongs in feeling to a period at least as early as that which produced the “ Stories from the Italian Poets.” It is one of those studies in which he was always happy, for it keeps him chiefly in Italy; and when it takes him from Italy, it only brings him into the Italian air of English sonnetry, — a sort of soft Devonshire coast, bordering the ruggeder native poetry on the south.
The essayist seems to renew himself in the draughts he makes from the immortal youth of the Italian sonneteers, — he has so fresh and unalloyed a pleasure in them and their art, he is so generously tender of their artifice, and so quick to all their excellence. He traces the history of the sonnet in its native country, from the time it first received “its right workmanlike treatment” at the hands of Fra Guittone d’ Arezzo, through those of Dante, who might have “ set the pattern of the sonnet to succeeding ages, and elevated the nature of its demands besides,” but preferred to fritter his powers away in the Divina Commedia, — through those of Petrarch, who did perfect the sonnet, and set the pattern of it, — through those of Giusti de Conti, the first imitator of Petrarch, — through those of Ariosto and of Giovanni della Casa, who varied it from the Petrarchan pattern,—through those of Marini, the Neapolitan poet, who corrupted it and everything else in Italian literature for a time, — through those of the many-piping shepherds of the famous poetic Arcadia, who restored the sonnet and the rest of Italian poetry with milk from their own pastures and water carefully bottled at Castaly, — down to those of Alfieri, who seems to have been the first in latter days to turn it to political account. In a tone equally joyous and affectionate the author gives the sonnet’s English history, from the time of its introduction by Wyatt up to our own day. The rules which govern this species of composition are lightly but distinctly suggested before its history begins ; and throughout it is championed with graceful earnestness.
The Essay, in fine, is one well fitted to convince the lovers of the sonnet of its excellence, and to leave the mass of mankind as incapable of enjoying it as ever. In no language but Italian has any great poet done his best within the sonnet’s narrow bounds, and in Italian the greatest of the sonneteers was not the first of the poets. We are far from scorning the sonnet ; we suspect it is a difficult thing to make, and we know it is not easy to read, and we honor it, though we cannot love it. We would not have Poesy to be greatly millinered, whatever fashions other ladies may adopt; and when we meet her corseted in the iron framework of the sonnet’s rhymes, and crinolined about with the unyielding drapery of its fourteen lines, we feel that she is no doubt elegantly dressed, but we long to see her in any other attire she is wont to put on.
We are unable, therefore, to lament, with Mr. S. Adams Lee, the surviving editor (as. with a curious misconception of the facts, ho calls himself) of “ The Book of the Sonnet,” that American poets have so little practised the art of sonnetry ; and we should not think at all ill of them on this account, but for the surviving editor’s opinion, that our poets generally have neglected the sonnet, because it cannot be “ dashed off at a heat.” The idle rogues, it seems, prefer to “ embody their conceptions in more obvious and popular forms,” — a very cross piece of literary truckling ; for though a man may be forgiven a desire to make his conceptions popular, the design of making them obvious is but a covert purpose of rendering them intelligible. From the comparatively few American poets who have not been so unmindful of the claims of industry, Mr. Lee quotes in his essay, and selects in his half of “ The Book of the Sonnet,” though as to the selections we are given to know that some of the sonneteers, and nearly all of the sonnetresses, are put in for a kind of ballast to keep the other half of the book trim. Mr. Lee’s good sonneteers are not always popular; and if they are ever obvious, he does what he can to conceal their defective art by printing in Italics any obscure or opaque line he finds in them, and praising it with a luxury of self-satisfaction rare enough in these days of doubting and hesitation. It is plain from the beginning, that he has nothing to say, and we cannot withhold our admiration of his prolonged success in saying it in such neatly rounded periods and elegant language. In fact, Mr. Lee may be declared to have brought the critical platitude to perfection in his essay. He makes “ the sense of satisfaction ache ” with the faultless flatness of the surfaces presented ; and we can in no way give so just an idea of his powers in this respect, and of the character of his essay throughout, as by supposing him to apply, with a slight change of epithet, to himself as a critic, his praise of Mr. Boker as a sonneteer: —
“ Mr. Lee has not pursued a conventional system of finding dead levels from any blind reverence for authority, but because of the evident sincerity of his faith in the ponderosity, insipidity, and impotence of the English dictionary. With those, indeed, who are accustomed to the more prominent absurdities and the more marked forms of twaddle, the monotony of these platitudes may fall as on a dull ear. But to the cultivated taste, and to the secret sense of dulness, apt for the delight of vacuity, we would cheerfully commit almost any one of Mr. Lee’s platitudes, without an apprehension that the vastness and equality of its extent would pass unheeded.”