The Contributors' Club

OF late, there has been much elaborate discussion of the sonnet. Our poetic brethren have kindly thrown open the door of the workshop, and permitted us to enter, and to examine, at pleasure, the delicate tools used in cutting and polishing the facets of this precious solitaire. And while we stood marveling, we overheard some gravely-insistent talk, in which the words octet, sextet, quatuorzains, etc., etc., were conspicuous. Happy, said we, was that old Italian Father of the Sonnet, whose right there was none to dispute, and who, consequently, was never arraigned for infraction of the sonnetary law, never found guilty of a “loose” or faulty construction. Happy, also, that British bard who wrote one hundred and fifty odd stanzas, fourteen lines each (said to contain biographical data), and gave them to the contemporary world under the elastic title of Sonnets. How we modern sonneteers envy him the unchastised license displayed in writing those one hundred and titty facile closing couplets! Our only consolation lies in the positive conviction that even Shakespeare, if living in these days of hypercriticism, would have to recant such heresy, and follow the form set down in the rubric, — mind his octets and sextets, and practically acknowledge that all quatuorzains are not sonnets.

Says the Frenchman, in a rhapsody on art, —

“ Point de contraintes fausses!
Mais que pour marcher droit,
Tu chausses,
Muse, un cothurne étroit.”

Now, the sonnet proper is such a “cothurne étroit; ” and very much of a goddess does the Muse show herself, walking by this strict discipline and conformity. Yet, in a half-sandal, a loose and easy fit, her paces are often as stately and impressive. Keats’s sonnet on Sleep follows neither the Italian nor Shakespearean model, being wholly irregular, yet who says it is not a true sonnet ?

We would fain drive the poetic craft to an admission that they often find the sonnet no other than a Procrustes’s bed, on which the poor Idea has either to be ruthlessly curtailed, or racked and drawn out beyond warrant, in order to suit the linear figure of the stanza under consideration. Will none dare to do as did a friend of ours, who wrote a sonnet, exemplary in all respects save one, — it had fifteen lines ! On being taken to task, this cool innovator explained that the fifteenth line contained the overplus of his inspiration, which was insufficient to furnish forth another sonnet, and was too good to throw away.

The noble poem in the March Atlantic, entitled On a Great Man Whose Mind is Clouding, is, if we do not mistake, just eight fourteenths of a sonnet, — an abandoned sonnet, it may be, — and yet the poem stands ideally complete. This precedent should be encouraging whenever, for good reasons, one wishes to break loose from sonnetary despotism. Suppose some master hand should authorize the Spenserian stanza as eminently suited to brief poetic flights; we should then have a new school of sonnet-writers,— in effect, a new species of sonnet, consisting not of fourteen, but of nine lines only. How shall we know a genuine sonnet? Not merely by applying notation and numeration; for the form may be correct and handsome, the stated divisions carefully observed ; still we are not satisfied. We shall know the true sonnet by a certain unmistakable bel air, a gallant, gracious, yet withal subdued behavior, such as we remark in all well-descended and wellbred individuals, on first meeting with them. From numberless not altogether satisfactory definitions of the nature and province of the sonnet we gather this, that it is the “ poetry of passion after passion has passed into a non-lyrieal state.” Are we to understand, from this, that the sonnet is not a lyric? We can think of instances where it is a condensed epic. In Milton’s mouth, the “ thing became a trumpet.” In Leigh Hunt’s The Nile, it is a visionary résumé of whole cycles of Egyptian antiquity. The same poet’s To the Grasshopper and Cricket is a finished idyl. Since the days of Petrarch, love has held the first claim on the sonnet. More gaudy exotics have been cultivated in this “ scanty plot ” than in all the rest of the Muses’ garden-ground. More pretty lies have been told in these fourteen gentle breaths than the recording angel was ever able to audit. Religious mysticism, metaphysical speculation, have sometimes been poured into this mould. Polemics have given the sonnet a dash of hot alien color; didactics have made it stagger under a disproportionate burden. Rarely, indeed, has it been employed for burlesque or humorous purposes, though we have in mind one jocose specimen couched in Western dialect. We have never heard of Mr. Walt Whitman’s writing a sonnet; from which it might be concluded that the “ poetry of the future ” will have packed off altogether this dainty, sybaritic species of poetic composition.

— It is when we have lost a friend, or are about to lose one, that we dwell on his virtues and graces most fondly. It is in this way that I am mourning the departure of Winter, — fine old Winter, frosty but kindly, whom I love far better than Summer, with all her glory. We malign him when we give him only ill names, and call him bitter, harsh, and cruel. For all his storms and rigors, his chill breath and icy grip, not one of the milder-mannered seasons can put on a more gentle and gracious aspect than the frost-king often shows us. The loveliness of the winter landscape might surprise many a city-dweller who should come out into the country in midwinter. In the midst of a month of snow-falls and driving north winds, there sometimes comes a pause of quiet. The winds have swept the dry snow into drifts, each of whose curves is a line of perfect grace. Over the white lawns and meadows the trees cast faint blue shadows. The world is all white and blue and gray, and the blue of the sky and the gray of the bare branches are of the most exquisite softness imaginable. No sky can equal a winter one for mingled purity and tenderness of tone. And what, in its way, is lovelier than the vista of a country road or village street, bounded by this blue sky distance, and bordered by the columns of leafless trees, which let the same blue light in through the intricate flamboyant tracery of their slender branches ? The delicate gray lines turn black at twilight, and define themselves sharply against an amber sunset. To note the gradations of tone in blue skies throughout the year is an endless delight to the lover of color. The coloring of winter hills, though without the richness of autumn, has a beauty of tint beyond anything we see on them in summer. Even in high noonlight they often wear the hue of a pale amethyst, and when a little lightly-scattered snow still clings to them the faint silvery gleam one catches at a sufficient distance gives to them a dream-like loveliness. The character of nature’s beauty at this season seems to become spiritualized. There is in it none of the summer’s suggestiveness of luxurious enjoyment, nor of autumn’s melancholy appeal ; the sentiment of the winter scene is different ; the clear outlines, the transparent atmosphere, the sky’s serene azure, and the pure radiance flooding all things speak of a peace that is more than resignation and a joy that abides. The art of the landscape painter must fall short in the attempt to catch these broadest effects of Nature, as it must always fail to reproduce her sublimest features. What subtle change is it that comes over nature, by which we know that spring approaches, although the ground is brown still, and the snow lies in patches ? For one thing, we can see that on milder days the sky loses color, except at sunset, when a few opaline tints streak the western clouds. There is a curiously uncertain quality about the light, and a whitish look at the horizon. Nature has an air of waiting, of tremulous expectation, of feeling a little chill of strangeness in winter’s deserted realm.

— Let us not flatter ourselves that the matter of high æsthetic dress is something which is understood only by us Americans and English of the latest days. Listen to a description of the clothes worn by the Duchess of Queensbury at a royal entertainment in the year 1740: “awhite satin petticoat, embroidered at the bottom with brown hills covered with all sorts of weeds, and every breadth had an old stump of a tree that run [sic] up almost to the top of the petticoat, broken and ragged and worked with brown chenille, round which twined nastersians [sic], ivy, honeysuckles, periwinkles, convolvuluses, and all sorts of twining flowers which spread and covered the petticoat, vines with the leaves variegated as you have seen them by the sun, all rather smaller than nature, which made them look very light: the robings and facings were little green banks with all sorts of weeds and the sleeves and the rest of the gown loose twining branches of the same sort as those on the petticoat; many of the leaves were finished with gold, and part of the stumps of the trees looked like the gilding of the sun. I never saw a piece of work so prettily fancied, and am quite angry with myself for not having the same thought.” How is that for a costume ? It seems to equal those of Bunthorne’s twenty adorers. And the Duchess of Queensbury was not the only lady of fashion who could boast of such a wonderful garment. On another occasion the Duchess of Bedford, a court dame of the same period, wore a “ petticoat of green paduasoy ; the pattern was festoons of shells, coral corn, cornflowers, and seaweed ; everything in different works of gold and silver, except the flowers and coral, the body of the gown white satin, with a mosaic pattern of gold facings, robings and train the same as the petticoat.” One wonders who devised these costumes, — the ladies themselves or some matchless mantua-maker of their day. I often question if the time will ever arrive when women’s taste shall become so educated that fashion’s despotic rule shall cease. If only a minority should in this way become educated, the majority might perhaps be led by them ; and then, although the larger number were still mere imitators, it would be good taste that they were imitating, and so taste, not fashion, would be supreme. So long as fashion is omnipotent a true good taste is impossible. To adopt a style of dress simply and solely because others do it shows unintelligence, but to follow the suggestion of a person of good taste because we can see that it is good taste, though we may not have had originality enough to invent for ourselves, is sensible. The essential bad taste of fashionfollowers is in the fact that they are quite indifferent to æsthetic considerations, their aim being to dress in the latest mode, whatever it may be, and their highest satisfaction to go a little before or beyond others. The leaders of fashion are not those who wear the most beautiful or even the most costly dresses, but the newest invented ones. It is the fashion at present, at least in some circles, to dress “ æsthetically,” and the hideous results that follow some of the attempts to be æsthetic prove that the desire of being fashionable, and not an educated taste, has been the guide.

Mrs. Delany, whose description of the Duchess of Queensbury’s gown we have quoted, thought it very prettily fancied ; but was it so, for a dress ? The effect a lady should produce is hardly that of a walking landscape. The description reads a good deal like that of one of Mr. Tiffany’s designs for the curtain at the Madison Square Theatre, New York. Many women seem to have no perception of the artistic necessity of fitness as an element of beauty. If a color appears which they hear labeled "æsthetic,” and which they see used in wall-papers and hangings, they think it does equally well to dress themselves in. Tones which serve a good purpose in house decoration may be simply ugly on a woman’s person, for the reason that the color is not in itself beautiful, but can be made of use when put in combination with other shadings of the same color or with its proper contrast. All this seems too obvious to need saying. Mrs. Delany herself can see the folly of some of the æsthetic dresses her acquaintance indulged in, for she says of a certain “ petticoat of black velvet embroidered in chenille, the pattern a large stone vase filled with ramping flowers, and between each vase gold shells and foliage, with two or three of the vases on the tail,” that it was a “labored piece of finery much properer for a stucco staircase than the apparel of a lady.” Another dame’s costume of white satin, with leaves and rosebuds and convolvuli embroidered upon it, she justly approves of, remarking that the lady was in herself so far beyond this “masterpiece of art” in dress that one could hardly look at her clothes. Let us have embroidered dresses, by all means, and put sunflowers on them if any one likes them, though lilies seem certainly preferable ; only let us exercise ourselves somewhat in the acquisition of a few artistic ideas before we set up to dress in a purely æsthetic manner.

— In The Portrait of a Lady occurs this sentence : “ To be in a better position to appreciate others than they are in to appreciate us, — this, it seemed to Isabel, was the essence of the aristocratic situation.” Some of us may have noted the saying as giving expression to a personal experience, recalling moments when there has come to us a certain complacent recognition of ourselves as in this sense aristocrats of the bluest blood. None of us are so humble-minded as not to find a degree of satisfaction in this sense of superiority; for to know that we are tolerating others is undeniably pleasanter than to suspect them of tolerating us, and to feel ourselves misunderstood is better than to discover that we have been lacking in insight. But there is another side to all this, and it is questionable if the aristocrat would not on the whole be willing to yield his privileges for the sake of more substantial gratifications. If the occupation of aristocratic place has its own charm, it also has its drawback ; for the aristocrat, in this general or figurative sense, is a being isolated from his kind ; his state is too solitary for comfort, and he would be glad if he were more level with his surroundings. The attitude of condescension is not a permanently agreeable one — to some persons, indeed, an impossible one — to hold. The complacency which naturally accompanies the perception of self-superiority may be far removed from conceit, for we may often be aware that the superiority is due not so much to any supreme merit on our part as to some surprising deficiency on the part of others. If there must be these degrees of condition, we cannot but prefer the aristocrat’s place to that of the bourgeois; yet after all what would please us best would be to find ourselves where there is no question of inferior and superior, but where, the standing - ground of all being the same, appreciation is mutual, and it is possible to no one to condescend or to feel the condescension of others. No matter how legitimate the aristocrat’s right to his position, there must always be a something wanting to make it an altogether enviable one; this something being the stimulus to active effort at sell-elevation. To associate with our intellectual and moral superiors is to feel this pressure constantly upon us, urging us to rise to higher levels of thought and life ; to keep the company of inferiors has a tendency to sink us below the level of our best selves. Have we never been made aware of our inferiority to some one, and been able, at last if not at first, to rejoice in the knowledge, because of the illumination that came with it,—the revelation of beautiful human qualities which, already realized to the sight in this friend or acquaintance, became thereby possibilities, at least, for all of us ?

To come back for a moment to Mr. James and his Isabel, we cannot help remarking that our faith in him has received a shock, and for the first time we have seen some justification for the Spectator’s accusation that his novels show too little concern for moral interests.

Why do we begin at once to care for Isabel Archer, and to follow her career with interest? Because we think we see in her a finely-organized nature, a clear moral perception, a delicate appreciation of things lovely and noble. And why are we disappointed in her, — disappointed as her cousin Ralph was ? Because, when brought into contact with a nature like Osmond’s, she gave no sign of this fine spiritual discernment ; there is no recognition by her of the essential vulgarity of a life of cushioned idleness and of wholly selfish culture, aiming at no usefulness to others. Would not a girl inspired with any generous enthusiasm for truly noble human quality have felt in her every feminine fibre his silent unresponsiveness to her own feeling ?