The Nineteenth-Century Sonnet by Joseph Phelan (auth.)

By Joseph Phelan (auth.)

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By Joseph Phelan (auth.)

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5 These innovations, particularly the ‘River Duddon’ sonnets, helped to facilitate the later nineteenth century’s development of the sonnet sequence, but for Wordsworth’s contemporaries it was his free-standing Miltonic sonnets which constituted his definitive achievement in the form. 34 ‘Transcripts of the private heart’: The Sonnet and Autobiography 35 Although it prompted a rash of feeble imitations, Wordsworth’s domination of the form seems to have stifled the efforts of many of his more ambitious contemporaries; it is notable that most of the ‘second generation’ of Romantic poets avoided the sonnet, or ended up abandoning it.

In a review of poems by Alfred and Charles Tennyson in The Tatler of March 1831, Leigh Hunt observed à propos of the Petrarchan sonnet: ‘It has been doubted whether that construction suits the genius of the English language: but the doubt is anterior to the publication of Mr. ’1 By 1833, when his critical reputation was approaching its zenith, many of his contemporaries would have agreed with Alexander Dyce’s verdict: ‘The success with which [the sonnet] has been recently cultivated by Mr. 2 During this period Wordsworth did not simply repeat the gestures of 1807; he continued to experiment and innovate with the form.

The use of organic tropes to undermine the rhetoric of revolution was, of course, one of Burke’s most successful strategies in 26 The Nineteenth-Century Sonnet his Reflections on the Revolution in France; and Wordsworth might seem to be aligning himself here with an explicitly counterrevolutionary discourse. But he is criticising France not (as Burke did) for having a revolution at all, but for failing to live up to the ideals of its revolution. The sonnet ‘To Toussaint L’Ouverture’, for instance, and the following one describing the fate of a ‘Negro Woman driv’n from France’, both emphasise the extent of the French government’s apostasy.

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