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Tasso, Camoens, Lope de Vega, and all the great names of Italy, we venture to assert, that however exotic a plant it may have been to the colder air of England, the Sonnet has, under the culture of British hands, produced its delicate flowers in as great perfection, though not profusion, in our cloudier clime, as on the moonlight shores of the Adriatic. Shakspeare bas, in his (4) « sugred sonnets among his private friends, presented us with the first-fruits of that genius which was deslined to picture the Promethean agonies of Lear, and the volcano that raged in the southern bosom of Othello. Sidney, whose genius rendered superfluous the additional glory of having appreciated and protected Shakspeare, has given us sonnets which may be fearlessly compared with the noblest efforts of Petrarch.
Milton, also, who has left no style of poetry unattempted, and who bas attempted none without success, in addition to the exquisite pastoral elegy of Lycidas, which imitates and surpasses everything that the Italian poets in their canzoni bave executed of most beautiful — beside the Arcades, that delicious drama which breathes the very freshness of the fields, has also shown his universal genius in several Sonnets, not inferior in harmony, dignity, and tenderness, to any work of Petrarch, or of Filicaja.
That sublime invocation of vengeance upon the persecutors of the Waldenses,
Avenge, o Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains coldmay be compared without fear with any Italian Sonnet of a similarly grave and solemn character, nor has Petrarch himself- eloquent as was his Muse in tenderness and sorrow, ever written anything superior to R) the beautiful tribute to Shakspeare, so tender, so pathetic and so sublime.
(1) Ben Jonson.
(*) Perhaps it would be difficult to adduce, even among the Italian poetry, a Sonnet more exquisite than that of Sidney's, beginning
«With how sad steps, 0 Moon, thou climb'st the sky,
«How silently, and with how wan a face. (0) « What needs my Shakspeare for bis honoured bones ? »
The sonnet is but too commonly supposed to be the proper vehicle only of the elegant and generally cold laments of the amourist : but we cannot resist quoting in this place two specimens which will prove how true is Wordsworth's idea of the real elevation, dignity, and thoughtfulness, which may be expressed in this much-abused form of verse. The first is a sonnet which was discovered in the grave of Laura, when opened in 1462 by Francis the First, and of which we shall venture to subjoin, in a note, () a faithful but imperfect translation. It is of course Petrarcan.
Qui riposan le caste e felici ossa,
Di quell'alma gentil e sola in terra :
Aspro e dur sasso, teco hai sotterra
Fresca radice-il premio della guerra,
Di quattro lustri e più -- se almen non erra
Nacque e morì -- e qui con essa giace
Che ancor me cuoci e struggi – in ginocchione
Ciascun' preghi il Signor ti accetti in pace.n The other is that sonnet of Filicaja, whose accents, sweet as they are, seem to be the agonized and dying cry of his lovely but most unhappy country,
(") Bencath, the chusto and happy bones repose,
Of that white soul and rare beneath the sky,
Hard, rugged stone, with thee enclosed lie,
of the green Laurel — that long warfare's prize,
It bloomed and withered: in this coffin lies
Which yet doth burn and melt me-humbly kneeling,
* Italia, Italia ! oh tu cui feo la sorte
Dono infelice di bellezza; ond' hai
Funesta dote d' infiniti guai ,
Ond' assai più ti paventasse, o assai
Ti amasse men, chi dal tuo bello ai rai
Scender d’armati-ne di sangue tinta
Pugnar col brando di straniere genti,
Wordsworth has seen with the prophetic eye of genius that the sonnet was capable of being restored to its true dignity as a vehicle for lofty and moral reflection : and his Sonnets are perhaps the most valuable part of his works.
« Scorn not the Sonnet, critic, » he says, in () one of them, which contains , in a rich enchasement of highly finished diction, thoughts as pure and beautiful as gems
«Scorn not the Sonnet, critic, you have frowned,
Mindless of its just honour; with this key
Shakspeare unlocked his heart; the melody
Camoens smoothed with it an exile's grief ;
The Sonnet glittered a gay myrtle-leaf
His visionary brow: a glow-worm lamp
It cheered mild Spenser, called from Fairy-land
The thing became a trumpet, whence he blew
Soul-animating strains-alas, too few.» The Sonnet of Wordsworth, unlike those feeble and flashy fireworks which have usurped the name, rises a pyramid of calm fire, till in the last line it breaks into light, dissolving into a shower of liquid radiance. Perhaps no poem of
(') Vol. II. P. 125.
equal length contains more thought, majesty, energy, and true sublimity, than the following lines, the thought of a Briton on the subjugation of Switzerland. - (0)
* Two voices are there : one is of the Sea,
One of the Mountains ; each a mighty voice ;
They were thy chosen music, Liberty !
Thou foughtst against him; but hast vainly striven,
Where not a torrent murmur 's heard by thee.
Then cleave, oh cleave to that which still is left;
For, high-souled Maid, what sorrow would it be
And Ocean bellow from his rocky shore,
And neither awful voice be heard by thee. » In the longer poems of Wordsworth, the Excursion, the Ballads, and indeed in all that he has written, the reader cannot fail to remark the points which we have ventured to adduce as the characteristics of his genius. The same profound and delicate appreciation of nature, the same patient and delicate portraiture even of her slightest shades and evanescent varieties—the same rapturous and abstracted sympathy with . this breathing world. »
(%) « All about him does express,
(Fancy and wit in richest dress),
Yet, high as are these aims, and difficult as they are of attainment, Wordsworth does not stop here: his poetical horizon does not bound itself here.
All that is beautiful, tender, and sublime, in external nature-, the mute and the material things »—but lead him upward
« to a wider scene of contemplation. To him the palace of Nature is but, if we may adopt the exquisite words of Johann Paul Richter, the ethnic porch and fore-court to the great
a) Vol. II. P. 257.
Temple of the Infinite » in which he worships. These
• « abilities are the inspired gift of God, rarely bestowed, but yet to some, (though most abuse) in every nation ; and are of power, beside the office of a pulpit, to inbreed and che« rish in a great people, the seeds of virtue and public civi• lity, to allay the perturbations of the mind, and set the af• fections in right tune, to celebrate in glorious and lofty hymns, • the throne and equipage of Gods almightiness, and what he • works, and wbat he suffers to be wrought, with high providence in his Church ; to sing victorious agonies of martyrs and saints, the deeds and triumphs of just and pious .nations, doing valiantly through faith against the enemies of Christ.. (0)
So lofty and so pure being his views, we need not wonder that his genius has been misjudged, and his poetry, for a while, neglected : he has however, confident in the truth of his system-how justly confident we need not say-gone on « rejoicing in his strength »- turning neither to the right hand nor to the left, and has the satisfaction of seeing those mists of ill-judgment and miscomprehension which it seems are fated to obscure the rising of every truly great and original poet, gradually melting before the beams of Truth: knowing, as he does, that . Thus it is with writers who are to have a currency through ages. In the beginning they are confounded with most others; soon they fall into some secondary class ; next into one rather less obscure and humble: by degrees they are liberated from the dross and lumber that hamper them; and being once above the heads of contemporaries, rise slowly and waveringly, then regularly and erectly, then rapidly and majestically, till the vision strains and aches as it pursues them in their ethereal elevation.”
His studies, the purity and simplicity of his life, fulfilling and exemplifying his own definition of what should be the existence of a poet- plain living and high thinking »—the high objects to which he devotes his muse, the patient hopefulness
(") Millon, Reason of Church Government urged against Prelaty.
(") Walter Savage Landor. Conversations of Literary Men and Statesmen. Second Series. Vol. II. P. 7.