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I should be inclined to maintain that its origin may be referred to an earlier period; that it may be looked for amongst the Provençals, who left scarcely any combination of metrical sounds unattempted; and who, delighting as they did in sound and jingle, might very possibly strike out this harmonious stanza of fourteen lines. Be this as it may, Dante and Petrarch were the first poets who rendered it popular, and to Dante and Petrarch therefore we must resort for its required rules.
In an ingenious paper of Dr.Drake's “Literary Hours," a book which I have read again and again with undiminished pleasure, the merits of the various English writers in this delicate mode of composition, are appreciated with much justice and discrimination. His veneration for Milton however has, if I may veuture to oppose my judgment to his, carried him too far in praise of his sonnets. Those to the Nightingale and to Mr. Lawrence are, I think, alone entitled to the praise of mediocrity, and, if my memory fail me not, my opinion is sanctioned by the testimony of our late illustrious biographer of the poets.
The sonnets of Drummond are characterised as exquisite. It is somewhat strange, if this description be just, that they should so long have sunk into utter oblivion, to be revived only by a species of black-letter mania, which prevailed during the latter half of the eighteenth century, and of which some vestiges yet remain; the more especially as Dr. Johnson, to whom they could scarcely be unknown, tells us, that “ The fabric of the sonnet has never succeeded' in our language.” For my own part, I can say nothing of them. I have long sought a copy of Drummond's works, and I have sought it in vain; but from specimens which I have casually met with, in quotations, I am forcibly inclined to favour the idea, that, as they possess natural and pathetic sentiments, clothed in tolerably harmonious language, they are entitled to the praise which has been so liberally bestowed on them,
Şir Philip Sidney's Astrophel and Stella consists of a number of sonnets, which have been unaccountably passed over by Dr. Drake, and all our other critics who have written on this subject. Many of them are eminently beautiful. The works of this neglected poet may occupy a future'number of
Excepting these two poets, I believe there is scarcely a writer who has arrived at any degree of excellence in the sonnet, until of late years, when our vernacular bards bave raised it to a degree of eminence and dignity, among the various kinds of poetical composition, which seems almost incompatible with its very circumscribed limits.
Passing over the classical compositions of Warton, which are formed more on the model of the Greek epigram, or epitaph, than the Italian sonnet, Mr. Bowles and Charlotte Sniith are the first modern writers who
have met with distinguished success in the sonnet. Those of the former, in particular, are standards of excellence in this department. To much natural and accurate de scription, they unite a strain of the most exquisitely tender and delicate sentiment; and, with a nervous strength of diction, and a wild freedom of versification, they combine an euphonious melody, and consonant cadence, unequaled in the English language. While they possess, however, the superior merit of an original style, they are not unfrequently deformed by instances of that ambitious singularity which is but too frequently its concomitant. Of these the introduction of rhymes long since obsolete is not the least striking. Though, in some cases, these revivals of antiquated phrase have a pleasing effect, yet they are oftentimes uncouth and repulsive. Mr. Bowles has almost always thrown aside the common rules of the sonnet; his pieces have no more claim to that specific denomination than that they are confined to fourteen lines. How far this deviation from established principle is justifiable, may be disputed; for if, on the one hand, it be alledged that the confinement to the stated repetition of rhymes, so distant and frequent, is a restraint which is not compensated by an adequate effect; on the other, it must be conceded, that these little poems are no longer sonnets than while they conform to the rules of the sonnet, and that the moment they forsake them, they ought to resign the appellation.
The name bears evident affinity to the Italian sonare, " to resound"-"sing around," which originated in the Latin sonans, --sounding, jingling, ringing: or, indeed, it may come immediately from the French sonner, to sound, or ring, in which language, it is observable, we first meet with the word sonnette, where it signifies a little bell, and sonnettier a maker of little bells; and this derivation affords a presumption, almost amounting to certainty, that the conjecture before advanced, that the sonnet originated with the Provençals, is well founded. It is somewhat strange that these contending derivations have not been before observed, as they tend to settle a question which, however intrinsically unimportant, is curious, and has been much agitated.
But, wherever the name originated, it evidently bears relation only to the peculiarity of a set of chiming and jingly terminations, and of course can no longer be applied with propriety where that peculiarity is not preserved.
The single stanza of fourteen lines, properly varied in their correspondent closes, is, notwithstanding, so well adapted for the expression of any pathetic sentiment, and is so pleasing and satisfactory to the ear, when once accustomed to it, that our poetry would suffer a material loss were it to be disused through a rigid adherence to mere propriety of name. At the same time, our language does not supply a sufficiency of similar terminations, to render the strict observance of its rules at all easy or compatible with ease or elegance. The only question, therefore, is, whether the musical effect produced by the adherence to this difficult structure of verse overbalance the restraint it imposes on the poet, and, in case we decide in the negative, whether we ought to preserve tbe denomination of sonnet, when we utterly renounce the very peculiarities which procured it that cognomen.
In the present enlightened age, I think it will not be disputed that mere jingle and sound ought invariably to be sacrificed to sentiment and expression. Musical effect is a very subordinate consideration; it is the gilding to the cornices of a Vitruvian edifice; the colouring to a shaded design of Michael Angelo. In its place it adds to the effect of the whole, but when rendered a principle object of attention, it is ridiculons and disgusting. Rhyine is no necessary adjunct of true poetry. Southey's Thalaba is a fine poem, with no rhyme, and very
little measure or metre; and the production which is reduced to mere prose by being deprived of its jingle, could never possess, in any state, the marks of inspiration,
So far, therefore, I am of opinion that it is advisable to renounce the Italain fabric altogether. We have already sufficient restrictions laid upon us by the metrical laws of our native tongue, and I do not see any reason, out of a blind regard for precedent, to tie ourselves to a difficult structure of verse, which probably originated with the Troubadours, or wandering bards, of France and Normandy, or with a yet ruder race; one which is nog