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T will readily be seen that the plan of this book is
unlike anything hitherto adopted in any similar
the limits of a quintessential selection the whole body of native sonnet literature down to our own time. Those who know the subject will perceive that numbers of inedited examples have been collected from obscure sources. It will be seen that as many as a dozen sonnet-writers, who have never before been omitted from a volume of this kind, have not found a place within these pages; but it cannot escape observation that fully forty poets, in the course of the three centuries compassed by the compilation, have here for the first time been included. By the kindness of living poets of established rank it has also been possible very greatly to enhance the interest of the collection, by the addition of a body of sonnets never hitherto published. For this exceptional attraction gratitude from the editor to those who have afforded him disinterested help is due.
The primary purpose has been to make a representative selection such as may afford a complete view of the history and
growth of a form of verse now much in favour and requisition ; and especially, by a liberal and impartial selection from the sonnets of contemporary writers, of every style and school, to show clearly what is now the character of the sonnet in the present stage of our literature. Metrical and chronological indices, and historical, explanatory, and analytical notes, will be found appended to the volume, and these, together with the textual rendering and arrangement adopted, may prove helpful in the way of critical elucidation. But it is hoped that the book may be acceptable not only to students of the sonnet, but to all lovers of whatever is beautiful in English sonnet poetry. To this end an endeavour has been made to secure as much variety in subject matter as seemed consistent with a selection whereof the first elective test required that each example have intrinsic value ; and to bring together within reasonable limits as many pieces as by contrast appeared to illustrate the methods of different masters in the treatment of similar themes. All systematic collocation of kindred examples must, however, remain with the reader as a task. The arrangement adopted in this volume is of necessity purely chronological.
It were scarcely rash to hope that a book compiled upon principles so catholic and from sources so inexhaustible, can hardly be opened on any page of the text without being found to contain something able to lighten and beguile the moments of all to whom English poetry is anything. But while the sonnets are so chosen as to appeal to a wide circle, it cannot be expected that the remainder of this preface will be found interesting to more than a few readers; yet to the limited company addressed
the matter dealt with must be one of enduring moment. It constitutes an argument going to show the legitimacy and purity of the English sonnet, as against the allegation that our sonnet literature is a bastard outcome of the Italian.
We hear it so constantly asserted that the sonnet in England is a naturalised form of verse, that we seem to have begun to grant the statement an unquestioning assent. As a result of this, we are compelled to resort to specious expedients by way of explanation when we find ourselves face to face with the great body of English sonnets, and perceive that only a small proportion bears an affinity to what is accepted as the original code. Of course the error involved comes of begging the question, and only requires to be challenged to succumb. Thereupon, it is seen that in the sonnet our literature possesses of its own right a species of poetry as beautiful and perfect as indigenous. The facts are well known and easily traversed. The word Sonnet (literally a little strain) was first employed by the very early Italian writers to denote simply a short poem limited to the exposition of a single idea, sentiment, or emotion ; two notable instances in point occur in Dante's Vita Nuova. Gradually it became confined in its application to a lyric of fourteen lines, constructed variously as to scheme of rhyme, and subject to no arbitrary rules as to development of thought. Finally, the name
1 In Petrarch it may be noted that there occur among the sonnets some exceptional pieces of fourteen lines, which he, presumably, would have classed as sonnets, but which are of the Ballata character. A more minute reference to such points in Petrarch and earlier Italian poets will be found in the indices of forms.
became exclusively associated with a form of verse affording a prescribed presentment of idea and metre. Now, when the word SonNet was first employed in England, it was used in its simple sense, and there seems to be some difficulty in discovering at what period it ceased to bear its literal application. It is true that Sir Thomas Wyat, upon returning from Italy, wrote a few poems, apparently in imitation of certain features of the method of Petrarch, and to these the name of Sonnets was attached. The following is the most notable example :
Farëwell, Love, and all thy laws for ever!
Thy baited hooks shall tangle me no more:
Senec and Plato call me from thy lore
Thy sharp repulse, that pricketh aye so sore,
Taught me in trifles that I set no store;
And in me claim no more authority :
With idle youth go use thy property,
For hitherto though I have lost my time,
Me list no longer rotten boughs to climb. But no definite direction appears to have been given to sonnet literature by this partial imitation of Italian models. Contemporaneously with Wyat, the Earl of Surrey produced poems constructed upon the model subsequently known as Shakspearean; and, following Surrey, Spenser wrote a series similar in scheme