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Marianne Van Remoortel. Lives of the Sonnet, 1787-1895: Genre, Gender and Criticism. Farnham, UK and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6934-0. Price: US$99.95/£55.00

  • Natalie Houston

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  • Natalie Houston
    University of Houston

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The title of Marianne Van Remoortel's ambitious book, Lives of the Sonnet, 1787-1895: Genre, Gender and Criticism, initially puzzled me with its first word. Did "lives" refer to the poets who took up the sonnet form throughout the long nineteenth century or to those critics suggested by the last word of the title? The book’s introduction offers a more complicated and more interesting third possibility: Van Remoortel says that she takes an "inclusive socio-textual approach" to the sonnet form, treating gender as a "defining feature of genre" (7). The word "lives" in her title also points to Van Remoortel's sustained attention to the sonnet's status and cultural reception both throughout the nineteenth century and within more recent literary criticism.

Many book-length studies of the nineteenth-century sonnet, such as John Holmes’s Dante Gabriel Rosetti and the Late Victorian Sonnet Sequence: Sexuality, Belief and the Self (2005) or Amy Billone’s Little Songs: Women, Silence, and the Nineteenth-Century Sonnet (2007) track the sonnet’s use by selected poets in order to map a particular kind of history. Joseph Phelan’s The Nineteenth Century Sonnet (2005) takes a thematic approach to the form, looking at how the sonnet was used for political, devotional, or amatory purposes. In contrast, Van Remoortel’s study deliberately eschews a cohesive or progressive account of the sonnet's development in the period in order to map its varied deployment, suggesting by its very structure that how we narrate the sonnet's "life" is as important as the poets and texts we include within that story. The six chapters each explore different uses and contexts for the sonnet form, including its appearance in popular journalism, as the target and vehicle for literary parody, and as a flexible form for new kinds of poetic sequencing. Unfortunately, Van Remoortel’s study does not offer a clear theoretical model of gendered genre or of the social text that would sufficiently ground her approach, leaving it to the reader to draw connections from one chapter to another.

The book opens with a study of sonnets published in the late eighteenth-century London newspaper The World. Van Remoortel identifies the sonnet as only one of an array of poetic forms (including odes, elegies, and songs) that readers would have seen in the pages of the World in 1787. She examines typographical conventions, dedications, titles, and the juxtaposition of the newspaper's sonnets with advertisements and gossip columns to demonstrate how the conventions of the amatory sonnet became commodified within material print culture. Of particular interest is an example of an amatory sonnet ("In a deep sequester'd grove") printed in February 1787 and signed "Maria," which was then reprinted in September 1787 under the name "Edwin." Van Remoortel suggests that the amatory sonnet tradition's demarcation of the role of poet and idealized love object becomes destabilized and performative within The World's pages.

One of Van Remoortel's important arguments about how the sonnet functioned throughout the long nineteenth century is that although the form is one of the most clearly defined in terms of number of lines and rhyme pattern, the cultural significance of the sonnet extends far beyond poems that meet those criteria. Her chapter on the Della Cruscan poets and William Gifford's satiric critique of them in The Baviad (1791) and The Maeviad (1795) argues that "the 'sonnet' often operated as an autonomous satirical label, leading, as it were, a 'secret life' outside the genre's traditional masculine 14-line boundaries" (35). She traces how all kinds of poems beyond the 14-line form were labeled sonnets to mark their perceived feminine qualities, in both satirical and more serious critical accounts. Eighteenth-century novels and plays repeatedly associate sensitive or romantic characters with sonnets. Gifford's satire builds upon this feminization of the sonnet to attack the Della Cruscans as hypersentimental and excessive. Van Remoortel points out that the word "sonnet" has far more cultural resonance in this period than just its literal, formal definition.

Her third chapter continues this examination of the cultural meaning of the sonnet form by looking at Samuel Taylor Coleridge's enthusiasm for the sonnet and his subsequent distancing of himself from it in the 1790s. Van Remoortel draws upon a wide range of 1790s literary criticism as well as Coleridge's correspondence to fill in the contours behind his prefatory remark in his 1796 Poems that he called his poems Effusions because he "was fearful that the title 'Sonnet' might have reminded my readers of the Poems of the Rev. W. L. Bowles" (56). Van Remoortel argues that rather than reading Coleridge's remark as disingenuous modesty, we should see it as carefully navigating a literary field in which Bowles's Fourteen Sonnets (1789) was widely praised by critics and readers alike, while at the same time Gifford and others were associating the sonnet form with excessive sentimentality: "in 1796 it was better to be considered a failed Bowles than a first-class Della Cruscan" (59). Although Coleridge republished his sonnets along with others by Charles Lamb and Charles Lloyd, under a title which affiliated them with "the Manner of the Rev. W. L. Bowles" in the summer of 1797, just a few months later he published three parodic sonnets in the Monthly Magazine under the name Nehemiah Higginbottom. Van Remoortel persuasively reads these parodies in relation to the sonnet's field of associations rather than as personal attacks on individual poets. She also discusses other periodical poems (some previously unnoted by scholars) that responded to the Higginbottom sonnets.

The fourth and fifth chapters of this book focus on the reception history of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets From the Portuguese (1850) and George Meredith's Modern Love (1862) within twentieth-century scholarship and, to a lesser degree, within Victorian literary criticism. In these chapters and throughout her book, Van Remoortel demonstrates her familiarity with the extensive scholarship on the sonnet form and particular poems. Van Remoortel criticizes what she sees as the tendency of recent scholars to emphasize feminist or culturally subversive elements in Barrett Browning's poetry, arguing that when it "is considered from the perspective of a Victorian wife-to-be, rather than the perspective of a self-possessed poet, none of its strategies of subjectivity carries any metaphorical or subversive power" (94). She also discusses sonnets by other women poets including Emmeline Stuart-Wortley, Mary Bryan, and Caroline Norton, reading them as "major steps towards a language to express female identity and experience" (107).

Van Remoortel surveys the mid-twentieth-century reception of Meredith's Modern Love, which not only ignored the question of whether these 16-line poems could really be considered sonnets, but virtually ignored their poetic qualities altogether, preferring to emphasize the sequence's narrative and psychological qualities. She distinguishes the readings of more recent decades as reflecting "an age when power relationships, resistance to current norms and the challenging of boundaries, in short the politics of poetic genres, are hot topics" (135), making the sonnet form interesting again for its political possibilities. These two chapters extend her interest in the sonnet's "lives" to both the narratives that critics construct about the form, and the academic careers of those scholars themselves.

The sixth chapter returns to more direct readings of Victorian sonnets by comparing the language of maternity in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The House of Life (1881) and Augusta Webster's Mother and Daughter (1895). Van Remoortel skillfully excavates Rossetti's use of metaphors of pregnancy and birth for forms of creativity and argues that Webster's sequence can be read as an embodied critique of the Petrarchan sonnet's literary tradition. She draws on Julia Kristeva to claim "maternity's unmediated access to preverbal symbiosis" as the grounds for Webster's revisionary use of the sonnet sequence to speak a mother's love for her daughter rather than the troubadour poet's love of an idealized woman (152).

With a wide range of primary texts and critical approaches, Van Remoortel's study of the sonnet in the long nineteenth century should prove suggestive to other scholars interested in mapping the cultural significance of poetic form. The sonnet's rich connections to discourses of economic value, romantic affection, sexual power, and creative production offer plenty of avenues for future research into the history and significance of the form.