This book is, as the blurb proclaims, a genre history. It traces the development of the sonnet through the nineteenth century from Wordsworth to Hopkins and concludes by showing the influence of that development on the work of Robert Frost. Jennifer Ann Wagner has written a book about ancestry. She cites Wordsworth as the founder of the 'visionary' sonnet, while demonstrating his indebtedness to Milton. Wagner takes Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Rossetti and Hopkins in turn examining how each differs from the previous poets and their specific innovations to the sonnet. The sense of accumulation as the discussion progresses is powerful and convincing. She conveys the telling of the poet's consciousness of his predecessors extremely well. The inclusion of Frost - a jump of a century and a continent - is surprising in spite of being substantially justified by Wagner:
The rationale [behind concluding with Frost] lies, however, not only in the implicit thematic and philosophical connections of Robert Frost's sonnet work to the post Wordsworthian themes... but also in the explicit debt to Wordsworth's sonnet writing that Frost himself acknowledges.
This is characteristic of the work as a whole: each individual is treated in an interesting manner and his historical relationship to the other poets made explicit. For me, however, there is a lack of an over-all thesis which leaves me with the impression of an omission of some kind. So, Wordsworth initiated a different kind of sonnet writing which was developed and consolidated by Shelley, Keats, Rossetti and Hopkins; and Frost was overtly influenced by Wordsworth and the synecdochic sonnet. Surely the development and extension of literature is what every writer aspires to achieve. Nobody writes in a vacuum and is influenced by the writing they read. It is, therefore, unsurprising that each generation of nineteenth century poet expanded on Wordworth's (and Milton's before him) innovation of this new kind of sonnet. It is natural that Frost should be similarly influenced. The problem with this work is the lack of denouement, the pay-off, which would transform this example of genre history into something exceptional.
In her discussion Wagner uses the term 'visionary' sonnet. Wagner defines a visionary sonnet as one which reflects upon the actual composition of the poem, the process of writing the sonnet, and the moment of that creation. Wagner addresses her subject in a scholarly fashion. She isolates particular themes in Wordsworth's sonnets which she then uses to explore the sonnets of her other chosen poets. She focuses largely upon the form of the sonnet. Wordsworth introduces the united, spherical sonnet. The lack of division, the removal of the volta alters the possible content of the sonnet. Poetic thought can remain on a single concept without interruption. In a sense, by removing the break between the octave and the sestet, Wordsworth removed the necessity of a new idea, a new poetic paragraph.
The spherical sonnet enhances the opportunity for self-reflexivity. Wagner suggests that it is this newly found self-reflexivity which Wordsworth found attractive in the spherical sonnet. He abhorred the sentimental, 'feminine' qualities associated with sonnets until he examined the possibility of a more philosophical sonnet. It is a move from the private to the public, from a 'womanly' to a 'manly' sonnet, from the sentimental to the philosophical. It is this development that creates a Romantic sonnet.
A word should be said about the choice of sonneteers. Wagner excludes women poets from her study. She blames Wordsworth for this ("I take that to be Wordsworth's doing...") whilst acknowledging the importance of women writers to the development of the sentimental, private sonnet and the contributions of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti. She writes:
For all that Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning accomplish in their own handling of this traditional form, neither one of them belongs... in this study.
Although her reasoning is sound, this appears to be patronising, placing all female sonneteers in a large group of sentimentalists and labelling the sentimental as trivial. While it is clear that Wordsworth felt this to be the case Wagner has the advantage of knowing who succeeded him. It is incredible to suppose that no woman writer was sufficiently influenced by him to be even briefly included in the study. The interchange of ideas of form between male and female poets is an area which requires further research. The exclusion of the sentimental and the female leaves Wagner with the usual subjects of nineteenth century literary criticism.
Her discussion of the work of each poet is thorough. She selects a number of sonnets to dissect which are representative of the poet's sonnets as a whole. This selection usually includes a sonnet on the sonnet. The comparison of sonnets about sonnets by each poet is part of the most illuminating aspects of the study. In writing about the act of writing a specific form each poet reveals his particular attraction to that form and, to a degree, his attraction to poetry itself. For example in "A Sonnet is a moment's monument", Rossetti wishes to capture a moment; the resultant sonnet is the "moment's monument" of Wagner's title. Wagner explores the oxymoron inherent in the act of writing a poem - something which takes a long time - in order to preserve an instance in time which happens once then disappears. Yet this sonnet is also a definition of what a sonnet means to Rossetti, in a sense, what writing is to him. It is this grappling with themes of meaning and of form which connects the sonnets of Wordsworth to those of Rossetti and beyond. They deal with philosophical abstractions as opposed to recording emotions.
The unity of underlying task - to ask and answer philosophical questions - exhibited by each poet as well as their over concern with revising the sonnet form is Wagner's argument. She has recreated each poet's search for his literary predecessor. She does this meticulously by commenting on the similarities and the differences between each poet until one can see the linear development of the concepts begun by Wordsworth. By dealing with each poet separately the discussion opens to include more elements from the poet's work without becoming too confused. However, in spite of having distinct essays within the book, it would be unadvisable to read only that concerned with a single poet. The full potency of Wagner's plot of ancestry is not reached until the chapter on Hopkins.
In this respect Wagner achieves her aim: she makes a convincing and well-argued connection between Wordworth's new sonnet form and the innovations of the later generations of poets. There are some drawbacks to her attempt to do this. She deals with the earlier poets better than she does the later, particularly Frost. As the book progresses the chapters include less examples reproduced and discussed in full. The book feels slightly unbalanced. The concluding chapter on Frost is the flaw in the study. To my mind it does little to conclude or to advance her argument. It merely points out how the nineteenth century poets influenced one from the twentieth century. This is only to be expected. As a conclusion it does not accomplish what one would hope. As already mentioned, there is no denouement to make tracing the history worthwhile. One can follow the connections, and it is interesting and informative to do so, yet there is a lack of finality, for the want of a better word, to the conclusion. Frost does follow the lineage begun by Wordsworth but Frost is also a beginning of a wholly different area of the topic. He pulls the study from the nineteenth century to the twentieth in such a way that it mimics an unfinished sonnet that ends two lines after the volta; he is connected and divorced from the main substance of the study simultaneously.
As an example of scholarly work on mainstream poets this book succeeds. It sets out and achieves its objectives. Wagner has produced a well-written book that should be of relevance to people concerned with the ancestry of nineteenth-century poets.