Jennifer Ann Wagner, A Moment's Monument: Revisionary Poetics and the Nineteenth-Century English Sonnet. London: Associated University Presses, 1996. ISBN: 0 8386360 6. Price: £30[Notice]

  • Samantha J. Barber

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  • Samantha J. Barber
    University of Sheffield

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: 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: 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 …