Sonnet to A Fog by Egerton Webbe
Hail to thee, Fog! most reverend, worthy Fog!
Come in thy full-wigg'd gravity; I much
Admire thee:—thy old dulness hath a touch
Of true respectability. The rogue
That calls thee names (a fellow I could flog)
Would beard his grandfather, and trip his crutch.
But I am dutiful, and hold with such
As deem thy solemn company no clog.
Not that I love to travel best incog.—
To pounce on latent lamp-posts, or to clutch
The butcher in my arms or in a bog
Pass afternoons; but while through thee, I jog,
I feel I am true English, and no Dutch,
Nor French, nor any other foreign dog
That never mixed his grog
Over a sea-coal fire a day like this,
And bid thee scowl thy worst, and found it bliss,
And to himself said, "Yes,
Italia's skies are fair, her fields are sunny;
But, d—n their eyes! Old England for my money."
"And do you call this a sonnet, sir?" I hear some reader
say, with his fingers resting on the twentieth line: "I hope I know what a
sonnet is; why, sir, sonnet is the Greek for fourteen, to be
sure; and your lines must always count just two over the dozen, or
you make no sonnet of it; everybody knows this same."
Have patience, good reader, while I proceed to convict
thee of impertinence. No man is so happy of an occasion of correcting others
as he who has recently learnt something. Now, behold! I have recently
learnt this,—that the Italian poets, when they want to be
funny, and at the same time to sonnetteer, (new verb,) outrage the
gentle proportions of Poetry's fairest daughter—her whose delicate
form took captive the soul of Petrarch—by ignominiously affixing to
her hinder parts that always unseemly appendage—a tail, which is
no less a tail, and therefore no less disgraceful to her who wears it,
for being called, in the more courtly language of those original conspirators,
coda (from Latin cauda, observe;—see your dictionary.)
This have I learnt, astonished reader, by poking into the Parnasso
Italiano, as you may do, and there, beholding these prodigious baboon
sonnets in full tail,—for verily they resemble not the true birth
more than monkeys resemble men, and that is as much as to say
they do resemble them—in such a manner as to make you laugh at
the difference. But herein those Italian conspirators, who hatched
the infernal plot, gained their end; they diverted their readers at the
expense of poetical decency. Now, however, seeing that this second
("caudatus") species of the sonnet has a real and lively existence in
the land that gave it birth; and seeing that we have freely imported
from that land the other, the non-caudatus, species, (for I suppose all
young ladies and gentlemen know to what country they are indebted
for the fourteen-lined happiness,) it seems but fair that we should
improve our national stock by bringing over the later breed, and applying
it to the same uses as our neighbours.
The above is the first avowed specimen of the tailed sonnet,
I believe, that has ever appeared in English; and I hope it may operate
as a useful example to better poets, and induce them to clap tails
continually to their sonnets, whenever they intend fun.
I say it is the first avowed specimen, because there exists one
(unsuspected) among the poems of no less a man than John Milton, who found
nothing admirable in any language but he quickly transplanted it. That
most accomplished of modern poetical critics, Leigh Hunt, was the
first who discovered the fact, and gave the alarm to Milton's editors;
he showed very clearly that that short poem, "On the New Forcers of
conscience under the Long Parliament," which is always published,
ignorantly, among the miscellaneous pieces, is neither more nor less
than a comic sonnet with the Italian tail to it. If the reader will
take the trouble to look into his Milton, he will find that this poem
down to the line,
"Your plots and packing worse than those of Trent,"
forms a regular fourteen-liner; then comes the little adjunct,—"That
so the parliament,"—which, rhyming with the foregoing, gains the
right of introducing a new couplet; then another, rhyming with that,
and lending to a second supernumerary. In this manner the Italian
poets link on couplet after couplet without end, and you may see
some of their sonnets with tails stretching through several pages;
nay, for aught I know, you might have a sonnet in two volumes
octavo, without exceeding your licence. But it must always be constructed
on the above plan, with links of a like thickness. By the bye,
it is surprising that the late editors of Milton's poems—men professedly
conversant with Italian literature—should still persist in placing
this comic sonnet among the "miscellaneous pieces," after the error
has been pointed out to them!
As for the question—why a tail should be ridiculous?—it
seems to me one of considerable intricacy, and of the highest interest. Yes,
Mr. Editor, why should tails be ridiculous? Coat-tails, pig-tails,
all tails whatsoever, are found to touch us with a sense of the jocose;
nay, your comet's tail itself is only a kind of terrific absurdity.
I say, therefore, without fear of contradiction, that there subsists in
this question a deep psychological truth, which demands the exploring
hand of philosophy; and if no better man will take the hint,—why, Mr.
Editor, I think I must myself present you, another time, with my
ideas on this subject, handling the matter in the Aristotelian mode,
and dividing my tails into heads.
With respect to the tail of a comic sonnet, it
may be briefly remarked, that its comicality (of course I speak with reference
to the Italian models) arises in a great measure from the stumbling of the
little line, which always comes limping after the long one, as if something
were forgotten to be said in it, which the little one thus breathlessly
comes to adjoin; and then a succession of these quasi oversights
makes us laugh, alternately at the seeming blunder and at the funny
haste with which it is redressed. Or it is like an orator in his cups,
speaking fairly enough his prepared speech; but then—encouraged by
applause—spoiling all with drunken additions ex tempore.