Charles Tennyson Turner is somewhat unfairly regarded as a lesser poet than his more famous brother, the Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Although he was a vicar by profession and not known as a poet in his own lifetime, he wrote over 340 sonnets and, as “On Finding a Small Fly Crushed in a Book” shows, was an accomplished writer in his own right.
The poem is a sonnet, but an adapted one that has a rhyme scheme that does not exactly fit any of the traditional sonnet forms: Petrarchan, Spenserian or Shakespearian. This variation (the “break” in meaning, that usually occurs after the octet, actually comes in the middle of the eighth line) allows Turner to express himself more freely, and at a casual glance the poem remains a typical sonnet. This is also evident in its seemingly generic title: the construction “On…” was extremely common among reflective poems of the 17th to 19th centuries. Yet “On Finding a Small Fly Crushed in a Book” cannot be considered a generic or typical poem.
It is unusual rather in its rather daring choice of subject and its subtly radical message. As Turner was a clergyman in a very conservative era where the Church of England was one of the most powerful forces in British life, it is somewhat surprising that he should choose death as a subject, as opposed to his rough contemporary, the Jesuit Geard Manley Hopkins, who devoted the bulk of his work to the praise of God and all his creations (although this was also a highly radical theme in its own way). Turner lacks Hopkins’ linguistic inventiveness, but his poem is finely crafted and certainly decidedly unchurchlike in its approach.
The poem’s beginning belies its deeper character. “Some hand that never meant to do thee hurt” has killed the fly, begins Turner, and it seems like the beginning of a slight, modest poem about finding a fly. The third line, however, hints at Turner’s concern for the nature of man and his relation...