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recognizes Shakspeare as the foremost writer, the most all-round poet, of the Elizabethan age, and proclaims him to be one of the very best in Comedy, in Tragedy, and in Lyrical Poetry. The writer shows that he was up to date in his familiarity with Shakspeare's writings, for he quotes an expression used by Falstaff in the first part of Henry IV., II. iv.1-a play which had only been entered on the Stationers' Register Feb. 25th, 1597-98. Meres was also greatly impressed with the English glory of Shakspeare's language.
“ As Epius Stolo said that the Muses would speak with Plautus' tongue if they would speak Latin, so I say that the Muses would speak with Shakspeare's fine, filed phrase, if they would speak English.” And of the Poems and Sonnets Meres remarks that " As the soul of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras, 80 the sweet witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakspeare; witness his • Venus and Adonis,' his' Lucrece,' his sugred Sonnets among his Private Friends." This mention of the Sonnets supplies us with an important link of connection. We learn from Meres that in the year 1598 the Sonnets of Shakspeare were known and somewhat renowned iu MS. for him to proclaim their sweetness as Love-Poetry, and they were also numerous enough to be classed and concisely reviewed by him among the Poet's other Works. Meres was a Warwickshire man. He is characterized by Heywood in his Apology for Actors as “an approved good Scholar whose work was learnedly done." Thus, according to Francis Meres, in 1598, Shakspeare had made his "Private Friends," for whom he had written the Sonnets; and if the Sonnets be the same, the private friendship publicly recognized by the Critic must of course have included that which is celebrated by the Poet in his first 126 Sonnets.
The Title to Thorpe's Collection, printed in 1609, reads with an echo to the words of Meres-Shakspeare's Sonnets, never before Imprinted, though so often spoken of, and so long known to exist in MS.
An understanding on the subject is implied in the familiarity of phrase. The inscriber appears to say, “You have heard a great deal about the 'Sugred Sonnets, mentioned by the critic, as circulating amongst the poet's private friends; I have the honour to set them forth for the public.” The Sonnets were published in 1609, with this inscription :
TO , THE , ONLIE . BEGETTER. OF.
THESE. INSVING. SONNETS .
says, “ here's Lime in this Sack too ; there is nothing but Roguery to be found in Villainous Man.”
Meres applies this to the "Corrupt times, when there is nothing but roguery in villainous man." This familiarity with Falstaff makes it fairly certain that the Merry Wives of Windsor had not appeared when Meres wrote in 1598, or he would have included it in his list of Shakspeare's Plays.
The book is inscribed by Thomas Thorpe, a well-known publisher of the time who was himself a dabbler in literature. He edited a posthumous work of Marlowe's, and was the publisher of plays by Marston, Jonson, Chapman, and others. Shakspeare makes no sign of assent to the publication ; whereas he prefaced his Venus and Adonis with dedication and motto; the Lucrece with dedication and argument.
After the Sonnets were printed by. Thorpe in 1609, we hear no more of them for thirty-one years. In 1640 a new edition appeared with an arrangement totally different from the original one. This was published as · Poems written by Wil. Sbakspeare, Gent. Printed at London by Tho. Cotes, and are to be sold by John Benson.' In this arrangement we find some of the pieces printed in the Passionate Pilgrim mixed up with the Sonnets, and the whole of them have titles which are chiefly given to little groups. Sonnets 18, 19, 43, 56, 75, 76, 96, 126 are missing from the second edition. This publication of the Sonnets as poems on distinct subjects shows, to some extent, how they were looked upon by the readers of the time. The arranger, in supplying his titles, would be following a feeling and answering a want. Any personal application of them was very far from his thoughts. Sonnets 88, 89, 90, and 91 are entitled A Request to his Scorful Love. 109 and 110 are called A Lover's excuse for his long Absence. Sonnet 122, Upon the Receipt of a Table Book from his Mistress ; and 125, An Entreaty for her Acceptance. The greater part of the titles however are general, and only attempt to characterize the sentiment.
The most remarkable feature of this publication is Benson's address, to which sufficient attention has never been directed.
“ TO THE READER. "I here presume, under favour, to present to your view some excellent and sweetly composed poems of Master William Shakespeare, which in themselves appear of the same purity the author himself, then living, avouched! They had not the fortune, by reason of their infancy in his death, to have the due accommodation of proportionable glory with the rest of his ever-living works. Yet the lines will afford you a more authentic approbation than my assurance any way can to inrite your allowance ; in your perusal you shall find them serene, clear, and elegantly plain, —such gentle strains as shall recreate and not perplex your brain. No intricate or cloudy stuff to puzzle intellect, but perfect eloquence, such as will raise your admiration to his praise. This assurance will not differ from your acknowledgments, and certain I am my opinion will be seconded by the sufficiency of these ensuing lines. I have been somewhat solicitous to bring this forth to the perfect view of all men, and in so doing glad to be serviceable for the continuance of glory to the deserved author in these his poems.”
At first sight one might fancy that Benson referred to the purity of Shakspeare's life as avouching for the purity of the Sonnets. But after long questioning the conclusion is forced upon me that Shakspeare had himself defended them against some such “exsuflicate and blown surmises or conjectures of his day as we find extant in ours. Bens emphatically states the the author himself when living avouched their purity!
To avouch is to affirm or testify, and therefore the plain English of this must be that Shakspeare, in his life-time, gave his own personal testimony to the purity of his Sonnets. This vindication would not have been made unless some contrary charge had been brought against them. Benson having heard of this looked into the Sonnets for himself, and found they justified the claim that Shakspeare had made on their behalf. Therefore he says, “ I have been somewhat solicitous to bring this forth to the view of all men," with intent to do justice to the Sonnets and their Author.
In the editions that followed the first two, sometimes the one order prevailed, sometimes the other. Lintot's, published in 1709, adhered to the arrangement of Thorpe's Collection. Curll's, in 1710, follows that of Cotes. Gildon gave it as his opinion, that the Sonnets were all of them written in praise of Shakspeare's mistress. Dr. Sewell edited them in 1728, and he tells us, by way of illustrating Gildon's idea, that a young Muse must have a Mistress to play off the beginnings of fancy; nothing being so apt to elevate the soul to a pitch of poetry, as the passion of love." This opinion, that the Sonnets were addressed to a mistress, appears to have obtained, until disputed by Malone and Steevens. In 1780, the last-namel critic published his Supplement to the Edition of Shakspeare's Plays (1778), and the notes to the Sonnets include his own conjectures and conclusions, together with those of Dr. Farmer, Tyrwhitt, and Steevens. These four generally concur in the belief that 128 of the Sonnets are addressed to a man; the remaining 28 to a lady. Malone considered the Sonnets to be those spoken of by Meres. Dr. Farmer thought that William Harte, Shakspeare's nephew, might be the person addressed under the initials “ W. H.” However, the Stratford Register soon put a stop to William Harte's candidature, for it showed that he was not baptized until August 28, 1600. Tyrwhitt was struck with the peculiar lettering of a line in the 20th Sonnet,
A man in Hew all Hews in his controlling, and fancied that the Poet had written it on the colourable pretext of hinting at the "only begetter's " name, which the critic conjectured might be William Hughes.
The Sonnets were Steevens' pet abhorrence. At first he dil not reprint them. He says, “ We have not reprinted the Sonnets, &c. of Shakspeare because the strongest Act of Parliament that could be framed would fail to compel readers into their service, notwithstanding these miscellaneous poems have derived every possible advantage from the literature and judgment of their only intelligent editor, Mr. Malone, whose implements of criticism, like the ivory rake and golden spade in Prudentius, are, on this occasion, disgraced by the objects their culture. Had Shakspeare produced no other works than these, his name would have reached us with as little celebrity as time has conferred on that of Thomas Watson, an older and much more elegant sonneteer.” Afterwards he broke out continually in abuse of them. The eruption of his ill-humour occurs in foot-notes, that disfigure the pages of Malone's edition of Shakspeare's poems. He held that they were composed in the" highest strain of affectation, pedantry, circumlocution, and nonsense.' “Such laboured perplexities of language," says, "and such studied deformities of style prevail throughout these Sonnets, that the reader (after our best endeavours at explanation !) will frequently find reason to exclaim with Imogen
I see before me, man,-nor here, nor here,
“This purblind and obscure stuff," he calls their poetry. And in a note to Sonnet 54 he asks with a sneer, “but what has truth or nature to do with sonnets ?” Steevens however was not altogether without warrant for his condemnation if he read the Sonnets as utterances entirely personal to the Poet.
Boswell, second son of Dr. Johnson's biographer, in editing a later edition of the work in which Steevens' potes are printed, had the good sense to defend the Sonnets against that censor's bitterness of contempt, and the good taste to perceive that they are all aglow with the “ orient hues” of Shaks, eare's youthful imagination. He ventures to assert that Steevens has not“ made a convert of a single reader who had any pretensions to poetical taste in the course of forty years," which had then gone by since the splenetic critic first described the Sonnets as worthless. Boswell also remarks anent the personal interpretation that the findling expressions which perpetual y cccur would have been better suited to a “cockered silken wanton ” than to “one of the most gallant noblemen that adorned the chivalrous age in which he lived."
In 1797 Chalmers had endeavoured to show that the Sonnets were addressed to Queen Elizabeth, although Her Majesty must have been close upon sixty years
when the Sonnets were first commenced. He argues that Shakspeare, knowing the voracity of Elizabeth for praise, thought he would fool her to the top of her bent ; aware of her patience when listening to panegyric, he determined, with the resolution of his own Dogberry, to bestow his whole tediousness upon her.
Dr. Drake, in his Shakspeare and his Times (1817), was the first to conjecture that Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, was the youthful friend of Shakspeare who was addressed so affectionately in the Sonnets, as well as inscribed to so lovingly in the dedications of his poems. He thought the unity of feeling in both identified the same person, and maintained that a little attention to the language of the times in which Thorpe's inscription was written, would lead us to infer that Mr. W. H. bad sufficient influence to “obtain the manuscript from the Poet, and that he lodged it in Thorse's hands for the purpose of publication, a favour which the bookseller returned by wishing him all happiness and that eternity which had been promised by the bard in such glowing colours to another, namely, to one of the immediate subjects of his Sonnets." Drake contended, logically enough, that as a number of the Sonnets were most certainly addressed to a female, it must be erident that “ W. H.” could not be the “only begetter" of them in the sense which is primarily suggested. He therefore agreed with Chalmers and Boswell that Mr. W. H. was the obtainer of the Sonnets for Thorre, and he remarks that the dedication was read in that light by some of the earlier editors. Having fixed on Southampton as the subject of the first 126 Sonnets, Drake is at a loss to prove it. He never goes deep enough, and only snatches a waif or two of evidence floating on the surface. When he comes to the latter Sonnets he expresses the most entire conviction that they were never directed to a real object. “Credulity itself, we think, cannot suppose otherwise, and, at the same time, believe that the Poet was privy to their p: blication.”
About the year 1818 Mr. Bright was the first to make out that the “Mr. W. H.” of Thorpe's inscription was William Herbert, afterwards Earl of Pembroke. It is said he laboured for many years in collecting evidence, brooded over bis cherished idea secretly, talked of it publicly, and was then anticipated in announcing it by Mr. Boaden in 1832. Mr. Boaden argued shallowly that the Earl of Southampton could not be the man addressed by Shakspeare, and assumed desperately that William Herbert was! He held him to be the “only begetter,” or Inspirer. Thus Mr. Bright escaped the infamy of persistently trying to tarnish the character of Shakspeare for the sake of a pet theory; that is, if his discovery included the personal interpretation elaborated later by Charles Armitage Brown, which will be dealt with in my next chapter.
Wordsworth, in his Essay supplementary to the famous preface, printed with the Lyrical Ballads, has administered a rebuke to Steevens, and reprehended his flippant impertinence. He says, “ There is extant a small volume of miscellaneous poems, in which Shakspeare expresses his own feelings in his own person.
It is not difficult to conceive that the editor, George Steevens, should have been insensible to the beauties of one portion of that volume, the Sonnets ; though in no part of the writings of this Poet is found in an equal compass a greater number of exquisite feelings felicitously expressed. But from a regard to the critic's own credit he would not have ventured to talk of an Act of Parliament not being strong enough to compel the perusal of these little pieces, if he had not known that the people of England were ignorant of the treasures contained in them; and if he had not, moreover, shared the too common propensity of human nature to exult over a supposed fall into the mire of a genius whom he had been compelled to regard with admiration, as an inmate of the celestial regions, 'there sitting where he durst not soar.'
This was written by Wordsworth in 1815 ; he had read the Sonnets for their poetry, independently of their object, but held that “with this key Shakspeare unlocked his heart,” which has become the one Article in the Credo of some readers of the Sonnets. About the same time Coleridge lectured on Shakspeare at the Royal Institution, and publicly rebuked the obtuse sense and shallow expressions of Steevens.
Coleridge thought that the person addressed by Shakspeare was a woman. He fancied the 20th Sonnet might have been introduced as a blind. He felt that in so many of the Sonnets the spirit was essentially feminine, whatever the outward figure might be, sufficiently so to warrant our thinking that where the address is to a man it was only a disguise ; for, whilst the expression would indicate one sex, the feeling altogether belied it, and secretly wooed or worshipped the other. Poet-like, he perceived that there were such fragrant gusts of passion in them, such “subtle-shining secrecies” of meaning in their darkness, as only a woman could have called forth; and so many of the Sonnets have the suggestive sweetness of the lover's passionate words, the ecstatic sparkle of a lover's eyes, the tender, ineffable touch of a lover's hands, that in them it must be a man speaking to a woman.1
Charles Knight maintained that certain of the Sonnets, such as Nos. 56, 57, and 58, and also the perfect love-poem contained in Sonnets 97, 98, and 99, were addressed to a female, because the comparisons are so clearly, so exquisitely the symbol of womanly beauty, so exclusively the poetic representatives of feminine graces in the worl 1 of flowers, and because, in the Sonnets where Shakspeare directly addresses his male friend, it is manly beauty which he extols. He says nothing to lead us to think that he would seek to compliment his friend on the
I See Table Talk, p. 231.