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(ON THEIR POETICAL MERITS, AND ON THE QUESTION OF To
WHOM ARE THEY ADDRESSED* ?]
At a time when our elder poets are so much studied, and so justly admired, it seems not a little extraordinary that the Sonnets of the immortal Shakespeare should be almost utterly neglected. When alluded to, as they rarely are, by modern critics, it is generally to echo the filippant insolence of Steevens, who asserted that nothing short of the strongest act of parliament could enlist readers into their service. We know, however, that in Shakespeare's life-time, these “sugred sonnets,” as Meres quaintly calls them, were in great esteem, and were for a long while far better known than many of the Plays, which fell into comparative disrepute for some time before the author's death, and were not published in a collected form until several years after. Only eleven of the Dramas were printed during the Poet's life. Shakespeare died (on his birth-day, April 23,) in 1616. The first complete edition was printed in 1623, and was the joint speculation of four booksellers ; a circumstance from which Malone infers, that no single publisher was at the time willing to risk his money on an entire collection of the plays.
"An almost impenetrable darkness rests on the question, and no effort has hitherto, in the smallest degree, tended to disperse the gloom."-Drake.
A bookseller of the name of Jaggard did not hesitate to publish on his own account, in 1599, the sonnets which appear under the title of “The Passionate Pilgrim,” even in defiance of the author, or at all events without consulting his wishes. The collection was so inaccurate and made with so little care, that Marlowe's madrigal, Come live with me, &c.” was included in it as the production of Shakespeare. The unpopularity of Shakespeare's dramatic works, during even the greater part of the 17th century, is another illustration, to be added to a thousand others, of the capriciousness of the public taste. In one hundred years were published only four editions of his plays, and now perhaps, next to the Bible, the exclusive copyright of these works would be more valuable than that of any other publication that has yet appeared.
When we reflect upon the manner in which the plays have been subjected to the fickleness of the public mind, we ought perhaps to be less surprised at the fate of the Sonnets. There are also certain considerations connected with the latter, which may render their present unpopularity a mystery of more easy solution.
In the first place, we must recollect the equivocal nature of their subject, and secondly, the unpopular character of the sonnet as a peculiar form of verse. It is true, that at the time of their original publication, the sonnet was a fashionable species of composition, but it forced its way into notice rather from the great reputation of its cultivators, than from its own actual adaptation to the general taste.
Another cause of their neglect may be discovered in the enmity of Steevens, whose arrogant and tasteless criticisms have had a strange influence over succeeding commentators. Alexander Chalmers observes, that “it is perhaps necessary that some notice should be taken of Shakespeare's poems, in an account of his life and writings, although they have never” (which is not true)
been favorites with the public;" but all he ventures to add on so insignificant and unworthy a subject is, that the peremptory decision of Mr. Steevens, on the merits of these poems, severe as it is, only amounts to the general conclusion of modern critics ! He has also the audacity to pretend, that it is necessary to offer some apology for inserting the poems of William Shakespeare in his voluminous collection of the British Poets! He is bold enough to assert that there are“ scattered beauties” in the sonnets,
enough, it is hoped, to justify their admission” into the same collection, in which Gorbet, Turbeville, Pitt, Yalden, Hughes, Duke, King, Sprat, Walsh and Pomfret, have each an honorable place!
In most of the critical and biographical notices of Shakespeare, a contemptuous silence is observed on the subject of the sonnets ; and indeed the mass of readers, at the present day, are not even aware that Shakespeare is the author of a volume of Miscellaneous Poems. Wordsworth, in one of his prefaces to his own poems, (published in 1815,) announces it as an interesting fact, that such a work is extant, and that it is every way worthy of the illustrious Shakespeare. Dr. Drake, however, is the only writer who has taken up the subject with the enthusiasm which every thing connected with that glorious name is so well calculated to awaken. His indefatigable industry, and the genuine love of literature, which he on all occasions exhibits, excite the respect and sympathy of every generous mind. He has contributed more than any other critic with whom I am acquainted to revive these unjustly neglected poems.
A regret has often been expressed that we have little beyond a collection of barren dates in what is called the Life of Shakespeare.
Now, I conceive, and in this opinion I do not stand alone, that if any new light is to be thrown on Shakespeare's life and character, it must result from a careful and profound study of these Sonnets. Frederic Schlegel has observed, that it is in these pieces that we are first introduced to a personal knowledge of the great poet and his feelings. When he wrote sonnets," he observes, " it seems as if he had considered himself as more of a poet than when he wrote plays; he was the manager of a theatre, and he viewed the drama as his business; on it he exerted all his intellect and power ; but when he had feelings intense and secret to express, he had recourse to a form of writing, with which his habits had rendered him familiar. It is strange but delightful to scrutinize, in these short effusions, the character of Shakespeare. For the right understanding of even his dramatic works, these lyrics are of the greatest importance; they show us, that in his dramas he very seldom speaks according to his own thoughts or feelings, but according to his knowledge.” This is also the opinion of his celebrated brother Augustus William Schlegel, and I take up a strong position when I shelter myself under such authorities*. Mr. Thomas Campbell, however, has expressed his surprise that the last mentioned critic, “ one of the most brilliant and acute spirits of the age,” should have made this erroneous over-estimate of the light derivable from these poems respecting the poet's history." He contends that the facts attested by the sonnets “can be held in a nut-shell;" that they do not unequivocally paint the actual situation of the poet, nor make us acquainted with his passions ; nor contain any confession of the most remarkable errors of his youthful years. He does not deny that some slight hints of a personal nature may be gathered from a careful perusal, but he considers these to be grossly exaggerated by the German critic.
“It betrayed an extraordinary deficiency of critical acumen in the commentators on Shakespeare, that none of them, as far as we know, have ever thought of availing themselves of his Sonnets for tracing the circumstances of his life. These sonnets paint most unequivocally the actual situation and sentiments of the Poet; they enable us to become acquainted with the passions of the man ; they even contain the most remarkable confessions of his youthful errors." Lectures on Dramatic Literature, by Augustus William Schlegel. The remarks of Frederic Schlegel, are extracted from his Lectures on the History of Literature, Ancient and Modern.
Malone and Dr. Drake, are of opinion that the sonnets of Daniel were the prototype of Shakespeare's; andt hough their observations on this subject are not without weight, I am inclined to think that Shakespeare had studied all the sonnet compositions of his predecessors, without constructing his own after any particular standard. Daniel's system is not peculiar to himself; there were other writers, both before and after him, who adopted the same form. As to his turn of expression, though in some respects similar to Shakespeare's, it is not more so than that of his other contemporaries. It was the diction and idiom of the age. Shakespeare not being an Italian scholar, and not therefore acquainted with the strict models, chose the system that was most popular at the time, and which was certainly the most easy to construct, and perhaps the most agreeable to his own ear. That the form of three elegiac quatrains, concluding with a couplet, is infinitely less difficult than the Petrarchan sonnet, and is capable of being rendered highly musical and agreeable in skilful hands, no critic would be willing to dispute ; but it is not entitled to the name of sonnet. In the legitimate sonnet, the first eight lines should have but two rhymes, and the concluding six lines should have either two or three rhymes arranged alternately. Shakespeare's fourteen-line effusions are very exquisite little poems, but they are not sonnets, and I only call them such to distinguish them from his longer pieces, and because they are generally recognized by that title.
Some writers have a ridiculous habit of calling every short poem a sonnet, without reference to its precise number of lines or its general construction. They might just as well call a didactic poem an ode; a blank-verse poem a song; or an elegy an epigram. It is uncritical and injudicious to confound the different orders of verse by inappropriate titles.
Many people disapprove entirely of the system of the sonnet as too arbitrary and confined, and compare it to the bed of Pro