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Some of the sonnets, however, that appear to have been written in his youth, and before he had gained his reputation, are as full of graceful humility and a reverential regard for others, as his later productions are of a just and noble confidence in his own pretensions.
“ If thou survive my well contented day,
When that churl death my bones with dust shall cover,
rude lines of thy deceased lover;
"O! how I faint when I of you do write,
This “better spirit" is supposed by some to be Spenser ; but though Spenser is also alluded to by name in the Passionate Pilgrim, and with great praise, “ the better spirit” is thought by other critics, and not without reason, to be Daniel, who had then a high reputation.
Leigh Hunt thinks that we may gather from the sonnets that Shakespeare was lame*. I suppose he alludes to the following passage, but it is perhaps doubtful whether it should be interpreted literally or not.
“ As a decrepit father takes delight
* It is strange how many poets have been lame-Tyrtæus-ShakespeareAkenside-Darwin-Anna Seward-Scott-Byron-Pringle, &c. &c.
Or any of these all, or all, or more,
There is a passage in another sonnet of a similar description to the third line of the above extract.
“Say that thou didst forsake me for some fault,
And I will comment upon that offence :
Sir Walter Scott introduces Shakespeare into his Kenilworth with an allusion to his lameness -“ He is a stout man at quarter staff, and single falchion, though I am told, a halting fellow.”
The fortieth sonnet shows that he was accustomed to travel on horseback, and that when vexed by his steed's dulness, notwithstanding his own sweetness and gentleness of nature, he could not help“ provoking him on” with “ the bloody spur,”
“That sometimes anger thrust into his hide.”
He adds, however, that the groan of the poor
“More sharp to me than spurring to his side.”
These sonnets also prove that he was a warm friend and a passionate lover. Indeed, considering that he was a married man, and a father, it must be confessed that his extravagant love for a notoriously low and licentious woman (Campbell calls her a married woman, though I recollect no passage in the sonnets that exactly justifies him in so describing her) certainly throws a shade upon his moral character. His thinking it necessary to publish and immortalize the matter, makes it a thousand times
Shakespeare married at eighteen. His wife was eight years older. It is supposed that she did not contribute to his domestic happiness*. One of his biographers imagines that he was jealous ; but this is scarcely probable, I think, considering that he did not take his wife with him to London, but lived at a distance from her for many years.
It is certain, that he neglected her in his will, in which her name was at first wholly omitted, and subsequently inserted with the bequest of only “ his second best bed.” That he was unfaithful to her, is, I fear, pretty clearly proved by some of these Confessional Sonnets, which seem to correspond in their character with a scandalous anecdote lately discovered by Mr. Payne Collier. Burbidge the actor, while playing Richard the Third, struck the fancy of a fair citizen, who appointed him to call upon her under the name of Richard the Third. Shakespeare overheard the assignation, and forestalled poor Burbidge. When the latter arrived and sent in his name, Shakespeare sent word back that William the Conqueror was before Richard the Third. He was suspected of the paternity of Davenant, and when the latter was telling some one that he was going to his God-father Shakespeare, he was cautioned not to take God's name in vain. Such gossiping and doubtful anecdotes as these, are perhaps scarcely worth repeating : but such is our eager interest in the slightest details connected with Shakespeare, that we cannot help treating them with more consideration than they really merit.
I now come to the consideration of the question of to whom are these Sonnets addressed; a mystery which has puzzled the critics as much as that of the authorship of Junius. Hazlitt acknowledges, in his occasionally familiar way, that of the “ultimate drift” of the sonnets, he can make neither head nor tail.” Thomas Campbell is also puzzled, and remarks that it seems almost impossible to make out to whom they are addressed. Even the Schle
* I believe Thomas Campbell in his edition of Shakespeare's Plays, in one volume, has stated that the Dramatic bard's first child was born about six months after his marriage with Anne Hathaway.
gels have not attempted, I believe, to settle this point, though so indignant at the contemptuous neglect with which the sonnets have been treated by the poet's various biographers. The question might seem of less importance if it were not for the very peculiar character of several of these little poems, which from the want of some positive information in this respect are perfect riddles. It is well known that the smaller collection of sonnets and other short lyrical pieces, which first appeared in 1599, was published by an igno; ant and unprincipled bookseller of the name of Jaggard, without the author's sanction. In a public letter of Thomas Heywood's to his own bookseller, Mr. Nicholas Okes, he alludes to this surreptitious publication, and observes, The author I know is much offended with M. Jaggard, that (altogether unknown to him) presumed to make so bold with his name.” Now, though we have no direct evidence that the larger collection of sonnets, respecting the object of which there has been so much conjectural criticism, was also published in defiance or without the knowledge of the author, I cannot help thinking there is very good reason for supposing this to have been the case, when we consider the imperfect and unsatisfactory manner in which the work was edited. The poems of Venus and Adonis, (“ the first heir of his invention,") published in 1593, and The Rape of Lucrece, published in 1594, were evidently superintended by the author, who dedicated both of them to his celebrated patron the Earl of Southampton ; but it is difficult to imagine that Shakespeare himself had any thing to do with the first edition of the larger collection of sonnets, which are dedicated with singular inelegance and ambiguity by the publisher to no one knows whom. It is strange that no critic (at least none with whom I am acquainted) has looked upon the publication in this point of view; for though this hypothesis does not enable us to reconcile or explain the many contradictions and mysteries with which the collection abounds as it now
stands, yet it is reasonable in itself, and suggests the justice and propriety of our' attributing much that is confused or objectionable in the selection and arrangement of the contents to a want of judgment in the publisher. The dedication to which I have already alluded is printed as follows, in the first edition :
• To. The. onlie. begetter. of.
These, insuing. Sonnets.
T. T." The commentators have taxed their utmost ingenuity to discover who this W. H. can be. Dr. Farmer supposes that the sonnets are addressed to William Harte, the poet's nephew; but this has since been discovered to be impossible, as he was not born before the year 1600, and the sonnets were published in 1609, and some of them are known to have been written and circulated amongst the author's private friends several years before. Meres praises these “sugred sonnets” in his “ Wit's Treasury,” published in 1598. The first seventeen were written to persuade the object of them to marry, and it is absurd to suppose they were addressed to a little child, as Harte must then have been. Besides which, he was of humble birth and pretensions, whereas there are innumerable passages in the sonnets that plainly allude to a patron and friend of distinguished rank and influence. Tyrwhitt once pointed out to Mr. Malone a line in the 20th sonnet, which induced the latter to believe that W. H. stands for William Hughes.
“ A man in hew, all Hews in his controlling,”