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If we could once discover the true solution of that enigma which lies hidden in the Sonnets attributed to Shakspeare, we might perhaps learn much that is now mysterious in the history of his life. The internal evidence of their authenticity is irresistible. The extraordinary fact is, that though they were published and republished as his, several years before his death, he never (at least publicly) either acknowledged or disowned them. They were entered on the Stationers' books, 20th May, 1609, by the publisher, one Thomas Thorpe, with the following dedication: "To the only begetter* of these ensuing sonnets, Mr. W. H., all happiness, and that eternity promised by our ever-living poet, wisheth the well-wishing adventurer in setting forth, T. T.” It is said, indeed, that they were known so early as 1598 to Meres, who speaks of them in his "Wit's Treasury," as very popular ;† but this may only apply to some of them, or even to other short poems of our author. The greater part of the one hundred and fifty-four printed by Thorpe are connected together, as parts of one strange, and not very intelligible story. It would seem from Sonnet lxxiii., and others. that Shakspeare was at that time an aged man,—at least, that he was many years older than the person whom he addresses. That individual, it appears throughout, was a nobleman of high rank, over whom (Son. cxxv.) he had on some occasion borne a canopy; the poet himself being a player, and regarding his occupation as a degraded one, insomuch (says he)
That almost thence my nature is subdued
To what it works in, like the dyer's hand.—(Son. cxi.) Yet between these two persons, so widely distant in social station, a sort of Platonic affection had arisen, which, on the poet's part, could only be compared with that which attached Socrates to Alcibiades, and was even much more extravagant in admiration of his young friend's personal beauty. This he compares, in a passage which was a peculiar favourite of Charles Lamb's, to
The beauty making beautiful old rhyme
In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights-(Son, cvi.)
* Begetter here means merely the person who gets or procures a thing. "As the soul of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras, so the sweet, witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakspeare. Witness his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugared Sonnets among his private friends."
as if he had said the beauty of those dead ladies and lovely knights was such as to render even the old rhymes beautiful, în which it was chronicled: and herein, he adds,
But still they fell short of the admirable form which this young nobleman possessed
I see their antique pen would have express'd
The seventeen first sonnets are all employed in earnest exhortations to the young lord to marry, in order that he might perpetuate the beauty in his offspring, which he himself inherited from a beautiful mother.
And, for they look'd but with divining eyes,
In a later portion of the series of sonnets we find the poet attached (as it seems, not very reputably) to a woman, who deserts him for his noble friend (Son. cxliv.); yet he neither breaks with the one nor with the other: and the final result of both connections is left equally in doubt.
That the sort of story to be made out of these poems, taken literally, can be true, seems hardly credible; and accordingly, various solutions of the difficulty have been proposed by different critics. One suggestion is, that the "W. H., the only begetter of these sonnets," is put, by transposition, for H. W. (Henry Wriothesly) earl of Southampton; another, that these letters, in their proper order, stand for William Herbert, earl of Pembroke: but there are no circumstances in the history of either earl to which the sonnets seem applicable. Dr. Farmer supposes that many of these sonnets were addressed to our author's nephew, Mr. William Harte; but Shakspeare's sister, Joan Harte, was not born till April, 1569, and supposing her to have married at so early an age as sixteen, her eldest son William could not have been more than twelve years old in 1598, at which time these sonnets were composed. Mr. Tyrwhitt pointed out to Mr. Malone a line in the twentieth sonnet, which inclined him to think that the initials W. H stand for W. Hughes. Speaking of this person, the poet says he is
Thon art thy mother's glass: and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime.-(Son. iii.)
A man in hew all Hews in his controlling
so the line is exhibited in the old copy; and Mr. Malone "considering that one of these sonnets formed entirely on a play on our author's Christian name," seems disposed to regard this conjec
ture as not improbable. But, as Mr. Boswell pointed out, that many other words in these poems were, by the printer's mere caprice, originally printed in Italics and with a capital initial letter, Mr. Chalmers started a proposition, that "the lovely boy" whom Shakspeare addressed was no less a person than our maiden Queen Elizabeth; and it is just possible that he may have had her celibacy indirectly in view, as a popular topic. Mr. Coleridge, on the other hand, conceived that all the sonnets were really addressed to a mistress, and that the expressions of a different import were added as a blind. Even this, however, is but an unsatisfactory conjecture. There certainly is a great similitude between the descriptions of a beautiful but inconstant youth in the Lover's Complaint and in the Sonnets; and these again remind one strongly of passages in the Passionate Pilgrim, and in Venus and Adonis, which were certainly composed at an early period. After all, it is possible that the events alluded to in the sonnets may have been altogether imaginary. Shakspeare was never the inventor of a tale; he seemed to have considered this as a totally immaterial part of his work: all his plays were founded on previous history or romance. His art consisted in diving into the secret recesses of human thoughts and feelings, and bringing them forth in action under any given data of person, place, position, or circumstance. A rude, barbarous chronicle, or bare legend, sufficed for his purpose. Nothing can be more meagre than the British traditions of Lear or the Danish Hamlet: nothing more profoundly philosophic than the picture of insanity produced by filial ingratitude in the old, passionate king; or than the hesitation of the young prince who believes, yet doubts, the supernatural visitation of his murdered father, spurring him on to revenge against the fratricide uncle, and yet checking it against the scarcely less guilty mother. When we see how small a hint sufficed to set in motion that deep sympathy with human nature in all its modifications which Shakspeare possessed in a degree beyond any other writer whose works at present exist, or probably ever have existed, we may think it not unlikely that the fanciful hint of a friend may have originated the sonnets, which, as applied to any conceivable state of facts, appear so inexplicable. Strange as it seems that Shakspeare should have left his authorship of these very singular compositions in doubt, yet even this perhaps may be explained by that disregard of fame which is so peculiar a feature in his character. W. H
FROM fairest creatures we desire increase,*
When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
This were to be new made, when thou art old,
Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest:
* This sonnet seems, in common with the eighteen which follow, to be merely an expansion of the argument of the stanza in Venus and Adonis commencing"Upon the earth's increase why shouldst thou feed?" and which will guide the reader to the general purport of the sonnets themselves. The meaning of particular passages is almost impracticable.
+ I. e. in thy very niggardliness.
t I. e. what is due to the world, both by death and by thyself.
§ (That it is). ** Cheat.
I. e. in thy child. I. e. in thyself. tt I. e. leave some woman unblessed with maternity.