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“ For whether beauty, birth, or wealth, or wit,
Or any of these all, or all, or more,
love engrafted to this store : So then I am not lame, poor, nor despised,
Whilst that this shadow doth such substance give, That I in thy abundance am sufficed,
And by a part of all thy glory live." Passages might be produced in farther evidence, such as, in the 80th Sonnet, “ Your shallowest help will hold me up
afloat." Besides, the whole of Sonnets 57 and 58, as well as of some others, have the air, not to be mistaken, of addresses to some one of rank.
Granting that the qualities of youth, beauty of person, high birth, wealth, and friendship for Shakespeare, are all applicable to the Earl of Southampton, yet, with deference to Dr. Drake, they may be all equally applicable to another, without reversing the initials, which is objectionable. The Earl of Southampton was not the only ennobled friend of Shakespeare. Possibly there were several of the nobility of the time who conferred that honour on themselves. tainly know of two others, William, Earl of Pembroke, and Philip, his brother, earl of Montgomery, to both of whom Heminge and Condell dedicated their folio edition of Shakespeare. Their words in the dedication are,—“ But since your lordships have been pleased to think these trifles something heretofore, and have prosecuted both them, AND THEIR LIVING, with so much favour; we hope, (that they outliving him, and he not having the fate, common
with some, to be executor to his own writings) you will use the same indulgence towards them, you have done unto their parent." Consequently “Mr. W.H.” according to my perception, and as co
conjecture has already pointed out, may, with every probability short of certainty, have been William Herbert, afterwards, when the folio was published, William, Earl of Penbroke. Not only do the initials belong to the name, but the title, “ Mr.” was not improperly applied to the eldest son of an Earl, there not having been, at that period, any grander title of courtesy.
But it is necessary to consider the time when the Sonnets were written, together with the age of William Herbert, and they will not be found contradictory. That young nobleman might have been eighteen years old, not more, but probably a year younger, when the first part was addressed to him; an age when he might well be termed “boy," and in accordance with the feeling of the poems. In proof of this, he was born in 1580, and it was in November, 1598,* that Meres, in his Wit's Treasury, noticed the Sonnets of Shakespeare as being then circulated in manuscript among his friends. They were not printed till 1609. Were there authority for believing that Meres, in his notice, alluded to all the Sonnets as we possess them, then the first part must have been written at least three years before they were spoken of by him : that is, when William Herbert could not have been more than fifteen years old; because Sonnet 104th, belonging to the last part, expressly says,
* In the spring of this year, William Herbert, with his father's consent, came to London, and continued to reside there. See Lodge's Portraits.
“ Three winters cold
Since first I saw you fresh which yet are green.”
and Sonnet 102 proves that Shakespeare's verse was addressed to him during their early acquaintanceship;
“Our love was new, and then but in the spring,
When I was wont to greet it with my lays.”
But it is highly probable that Meres spoke of no more than the first twenty-six sonnets, (which I shall prove form one entire poem ;) though possibly of the second poem also, together with that to his mistress, when the young nobleman had reached the age of eighteen, if Meres noticed them the year when they were written, or of seventeen, if they were a year old when noticed, an age agreeing with the never-ending allusions to the freshness of his youth, and not altogether an improper age to be addressed on the subject of this first poem, which is marriage,—at least by Shakespeare, who himself was married at about eighteen.
William, Earl of Pembroke, the nephew of Sir Philip Sidney, succeeded to his father in 1601, was knight of the garter in 1604, Governor of Portsmouth in 1610, and Chancellor of the University of Oxford, and Lord Steward of the King's Household, in 1626 ; he died 10th April, 1630. In addition to these dignities, be it remarked, he was a poet, a learned man, and an encourager of learning; witness his poems, and his benefactions to the University of Oxford, and Pembroke College, named after him. It may therefore be assumed, since every circumstance is in its favour, that, in the first flow of youth, when the love of poesy, in such a mind, is most strong, he sought out our poet, and proffered his friendship. Yet, let me repeat that the right understanding of these poems by no means depends on the discovery of the person to whom they were addressed; though, while speaking of this youthful, wealthy, and highborn friend of Shakespeare, I shall take the liberty, till better instructed, of designating him Master William Herbert, afterwards Earl of Pembroke.
These neglected and ill-understood Sonnels contain a clear allusion to events in Shakespeare's life, or rather a history of them, with his own thoughts and feelings as comments on them, and consequently they form a valuable addition to our knowledge of his character. For this reason I shall spare no pains in a minute investigation, confiding throughout in the interest of his lovers on such a theme. My explanation will, I hope, be satisfactory, while I allow it, for the most part, to go hand in hand with the deductions I may draw. For, in their explanation, I stand not in need of extracts from the writings of his contemporaries, or from any extraneous work whatever. I rely on the Sonnets before me, and on them alone, for their natural interpretation.
In the first place, these Sonnets are not, properly speaking, sonnets. A sonnet is one entire poem tained in fourteen heroic lines, of which there are but three in the collection; the two last, and one near the last, which will be explained. The two last intruders, utterly foreign to every thing preceding them, contain
nothing else but repetitions of the same thought,the stealing of Cupid's brand by a nymph of Diana. The remainder of the sonnets, so miscalled, are POEMS in the sonnet-stanza. These poems are six in number; the first five are addressed to his friend, and the sixth to his mistress. This key, simple as it may appear, unlocks every difficulty, and we have nothing but pure uninterrupted biography.
Owing to their having been always called sonnets, a reader, accustomed to consider a sonnet as a poem complete within itself, is perplexed at finding them connected with each other. If this difficulty is so far overcome as to induce him to read right onward, he is again baffled at the sudden contrariety of subject and feeling, owing to the want of division in the work. He then, it may be, returns to his first idea of a legitimate sonnet, and endeavours to understand them separately; till, finding that mode of reading impracticable, he hurries on in confusion, lamenting that a total disregard to chronological order should have rendered them incomprehensible. In no other way can I account for the wild notions that have been published respecting them. It seems never to have crossed the mind of any one, editor or critic, that they are divisible poems in the sonnet-stanza ; though so great a poet as Spenser had, only a few years previously, written his Visions of Petrarch, Visions of Bellay, Visions of the World's Vanity, and The Ruines of Rome, all precisely in the same sonnetstanza.
About ten years have passed since I sat down with a determination to understand these Sonnets fully.