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At the time I was offended, and indeed indignant, at meeting with some unworthy strictures on them by an anonymous writer. In common with others, he spoke of them throughout as detached sonnets. As I never had regarded them in any other light than as, for the most part, connected sonnets, I endeavoured to discover if the whole could not, without violence, be divided into separate poems, so that I might arrive at their sense without confusion. To my surprise, while I read them with that intention, they, as it were, divided themselves, and, still more extraordinary, each poem concluding with an appropriate Envoy, to mark their bounds distinctly, and beyond a doubt.
The excitement at finding a long hidden treasure has passed away,—for a treasure it was, by which I purchased a knowledge of the intention of every sonnet, or rather of every stanza, (I refuse to call them sonnets for the future,) delighting myself the more in the poetry, the more I was enabled to comprehend the theme. Now that many years are gone by, I cannot imagine a possible reason for disturbing the divisions I then made, which were as follows :
FIRST POEM. Stanzas 1 to 26. To his friend, persuading him to marry. SECOND POEM. Stanzas 27 to 55. To his friend,
. who had robbed the poet of his mistress, forgiving him.
THIRD POEM. Stanzas 56 to 77. To his friend, complaining of his coldness, and warning him of life's decay.
FOURTH POEM. Stanzas 78 to 101. To his
friend, complaining that he prefers another poet's praises, and reproving him for faults that may injure his character.
Fifth PoEM. Stanzas 102 to 126. To his friend, excusing himself for having been some time silent, and disclaiming the charge of inconstancy.
Sixth POEM. Stanzas 127 to 152. To his mistress, on her infidelity.
Such should have been (had the printers in 1609 received efficient directions, and had they done their duty) the order and manner of these poems. The attentive reader will be convinced that these divisions are neither arbitrary nor fanciful, but inevitable. An unsought-for recommendation is that they are thus formed into poems tolerably equal in length, varying from twenty-two to twenty-six stanzas each.
For upwards of two centuries these poems, owing to the carelessness or folly of those who first committed them to the types, have been little read, or misinterpreted. Yet it is doubtful if their being thoroughly understood will render them popular; though they have many stanzas of wonderful beauty, of excellence, and many passages superior to the best in Venus and Adonis, and the Rape of Lucrece. Except as connected with Shakespeare, which is much, the subjects are uninteresting. The conceits and forced metaphors, which in his day seem to have been admired, may be forgiven by us; but the languid prolixity and monotony of cadence, pervading almost all the stanzas, are wearisome to modern readers. Besides, we soon cease to delight in the same thoughts, turned round and round, placed in different lights, and tricked out in quaint fancies. Our ancestors were pleased with this style of writing, it was the fashion of the day; Shakespeare followed it in these poenis, and obtained high and highly conceited commendation. “ As the soul of Euphorbus,” quoth Meres, the Treasurer of Wit, “ was thought to live in Pythagoras, so the sweet witty soul of Ovid lives in the mellifluous honey-tongued Shakespeare: witness his Venus and Adonis ; his Lucrece; his sugred Sonnets among his private friends." Had he, in his poems, as well as in his dramas, “ made a pish” at fashion, and followed nature, the poems would also have been “ not of an age, but for all time.” Even Shakespeare could fail, imitating the style of others. But this, in its best sense, is to his honour; as the more original is a man's genius, to the less effect can it play the ape.
Before we proceed farther, it is necessary to interpret some particular expressions he has used. In his time the language of love or of friendship was the
His contemporaries spoke of a friendship between those of the same sex by the term of love ; and the usual address to a friend, as may be seen in their letters, was lover. Ben Jonson calls himself, to Dr. Donne, “thy true lover;" he subscribed himself the lover of Camden : and in his Case is altered, we find,—“ Sirrah, there's one of my fellows mightily enamoured of thee.” Shakespeare himself publicly dedicated his love to the Earl of Southampton; in Coriolanus we read,
“ I tell thee, fellow, thy general is my lover;"
in fact the phrase was of common parlance. This, has been already explained by Malone, Dr. Drake and others. Not only did friendship, in poetical and prosaic addresses, adopt the language of love; but, to express its utmost sincerity, it breathed of tenderness. On the other hand, love, eager to free itself from the imputation of transient desire, strove to be assimilated to a pure friendship. Thus the language of love and friendship became confounded ; till fashion, or something worse, endeavoured to separate their terms.
There is another phrase, used by our ancestors, sounding strange to modern ears, which is sweet, when applied to a friend. We are accustomed to it among the poetical personages of Shakespeare's plays. Prince Hall calls Poins “sweet Ned;" Antonio begins his letter to his friend with “ sweet Bassanio;" and the two gentle youths of Verona call each other “ sweet," and “sweet Valentine," and “sweet Proteus;" yet many may wonder to find that our poet writes of Master William Herbert's “sweet respect," of his “sweet thoughts,” his “sweet beloved name,” his sweet graces,
and that he even calls him “ sweet love;" though this last expression was but equivalent to dear, or kind friend, of the present day; and there was nothing wonderful in any of them at the time it was written. Language is for ever changing, and the language of familiar discourse more than any other. Formerly a gentleman, paying honourable addresses to a lady, might bestow on her the compliment of calling her a lovely wench ; and he would certainly speak of her as being his inistress, which would now be worse than indecorous. If, indeed, the gentleman
of the olden time had spoken of the lady as his friend, it would have been more than a suspicious sound (though the appellation is now so innocent) like the amica of Terence, the amica of modern Italians, or the amie of the French.
I had nearly, forgotten another change in which Shakespeare is concerned. In these days we talk of the beauty of a woman, a child, a flower, or a painting,—nay, of the beauty of a horse, or a dog, and that continually; but, though we by no means deny there is such a thing as manly beauty, we talk of it under a different name, choosing rather to say man that he has a handsome face, or a handsome per. son,—“Sir, he is the handsomest man in all England.” Yet this word handsome, in Shakespeare's time, had rarely any other meaning than suitable, dexterous, clever; and therefore le, and all his contemporaries, spoke of the good looks of a man under the name of beauty.
With these hints of explanation I proceed.
STANZAS I to XXVI.
TO HIS FRIEND, PERSUADING HIM TO MARRY.
The arguments used, to this effect, entirely occupy the first sixteen stanzas; then, from stanza 17th to 25th, with the same arguments still introduced, the poet resolves, in case his friend will not consent to perpetuate the beauty of his youth in his offspring, to make