Page images
PDF
EPUB

are

(civ.)—three years of loss and gain, of love, wrong, wrath,

, sorrow, repentance, forgiveness, perfected union uttered in the Sonnets. When Shakspere began to write, his friend had the untried innocence of boyhood and an unspotted fame; afterwards came the offence and the dishonour. And the loving heart practised upon itself the piteous frauds of wounded affection.

How oft have poor abused I took part
With Falsehood, only for to make the true!
How oft have I argued against my heart,
Not suffering it to know that which it knew !
And for I would not have thee what thou art,

I made myself unto myself untrue. Now he can credit no evil of the beloved, now he must believe the worst. While the world knows nothing but praise of one so dear, a private injury goes deep into the soul; when the world assails his reputation, straightway loyalty revives, and even puts a strain upon itself to hide each imperfection from view.

A painstaking student of the Sonnets, Henry Brown, was of opinion that Sbakspere intended in these poems to satirize the sonnet-writers of his time, and in particular his contemporaries, Drayton and John Davies of Hereford. Professor Minto, while accepting the series I.-CXXVI. as of serious import, regards the sonnets addressed to a woman, CXXVII.-CLII., as “exercises of skill undertaken in a spirit of wanton defiance and derision of commonplace.” Certainly if Shakspere is a satirist in I.-CXXVI., his irony is deep; the malicious smile was not noticed during

Daniel: The letter of Octavia to Marcus Antonius. Stanza v.

а

two centuries and a half. The poems are in the taste of the time; less extravagant and less full of conceits than many other Elizabethan collections, more distinguished by exquisite imagination, and all that betokens genuine feeling; they are, as far as manner goes, such sonnets as Daniel might have chosen to write if he had had the imagination and the heart of Shakspere. All that is quaint or contorted or "conceited” in them can be

6 paralleled from passages of early plays of Shakspere, such as Romeo and Juliet and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, where assuredly no satirical intention is discoverable. In the Sonnets CXXVII.-CLIV. Shakspere addresses a woman to whom it is impossible to pay the conventional homage of sonneteers : he cannot tell her that her cheeks are lilies and roses, her breast is of snow, her heart is chaste and cold as ice. Yet he loves her, and will give her tribute of verse. He praises her precisely as a woman who without beauty is clever and charming, and a coquette, would choose to be praised. True, she owns no commonplace attractions; she is no pink and white goddess; all her imperfections he sees. Yet she can fascinate by some nameless spell; she can turn the heart hot or cold. If she is not beautiful, it is because something more rare and fine takes the place of beauty. She angers her lover; he declares to her face that she is odious, and at the same moment he is at her feet.

A writer whose distinction it is to have produced the largest book upon the Sonnets, Mr. Gerald Massey, nolds that he has rescued Shakspere's memory from shame by the discovery of a secret history legible in these

[ocr errors]

poems to rightly illuminated eyes. In 1592, according to this theory, Shakspere began to address pieces in sonnet-form to his patron Southampton. Presently the

. Earl engaged the poet to write love sonnets on his behalf to Elizabeth Vernon; assuming also the feelings of Elizabeth Vernon, Shakspere wrote dramatic sonnets, as if in her person, to the Earl. The table-book containing Shakspere's autograph sonnets was given by Southampton to Pembroke, and at Pembroke's request (yet with a halfsatirical intention) was written the dark-woman series ; for Pembroke, although history knows nothing of the facts, was enamoured of Sidney's Stella, now well advanced in years, the unhappy Lady Rich. A few of the sonnets which pass for Shakspere's are really by Herbert, and he, the “Mr. W. H.” of Thorpe's dedication, is the “only begetter," that is, procurer of these pieces for the publisher. The Sonnets require rearrangement, and are grouped in an order of his own by Mr. Massey.

Mr. Massey writes with zeal; with a faith in his own opinions which finds scepticism hard to explain except on some theory of intellectual or moral obliquity; and he exhibits a wide, miscellaneous reading. The one thing Mr. Massey's elaborate theory seems to me to lack is some evidence in its support. His arguments may well remain unanswered. One hardly knows how to tug at the other end of a rope of sand.

With Wordsworth, Sir Henry Taylor, and Mr. Swinburne; with François-Victor Hugo, with Kreyssig, Ulrici, Gervinus, and Hermann Isaac ;? with Boaden, Armitage

[ocr errors]

2

1 The first hint of this theory was given by Mrs. Jameson. ? A learned and thoughtful student of the Sonnets to whom I am indebted for some valuable notes. See his Articles in Archiv für das Studium der Neueren Sprachen und Literaturen, 1878—9.

a

a fire

Brown, and Hallam; with Furnivall, Spalding, Rossetti, and Palgrave, I believe that Shakspere's Sonnets express his own feelings in his own person. To whom they were addressed is unknown. We shall never discover the name of that woman who for a season could sound, as no one else, the instrument in Shakspere's heart from the lowest note to the top of the compass. To the eyes of no diver among the wrecks of time will that curious talisman gleam. Already when Thorpe dedicated these poems to their “only begetter,” she perhaps was lost in the quickmoving life of London, to all but a few in whose memory were stirred, as by a forlorn, small wind, the grey ashes of

gone out. As to the name of Shakspere's youthful friend and patron, we conjecture on slender evidence at the best. Setting claimants aside on whose behalf the evidence is absolutely none, except that their Christian name and surname begin with W and an H, two remain whose pretensions have been supported by accomplished advocates. Drake (1817), a learned and refined writer, was the first to suggest that the friend addressed in Shakspere's Sonnets was Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, to whom Venus and Adonis was dedicated in 1593, and in the following year Lucrece, in words of strong devotion resembling those of the twenty-sixth Sonnet. B. Heywood Bright (1819) and James Boaden (1832) in. dependently arrived at the conclusion that the Mr. W. H.

[ocr errors]

1 Drake did not, as is sometimes stated, suppose that Mr. W. H. was Southampton. He took “begetter" to mean obtainer, and left Mr. W. H. unidentified. Others hold that “ W. H.” are the initials of Southampton's names reversed as a blind to the public.

[ocr errors]

of the dedication, the “ begetter or inspirer of the Sonnets, was William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, to whom with his brother, as two well-known patrons of the great dramatist, his fellows Heminge and Condell dedicated the First Folio. Wriothesley was born in 1573, nine years after Shakspere; Herbert in 1580. Wriothesley at an early age became the lover of Elizabeth Vernon, needing therefore no entreaties to marry (1.-XVII.); he was not beautiful; he bore no resemblance to his mother (III. 9); his life was active, with varying fortunes, to which allusions might be looked for in the Sonnets, such as may be found in the verses of his other poet, Daniel. Further, it appears from the punning Sonnets (cxxxv. and CXLIII., see Notes), that the Christian name of Shakspere's friend was the same as his own, Will, but Wriothesley's name was Henry. To Herbert the punning Sonnets and the “ Mr. W. H.” of the dedication can be made to apply. He was indeed a nobleman in 1609, but a nobleman might be styled Mr.; Lord Buckhurst is entered as M. Sackville in England's Parnassus (Minto); or the Mr. may have been meant to disguise the truth. Herbert was beautiful; was like his illustrious mother; was brilliant,

. accomplished, licentious; “the most universally beloved and esteemed,” says Clarendon, “ of any man of his age.” Like Southampton, he was a patron of poets, and he loved the theatre. In 1599 attempts were unsuccessfully made to induce him to become a suitor for the hand of the Lord Admiral's daughter. So far the balance leans towards Herbert. But his father lived until 1601 (see XIII, and Notes); Southampton's father died while his son was a boy; and the date of Herbert's birth (1580), taken in

a

« PreviousContinue »