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The greater portion of Shakespeare's Sonnets is addressed to a male object; and the kind of exaggerated friendship which some of them profess, can only surprise a reader who is unacquainted with the manners of those days. It was then not uncommon for one man to write verses to another in a strain of such tender affection, as fully warrants our terming them amatory;
100 “Abraham Fraunce,” says Warton," in 1591 translated Virgil's Alexis into English hexameters, verse for verse,which he calls The lamentation of Corydon for the love of Alexis. It must be owned, that the selection of this particular Eclogue from all the ten for an English version, is somewhat extraordinary. But in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, I could point out whole sets of sonnets written with this sort of attachment, for which, perhaps, it will be but an inadequate apology, that they are free from direct impurity of expression and open immodesty of sentiment. Such at least is our observance of external propriety, and so strong the principles of a general decorum, that a writer of the present age who was to print love-verses in this style, would be severely reproached, and universally proscribed. I will instance only in the AFFECTIONATE SHEPHERD of Richard Barnefielde, printed in 1595. There, through the course of twenty sonnets, not inelegant, and which were exceedingly popular, the poet bewails his unsuccessful love for a beautiful youth, by the name of Ganimede, in a strain of the most tender pas. sion, yet with professions of the chastest affection. Many descriptions and incidents which have a like complexion, may be found in the futile novels of Lodge and Lilly." Hist. of English Poetry, iii. 405.
In an address “ To the curteous Gentlemen Readers ” prefixed to Barnefielde's Cynthia, with Certaine Sonnets, &c, 1595, he speaks thus of his former production, noticed in the preceding remarks of Warton: “Some there were that
and even in the epistolary correspondence between two grave and elderly gentlemen, friendship used frequently to borrow the language of love.
Who was the object in question, the commentators of Shakespeare have unsuccessfully laboured to discover; of their various conjectures on this point, I shall only mention two; the one remarkable for its ingenuity, the other for its absurdity. Tyrwhitt, putting together the initials W. H. in the Dedication to the Sonnets, and the following line of the xxh Sonnet, given thus in the original edition,
“A man in hew all Hews in his controlling"
did interpret the Affectionate Shepherd, otherwise then (in truth) I meant, touching the subject thereof, to wit, the love of a Shepherd to a boy; a fault, the which I will not excuse, because I never made. Only this, I will unshaddow my conceit: being nothing else but an imitation of Virgill in the second Eglogue of Alexis.” I may add, that at a considerably later period, Phineas Fletcher (one of the purest of poetical spirits) in his first Piscatory Eclogue, introduces Thelgon lamenting the inconstancy of Amyntas; and that in a short copy of verses “ To Master W. C.” by the same writer, is the following stanza:
Willy; now at length return thee:
Whom fair Alexis griev'd with his unjust disdaining." See his Piscatorie Eclogs, and other Poeticall Miscellanies, (appended to The Purple Island,) 1633, p. 1, and p. 60.
“ Return now,
imagined that the mysterious personage was a W. Hughes; while George Chalmers, as if to show that there are no bounds to the folly of a critic, maintained that Queen Elizabeth was typified by the poet's masculine friend !
Perhaps, after all, what Lord Byron says of Junius, is true concerning the object to whom the Sonnets are principally addressed ;
“I've an hypothesis,—'tis quite my own,
'Tis, that what Junius we are wont to call,
Was really, truly, nobody at all;" perhaps Shakespeare's “lovely youth” was merely the creature of imagination, and had no more existence than those fair ones, whom various writers have so perseveringly wooed in verse.101 I have long felt convinced, after repeated perusals of the Sonnets, that the greater number of them was composed in an assumed character, on different subjects, and at different times, for the amusement, and probably at the suggestion, of the author's intimate associates.102 While, there
101 “ Dost thou think the poets, who every one of 'em celebrate the praises of some lady or other, had all real mis. tresses ?... No, no, never think it; for I dare assure thee, the greatest part of 'em were nothing but the mere imaginations of the poets, for a groundwork to exercise their wits upon, and give to the world occasion to look on the authors as men of an amorous and gallant disposition." Don Quixote (translated by several hands) i. 225, edition 1749.
102 Meres calls them “his sugred Sonnets among his private friends :" see p. xlviii.
fore, I contend that allusions scattered through these pieces should not be hastily referred to the personal circumstances of Shakespeare, I am willing to grant that one or two Sonnets have an individual application to the poet, as for instance, the cxth and the cxih, in which he expresses his sense of the degradation that accompanies the profession of the stage. Augustus Schlegel is of opinion, that sufficient use has not been made of them, as important materials for Shakespeare's biography ; but, even if we regard them all as transcripts of his genuine feelings, what a feeble and uncertain light would they throw on the history of his life!
About the excellence of these Sonnets, slightly disfigured as they are by conceits and quibbles,108 there can be no dispute. Next to the dramas of Shakespeare, they are by far the most valuable of his works. They contain such a quantity of profound thought as must astonish every reflecting reader; they are adorned by splendid and delicate imagery; they are sublime, pathetic, tender, or sweetly playful; while they delight the ear by their fluency, and their varied harmonies of rhythm. Our language can boast no sonnets altogether worthy of being placed by the side of Shakespeare's, except the few which Milton 104 poured forth,—so severe, and so majestic.
108 What Robert Gould, in The Play House, A Satire, ( Works ii. 245, edition 1709,) says of our author's dramas, applies also to his poems; "And Shakespeare play'd with words, to please a quibbling
Among the minor poems in the present volume, A Lover's Complaint stands preëminent in beauty. We recognize but little of Shakespeare's genius in The Miscellany entitled The Passionate Pilgrim: it appears to have been given to the press without his consent, or even his knowledge; and how much of it proceeded from his pen, cannot be distinctly ascertained.
104 The English Sonnets that approach nearest in merit to Shakespeare's and Milton's, are undoubtedly those by the living ornament of our poetic literature, Wordsworth.