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believed that he, a literary man, was mistaken in speaking of poems, which were circulated in manuscript, as Shakespeare's, among his private friends.
Secondly, it will be necessary to bring forward contemporaneous evidence in opposition to that of Meres, which has not hitherto been discovered.
Thirdly, internal evidence, on which we solely rely for the authenticity of his several works, must here be kept aloof from the argument. There is not one of his dramas, not even Lear, which may not be doubted as belonging to him, laying aside its internal evidence; the same which guides our judgment on the truth, falsehood, or error, of his printers and editors. Such must inevitably be the fate, when coexisting witnesses are no more, of all works, unless edited by the author himself, or irrefragably acknowledged by him.
In regard to the Sonnets, every thing short of internal evidence is but a feather in the scale.
It is true I shall have occasion to notice the inferiority of some of these sonnets, compared with the poetry of Shakespeare's plays. Dramatic, and other kinds of poetry, are so distinct, that they are never found worthy of equal praise in the same writer ; and, therefore, our judgment ought not to be influenced by the comparative inferiority of one. I proceed, it will be seen that many of the Sonnets, chiefly those of a later date, belong to the highest species of poetry in their kind; owing, as I conjecture, to the habit he had acquired of writing on a subject perfectly undramatic, and to his own good sense in no longer yielding to the fashion of the day.
If we read the poems of his contemporaries,-not dramatists,—the superiority of the best of these will be instantly acknowledged, to anything which they produced. Let them be compared to Spenser's Sonnets; and Spenser himself will be poor indeed. Should their authenticity be absolutely disproved, where shall we find the extraordinary other poet who had written them? The worst among them, deformed as they are by forced and intricately-woven thoughts, have lines most worthy of Shakespeare.
Without at present laying any stress on the frequent occurrence of law phrases, already brought forward, which is observable in all his works, and in no other author's, I would ask, how are we to account for the very great number of parallel passages found in these Sonnets and his plays ? They would rather impede and distract, than serve my present purpose; though, on a fitter occasion than the explanation of their meaning, I shall mark them severally. Now I shall confine myself to two or three only in elucidation.
Again, the author was not only a great poet, but also an actor, as may be seen in the 110th and following sonnets. Who but Shakespeare could it have been ?
In conclusion, I appeal to the good feeling expressed throughout, in accordance with all that Shakespeare has written, all that has come down to us respecting him, and all that we can desire to imagine of him. This good feeling has not been understood; it will be my fault if I do not make it evident in my explanation.
The first difficulty, and to that, strangely enough, research has been chiefly confined, is the discovery of who was “ Mr. W. H.” Thorpe, their first publisher, inscribed them" To the only begetter of these ensuing Sonnets, Mr. W. H."
An opinion has been broached that these initials ought to be reversed, because then W. H. would be H. W., and stand for Henry Wriothesly, Earl of Southampton. Dr. Drake was decidedly of this opinion, and backed it by observing the coincidence of expression between the 26th Sonnet and the dedication of the Rape of Lucrece to that nobleman. This is very true and very reasonable, except the reversing of the initials, which may not be perfectly satisfactory to a straightforward understanding. Besides, the title “ Mr.” never could belong to an Earl.
But some of Dr. Drake's predecessors were wild in the extreme. When Gildon republished the Sonnets, he specified, in the title-page, that they were “all of them in praise of his mistress.” Dr. Sewell followed with a similar assertion. Stevens gave his edition,
but refrained from hazarding an observation. At last Malone rightly declared that one hundred and twentysix of them were addressed to a young man. Tyrwhit pointed out a line,
“A man in hue all hues in his controlling,” from which it was for awhile inferred that the initials W. H. stood for William Hughes. Dr. Farmer supposed them to be addressed to William Harte, the poet's nephew; but unluckily Malone proved that the nephew could not have been born at the time, or could only have been an in nt. Then came Dr. Chalmers, who contended, and pursued his contention in a second volume, that every one of them was addressed to no less a personage than Queen Elizabeth. He seriously tells us that we have merely to change, (than which nothing can be easier) “he" for she, and “him” for her, and regard every thing appertaining to a young man as the natural and undoubted property of an old woman of sixty-five, when every difficulty is removed, and every line is intelligible! Some time since we read in the newspapers of a deranged gentleman, walking about the country, and professing to be, in his own person, her most gracious majesty, queen Elizabeth ;—the notion must have been originally his, not that of Dr. Chalmers. The Rev. Mr. Dyce has not understood them; he merely favours us with an ingenious supposition.
Truth is, the commentators either neglected the Sonnets, defamed them, or otherwise misunderstood them. My brain has been, at all times, more puzzled by those gentlemen than by the subject under discussion; owing, possibly, to their minds being chiefly intent on dates, verbal researches, and excessive conjectures. Yet their patient studies, far as their limits extended, are of undoubted and great utility. I am grateful to them all, — Bishop Warburton, and one or two others, excepted; because I cannot perceive they have been of any benefit. As for Malone, though he endeavoured to cancel every obligation by bribing the sexton of Stratford church to let him whitewash or white-paint the monument and coloured effigy of Shakespeare, he has not entirely cancelled it with me.
The name of the individual to whom the Sonnets were addressed is surely a matter of minor importance, compared to the unravelling of their meaning. Were the individual, beyond the shadow of a doubt, made known, the discovery could not alter, in the slightest degree, the meaning or feeling of a single verse. Nothing would be elucidated by it. Certainty on this head, interested as we are in every person, and in everything, connected with our poet, would be, in itself, a satisfaction, a pleasure, but no farther. Still, a satisfaction or pleasure is worth seeking, and I will endeavour to find it.
From the Sonnets themselves we distinctly learn, by particular passages, and by their whole tenor, that “ W. H.” must have been very young, remarkably handsome, of high birth and fortune, and a friend of Shakespeare. His youth and beauty, not being factitious advantages, are constant themes for praise; and his birth and fortune are proved, exclusive of other evidences, expressly from the following lines in the 37th Sonnet.