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surdity. Tyrwhitt, putting together the initials w. H. in the Dedication to the Sonnets, and the toilowing line of the xxth So'nnet, given thus in the original edition,
“ A man in hew all Hews in his controlling” 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,
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 :
“ Return now, 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 D. 60.
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.79 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.80 While, therefore, 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 cxich, 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!
79 « Dost thou think the poets, who every one of 'em celebrate the praises of some lady or other, had all real mistresses ?...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 ground-work 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. ed. 1749.
80 Meres calls them “ his sugred Sonnets among his pricute friends :" see p. xlviii.
About the excellence of these Sonnets, slightly disfigured as they are by conceits and quibbles, 81 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 82 poured forth,—so severe, and so inajestic.
Among the minor poems in the present volume, A Lover's Complaint stands pre-eminent in beauty. We recognize but little of Shakespeare's genius in The Miscellany entitled The Pussionate 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.
81 What Robert Gould, in The Play House, A Satire, (Works ii. 245. ed. 1709), says of our author's dramas, applies also to his poenis ; “And Shakespeare play'd with words, to please a quibbling
age.” 82 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
CHRONOLOGICAL LIST OF SHAKESPEARE's
1590 1591 1591 1591 1592 1592 1593 1593 1594 1596 1596 1597 1597 1598 1598 1598 1599 1599 1600 1600 1601 1601
P. XXX. • See Collier's Hist. of English Dram. Poet. i. 327.
Troilus and Cressida..
3 I agree with Malone in thinking that the passage of Othello (act iii. sc. iv.),
“ the hearts of old gave hands, But our new heraldry is hands, not hearts," does not contain the slightest allusion to the institution of the order of Baronets in 1611 : see his Life of Shakespeare, p. 402. (Shak. by Boswell, ii.)