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there should be accounts of the friendship, and who the friend was, in other printed and preserved sources, is surely more than we have a right to expect. Unquestionably his associates and the literary circle of the day knew perfectly well the facts which so much perplex us. Therefore they had no motive to debate them. Whatever interest they felt in the subject escaped in conversation. So far, then, there is no mystery.
But another and more important cause or element of apparent mystery is this. The Sonnets seem to be concerned with friendship, and to be written to a man, yet they use the language and show the signs belonging to the most rapt and enthusiastic love lavished on a woman. This phenomenon has led to a great deal of bewilderment and controversy. One critic, Chalmers, has affirmed that these poems are adulatory exercises secretly addressed in reality to Queen Elizabeth! The utter absurdity of the thought must be transparent to every one who reads them with a modicum of common sense. To illustrate its ludicrous incongruity would be only a waste of time. Several others among them, in a moment of aberration, even the great Coleridge — have maintained the theory that they were written to some mistress by whom the author was held in thrall, written as genuine expressions of his soul in actual passages of experience. Coleridge avows his belief that such expressions could only have proceeded from one who was deeply in love with a woman, and that the appearances to the contrary were put on as a purposed blind. Every unbiased reader will agree with Hallam that the opinion is absolutely untenable. Shakespeare did not write these pieces for the press, but for the private expression of his feelings to the person addressed in them.
He did not prepare them for publication nor consent to their publication. What occasion, then, for a blind ? What purpose could it serve? The supposition is simply absurd. The critics have been led into it by a needless difficulty. It appears incredible to them, that a man should thus love a man; that friendship should thus overspread the domain and absorb the treasures of love. Yet such, though rarely, is sometimes the fact. They forget that the emotional measure of an ordinary earthling is wholly
inapplicable to a soul of the divinest depth and fervor. Eminent instances have been known in which as much ethereal sentiment, warm sensibility, and glowing action of the imaginative faculties, entered into friendship between men as are wont to enter into the most passionate love between the sexes. Some minds breathe in their native air at a height where others can only gasp. The dullest motion of an inspired genius would be the ecstasy of a clodhopper. The thought and feeling given to a passing acquaintance by a Shakespeare would make the fullest friendship of a commentator look poor and pale. No fact of the sort can be more certain, as on none is there greater unanimity of opinion among intelligent students of the subject, than the fact that nine tenths of these Sonnets were written to a man.
They profess and purport throughout to be written to a man; and there is nothing in them — with the exception of a few which are ostensibly and confessedly directed to a woman — inconsistent with the profession. It should be borne in mind that a much more warm and affectionate usage of words was common then than now. Love and lover were frequently synonymes of friendship and friend. This is seen throughout the plays of Shakespeare himself. Even the heavy Ben Jonson dedicates his eulogistic lines, “ To the memory of my beloved, the author Mr. William Shakespeare." He also protested, “I do love his memory, this side idolatry, as much as any.” Furthermore, we must remember, when a fit object is presented, love is proportioned to the endowments of the lover. A poor soul loves poorly, a rich soul richly. And in conjoined affection and poetic ideality Shakespeare was the most sensitively and wealthily furnished of all the souls whereof there is any secular record among men. When love for a commensurate object enters a soul like this, setting all its riches in motion and pouring them through a literary outlet, we should naturally look for an unparalleled product. When a Shakespeare forms a consummate friendship with one of the most beautiful and generous of the sons of humanity, and embodies the living history of it from day to day in fervid Sonnets, we ought to expect results as much more rich, delicate, and wondrous in their aromatic wealth and warmth
than those commonly exhibited in such relations, as the spiritual treasures he has wherewith to construct, refine, and ornament the idea of a friend surpass those of common natures. Such we find to be actually the case. Hallam says: “No instance has been adduced of such rapturous devotedness, such an idolatry of admiring love, as one of the greatest beings whom nature ever produced in the human form pours forth to some unknown youth in the majority of these Sonnets. The attachment is of such an enthusiastic character, and so extravagant in the phrases that the author uses, as to have thrown an unaccountable mystery over the whole work.” The only mystery we can perceive is that which arises naturally from the surpassing riches and tenderness of the loving soul, and the surpassing graces of the beloved object. As much as these go beyond the endowments usually seen among men, so much ought we to anticipate that the workings they effect would transcend those shown in the routine of ordinary friendships. And that is precisely what we find. From the voiceless pages the poet dumbly appeals to his torturing critics,
“0, learn to read what silent love hath writ;
To hear with eyes belongs to love's fine wit.” The wonderful revelation made herein, of mingled ardor, tenacity, delicacy, and disinterestedness of affection, is calculated to be of the highest service so far as it is appreciated. A different opinion, we know, has repeatedly been expressed. Several critics, of meagre and frigid fancy, have regretted that these poems were ever written, or ever found their way into print. That judgment has been indorsed by more than one calm and weighty name, on the ground of the supposed evilworking of such an example of romantic excess of sentiment. We cannot but think the decision a mistaken one, and hold that a true perception will pronounce the Sonnets invaluable, as well for the tendency of their influence as for their poetic merit. The real point for lamentation is not that they escaped suppression, but that they have so far failed to become popular. Let no one out of prejudice, or mere haste, deny this. For the reader who will deliberately peruse them twenty or thirty times, with avid attention, in a susceptible frame of
spirit, studying them as a lapidary studies an unrivalled gem, in different lights and at every angle, instead of rejecting our estimate as rhapsody, will become a convert to it. “They rise in estimation,” Hallam says, “as we attentively read and reflect upon them."
To those who say that this instance, like every other instance of extravagant affection, is a weakness, and must be of pernicious effect, the reply is obvious. The amazing beauty and tenderness of thought and feeling expressed in these poems are no result of weakness, but a proof of superabundant strength in the noblest attributes of human nature. The moral tone that pervades them, with hardly an exception, is pure and high ; so far from corrupting, it can only refine, inspire, and uplift the reader. There is not the least danger of their inoculating mankind with the virus of an insane friendship. The peril that besets us lies in the other direction, in coldness, contempt, and torpor. Men will not wor-, ship God less for admiring and embracing each other more. It is through reverence and affection for the visible higher that we rise into adoration of the invisible Highest. When, in the course of careless and scornful ages, one appears with a transcendent genius to idealize and love, nay, almost to deify and worship a fellow-being, so far from wishing the surprising and enchanting spectacle suppressed, we say, publish it abroad, lift it up before the ranks of impoverished and indifferent men, grovelling in sensualism or snarling at each other in selfish hate. Let them be kindled and enriched by the redeeming sight. It is just what they need.
The theory that the Sonnets of Shakespeare are a series of soliloquies, in which the poet addresses and communes with his own mind, has had numerous adherents. Shelley, thus conversing with his own genius in a fragmentary poem which has been, during the present year, exhumed from his posthumous papers, and published, says :
" If any should be curious to discover
But advocate the theory whoever may, it is nothing less than absurd when confronted with the nature and material contents of the compositions themselves, which are crowded with concrete details, objective incidents, ever-recurring descriptions and eulogies of one person, who is constantly distinguished from the writer himself, and sharply contrasted with him, and depicted in the progressive Sonnets as standing in manifold relations of superiority, benefaction, love, jealousy, injury, and reconciliation with him. There are poems of the character in question, written by their authors with sole reference to themselves ; but these are not of them. A candid perusal is enough to establish that. If any verses ever were written in earnest sincerity by one person to another person, these were. We give full credit to the serious asseveration of their author himself, when, writing to his chosen peer concerning others who praised him more extravagantly, he assures him :
" Yet when they have devised What strained touches rhetoric can lend, Thou, truly fair, were truly sympathized,
In true plain words, by thy true-telling friend.” The hypothesis also, somewhat similar, that these pieces are entirely miscellaneous and imaginative, composed by the author for his own amusement or practice, or in answer to requests, and sent as compliments to many different persons, is altogether untenable on any ground. It is probable that such poems were composed by Shakespeare. In fact, Meres, in his “ Wit's Treasury,” published in 1598, speaks of “his sugred Sonnets among his private friends.” But it is most likely, as Hallam and several other acute scholars have already argued, that Meres refers to separate and miscellaneous sonnets, circulating in manuscript, and never printed, — sonnets hopelessly lost. The collection we possess was not published till 1609, and is of a different character. Many of its pieces, so far from being sugared, are grave, bitter, and solemn enough. A thread of connection, too, runs through the largest part of them, giving them a kind of unity, and clearly fastening them to one distinctive personality. They are now meltingly tender, now profoundly meditative and mournful, now stern with VOL. LXXIII. - 5TH S. VOL. XI. NO. III.