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ART. V. SHAKESPEARE'S SONNETS AND FRIENDSHIP.
SHAKESPEARE'S Sonnets; reproduced in Fac-Simile by the New Process of Photo-Zincography in Use at Her Majesty's OrdnanceSurvey Office. From the unrivalled Original in the Library of Bridgewater House, by Permission of the Right Hon. the Earl of Ellesmere. London : Lovell Reeve & Co. 1862. Square 8vo.
Of all the friendships recorded in literature not one is fitted to awaken so profound an interest in appreciative readers as that which lived between William Shakespeare, the wonderful player-poet, and the disputed Unknown addressed in his Sonnets. The mysterious obscurity that envelops the personal history of the greatest Englishman has been considered as provocative and baffling in this particular relation as on any other point. But, it seems to us, the critics have imagined a darkness and created difficulties which do not exist. A satisfactory explanation, we believe, as to whom the personage in question is, and as to the chief features of the experience associated with him in the life of the peerless poet, is not impossible to those who can deeply decipher literary symbols, and who will devote the requisite time and pains to the indirect biographic record of the facts. Before undertaking, however, the imperfect attempt of this kind which we propose here to make, a few preliminaries are necessary.
To most readers the Sonnets of Shakespeare have been a sealed and neglected book. Few even of the admiring devourers of his plays have read these surcharged and delicious compositions, transcripts from his heart, much less had any due appreciation of their breathing sincerity and other superlative merits. For a hundred and eighty years after their publication they were almost absolutely unnoticed so far as printed accounts inform us. Then began the controversy about them which has gone on to this day, and is now more rife than ever before. The first editors agreed in depreciating them to the lowest pitch, one editor asserting that they were so worthless and tedious that nothing short of an act of Parliament could compel people to read them. Little by little the unparalleled worth and beauty of their contents, aided by the
ardent praise of such authoritative judges as Schlegel, Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Lamb, have won attention. Not yet in the degree they deserve. A dozen separate editions of them in the present century, culminating in Messrs. Reeve & Co.'s curious and costly fac-simile of the original impression, testify to the interest they have awakened. But that interest, unfortunately, is more controversial or factitious than intrinsic. Even now the majority of those who, attracted by the fame • of their author, or by some other curiosity, undertake to peruse the Sonnets, having inadequate kindred experience and enthusiasm of their own, inadequate richness and fineness of spirit to give interpretative responses to the soaring and elusive hints, turn the pages listlessly, and soon close the book, and never return to it again. Only here and there an elect heart makes the volume all his own. Unlocking its secret with an inner key, and appropriating the contents, he finds in them the autobiography of a friendship as rare as any that ever breathed in flesh or was enshrined in words.
Most of the obscurities and discussions connected with these poems are the natural result of the circumstances of the case, of the lapse of time, and of the average incapacity to enter understandingly into the extraordinary experience which they set down and celebrate in verse of such transcendent value and beauty. There is nothing strange in the problem, nothing which may not easily be accounted for. The first cause of apparent mystery is the contrast between the immense curiosity as to details, felt now that Shakespeare's genius and fame saturate the world, and the relative silence and vacancy in the contemporaneous annals which have come down to us. But we must remember that those contemporaries did not anticipate the curiosity that would be felt now; moreover, that the friendship in question was a private affair of the parties, not concerning the public. It is only through the interfering enterprise of a publisher that any knowledge of it at all has reached us. Many a fervid and absorbing friendship has existed and passed away without the slightest written memorial. Shakespeare being a poet, his oppressed heart found vent in verse, and his genius gave the verse such a marvellous charm that it could not escape circulation and publicity; but that
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 not 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 SonThe 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,
"O, learn to read what silent love hath writ;
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 n 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