TIIE SONNETS OF SHAKESPEARE.* ONCE more upon the waters, the
turbid waters of Shakespearian autobiography, thick with the mud of critics. As the light
litterateur skims over them, he is now and then startled by the voice of some diver, emerging from the depths, and boasting of a pearl of magic power that will still the tumult and clear the waters for ever; but the long weeds of theory cling around him till he sinks, and the mud is muddier than before. But soft, we have only the duties of the journalist to perform, and we have no 600 pages to fill with our parables. Mr. Gerald Massey must forgive us, if we hint that his own style has affected that of our exordium ; he has himself used the dear old trope of muddy waters, and we might easily fill an article with a list of his other similes. At
the same time, we should be truly sorry to underrate his book ; it is
three times too long, and the criticisms, though often just, are enounced too mouthily ; yet still there remains matter enough to fill a good readable half-volume, whenever his works shall be col- lected in small octavos. He has taken great pains in rooting up old Court scandals ; and, what is far better, he Mustrates the Sonnets from contemporary literature with the subtle sympathy of
a poet. In his title-page he assumes the tone of a discoverer more emphatically than we like, but he is certainly a daring explorer. Before, however, we particularize his conclusions, it is our heavy duty to re-enumerate the statistics which form his only reliable premises.
In 1598 Francis Meres (the story always begins with Meres) published his Palladis Thmia, in which he says, "As the soule of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras, so the sweete wittie sonle of Ovid lives in mellifluous and hony-tongued Shakespeare, witness his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugred sonnets among his private friends." Now the two larger poems here men- tioned had been published in 1593 and 1594, dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, the later dedication being re- markable for an increase of affectionate familiarity. It is there-
fore probable that some of the " sngred sonnets" still in MS. in .1598 were addressed to Southampton. In 1599 a bookseller, excited perhaps by the passage in Meres, scraped together a few of Shakespeare's minor poems, and published them under the title
of The Passionate Pilgrim; two of them are noteworthy, viz., one (now known as Sonnet 138) in which occur these lines :— " When my love swears that she is made of truth, I do believe her, though I know she lies.
But wherefore says my love that she is young? And wherefore say not I that Lam old? . . ."
The other (Sonnet 144) begins : — "Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits de suggest me still ;
• Shatipearis Sonnets neer Before Interpreeel; his Priswe Friends IdentOect, together with a Recovered Likeness of Himself. fly Gerald blisRes. Loudon : Loug- Maul, lirOoO, arut Co. 1551.
The better angel is a man right fair, The worrier spirit a woman coloured ill.. . ."
Shakespeare therefore (if speaking seriously in his own cha- racter) had begun to call himself old, and to suspect his friend and his "black beauty," at least as early as 1599. We now hear nothing of the Sonnets for ten years.
In 1609 Thomas Thorpe published the full collection of 154 sonnets. The first 17 are addressed to a youth, exhorting him not to let his inheritance of beauty end with himself, but continue it by marriage. Of the rest many are general expressions of love, and promises of its celebration in immortal verse, apparently ad- dressed to the same youth ; others are love sonnets to a woman ; others uncertain, whether to a friend or a mistress. The "black beauty" is courted in Sonnet 127 and a few later ones, but reviled (as we have seen) in Sonnet 144 for corrupting the writer's "better angel ;" and she appears to be the "Lascivious Grace" of some earlier numbers. (See 33-35, 40-42.) The amorous diction is fre- quently so highly fantastical that one can hardly suppose it intended to be taken seriously. The series, on the other hand, expressing some jealousy of a rival poet (78-86) enters into details which smack of reality. But the personal allusions are rarely marked enough to guide us distinctly. In one instance alone do we find any strong internal evidence as to the occasion of the poem ; this is in Sonnet 107
Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul Of the wide world dreaming on things to come, Can yet the lease of my true love control, Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.
The mortal moon bath her eclipse endured, And the sad augurs mock their own presage; Incertainties now crown themselves assured, And peace proclaims olives of endless age ; Now with the drops of this most balmy time My love looks fresh, and death to me subscribes, Since spite of him I'll live in this poor rhyme, While he insults o'er dull and speechless tribes ; And thou in this shalt find thy monument, When Tyrants' crests and tombs of brass are spent."
"There can be no mistake, doubt, or misgiving here," exclaims Mr. Massey, and we agree with him, but he hardly seems aware that others have been before him. We only wonder indeed how so many critics could have passed it over with nothing but a general comment, until the Westminster Review (for July, 1857) offered the following obvious interpretation. It was almost cer- tainly addressed to Southampton, who had been left languishing in the Tower, under sentence of death, while our Royal Cynthia was on her death-bed ; the political " augurs " were then " sad" with forebodings of civil strife, but "the mortal moon" "endured her eclipse," and straightway the ill omens were falsified, and for the first time the whole island felt secure of peace ; and thus it was that the love between Shakespeare and his patron "looked fresh" again, for Southampton was released and restored to special favour. With this one exception no historical allusions have hitherto been discovered in the Sonnets. Dyes is "well nigh convinced" that most of them are mere poetical fancies. Coleridge held that the "sweet boy" was a girl in disguise, a sort of Rosalind in doublet and hose, and Chalmers maintained that it was no less a woman than Queen Elizabeth ! The scantiness of the internal evidence is hardly supplied by the publisher's enigmatical dedication ; it is a dry bone that has cracked many a commentator's dog-tooth, yet we suppose that we must turn it over again. "TO. THE. ONLIE. BEGE'TTER. OF. I THESE. ENSVING. SONNETS. I Mn. W. H. ALL. HAPPINESSE. I AND. THAT. ETERNITIE. I PROMISED. I BY. OUR. EVER-LIVING. POET. I WISHETH. I THE. WELL-WISHING. I ADVENTURER. IN. I SETTOr. I FORTH. I T. T." "T [homas] T [horpe]" ought to be rapped up from the under world for such a riddle. Who was his "Mr. W. H.," and how was he "the onlie begetter ?" We need not discuss the claims of Will. Hart, or Will. Hughes (invented for the occasion), or William Himself, that. exquisitely German creation of Barnstorff's. If we are to take the word " begetter " in its usual sense, and suppose that the Sonnets were mostly addressed to one man, he must have been of importance enough to be Shakespeare's patron. Let us turn to the two rival favourites of the critical Ring. It would certainly seem very odd for Thorpe to call Southampton "Mr. W[riothesley] H[enry]," but it would also be odd for him to call Pembroke "Mr. W[illiam] H[erbert]." The latter was always known, in his boy- hood and youth, as Lord Herbert ; and if any concealment was desired, the one travestie might really have been almost as likely as the other. But many contend that " begetter " may here only mean getter or conveyer. All we can say is that, in that case, "W. II." may stand for the name of any rascally friend of Thorpe's who conveyed the goods into the hands of the piratical bookseller. One thing is pretty certain, that Shakespeare had nothing to do with the publication. Charles Knight long ago drew attention to the disarrangement of the Sonnets ; several of them are separated which manifestly belong to a little series ; and that they were printed from a MS. (or MSS.) in more than one handwriting is evident, from the more frequent occurrence of printer's errors in certain batches. We may reject, then, at once, the theory of Mr. Charles Armitage Brown that they form a con- tinuous autobiographical poem. Many were probably written in assumed characters, and may have been intended for friends who could not pen their own valentines. Grant White (Shakespeare's- Scholar) suggests that they were actually sold, and that this was the reason why Shakespeare did not reclaim them. He says, Shakespeare himself published his longer poems, though they are inferior to his plays and his Sonnets. Why did he leave his plays in MS.? Because they had become the property of the theatres. Why did he neglect his Sonnets? Because they, too, had ceased to be his property.
The Sonnets, then, went to the press in 1609, without any care on the part of their author, and very little on the part of their " onlie begetter." Yet had it not been for this shadowy "Mr. W. H." we should never have heard of the claims of Pembroke. What connection is known to have existed between him and Shakespeare ? None at all before 1623, when the plays were dedicated to him. But it must be remembered that he was then Lord Chamberlain, and the editors only speak of the " favour " shown by him towards Shakespeare in the same terms as they speak of the " favours " shown towards themselves. There is nowhere any hint of any private friendship between him and the poet. But his private initials were "W. H. ;" he was handsome, amorous, fond of learning and astrology, a patron of the poet Daniel, and a poetaster himself ; and these data were enough to set the critics going. They searched the Sydney Papers, where Rowland Whyte's letters often contain news of him as "Lord Harbert," and they discovered that in 1599 his friends were try- ing to entice him into a match for which he showed " noe in- clination." And this is literally all. He probably frequented the theatres, but Whyte never mentions it ; whereas of two other Earls he does say that they "pass away the tytne in Londozi merely in going to plaies every day." (Vol. II., p. 132.) One of these play-going Earls was Southampton. We need not insist, upon the tradition that Southampton gave Shakespeare 1,000/., their intimate acquaintance is sufficiently evidenced by the " love " professed in the dedication of Lucrece. This dedication closely resembles the twenty-sixth sonnet ; and when there and else- where we find Shakespeare addressing a noble patron we natu- rally think of Southampton, for we know of no other. The objections urged against him are three :-1. That he was not an Adonis in his youth ; but this is a mere assertion. 2. That there were only nine years between his age and that of Shakespeare ; but only think, nine years of Shakespeare's life ! They might well make the dramatist regard the young courtier as a boy. 3. That no allusion is made to martial exploits ; but if, as we believe, the Sonnets mainly belong to the period of Venus and Adonis, any such allusions would have been prophetic, for Southampton's exploits did not commence till 1596. These three objections are but so many gnats, compared with one (a very camel) which is quietly swallowed by the supporters of Pembroke. Having fixed upon the date of 1599, they put Mena aside, and assert that the first batch of " sugred sonnets" must have utterly perished, and that only those subsequent to 1598 have been preserved. We will offer them, by the way, one little fancy of our own. The sonnets in favour of matrimony are formed on the model of certain speeches in Sir P. Sidney's Arcadia. Now, "Sidney's sister," to whom the romance was dedicated, was also "Pembroke's mother ;" and the old arguments and similes might be gracefully
repeated by a client of her son's. But we hold, with Mr. Massey, that this imitation is only another proof of the poet's youth ; and that the passages probably occurred to Shakespeare whilst his
head was still full of the Arcadia, that is, soon after 1590. Again,
in the twenty-sixth sonnet (beginning, "Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit,") the poet declares that he cannot dare to make any public boast of his " love " until he has shown himself worthy of doing so. Does not this modesty remind one of Shakespeare's two dedications,
and account for the omission of " love " in the first and its in- sertion in the second? If so, his intimacy with Southampton may have ripened before 1593. However, we do not pledge our- selves to back Southampton against all corners; we only maintain that he still keeps the field, in default of a better champion. In like manner, we ask who is the "better spirit" of sonnets 78-86 ?
Shakespeare there contrasts the rival muses, calling his own "a
saucy bark," and the other "one of tall building and of goodly pride." He confesses that his thoughts have died within his
brain, without coming to the birth ; but he declares that this is all owing to the change of favour shown by his patron, and not to any dread of his rival's unearthly power of speech, heightened, though it be, by all the spirits of Night, and notably by one familiar spirit.
"Was it the proud full sail of his great verse, Bound for the prize of all too precious you, That did my ripe thoughts in my brain inhearse, Making their tomb the womb wherein they grew ? Was it his spirit, by spirits taught to write Above a mortal pitch, that struck me dead? No, neither he, nor his compeers by night Giving him aid, my verse astonished!
He, nor that affable familiar ghost Which nightly gulls him with intelligence, As victors of my silence cannot boast ; I was not sick of any fear from thence; But when your countenance filed up hs line,
Then lacked I matter : that enfeebled mine."—(86.)
Surely it would be idle to, call such a sonnet a mere "poetical exercise." Some one great rival is distinctly pointed at, and who should it be but the only great rival of Shakespeare? It will not
suit some theories to own that it may be Marlow, for he was killed in a brawl on the 1st of June, 1593. But " Marlow's mighty line" is here admirably characterized, and Marlow himself stands before us in the character of Faustus, aided by hisfamiliar, Mephistophiles. Mr. Massey is an eager advocate of the claims of Southampton
and Marlow, and he often injures his side by his over eagerness. We are inclined to admit his general conclusions on these points, but we cannot follow him any further. He makes an interesting chapter out of the life of Southampton, and his long courtship of Essex's "poor cousin," Elizabeth Vernon, and the disfavour which he endured for her sake, but the attempt to connect the lady with
the Sonnets is simply a failure.
And now we begin to smell carrion. Mr. Massey will say that we "lift the vulturine nose" without any "misgivings that the
scent may be carried in" our "own nostrils." In plain words, there are about a dozen sonnets that make us feel uncomfortable, until we wish, like Hallam, that they "had never been written." It is a sad chapter of Confessions, and it seems to have affected the style as well as the feelings of the grave author of Annals of the Stage, when he lamented that "if we are to believe [Shakes- peare] himself, although a married man with a wife and family at Stratford [a/ Stratford, horrible aggravation!] he was not im- maculate." (VoL L, p. 331.) Mr. Collier had just before (p. 330) been touching the Sonnets, and had discovered that Shakespeare "was at one time in love with a female who was not very chary of her repntation." If the annalist had not been too much shocked to search the Sonnets any further, he might have counted
this but a small thing. He might (perhaps) have detected the bard bending over his frail young friend and his frailer mistress, and blessing them with the unction of a sentimental hedge-priest, saying,—
" Loving offenders, thus I will excuse ye ;
Thou dost love her, because thou knowest I love her, And for my sake even so doth she abuse me, Suffering my friend for my sake to approve her.
But here's the joy ; my friend and I are one ; Sweet flattery ! then she loves but me alone."—(42.)
And do we really believe that Shakespeare thus played the pimp to his own dishonour? Not a bit of it. But we are afraid that
he did conceive this dramatic situation. It reminds one of the astounding generosity of Valentine, when, in the very presence of his trusting true-love, he waives her over to his shabby friend, Proteus, with this flourish, "All that is mine in Sylvia I give thee" (Two Gentlemen of ,Verona, Act v., s. 4). Valentine's attitude is mere stage clap-trap ; the situation in the Sonnets is worse, because it is coarser. It is bad enough for a French novel, and we sympathize with the excitement of Mr. Massey, whom it has stirred (we suspect) into delivering this bulky volume. Most seriously we do sympathize with his indignation against the "per-
sonal theory," but we admire his good intentions more than his
judgment. For how does he explain the offence away ? He denies that, in nine sonnets, the speaker is any man at all. He imagines that it may have been Elizabeth Vernon. She has felt jealousy of the "black beauty" (of sonnet 144), and she has com- missioned Shakespeare to record it. Now, we allow that a few passages do, somehow, sound less offensive, if from the mouth of a jealous woman, but we cannot allow that Mr. Massey has a right to alter "my seat" (41) into "my sweet," merely to
accommodate his innocent fancies. But he does not stop here.
When the jealousy of Elizabeth Vernon has been finally appeased by Southampton's marrying her in 1598, the "black beauty" is
handed over to Pembroke, and he in his turn commissions Shakespeare to beset her with sonnets. The dramatist was now on the full tide of prosperity ; he was about thirty-five, too, quite old enough "to know what conscience is," and yet to what sort of amour did he pander, according to his cruel
apologist? To no honest love affair, to no pretty flirtation, but to a downright intrigue between a noble stripling and a married
woman of thirty-six ! For the "black beauty" is proved to be no less than the elder sister of Essex, Penelope, Lady Rich.
Mountjoy indeed was her acknowledged cavalier ; he had loved her as a maid, he loved her as the unwilling wife of another; when he became Lord Deputy of Ireland, amidst all the cares and glories of a most active life, he loved her still ; and finally, when
she was divorced for his sake, he ruined himself for hers. Three months after their marriage he died in disgrace, and she soon followed him. But now, forsooth, she was only his mistress, left to her stupid husband from time to time, and free (if may be con- jectured) to sport with her lover's young friends! Yet no, after all, it will not do. The lover of the "woman coloured ill" may have been anybody or nobody, (probably the latter), but the woman herself cannot have been Lady Rich. She had black eyes, we know, they were sung of in her youth, for she was the Stella of
Sir P. Sidney ; but by the same authority we also know that she had golden hair. Now Sonnet 130 (directed against the false imagery of poetasters) begins thus :-
"My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun ; Coral is far more red than her lips' red ;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are chin; If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head."
Mr. Massey is a clever man, but he has wasted his ingenuity in
trying to prove black to be gold. He heads one page (p. 217), "A Woman's Special Pleading ;" we are afraid that something similar would not be a bad title for the work itself. Still there is some of the real fervour of the poet about him, and if, when we reached his 600th page, we gave a sigh of relief, it was by no means unmixed with pleasure and sympathy.