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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

IX. Shakespeare: Poems

§ 1. Dates of Composition and First Editions

INTRICATE as are the complications which have been introduced into the study of Shakespeare’s plays by attempts to use them as supplements to the missing biography, they are as nothing to those which concern the nondramatic poems, especially the Sonnets. The main facts, with which we shall begin, are by no means enigmatical; and, save in regard to the small fringe or appendix of minor pieces—A Lover’s Complaint, and the rest—there can be no doubt of their authenticity, except in the minds of persons who have made up their minds that, as Shakespeare cannot possibly have written Shakespeare’s works, somebody else must have done so. Something has been said in the preceding chapter concerning these poems, in connection with what is known of the general course of Shakespeare’s life, and with the plays; but it seems expedient to treat them also, and more fully, by themselves.

Venus and Adonis, the earliest published, was licensed on 18 April, 1593, and appeared shortly afterwards with a fully signed dedication by the author to the earl of Southampton, in which he describes the poem as “the first heire of my invention.” It was followed a year later by Lucrece, again dedicated to Southampton. Both poems were very popular, and were praised (sometimes with the author’s name mentioned) by contemporaries. Four years later, again, the invaluable Meres referred, in the famous passage about the plays, to their author’s “sugared sonnets among his private friends” as well as to Venus and Lucrece; and, a year later still, in 1599, Jaggard the printer included two of these sonnets, numbers 138 and 144, in The Passionate Pilgrim. The whole was not published till ten years later, in 1609, by Thomas Thorpe, with Shakespeare’s speare’s full name, but without any dedication or other sign of recognition from him. The circumstances make it quite clear that Shakespeare did not wish to undertake any ostentatious responsibility for the publication; but it is, perhaps, rather rash to assume that this publication was carried out against his will or even without his privity. There is no evidence on either point; and the probabilities must be estimated according to each man’s standard of the probable. What is certain is that he never repudiated them.

Thorpe subjoined to them A Lover’s Complaint, about which we know nothing more. But, in The Passionate Pilgrim, Jaggard had not merely included the two sonnets referred to, but had assigned the whole of the poems, of which three others were actually taken from Love’s Labour’s Lost, to “W. Shakespeare.” Others had already appeared under the names of Marlowe, Ralegh, Barnfield, Griffin and others. Nine have no further identification. It appears that, in this instance, Shakespeare did protest; at any rate, the dramatist Thomas Heywood, from whom Jaggard, in a later edition, “lifted” two more poems to add to the original twenty, says that Shakespeare was “much offended”—a little piece of evidence of a wide ranging effect, both positive and negative, which, perhaps, has never been quite fully appreciated.

Some of the adespota are quite worthy of Shakespeare; and his “offence” would, of course, be quite sufficiently explained by the imputation to him of plagiarism from such men as the living Ralegh, and the dead Marlowe. Lastly, there exists a rather obscure, very curious and, in parts, extremely beautiful, poem called The Phoenix and the Turtle, which, in 1601, was added to Robert Chester’s Love’s Martyr, as a contribution by Shakespeare: Jonson, Chapman, “Ignoto” and others contributing likewise. This was reprinted ten years later, and we hear of no protests on the part of any of the supposed contributors, though, whatever Shakespeare might be, neither Jonson nor Chapman could be described as “gentle” or likely to take a liberty gently. We may take it, then, that, as regards the two classical pieces, the Sonnets, A Lover’s Complaint and The Phoenix and the Turtle, we have at least the ordinary amount of testimony to genuineness, and, in the case of the first three, rather more than this; while some of The Passionate Pilgrim pieces are certainly genuine, and more may be. Sonnets to Sundry Notes of Music, it should, perhaps, be mentioned, though they often are separately entered in the contents of editions, merely form a division, with sub-title, of The Passionate Pilgrim.