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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

§ 10. Shakespeare’s metrical mastery in the Lyric

Of the matter that he put into these forms, perhaps the first thing that ought to be remarked is that most of it certainly, and nearly all of it (except the later play songs) probably, dates from a very early period in his literary life; and the second, that the range of direct subject is not large. From this, enough having been said of the other productions, we may pass to the third observation: that in the Sonnets the absolute high water mark of poetry is touched, at least for those who believe with Patrizzi, and Hazlitt, and Hugo, that poetry does not so much consist in the selection of subject as in the peculiar fashion of handling the subject chosen. What their exact meaning may be is one question, with, as has been shown in practice, a thousand branches to it. It is a “weary river,” and, probably, there is no place where that river “comes safe to sea” at all. Whether or not we wish, with Hallam, that they had never been written must be a result of the personal equation. But that, in the Longinian sense of the Sublime, they “transport” in their finest passages as no other poetry does except the very greatest, and as not so very much other poetry does at all, may be said to be settled. If anyone is not transported by these passages, it is not impertinent to say that he must be like “the heavier domestic fowls” of Dr. Johnson’s ingenious and effective circumlocution—rather difficult to raise by external effort and ill furnished with auxiliary apparatus for the purpose.

The poems other than the Sonnets are either tentative essays or occasional “graciousnesses” for a special purpose; the Sonnets themselves have such an intensity of central fire that no human nature, not even Shakespeare’s, could keep it burning, and surround it with an envelope able to resist and yet to transmit the heat, for very long. Fortunately, experiment and faculty both found another range of exercise which was practically unlimited; fortunately, also, they did not find it without leaving us record of their prowess in this.