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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

§ 2. Dedication of the Sonnets

There is nothing, therefore, so far, in what may be called the external and bibliographical history of the work, which justifies any special diversion from the study of it as literature. But, beyond all question, there is perilous stuff of temptation away from such study in the matter of the Sonnets. And, unfortunately, Thomas Thorpe stuck a burning fuse in the live shell of this matter by prefixing some couple of dozen words of dedication: “To the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets Mr. W. H. all happiness and that eternity promised by our ever-living poet wisheth the well-wishing adventurer in setting forth T. T.” It would be rash to guess, and impossible to calculate, how many million words of comment these simple nouns and verbs have called forth. The present writer has never seen any reason to abandon what has been, on the whole, the view most generally accepted by those who have some knowledge of Elizabethan literature and language, that this may be translated “T. T., publisher of these sonnets, wishes to the sole inspirer of them, Mr. W. H., the happiness and eternity promised by Shakespeare.” Moreover, though feeling no particular curiosity about the identification of “Mr. W. H.,” he has never seen any argument fatal to that identification with William Herbert, earl of Pembroke, which has also been usual. He admits, however, the possibility that “W. H.” may be designedly inverted for “H. W.,” and that this may be Henry Wriothesly, earl of Southampton, which would bring the three great poem units into line. Nor, without attempting an impossible summary of theories and arguments on this head, must we omit to mention that there is one, commanding the support of Sidney Lee, to the effect that “Mr. W. H.”’s “begetting” had nothing whatever to do with the inspiration of the Sonnets; and that he himself was merely a sort of partner in their commercial production. And so, having solidly based the account of the poems on known facts and known facts only, let us pursue it in reference to their actual contents and literary character.