Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 5. Biographical aspects of the Sonnets

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

VIII. Shakespeare: Life and Plays

§ 5. Biographical aspects of the Sonnets

It may, however, be fully admitted that the Sonnets stand in a very different category from that of the plays. Not only does the poet of this kind speak ex professo from his heart, while the dramatist speaks ex professo as an outside observer and “representer,” but there is no poetry of this kind which approaches Shakespeare’s Sonnets in apparent vehemence and intensity of feeling. There is even hardly any which mingles, with the expression of that feeling, so many concrete hints, suggesting so broadly a whole romance of personal experience, as they do. How are we to take all this?

One of the best known things in Shakespearean study—even to those who have hardly dabbled in it—is that one of the ways in which it has been taken is an endless series of earnest and almost frantic attempts to reconstruct this romance as a history. The personality of the Mr. W. H. to whom the complete edition of 1609 is dedicated, though perhaps the chief, is but one, of the points of dispute. The reality and identity of the fair young man and the dark lady who are by turns or together concerned in the Sonnets themselves come next, and with some enquirers, first; while the incidents and sentiments, expressed, implied, commemorated, in them, have occupied a not small library of discussion, appreciation, attack, defence and so forth.

The extravagance of much of this has always been perceptible to impartial observers; and, perhaps the extravagance of most of it—except the particular theory to which they are themselves inclined—has been clear enough even to the theorists themselves. Sometimes—and of late with especial learning and elaboration by Sidney Lee—a sort of general caveat has been entered on the ground of the peculiarly traditional and conventional character of sonnet writing, especially at this particular time. Sometimes, all attempts to interpret have been shaken off, angrily, contemptuously or critically, according to temperament. And it may be suspected that some people who would confess it, and more who would not, have always inclined to Hallam’s curious but courageous wish that Shakespeare “had never written them.”

But he did write them—there is hardly a thing of his as to the authorship of which—what with Meres’s early ascription, the publication with his name seven years before his death and the entire absence of denial, counter-claim, or challenge of any kind—we can be so certain. And, probably, there is no lover of poetry as poetry who would not wish that anything else “had never been written,” so that these might be saved. But, undoubtedly, the mean is very hard to hit in the interpretation of these poems. Although it is quite certain that the sonnet tradition, starting from Petrarch and continued through generations of Italian, French and English practitioners, had resulted in a vast and complicated “common form” of expression—a huge mass of publica materies of which the individual builder took his store, sometimes directly from other individuals, sometimes indirectly—it is possible to lay too much stress on this. After all, even if the sonnet thoughts and phrases were as stereotyped as the figures of a pack of cards—and they were not quite this—there is infinite shuffling possible with a pack of cards, infinite varieties of general game and still more of personal play, above all, infinite varieties of purpose and stake. You may play “for love” in one sense or “for love” in another and a very different one. You may play for trifles or for your last penny—to show your skill, or merely to win, or to pass the time, or from many other motives. That Shakespeare was the Deschapelles or Clay of sonnet whist is pretty certain. But that he did not play merely for pastime is almost more so to any one who takes the advice of Sidney’s “Look in thy heart” and applies it to reading, not writing.

The Sonnets, then, are great poetry, that is to say, in a certain sense, great fiction; and they are intense expressions of feeling, that is to say, in another certain sense, great facts. But to what extent and degree are this fiction and this fact dosed and proportioned? How are we to separate them? How do they colour and react upon one another? Here, no doubt, is the rub—and it is a rub which it seems to the present writer impossible to remove or lubricate. Once more, to those who have accustomed themselves really to weigh evidence, it is impossible to accept it either as proved or disproved that “Mr. W. H.” was Pembroke, or Southampton, or any other friend-patron of Shakespeare, or merely somebody concerned with the publication, or, in fact a “personage” of any kind in this play. Nor is it possible to extricate, from the obscurity in which, to all appearance designedly, they were involved, either the other dramatis personae or even, save to the vaguest extent, the scenario itself. Friendship and love—bene velle and amare—exchange parts, combine, divorce, sublimate or materialise themselves and each other in too Protean a fashion to be caught and fixed in any form. The least unreasonable of all the extravagant exegeses would be that the whole is a phantasmagoria of love itself, of all its possible transformations, exaltations, agonies, degradations, victories, defeats. The most reasonable explanation, perhaps, and certainly not the least Shakespearean, is that it is partly this—but partly, also, in degree impossible to isolate, a record of actual experience. And it is not unimportant to observe that the Sonnets, a lock in themselves, become a key (Dryden would have recognised the catachresis) to the plays. How far they reveal Shakespeare’s facts may be doubtful; his method of treating fact, his own or others, is clear in them.