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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

§ 6. Futility of attempts to find biographical details in them

All these things are quite unmistakable. That the friend was a “person of quality” is generally admitted, and need not be much cavilled at, though it must be observed that the words “so fair a house,” in sonnet 13, do not necessarily bear the meaning of “family.” But everything beyond is matter of doubt and question; while the very points just enumerated, though unmistakable in themselves, suggest doubt and question, to those who choose to entertain them, almost ad infinitum. Who was the friend? Pembroke, Southampton, or another? Who was the lady? Mistress Mary Fitton (who seems to have been a love of Pembroke, but who, they say, was fair, not dark) or somebody else? Who was the rival poet? When the list of uncertain certainties is overstepped, and men begin to construct out of the Sonnets a history of the course of untrue love in both cases, and endeavour to extend this history into something like a cipher chronicle of a great part of Shakespeare’s life, we have, obviously, passed into cloudland. There is no limit to the interpretations possible to a tolerably lively fancy; and the limitless becomes more infinitely unlimited in respect to the criticisms and countercriticisms of these interpretations themselves.

On the other hand, it is possible to lay rather too much stress on the possibility of there being no interpretation at all or very little, of the Sonnets being merely, or mainly, literary exercises. It is, of course, perfectly true that the form, at this time, was an extremely fashionable exercise; and, no doubt, in some cases, a fashionable exercise merely. It is further true that, great as are the poetical merits and capacities of the sonnet, historically it has been, and from its nature was almost fated to be, more the prey of “common form” than almost any other variety of poetic composition. The overpowering authority of Petrarch started this common form; and his Italian and French successors, enlarging it to a certain extent, stereotyped and conventionalised it even still more. It is perfectly possible to show, and has been well shown by Sidney Lee, that a great number, perhaps the majority, of sonnet phrases, sonnet thoughts, sonnet ornaments, are simply coin of the sonnet realm, which has passed from hand to hand through Italian, French and English, and circulates in the actual Elizabethan sonnet like actual coin in the body politic or like blood in the body physical. All this is true. But it must be remembered that all poetry deals more or less in this common form, this common coin, this circulating fluid of idea and image and phrase, and that it is the very ethos, nay, the very essence, of the poet to make the common as if it were not common. That Shakespeare does so here again and again, in whole sonnets, in passages, in lines, in separate phrases, there is a tolerable agreement of the competent. But we may, without rashness, go a little further even than this. That Shakespeare had, as, perhaps, no other man has had, the dramatic faculty, the faculty of projecting from himself things and persons which were not himself, will certainly not be denied here. But whether he could create and keep up such a presentation of apparently authentic and personal passion as exhibits itself in these Sonnets is a much more difficult question to answer in the affirmative. The present writer is inclined to echo seriously a light remark of one of Thackeray’s characters on a different matter: “Don’t think he could do it. Don’t think anyone could do it.”