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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

§ 8. Peculiarities of versification

To pass to more solid ground, the Sonnets have some mechanical, and many more not mechanical, peculiarities. The chief of the first class is a device of constantly, though not invariably, beginning with a strong caesura at the fourth syllable, and a tendency, though the sonnet is built up of quatrains alternately rimed with final couplet, to put a still stronger stop at the end of the second line (where, as yet, is no rime), and at each second line of these non-completed couplets throughout. The piece is thus elaborately built up or accumulated, not, as sonnets on the octave and sestet system often are, more or less continuously wrought in each of their two divisions or even throughout. This arrangement falls in excellently with the intensely meditative character of the Sonnets. The poet seems to be exploring; feeling his way in the conflict of passion and meditation. As fresh emotions and meditations present themselves, he pauses over them, sometimes entertaining them only to reject them or to qualify them later; sometimes taking them completely to himself. Even in the most artificial, such as sonnet 66, where almost the whole is composed of successive images of the wrong way of the world, each comprised in a line and each beginning with “and,” this accumulative character is noticeable; and it constitutes the strongest appeal of the greatest examples. While, at the same time, he avails himself to the full of the opportunity given by the English form for a sudden “turn”—antithetic, it may be, or, it may be, rapidly summarising—in the final couplet. Of course, these mechanical or semi-mechanical peculiarities are not universal. He varies them with the same infinite ingenuity which is shown in his blank verse; so that, as for instance in the beautiful sonnet 71, the first two quatrains are each indissoluble, woven in one piece from the first syllable to the last. But the general characteristics have been correctly enough indicated in what has been said above.

Still, the attraction of the Sonnets, almost more than that of any other poetry, consists in the perpetual subduing of everything in them—verse, thought, diction—to the requirements of absolutely perfect poetic expression. From the completest successes in which, from beginning to end, there is no weak point, such as

  • When to the sessions of sweet silent thought,
  • or
  • Let me not to the marriage of true minds,
  • through those which carry the perfection only part of the way, such as
  • When in the chronicle of wasted time,
  • down to the separate batches of lines and clauses which appear in all but a very few, the peculiar infusing and transforming power of this poetical expression is shown after a fashion which it has proved impossible to outvie. The precise subject (or, perhaps, it would be more correct to say the precise object) of the verse disappears. It ceases to be a matter of the slightest interest whether it was Mr. W. H. or Mistress M. F. or anybody or nobody at all, so that we have only an abstraction which the poet chooses to regard as concrete. The best motto for the Sonnets would be one taken from not the least profound passage of the Paradiso of Dante
  • Qui si rimira nell’ arte ch’ adorna
  • Con tanto aff etto.
  • And this admiration of the art of beautiful expression not only dispenses the reader from all the tedious, and probably vain, enquiries into particulars which have been glanced at, but positively makes him disinclined to pursue them.