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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

§ 9. Lesser Poems: A Lover’s Complaint, The Passionate Pilgrim, The Phoenix and the Turtle

The lesser poems, if only because of their doubtfulness, may be dealt with more shortly. A Lover’s Complaint, by whomsoever written, must have been an early piece, but shows good prowess in its writer. The rime royal, of which it is composed, is of the same general type as that of Lucrece, but has a few lines superior to any in the larger and more certain poem, such as the well known last

  • And new pervert a reconcilëd maid,
  • or the fine, and quite Shakespearean, second line in
  • O father! what a hell of witchcraft lies
  • In the small orb of one particular tear!
  • The jilted and betrayed damsel who is the heroine and spokeswoman has sparks of personal character. Of The Passionate Pilgrim pieces, not already known as Shakespeare’s, or assigned to others, the two Venus and Adonis sonnets might be either suggested by the authentic poem to someone else or alternative studies for a different treatment of it by Shakespeare himself; and it is hardly possible to say of any of the rest that it cannot be, or that it must be, his. There are flashes of beauty in most of them; but, considering the way in which such flashes of beauty are shot and showered over and through the poetry of 1590–1610, this goes but a little way, or, rather, no way at all, towards identification. As for The Phoenix and the Turtle, the extreme metaphysicality of parts of it—

  • Property was thus appalled
  • That the self was not the same; etc.—
  • is by no means inconceivable in the Shakespeare of Love’s Labour’s Lost and of some of the Sonnets. The opening lines and some of those that follow, are exceedingly beautiful, and the contrast of melody between the different metres of the body of the poem and the concluding threnos is “noble and most artful.”

    Inasmuch, moreover, as some of these minor and doubtful pieces draw very close to the songs in the plays, and actually figure in their company under the thievish wand of Hermes-Jaggard, it cannot be very improper to take them slightly into account, with the songs and certainly assigned poems, as basis for a short connected survey of Shakespeare’s poetical characteristics in non-dramatic verse. One of these, which is extremely remarkable, and which has been also noted in his dramatic verse, is the uniform metrical mastery. This, when you come to compare the two classical narratives, the Sonnets and the songs with their possible companions among the doubtful minors, is extraordinary. Neither Chaucer nor Spenser was good at light lyrical measures, admirable and beyond admiration as both were in regard to non-lyrical verse, and accomplished, as was at least Spenser, in the more elaborate and slowly moving lyric. In fact, it may almost be said that neither tried them. Shakespeare tries them with perfect success; while his management of the sixain and septet is more than adequate, and his management of the English form of sonnet absolutely consummate. This lesser exhibition (as some would call it) of his universality—this universality in form—is surely well worth nothing; as is, once more, the unusually lyrical character of some of his stanza work itself, and the likeness to his blank verse lines of not a few things both in stanza and in sonnet. This polymetric character has since become more and more common because poets have had examples of it before them. But it is first strongly noteworthy in Shakespeare.