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speare should meet with milder treatment. In fact, Mr. Steevens has asserted. that his sonnets are "composed in the highest strain of affectation, pedantry, circumlocution, and nonsense;" a picture which Mr. Malone endeavours to soften, by telling us that "it appears to him overcharged:" that similar defects occur in his dramas, and that the sonnets, "if they have no other merit, are entitled to our attention, as often illustrating obscure passages in his plays."
It is true that in the next paragraph he ventures to declare, that he cannot perceive that their versification is less smooth than that of Shakspeare's other compositions, and that he can perceive perspicuity and energy in some of them; but well might Mr. Steevens reply, that "the case of these sonnets is certainly bad, when so little can be advanced in support of them."
Let us try, therefore, if we cannot, and that also with great ease, prove that these sonnets have been not only miserably criticised, but unmercifully abused; and that, in point of poetical merit, they are superior to all those which preceded the era of Drummond.
In the first place, then, we altogether deny that either affectation or pedantry can, in the proper sense of the terms, be applied to the sonnets of Shakspeare. Were any modern, indeed, of the nineteenth century to adopt their language and style, he might justly be taxed with both; but in Sidney and Shakspeare it was habit, indissoluble habit, and not affectation; it was the diction in which they had been practised from early youth to clothe their sentiments and feelings; it was identified with all their associations and intellectual operations; it was the language, in fact, the mode of expression, in a greater or less degree, of all their contemporaries; and to have stripped their thoughts of a dress, which to us appears quaint and artificial, would have been to them a painful and more elaborate task. When once, indeed, we can attribute this artificial, though often emphatic style, as we ought to do, to the universally defective taste of the age in which it sprang, and not to individual usage, we shall be prepared to do justice to injured genius, and to confess, that frequently beneath this laboured phraseology are to be found sentiments simple, natural, and touching. We may also very safely affirm of Shakspeare's sonnets, that, if their style be compared with that of his predecessors and contemporaries, in the same department of poetry, a manifest superiority must often be awarded him, on the score of force, dignity, and simplicity of expression; qualities of which we shall very soon afford the reader some striking instances.
To a certain extent, we must admit the charge of circumlocution, not as applied to individual sonnets, but to the subject on which the whole series is written. The obscurities of this species of poem have almost uniformly arisen from density and compression of style, nor are the compositions of Shakspeare more than usually free from this source of defect; but when it is considered that our author has written one hundred and twenty-six sonnets for the sole purpose of expressing his attachment to his patron, it must necessarily follow, that a subject so continually reiterated, would display no small share of circumlocution. Great ingenuity has been exhibited by the poet in varying his phraseology and ideas; but no effort could possibly obviate the monotony, as the result of such a task.
We shall not condescend to a refutation of the fourth epithet, which, if at all applicable to any portion of Shakspeare's minor poems, can alone apply to Sonnets 135 and 136, which are a continued pun upon his Christian name, a species of trifling which was the peculiar vice of our author's age.
That an attempt to exhaust the subject of friendship; to say all that could be collected on the topic, would almost certainly lead, in the days of Shakspeare, to abstractions too subtile and metaphysical, and to a cast of diction sometimes too artificial and scholastic for modern taste, no person well acquainted with the pro gress of our literature can deny; but candour will, at the same time, admit, that the expression and versification of his sonnets are often natural, spirited, and harmonious, and that where the surface has been rendered hard and repulsive
by the peculiarities of the period of their production, we have only to search beneath, in order to discover a rich ore of thought, imagery, and sentiment.
It has been stated that Shakspeare's sonnets, consisting of three elegiac quatrains and a couplet, are constructed on the plan of Daniel's; a mode of arrangement which, though bearing no similitude to the elaborate involution of the Petrarcan sonnet, may be praised for the simplicity of its form, and the easy flow of its verse; and that these technical beauties have often been preserved by our bard, and are frequently the medium through which he displays the treasures of a fervent fancy and a feeling heart, we shall now attempt, by a series of extracts, to prove.
The description of the sun in his course, his rising, meridian altitude, and setting, and his influence over the human mind, are enlivened by imagery peculiarly vivid and rich; the seventh and eighth lines especially, contain a picture of a great beauty :
"Lo in the orient when the gracious light
Lifts up his burning head, each under eye
But when from high-most pitch, with weary car,
The eyes, 'fore duteous, now converted are
From his low tract, and look another way:
The inevitable effects of time over every object in physical nature, reminding the poet of the disastrous changes incident to human life, he exclaims in a style highly figurative and picturesque :
"When I do count the clock that tells the time,
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silver'd o'er with white;
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer's green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard;
A still more lovely sketch, illustrative of the uneasiness which he felt in consequence of absence from his friend, is given us in the following passage, of which the third and fourth lines are pre-eminent for the poetry of their diction :
"From you have I been absent in the Spring,
Of different flowers in odour and in hue,
Could make me any summer's story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew.”
To the melody, perspicuity, and spirit of the versification of the next specimen, and to the exquisite turn upon the words, too much praise cannot be given. It is one amongst the numerous evidences of Lord Southampton being the subject of the great bulk of our author's sonnets; for he assures us, that he not only esteemed his lays, but gave argument and skill to his pen :
"Where art thou, Muse, that thou forget'st so long
Return, forgetful Muse, and straight redeem
And gives thy pen both skill and argument."
From the expressions "old rhyme," and "antique pen," in the extract which we are about to quote, it is highly probable that our bard alluded to Chaucer, certainly before his own appearance the greatest poet that England had produced. The chivalric picture in the first quatrain, is peculiarly interesting, and the cadence of the metre is harmony itself:
It is a striking proof of the poetical inferiority of the few sonnets which Shakspeare has addressed to his mistress, that we find it difficult to select more than one passage from them which does honour to his memory. Of this, however, it will be allowed, that the comparison is happy, the rhythm pleasing, and the expression clear :
In order, however, to judge satisfactorily of the merit of these poems, it will, no doubt, be deemed necessary by the reader, that a few entire sonnets be presented to his notice; for, though the passages just quoted, as well as numerous others which might be given, have a decided claim upon our approbation, yet, the sonnet being a very brief composition, it will, of course, be required, that all its parts be perfect, and of equal value. That this is not always the case with these productions of our author, will be inferred from the short extracts which we have selected; but that it is so in very many instances may truly be affirmed, and will, indeed, be proved by citation.
So far from affectation and pedantry being the general characteristic of these pieces, impartial criticism must declare, that more frequent examples of simple, clear, and nervous diction are to be culled from them, than can be found among the sonnets of any of his contemporaries. The 71st sonnet may be taken, not as a solitary proof, but as the exemplar of a numerous class of Shakspearean sonnets; and with the remark, that neither in this instance, nor in many others, is there. either in versification, language, or thought, the smallest deviation into the regions of affectation or conceit.
Simplicity of style, and tenderness of sentiment, form the sole features of this sonnet; but in the 116th, with an equal chastity of diction, are combined more energy and dignity, together with the infusion of some noble and appropriate imagery. It must also be added, that the flow and structure of the verse are singularly pleasing.
Of a lighter though more glowing cast of poetry, both in expression and ima gination, but with a slight blemish, arising from the pharmaceutical allusion in the last line, is the 54th sonnet. A trifling inaccuracy with respect to the colour of the cynorhodon, or canker-rose, afforded Mr. Steevens a pretext for the sple netic interrogation which has been recorded by us with due censure. It is some what strange that the beauties of the poem could not disarm the prejudices of the
In spirit, however, in elegance, in the skill and texture of its modulation, and beyond all, in the dignified and highly poetical close of the third quatrain, no one of our author's sonnets excels the twenty-ninth. The ascent of the lark was a favourite subject of contemplation with the poet.
It is, time, however, to terminate these citations, which have been already sufficiently numerous to enable the reader to form an estimate of the poet's merit in the difficult task of sonnet-writing. That many more might be brought forward, of equal value with those which we have selected, will be allowed perhaps when we state, that in the specimens of Mr. Ellis, the "Petrarca" of Mr. Henderson, and the "Laura" of Mr. Lofft, eleven have been chosen, of which, we find upon reference, only one among the four just now adduced.
The last production in the minor poems of Shakspeare, is A LOVER'S COMPLAINT, in which a forlorn damsel, seduced and deserted, relates the history of her sorrows
"A reverend man that graz'd his cattle nigh."
It is written in stanzas of seven lines; the first and third, and the second, fourth. and fifth, rhiming to each other, while the sixth and seventh form a couplet; an arrangement exactly similar to the stanza of the Rape of Lucrece. Like many of our author's smaller pieces, it is too full of imagery and allusion, but has several passages of great beauty and force. In the description which this forsaken fair one gives of the person and qualities of her lover, the following lines will be acknowledged to possess considerable excellence:
These, and every other portion of the poem, however, are eclipsed by a subsequent part of the same picture, in which, as Mr. Steevens well remarks, the poet "has accidentally delineated his own character as a dramatist." So applicable, indeed, did the passage appear to us, as a forcible though rapid sketch of the more prominent features of the author's own genius, and of his universal influence over the human mind, that we select it is a motto for this work :
"On the tip of his subduing tongue
All kind of arguments and question deep,
That he did in the general bosom reign
Of young, of old; and sexes both enchanted."
The address which the injured mistress puts into the mouth of her seducer, when he 'gan besiege her," opens in a strain of such beautiful simplicity, that we cannot avoid an expression of regret, that the defective taste of the age prevented its continuance and completion in a similar style of tenderness and
Have of my suffering youth some feeling pity,
After relating, rather too circumstantially, the arts and hypocrisy which had been exercised for her ruin, she bursts into the following exclamation:
"O father, what a hell of mischief lies
Various lines, and brief extracts, of no common merit, might be detached from the Lover's Complaint; but enough has now been said on the Miscellaneous Poetry of Shakspeare, to prove that it possesses a value far beyond what has been attributed to it in modern times. The depreciation, indeed, to which it has been lately subjected, a fate so directly opposed to that which accompanied its first reception in the world, must be ascribed, in a great measure, to the unaccountable prejudices of Mr. Steevens, who, in an Advertisement prefixed to the edition of our author's Dramas, in 1793, has made the following curious declaration:
"We have not reprinted the Sonnets, etc., of Shakspeare, because the strongest act of parlia ment that could be framed would fail to compel readers into their service; notwithstanding these miscellaneous poems have derived every possible advantage from the literature and judgment of their only intelligent editor, Mr. Malone, whose implements of criticism, like the ivory rake and golden spade in Prudentius, are on this occasion disgraced by the objects of their culture-had Shakspeare produced no other works than these, his name would have reached us with as little celebrity as time has conferred on that of Thomas Watson, an older and much more elegant sonnetteer."
That Watson was "a much more elegant sonnetteer than Shakspeare," is an assertion which wants no other means for its complete refutation, than a reference to the works of the elder bard. At the period when Mr. Steevens advanced this verdict, such a reference was not within the power of one in a thousand of of his readers, but all may now be referred to a very satisfactory article in the "British Bibiliographer," where Sir Egerton Brydges has transcribed seventeen of Watson's sonnets, and declares it to be his conviction, that they "want the moral cast" of Shakspeare's sonnets; "his unsophisticated materials; his pure and natural train of thought." It may be added, that a more extended comparison would render the inferiority of Watson still further apparent, and that the Bard of Avon would figure from the juxta-position like "Hyperion to a satyr." When Mr. Steevens compliments his brother-commentator at the expense of the poet; when he tells us, that "his impliments of criticism are on this occasion disgraced by the objects of their culture," who can avoid feeling a mingled emotion of wonder and disgust? who can, in short, forbear a smile of derision and contempt at the folly of such a declaration?
And lastly, when he assures us, that "the strongest act of parliament that could be framed would fail to compel readers into the service of our author's Miscellaneous Poetry," and when, at the same time, we recollect, what gives us pleasure to acknowledge, the wit, the ingenuity, and research of this able editor on almost every other occasion, it will not, we trust, be deemed a work of supererogation, that we have attempted to unfold, at length, the beauties of these calumniated poems, and to refute the sweeping censure which they have so unworthily incurred; nor will the summary inference with which we shall conclude this chapter, be viewed, we hope, as either incorrect, or unauthorised by the previous disquisition, when we state it to consist of the following terms; namely, that the Poems of Shakspeare, although they are chargeable with the faults peculiar to the age in which they sprung, yet exhibit so much originality, invention, and fidelity to nature, such a rich store of moral and philosophic thought, and often such a purity, simplicity, and grace of style, as not only deservedly placed them high in the favour of his contemporaries, but will perma nently secure to them no inconsiderable share of the admiration and the gratitude of posterity.*
That Shakspeare himself entertained a confident hope of the immortality of his minor poems, the following, out of many instances, will sufficiently prove :—