The last and greatest sonnet-sequence of this period, Shakspere's Sonnets, was published surreptitiously in 1609.1 It has been thought, however, that most of the series was composed before 1594, and was known to many readers in manuscript.2 The great interest in these sonnets has usually centred in the striking narrative of friendship and love that forms the structure of the series. The poet begins with singing the praises of his friend, a young man; then a woman appears by whom both are fascinated, and the young friend apparently defeats the poet in the contest for the lady's favor. On this framework it was long customary to build an elaborate study of Shakspere's misfortunes in love.
1Works, Cambridge edition, Wm. Aldis Wright, 1893, ix. p. 281 sq.
2Sidney Lee, Life of Shakspere, pp. 88, 89.
It is now the fashion to hold rather that Shakspere, like the other sonneteers, was merely using conventional subject-matter in a conventional way.1 However that may be, the passionate friendship of man for man, as intense in its expression as love of a woman, was not rare in Elizabethan literature, and had already been celebrated in the sonnet-form by Barnfield. The love of a woman who was bound to some one else was of course the chief motive of Astrophel. Shakspere may have seen the dramatic effect of combining the two themes. As the sonnets stand, however, the themes are slightly mixed; we can only guess in what order the poet would have arranged them had they been printed under his care. But whatever their order, for the purposes of this study it is sufficient to notice how they include all the best themes of preceding sonnets, and how those themes are modified by the great poet's genius.
The first twenty-six sonnets, devoted to the poet's friend, have three main themes--advice to the youth to marry, the "eternizing" theme, and praise of the friend's beauty. The advice to marry takes the place of the reproach of hard-heartedness in the earlier series. The "eternizing" theme, the promise to make his friend immortal in verse, was also familiar to Shakspere from its use by his contemporaries, but his statement of it is by far the most powerful and most persistent of the period. It is hard not to believe that this conventional theme has found a sincere echo in the heart of an
1Life of Shakspere, p. 109 sp.
ambitious man. The third theme is presented in the plea that should the poet faithfully portray his friend, no one would believe the picture--a formula of compliment that we have already met with. The three themes are stated together in the seventeenth sonnet:--
"If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say, 'This poet lies
Such heavenly touches ne'er touched earthly faces.'
So should my papers, yellowed with their age,
Be scorned, like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be termed a poet's rage
And stretched meter of an antique song:
But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice, in it and in my rhyme."1
In this first part of the series, especia]ly in the admonition of his friend to marry, Shakspere uses the Renascence plea of the flight of time and the shortness of beauty's spring. But it is characteristic of these sonnets that the emphasis is always upon the approaching decay, rather than upon the departing bloom. The images are drawn from autumn and winter, not from spring:--
"When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime.
* * * * * *
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go," etc.2
1Works, ix. p. 290.
2Ibid., p. 287.
On the other hand, in describing the beauty of his friend, Shakspere adds much to the usual sonneteer's conception by making beauty the evolution of an ideal--the dream of past ages come true:--
"Thus all their praises are but prophesies,
Of this our time, all you prefiguring."1
This is quite different from the usual comparison with Helen or Venus, or other beauties of the old world, though Shakspere has also an example of that.2
In addition to these descriptions of his friend, Shakspere has, in the latter part of the sequence, a description of the woman, which, on account of its dominant color, has made its subject famous in literary tradition as the "Dark Lady."3 This description, which seems at first sight a realist's revolt against the formulas of golden hair, red lips, and lily hands, coincides with a conventional portrait, familiar to the Elizabethans from Sidney's picture of the dark-eyed Stella. It is as old in lyric poetry as the song of Theocritus: "They all call thee a gypsy, gracious Bombyca, and lean, and sunburnt; 'tis only I that call thee honey-pale. Yea, and the violet is swart, and swart the lettered hyacinth, but yet these flowers are chosen the first in garlands."4
Somewhat akin to the gloomy tone of the description of beauty, mentioned above, is the sixty-ninth sonnet, in strong contrast with Spenser's description of his mistress' soul.
1Works, ix. p. 343.
2No. liii, p. 311.
3No. cxxvii, p. 355.
4Theocritus, Bion, and Moschus, Andrew Lang, p. 57.
Referring to the evil life which has soiled his friend's reputation, the poet tells how the world allows physical beauty to the youth, but judges his soul by his actions and finds it base:--
"They look into the beauty of thy mind,
And that, in guess, they measure by thy deeds;
Then, churls, their thoughts, although their eyes were kind,
To thy fair flower add the rank smell of weeds."1
It is hard to say how much Shakspere gained from Spenser, but there are many points of similarity, such as the sonnet of the "two loves, of comfort and despair."2 This is but a different poetic statement of Spenser's sonnet, mentioned before,3 on the conflict of earthy and spiritual love.
The familiar music-image of the earlier sonnets is here represented by the sonnet on his lady playing the virginal.4 What was before a literary convention, Shakspere makes a realistic picture. Those critics who argue from such passages as this that the poet had any specific musical knowledge, quite overlook the fact that all he needed to find such an image was observation. The picture is natural, as is that earlier one of his friend listening to music:--
"Music to hear, why hearest thou music sadly?"5
1Works, ix. p. 321.
2Ibid., p. 144.
3See, above, p. 158.
4Works, p. 128.
5No. viii, p. 285.
The familiar theme of the absent mistress present in the dreams of the lover reaches probably its most important expression in the forty-third sonnet:--
"When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see."3
Though here it is the conventional theme, yet there is a suggestion also of the older idea, made prominent by Chaucer, that the true lover had his love's image in his heart, and could visualize it with his eyes closed.
A remarkable sonnet is the ninety-ninth, which has fifteen lines. The first line--
"The forward violet thus did I chide."4
is not an organic part of the sonnet, but is absolutely necessary to the understanding of the image employed. It contains the lyric impulse. In this respect it resembles the narrative titles of many love-plaints in the miscellanies, which serve the same purpose of introducing the lyric stimulus.
This is enough to show Shakspere's general relation to the earlier sonnet-series.
1Nos. cxxxv and cxxxvi, p. 360.
2No. cxxxiv, p. 359.
3Works, p. 306.
4Ibid., p. 338.
The originality of his genius appears in the treatment of the elemental passions of life, such as friendship and love. These themes he considers for their own sake, sometimes not even caring to relate them closely to the series. Perhaps because they are motives of the broadest human significance, they are the best known. The typical sonnet on friendship is the twenty-ninth:--
"When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes."1
The lark image in the last quatrain, so closely associated with Shakspere's lyric mood, here adds a new theme to the sonnet tradition. The typical sonnet of love is the hundred and sixteenth. As a praise of abstract love its only rival in Elizabethan song is Spenser's Platonic hymn; but in vigor of expression and in lyric force, the sonnet stands alone:--
"Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come,
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error, and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved."2
In the treatment of his themes Shakspere shows two interesting habits. The first is the use of very simple and realistic images to express conventional and usually ornate ideas. It is as if the dramatist carried over into sonneteering the homely devices and matter-of-fact formulas of the stage. Such a use is illustrated by the thirty-fourth sonnet:--
"Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,
And make me travel forth without my cloak,
To let base clouds o'ertake me in my way?"3
or by the seventy-third:--
"That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold."4
1Ibid., p. 297.
2Ibid., p. 348.
3No. cxxxiv, p. 300.
4Ibid., p. 323.
The second of Shakspere's habits is his constant experimenting with one theme. After once stating his idea, he frequently recasts it in one or more following sonnets. This has been noticed in earlier sonneteers, but with Shakspere the trick is very barefaced. It is one of the best reasons adduced for thinking that the whole series is more or less a literary exercise.
The one quality which marks this sequence as the culmination of the sonnet period is the perfection of lyric form in the case of half a dozen sonnets. In the whole period there are hardly a score that have perfect unity, and Shakspere achieved it more often than any other sonneteer. A good example of such lyric form is the hundred and fourth sonnet.1 The stimulus, which is an idea rather than an image, is presented in the first line:--
"To me, fair friend, you never can be old."
In the next seven lines this motive is developed by giving the reasons for the poet's confidence. The images used, all drawn from the decay of nature, suggest almost unconsciously that the eternal beauty of the "fair friend" must be an exception:--
"For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers' pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green."
In the sextet, Shakspere keeps the English form, but adopts the cadence of the Petrarchan sonnet. This cadence permits the proper lyric development; the suggestion of Nature's decay makes the poet fear lest his affection has deceived him; perhaps his friend's beauty is changing. The mood of confidence changes gradually to one of regret, and so ends:--
"Ah, yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure, and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceived:
For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred;
Ere you were born was beauty's summer dead."
1Ibid., p. 341.