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imagined that the mysterious personage was a W. Hughes; while George Chalmers, as if to show that there are no bounds to the folly of a critic, maintained that Queen Elizabeth was typified by the poet's masculine friend !
Perhaps, after all, what Lord Byron says of Junius, is true concerning the object to whom the Sonnets are principally addressed;
" I've an hypothesis,—'tis quite my own,
'Tis, that what Junius we are wont to call,
Was really, truly, nobody at all;" perhaps Shakespeare's lovely youth" was merely the creature of imagination, and had no more existence than those fair ones, whom various writers have so perseveringly wooed in verse.101 I have long felt convinced, after repeated perusals of the Sonnets, that the greater number of them was composed in an assumed character, on different subjects, and at different times, for the amusement, and probably at the suggestion, of the author's intimate associates.102 While, there
101 “ Dost thou think the poets, who every one of 'em celebrate the praises of some lady or other, had all real mis. treaxes ?... No, no, never think it; for I dare assure thee, the greatest part of 'em were nothing but the mere imaginations of the poets, for a groundwork to exercise their wits upon, and give to the world occasion to look on the authors as men of an amorous and gallant disposition." Don Quixote (translated by several hands) i. 225, edition 1749.
102 Meres calls them “his sugred Sonnets among his private friends :" see p. xlviii.
fore, I contend that allusions scattered through these pieces should not be hastily referred to the personal circumstances of Shakespeare, I am willing to grant that one or two Sonnets have an individual application to the poet, as for instance, the cxth and the exi', in which he expresses his sense of the degradation that accompanies the profession of the stage. Augustus Schlegel is of opinion, that sufficient use has not been made of them, as important materials for Shakespeare's biography ; but, even if we regard them all as transcripts of his genuine feelings, what a feeble and uncertain light would they throw on the history of his life!
About the excellence of these Sonnets, slightly disfigured as they are by conceits and quibbles, 103 there can be no dispute. Next to the dramas of Shakespeare, they are by far the most valuable of his works. They contain such a quantity of profound thought as must astonish every reflecting reader; they are adorned by splendid and delicate imagery; they are sublime, pathetic, tender, or sweetly playful; while they delight the ear by their fluency, and their varied harmonies of rhythm. Our language can boast no sonnets
103 What Robert Gould, in The Play House, A Satire, ( Works ii. 245, edition 1709,) says of our author's dramas, appiies also to his poems; “And Shakespeare play'd with words, to please a quibbling
altogether worthy of being placed by the side of Shakespeare's, except the few which Milton 104 poured forth,—so severe, and so majestic.
Among the minor poems in the present volume, A Lover's Complaint stands preëminent in beauty. We recognize but little of Shakespeare's genius in The Miscellany entitled The Passionate Pilgrim: it appears to have been given to the press without his consent, or even his knowledge; and how much of it proceeded from his pen, cannot be distinctly ascertained.
164 The English Sonnets that approach nearest in merit to Shakespeare's and Milton's, are undoubtedly those by the living ornament of our poetic literature, Wordsworth.
CHRONOLOGICAL LIST OF SHAKESPEARE's
1590 1591 1591 1591 1592 1592 1593 1593 1594 1596 1596 1597 1597 1598 1598 1598 1599 1599 1600 1600 1601 1601
• • • • •
1 See p. xxxvii.
Troilus and Cressida ·
1602 1603 1603 1604 1605 1606 1607 1608 1609 1610 1610 1611 1612
3 I agree with Malone in thinking that the passage of Othello (act iii. sc. iv.)
" the hearts of old gave hands, But our new heraldry is hands, not hearts," does not contain the slightest allusion to the institution of the order of Baronets in 1611: see his Life of Shakespeare, P. 402. (Shak. by Boswell. ii.)