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otherwise, and, at the same time, believe that the poet was privy to their publication.
To this discussion of a subject clogged with so many difficulties, we shall now subjoin some remarks on the poetical merits and demerits of our author's sonnets; and here, we are irresistibly induced to notice the absurd charge against, and the inadequate defence of, sonnet-writing, brought forward by Messrs. Steevens and Malone, in the Supplement of the latter gentleman. *
The antipathy of Mr. Steevens to this species of lyric poetry, seems to have amounted to the highest pitch of extravagance. In a note on the fifty-fourth sonnet, he asks,
66 What has truth or nature to do with sonnets ?” as if truth and nature were confined to any particular metre or mode of composition ; and, in a subsequent page, he informs us that the sonnet is “ a species of composition which has reduced the most exalted poets to a level with the meanest rhimers; has almost cut down Milton and Shakspeare to the standards of Pomfret and but the name of Pomfret is perhaps the lowest in the scale of English versifiers.” † Nothing can exceed the futility and bad taste of this remark, and yet Mr. Malone has advanced no other defence of the “ exalted poets” of Italy than that, “ he is slow to believe that Petrarch is without merit;" and for Milton he offers this strange apology, - —“ that he generally failed when he attempted rhime, whether his verses assumed the shape of a sonnet, or any other form.”
When we recollect, that the noblest poets of Italy, from "Dante to Alfieri, have employed their talents in the construction of the sonnet, and that many of their most popular and beautiful passages have been derived through this medium ; when we recollect, that the first bards of our own country, from Surrey to Southey, have followed their example with an emulation which has conferred immortality on their efforts; when we further call to mind the exquisite specimens of rhimed poetry which Milton has given us in his L'Allegro and
* Malone's Supplement, vol. i. p. 682.
Il Penseroso; and when, above all, we retrace the dignity, the simplicity, the moral sublimity of many of his sonnets, perhaps not surpassed by any other part of his works, we stand amazed at the unqualified censure on the one hand, and at the impotency of the defence on the other.
If such be the fate, then, between these commentators, of the general question, and of the one more peculiarly relative to Milton, it cannot be expected that Shakspeare should meet with milder treat
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
• Malone's Supplement, vol. i. p. 684.
+ Ibid. p. 685.
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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 progress 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 Petrarchan 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:
6 Lo in the orient when the gracious light
Lifts up his burning head, cach under eye
So thou," &c.
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
4 When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
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,
When proud-pied April, drous'd in all his trim,
To the melody, perspicuity, and spirit of the versification of the next specimen, and to the exquisite turn upon the words, too much praine 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
To speak of that which gives thee all thy might?