Verse > Anthologies > T. H. Ward, ed. > The English Poets > Vol. I. Chaucer to Donne
Thomas Humphry Ward, ed.  The English Poets.  1880–1918.
Vol. I. Early Poetry: Chaucer to Donne
Critical Introduction by Edward Dowden
William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
[William Shakespeare was born at Stratford on Avon in April 1564; there also he died, April 23rd (old style), 1616. The following are the titles of his poems, with the dates of publication: Venus and Adonis, 1593; The Rape of Lucrece, 1594; The Passionate Pilgrim (a miscellany which includes only a few pieces by Shakespeare), 1599; The Phœnix and the Turtle (printed with pieces on the same subject by other poets of the time, at the end of Robert Chester’s Love’s Martyr, or Rosalin’s Complaint), 1601; Sonnets, 1609; A Lover’s Complaint (in the same volume with the Sonnets), 1609.]  1
SHAKESPEARE’S genius was not one of those which ripen over-early. At thirty he was hardly past his years of apprenticeship as a dramatic craftsman; in comedy he was experimenting in various directions; in historical tragedy he submitted to the influence of his great fellow, Christopher Marlowe, who had risen to eminent stature while Shakespeare was still in his growing years; in pure tragedy he was feeling after a way of his own which should ennoble terror by its union with tenderness and beauty. It was at this time that his first essay as a non-dramatic poet was made. At what precise date the Venus and Adonis was written we cannot be certain; but no good reason appears for supposing that Shakespeare brought it up with him from Stratford, or indeed that it was written earlier than the year 1592. ‘The first heir of my invention’—so its author describes the poem; but, in accordance with the feeling of his own day, he would naturally set aside his plays, none of which he had printed or thought of printing, as indeed mere plays—not works, not any part of literature proper,—while the Venus and Adonis, which was to give him rank among the poets of his time, he would regard as the first legitimate child of his imagination. Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton—young, clever, gallant, generous—had already honoured the rising dramatist with his notice, and to him Shakespeare dedicated ‘his unpolished lines,’ promising to take advantage of all idle hours until he have some ‘graver labour’ to present. The graver labour followed in 1594, and was offered to his patron with words of strong devotion. The two poems, the Venus and the Lucrece, may be looked on as companion pieces, belonging to the same period, presented to the same person, exhibiting the same characteristics of style.  2
  Shakespeare’s delight in beauty and his delight in wit, in the brightness and nimbleness of the play of mind, are manifest in all his earlier writings. Such delight was indeed part of the age as well as of the individual. The consciousness of new power proper to the Renaissance period, the bounding energy, the sense that all the human faculties were emancipated, resulted in great achievement, and no less in strange extravagance; the lust of the eye was under slight restraint, and every clever fancy might caper as it pleased. In choosing the subject of his first poem, Shakespeare sought the most beautiful creatures which imagination had ever conceived for pasture of man’s eye. What female figure so superb in loveliness as that of the queen of Love? What mortal companion can she have comely to perfection save the boy Adonis? But the common way of love, in which the man woos the woman, has been the theme of every poet; how much more ‘high fantastical’ were the woman to woo the man, and spend all her wit, and all her ardour, and all her arts in striving to overcome his indifference? Thus the subject of Venus enamoured, and the coldness of the boy Adonis, gave scope both to the poet’s passion for beauty and his passion for ingenuity. Shakespeare attempts two things—first, to paint with brilliant words the chosen figures, and their encounterings; secondly, to invent speeches for them in which the war of wit shall be maintained with glittering conceit, and high-wrought fantasy. The subject did not lay hold of him, compelling him to utterance; rather he laboured hard to make the most of it, viewing it on this side and on that; to use the word of his contemporaries, he ‘subtilized’ with it, until he could subtilize no farther. A couple of ice-houses these two poems of Shakespeare have been called by Hazlitt—‘they are’ he says, ‘as hard, as glittering, and as cold.’ Cold indeed they will seem to anyone who listens to hear in them the natural cry of human passion. But the paradox is true, that for a young poet of Elizabeth’s age to be natural, direct, simple, would have been indeed unnatural. He was most happy when most fantastical; he spun a shining web to catch conceits inevitably as a spider casts his thread; the quick-building wit was itself warm while erecting its ice-houses.  3
  As a narrative poem the Lucrece has this advantage over the Venus and Adonis, that it includes more of action, and that the theme is one which gives scope for deep and strenuous passion. For this reason the vice of style impresses us more here perhaps than in the earlier poem. The action is retarded by all manner of pretty ingenuities. Lucrece in her agony delivers tirades on Night, on Time, on Opportunity, as if they were theses for a degree in some academy of wit. Still the effect on a reader in the right mood is not that of frigid cleverness; the faults are faults of youth; the poet’s pleasurable excitement can be perceived; nay at times we feel the energetic fervour of his heart. Now and again the poetry surprises, not by singularity, but as Keats has said that poetry ought to surprise, by a fine excess; sometimes a line is all gold seven times refined; and there is throughout such evidence of a rich, abounding nature in the writer that we are happy with him even while we recognize the idle errors of his nonage. The first and most obvious excellence of the Venus and Adonis, Coleridge has said, and he might have extended the remark to the companion poem, ‘is the perfect sweetness of the versification; its adaptation to the subject; and the power displayed in varying the march of the words without passing into a loftier and more majestic rhythm than was demanded by the thoughts, or permitted by the propriety of preserving a sense of melody predominant. The delight in richness and sweetness of sound, even to a faulty excess, if it be evidently original, and not the result of an easily imitable mechanism, I regard as a highly favourable promise in the compositions of a young man.’ A highly favourable promise indeed; but Shakespeare, as other young poets of original genius, was peculiarly susceptible to influences from the verse of contemporaries. It is easy to perceive that the author of Venus and Adonis had read with delight Lodge’s Glaucus and Silla, and that in treating the more complex stanza of the Lucrece Shakespeare had gained something from The Complaint of Rosamond by Daniel, a poet possessing so much less than himself of the vital spirit of harmony. In both poems of Shakespeare his mind, it has been observed, hovers often within the limits of a single line; there are also long cumulative passages of connected lines, each line an unit in the series; the effect of such passages is rhetorical; they tend toward a climax, after which the verse has to recommence from a new starting point.  4
  Amid the tangle of amorous casuistry in the Venus and Adonis some relief is afforded by touches of delight in the rural landscape of England. When the poem was written Stratford was fresh in Shakespeare’s memory; its primrose banks, and ‘blue-veined violets,’ the bird ‘tangled in a net,’ the stallion, the hunted hare, the red morn rain-betokening, the gentle lark which weary of rest
 ‘From his moist cabinet mounts up on high,
And wakes the morning, from whose silver breast
The sun ariseth in his majesty.’
  Both poems immediately became popular; it was his sweetness of utterance which gave Shakespeare’s first readers their chief delight; he was to them ‘honey-tongued Shakespeare,’ ‘mellifluous Shakespeare,’ ‘in whom the sweet wittie soul of Ovid lives’; he was ‘silver-tongued Melicert,’ gifted with a ‘honey-flowing vaine.’ The time had not yet come to know him as the symphonist who could create the stormy harmonies of Lear, as the bitter trumpeter of doom announcing through Timon the fall of luxurious cities that wanton in unrighteousness.  6
  In 1598 allusion was made by Francis Meres to Shakespeare’s ‘sugred sonnets among his private friends’; next year two of the sugared sonnets—surreptitiously obtained, as we cannot but believe—appeared in The Passionate Pilgrim. It was not until ten years later that Thomas Thorpe published the collection of 154 Sonnets, and there is good reason for believing that their author did not sanction the publication. Thorpe dedicated his volume to ‘The onlie Begetter of these ensuing Sonnets Mr. W. H.’ wishing him ‘all happiness and that eternity promised by our ever-living poet.’ Who is this Mr. W. H., the inspirer of the sonnets? And what is the purport of these poems?  7
  To the first question there is but one trustworthy answer—We do not know. Whether Mr. W. H. was William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, or Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, or whether his name has wholly perished, though in Shakespeare’s verse his fame endures, we cannot tell. We know him as ‘Will,’ for Shakespeare plays with his christian name in the 135th and 143rd sonnets, and with ‘Will’ we must remain contented. Patience perforce! after all it is not essential to the understanding of the poems that we should solve Thorpe’s riddle; it is enough, if we believe that ‘Will’ was no imaginary being, no abstraction of the brain, no allegorizing sonneteer’s invention, but a creature of flesh and blood—a man, young, beautiful, wealthy, of high rank, full of charm and grace and condescension. To him the sonnets from 1 to 126 were addressed; they were written at intervals over a period of time certainly as long as three years (see sonnet 104), and probably longer; they are printed by Thorpe in their proper order, and form a series in which it is possible to find a few breaks, such as would naturally occur in poems connected with the real incidents of several years. The poem numbered 126, not a sonnet, consists of twelve lines in rhyming couplets; it forms an Envoy to the series of sonnets addressed to Shakespeare’s friend, and it is complete; but Thorpe, not perceiving its special character, adds in the original edition marks intended to show that two lines are wanting. With 127 begins a new series, addressed to a woman. This woman Shakespeare loved with a kind of bitter love; he knew that her character was stained; he saw that she was the reverse of beautiful, according to common conceptions of beauty; still, to him she was beautiful. This pale-faced, dark-eyed woman drew to her the great poet with a singular fascination; he would linger by the virginal while she played, and watch her fingers as they moved over the keys; he would resolve no longer to remain in bondage to her strange power, and would return to beg for her renewal of regard. But dearer than this pale musician was the youth whom he worshipped with a fond idolatry. Their friendship was to be the honour, the comfort, the blessedness of Shakespeare’s life. Alas, his dark enchantress has cast her eyes upon Will, and laid her snares for him! And so for the woman’s sake the friendship of man and man is clouded, and the poor actor who had been lifted out of his sphere in a dream of new delight, sinks back and finds how hard the world goes with him, how sad a thing it is to be defrauded by those we hold most dear, how weak a thing his own heart is. He does not turn with fierce resentment against his friend; he only feels that it is very sad to be deserted; and with piteous casuistry he tries to argue against himself, to plead in his friend’s defence, to find it natural that one so bright and young and engaging should turn away the head and pass him coldly by. But such estrangement did not last to the end. After a long absence the friends meet. Will’s truer heart asserts itself; there are confessions and words of repentance on both sides; then follow forgiveness and reconciliation; once more heart and heart are united,—united now, after this bitter experience, never again to be tempted to disloyalty.  8
  The story as here told in outline is plainly written in the two series of sonnets, which, though separate, are concerned with the same persons and refer to the same events. Let us look a little more closely at the first series. Shakespeare begins by urging upon his young friend the expediency of marriage; his father is dead; for his own sake, for his mother’s sake, for his friend’s sake, for the sake of the world, he should seek to renew his own life in that of a child who shall be heir to his beauty and his honour. His poet would fain make Will immortal in his verse, ay, and must not fail to do so, but why not defeat time by the worthier way of living offspring? Then Shakespeare turns (sonnet 26) from this pleading to dwell upon the beauty and the sweetness of his friend; all losses, needs, and griefs are cancelled by the joy of loving and being loved by a being so perfect. But presently the little rift within the lute is discovered; Will holds somewhat off from the low-born player, especially in public places. Is not this natural, and indeed inevitable? The player can at least look up and rejoice in his friend’s happier fortune, his beauty, birth, wealth, wit. Then follows, during Shakespeare’s absence, the more grievous wrong done to him by Will, and the lady of the virginal. Can Shakespeare forgive such a wrong? Even this he tries, but in vain; for are there not signs that Will’s heart is really cold towards him? Will protests, and asserts his constancy; there is a leap-up of the flame of love once more. But time is passing, age is creeping nearer, the world seems more oppressed by ills, and what is there of solid and substantial good to set against all this? His friend’s love; but what if his friend be himself infected with the general evil? What if he grow common? Public scandal is busy with his name. Were it not better to die than to live longer in a world where all tends daily from bad to worse? Moreover now the young aristocrat is lending a favourable ear to a rival poet, one possessed of art and learning to which Shakespeare is a stranger. Ah! it is best to say farewell at once, to wake rudely from the deceitful dream of joy! Let Will hate him—but hate him quick, that the bitterness of death may soon be past. Absence, and total silence follow. And then, when things seem most remediless, the old fibres of love begin to stir, the buried root to send forth a rod with blossoms. The two hearts never wholly estranged approach, draw yet closer, unite; all impediments to the marriage of true minds are put aside. The love that seemed ruined is built anew stronger than before. Now it is based not on beauty, not on considerations of interest, not on aught that time can destroy: now indeed Time is defeated; not by offspring, not by verse, but by that which is alone free from time and fortune, by Love. Yet—thus the series closes—let us not be lifted up above measure; however fair life and love may be, there is at last, for thee even as for me, the quietus of the grave.  9
  Of the exquisite songs scattered through Shakespeare’s plays it is almost an impertinence to speak. If they do not make their own way, like the notes in the wildwood, no words will open the dull ear to take them in. There is little song in the historical dramas; how should there be much amid the debates of the council-chamber, the clash of swords, the tug of rival interests, the plotting of courtiers, the ambitious hypocrisies of priests? To hear dainty snatches set to some clear-hearted tune—‘Green Sleeves’ perhaps or ‘Light o’ love’—we must haunt the palace of the enamoured Duke of Illyria, or wander under green boughs in Arden, or stray along the yellow sands of the enchanted island, or lurk behind the hedge while light-footed and light-fingered Autolycus sets the country air a-ringing with his sprightly tirra-lirra. In the tragedies Shakespeare has made use of song—his own or another’s—always with deliberate forethought, always with the inevitable rightness of genius, to make the pity more rare and of a finer edge, to touch the skirts of darkness with a pathetic gleam, or to mingle some keen irony with the transitory triumph of life. We remember the wild and bitter gaiety, hiding so deep a sorrow, of Lear’s poor boy quavering out weak notes across the tempest; thought and affliction turned to prettiness in the distracted Ophelia’s singing; the rough ditty keeping time to strokes of the mattock as it tosses out the earth which is to lie on Ophelia’s breast; the high-pitched joviality of honest Iago—‘And let me the canakin clink, clink’; the volleying chorus, ‘Cup us till the world go round,’ shouted in Pompey’s galley, while Menes stands by ready to fall to the triumvirs’ throats; the old song of willow sung by maid Barbara when Desdemona was a girl, and coming back to her on that night when a sad wife she goes bedward with eyes ripe for weeping, and with a heart still meek and innocent as the heart of a little child. But to hear songs, which ‘dally with the innocence of love like the old age,’ one should be silent.  10

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