THESE volumes, which offer the reader fifteen collections of sonnets, bring together a substantial part of the vast sonnet-literature which was produced in Elizabethan England. One conspicuous contribution to that literature is indeed omitted. Shakespeares sonnets find no place here. Their exclusion is well justified. In the first place, unlike the work of his contemporaries in the same field, Shakespeares sonnets are readily accessible elsewhere. In the second place, Shakespeares sonnets possess an incomparable poetic merit and a psychological interest which entitle them to a place apart from other examples of the like branch of literary effort. At the same time, every serious student of Shakespeares sonnets will find it to his advantage to study them in conjunction with the inferior work of his contemporaries. Not merely will his appreciation of their æsthetic quality be thereby quickened, but he will understand the contemporary circumstances of literary history which brought them into being. A comparative investigation alone renders it possible to estimate the extent to which Shakespeares sonnets were coloured by the conventions and conceits of professional sonneteers of the period. Not otherwise can an answer, which shall be entitled to respect, be given to the question, how much of the story and imagery of Shakespeares sonnets is the fruit of his personal experience.
Little of the perennial fascination which lovers of poetry find in Shakespeares sonnets can be set to the credit of the contents of these two volumes. There were, among Shakespeares contemporaries, writers who occasionally reached a high degree of excellence in the sonneteering art. Sidney and Spenser, Lodge and Constable, Daniel and Drayton, whatever their inferiority to Shakespeare at his best, rank at times with him and other great masters of the craft in literary skill and feeling. Draytons famous poem, Since theres no help, come let us kiss and part, deserves a foremost place in any catalogue raisonné of Elizabethan sonnets. But Drayton, like all notable Elizabethan sonneteers, exhibits strange inequalities of thought and of expression. He and they are more remarkable for their alacrity in sinking than for any power of sustained flight in the exalted regions of poetry.
The sonnet at the end of the sixteenth century had for English writers a perilous attraction. Sonneteering was in universal vogue among all who interested themselves in literature, amateurs and professionals alike. Every youth of ordinary education was moved to woo the Muses in a sequence of sonnets. There was hardly an aspirant to poetic fame of the age who failed to experiment in sonneteering near the opening of his career. A perfect sonnet is one of the most difficult of all forms of poetry. Only the fullest command of the harmonies of language, and the ripest power of mental concentration, ensure success. Yet the brevity of the form, the singleness of the idea which is all its construction seems to crave, encourages the delusion that it is easy of accomplishment.
In spite of the wide dissemination of literary interest and literary feeling in Elizabethan England, the average level of literary capacity was not much higher than that of other epochs. It was consequently inevitable that, when the rage for sonneteering set in among the Elizabethans, the mass of their sonneteering efforts should be bad. Thomas Watson and Barnabe Barnes, Giles Fletcher and Bartholomew Griffin, here and there sound a pleasing note in their voluminous collections. But for the most part their sonnets lack either meaning or music. The rest of the sonneteering tribethe authors of the sonnets collected under the various titles of Clia, Zepheria, Diella, Chloris, and Lauraare notable for little else than the uncouthness of their verbiage and their poverty of thought. They are mere wallowers in the bogs that lie at the foot of the poetic mountain.