What are the William Shakespeare sonnets? Information on forms and arrengement, subjects, poetic significance of sonnets of Shakespeare.
SONNETS OF SHAKESPEARE, a series of 154 sonnets by William Shakespeare. The small quarto volume in which they were first published in 1609 is generally thought to have been pirated (issued without the author’s consent). The circulation of poems in manuscript was a common practice in the Elizabethan age, and there is direct evidence that these sonnets had been so circulated. Francis Meres, in a work called Palladis Tamia (1598), observed: “As the soul of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras, so the sweet witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare, witness his ‘Venus and Adonis,’ his ‘Lucrece,’ and his sugared Sonnets among his private friends.” In the following year, 1599, two of the sonnets were published in the pirated compilation called The Passionate Pilgrim.
For these and other reasons it is assumed that a good part of Shakespeare’s sonnets had been written a considerable time before the publication of the volume of 1609. But there is no general agreement about the period of his life most likely to be represented by them. Some critics regard them as early compositions, largely completed by 1594-1596. Others believe them to have been written mainly in the period 1598-1603, and still others assume, in the absence of definite evidence, that they may have been produced at intervals throughout Shakespeare’s literary life. It is agreed, however, that few are to be attributed to his later period—after 1603.
Form and Arrangement.
The sonnets are written in the form sometimes called English (Shakespearean) to distinguish it from the more orthodox Italian (Petrarchan) form. Each of them is divided into three quatrains and a couplet, by the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. This form had been developed by the Earl of Surrey and used successfully by Samuel Daniel in a popular collection of sonnets. The general form and style of Shakespeare’s sonnets have been traced to Daniel’s influence. But it is also likely that Shakespeare had studied the sonnets of Sir Philip Sidney—by far the finest sonneteer of the early Elizabethan age—and perhaps those of Michael Drayton as well.
How far Shakespeare was acquainted with the work of Italian and French sonneteers we have no way of knowing. None of his sonnets appears to be a translation or direct imitation of a particular source. On the other hand, the themes and rhetorical methods of the Continental poets abound in his sonnets, as in those of his English contemporaries, and there is no reason to doubt that he was familiar with the general character and course of the sonnet-writing fashion, which came into England from Italy and France and reached its height there about the mid-1590’s.
A great part of these Benaissance sonnets were issued in the form of sequences—collections centered on a single theme, usually a woman (real or ideal) beloved by the poet, and capable of being read either as single poems or as a connected account of the poet’s subjective experiences. In the case of Shakespeare’s sonnets, it is disputed whether they are to be regarded as forming a sequence. They have no title or otherwise clearly defined theme. And we cannot say whether they were printed from a single manuscript or from scattered collections or whether the order in which they stand in the quarto of 1609 is that in which they were written or that in which they would have appeared if Shakespeare had prepared them for the press.
Hence the only evidence as to the unity of the series is internal. Many critics find themselves able to read the series as a connected story. To others, it seems to be a mere miscellany, although containing many pairs, trios, and perhaps larger groups of sonnets intended to be read connectedly. The weight of opinion seems to be that there is a certain unity in the collection, suggestive of the view that the most of the sonnets have to do with the same persons and events, but that there is no complete continuity such as would result from an authoritative arrangement, for either narrative or lyrical ends. As a result of this uncertainty regarding the arrangement, they have been rearranged by many editors and critics according to individual theories.
Subject Matter and Autobiographical Significance.
The opening sonnets, as they stand in the volume of 1609, are addressed to a young man, apparently of good family and striking personal charms and gifts, who is urged by the poet to marry so that he may beget children to perpetuate his qualities and thus, in a sense, overcome the ravages of time and death. Many of the following sonnets apparently either refer to, or are addressed to, the same young man. And it is possible to read every one of them, up to and including the 126th, as having reference to this person, although many of the number, if standing by themselves, would be assumed to be addressed to beautiful women. For this reason, Sonnets 1-126 are sometimes called the First Series, and it is assumed that they came into the publisher’s hands as a body. Sonnets 127-152, inclusive, have to do chiefly with a woman dark of complexion and dark of character, now generally known as the Dark Lady, and all these can be read as concerned with this theme. Hence this group is sometimes called the Second Series. The two final sonnets admittedly stand quite by themselves as mere literary exercises.
A link between the two series is found in the fact that Sonnets 40-42, on the one hand, and Sonnets 133-136, on the other, appear to refer to the same event—an intrigue between the young man and the dark woman, in which it would seem that both proved untrue to their poet friend. Sonnet 144 may be viewed as the more definite key to this triangle. It is the one in which the writer speaks of having “two loves”:
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman colour’d ill.
Obviously, Shakespeare’s sonnets raise with peculiar interest the question that attaches in some form to most sonnet sequences—how far the writer speaks literally (autobiographically) of himself and how far conventionally or imaginatively. Students of Shakespeare’s sonnets have differed widely, sometimes bitterly, on this question, and all possible answers to it may be found. • They range from the extreme view that the story is a wholly imaginative one—with no more reference to Shakespeare’s personal life than that of Romeo or Othello—to the opposite extreme, that we have in his sonnets a perfectly clear and definite record of his friendship for an attractive but faithless young man and a repulsive yet strangely fascinating woman.
The interpreters of the latter sort have also made strenuous efforts to identify the persons concerned. A number of them, in particular, have determined that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. Others are equally certain that he is William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. The dispute is complicated by the curious circumstance that the publisher of the sonnets dedicated them to “Mr. W. H.,” whom he called their “only begetter,” and it has been assumed that this dedication should give a clue to the person addressed in the First Series. All these matters are still in debate, and there is no reason to expect any unquestioned solution.
In general, modern criticism tends to reflect the view that a good part of these sonnets, including those concerned with the intrigue with the Dark Lady, were of personal significance (chiefly because, if Shakespeare had set out to tell an imaginative tale, he would have done it better and more clearly than he has told this one). However, at die same time they represent conventional moods and manners familiar to Shakespeare’s contemporaries and are therefore not to be taken so seriously by students of his life as many have done. It is certain that none of the attempted identifications has been proved.
The disputes concerning the arrangement and the personal significance of the sonnets have tended to obscure the question of their poetic qualities. In general, with Shakespeare’s sonnets as with Renaissance poetry as a whole, it is necessary to distinguish between qualities peculiar to that age and qualities of permanently vital character. Chief among the former is Shakespeare’s use of the “conceit” (the ingenious elaboration of a verbal or imaginative figure of speech)—a habit common to most of the Renaissance lyricists and consistent with Shakespeare’s taste, especially in his more immature periods. Sonnet 43 (When Most I Wink, Then Do Mine Eyes Best See) is a notable example. Others are Sonnets 8, 24, 46-47, 99, 132, 135-136, and 145. As a lyrical method, the conceit, of course, is opposed to the canons of modern taste. And in the 18th century, when criticism was disposed to deal with special severity with Renaissance ingenuities, the poems of Shakespeare suffered a corresponding depreciation. George Steevens, one of the leading editors of Shakespeare’s plays, refused to admit them to his edition of the works of Shakespeare (1793), saying that no act of Parliament would compel readers for the sonnets.
On the other hand, it is now universally admitted that many of Shakespeare’s sonnets are unsurpassed examples of the power of lyric poetry to express personal feeling in concentrated form.
In particular, they deal with the theme of the struggle of human love and beauty against die archenemies Time and Death—sometimes representing these enemies as triumphant, sometimes finding in poetry a means of overcoming them, but chiefly finding such a means in the unconquerable power of love. From this standpoint, Sonnet 116 may be viewed as the climax of the collection:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
Others memorable for their content or lyric beauty include Sonnet 18 (Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?), Sonnet 30 (When to the Sessions of Sweet Silent Thought), Sonnet 64 (When I Have Seen by Time’s Fell Hand Defaced), and Sonnet 73 (That Time of Year Thou Mayst in Me Behold).