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of the great poet and his feelings. “When he wrote sonnets,” he observes, “it seems as if he had considered himself as more of a poet than when he wrote plays; he was the manager of a theatre, and he viewed the drama as his business; on it he exerted all his intellect and power; but when he had feelings intense and secret to express, he had recourse to a form of writing, with which his habits had rendered him familiar. It is strange but A delightful to scrutinize, in these short effusions, the character of Shakespeare. For the right understanding of even his dramatic works, these lyrics are of the greatest importance; they show us, that in his dramas he very seldom speaks according to his own thoughts or feelings, but according to his knowledge.” This is also the opinion of his celebrated brother Augustus William Schlegel, and I take up a strong position when I shelter myself under such authorities*. Mr. Thomas Campbell, however, has expressed his surprise that the last mentioned critic, “one of the most brilliant and acute spirits of the age,” should have made this “ erroneous over-estimate of the light derivable from these poems respecting the poet's history.” He contends that the facts attested by the sonnets “can be held in a nut-shell;” that they do not unequivocally paint the actual situation of the poet, nor make us acquainted with his passions; nor contain any confession of the most remarkable errors of his youthful years. He does not deny that some slight hints of a personal nature may be gathered from a careful perusal, but he considers these to be
grossly exaggerated by the German critic.
* “It betrayed an extraordinary deficiency of critical acumen in the commentators on Shakespeare, that mone of them, as far as we know, have ever thought of availing themselves of his Sonnets for tracing the circumstances of his life. These sonnets paint most unequivocally the actual situation and sentiments of the Poet; they enable us to become acquainted with the passions of the man; they even contain the most remarkable confessions of his youthful errors.” Lectures on Dramatic Literature, by Augustus William Schlegel. The remarks of Frederic Schlegel, are extracted from his Lectures on the History of Literature, Ancient and Modern.
Malone and Dr. Drake, are of opinion that the onnets of Daniel were the prototype of Shakespeare's; andt hough their observations on this subject are not without weight, I am inclined to think that Shakespeare had studied all the sonnet compositions of his predecessors, without constructing his own after any particular standard. Daniel's system is not peculiar to himself; there were other writers, both before and after him, who adopted the same form. As to his turn of expression, though in some respects similar to Shakespeare's, it is not more so than that of his other contemporaries. It was the diction and idiom of the age. Shakespeare not being an Italian scholar, and not therefore acquainted with the strict models, chose the system that was most popular at the time, and which was certainly the most easy to construct, and perhaps the most agreeable to his own ear. That the form of three elegiac quatrains, concluding with a couplet, is infinitely less difficult than the Petrarchan sonnet, and is capable of being rendered highly musical and agreeable in skilful hands, no critic would be willing to dispute ; but it is not entitled to the name of sonnet. In the legitimate sonnet, the first eight lines should have but two rhymes, and the concluding six lines should have either two or three rhymes arranged alternately. Shakespeare's fourteen-line effusions are very exquisite little poems, but they are not sonnets, and I only call them such to distinguish them from his longer pieces, and because they are generally recognized by that title.
Some writers have a ridiculous habit of calling every short poem a sonnet, without reference to its precise number of lines or its general construction. They might just as well call a didactic poem an ode; a blank-verse poem a song ; or an elegy an epigram. It is uncritical and injudicious to confound the different orders of verse by inappropriate titles.
Many people disapprove entirely of the system of the sonnet as too arbitrary and confined, and compare it to the bed of Procrustes”, which the limbs of the victims laid thereon were made to fit by being either stretched or amputated, as the case required. They object to its being limited to a precise number of lines; as if the same objection might not be made to every other form of verse. The sonnet is one stanza of fourteen lines, as the Spenserian measure is one stanza of nine lines. Some poems have been constructed entirely of sonnet-stanzast. Though the Spenserian stanza is much shorter, it is generally complete in itself, and the sound and sense are wound up together by the concluding Alexandrine, in a way that fully satisfies both the ear and the mind. Even in eight and four line stanzas there is usually a certain unity and completeness both of thought and music. These laws of verse are not arbitrary or casual, but depend on certain fixed principles, discovered by the intuitive taste and discrimination of genius. Capel Lofft has ingeniously insisted on the perfection of the sonnet construction, and its analogy to music; and has remarked that it is somewhat curious that the two Guidi or Guittonni, both of Arrezzo, the birth-place of Petrarch, were the fathers, the one of the sonnet, and the other of the modern system of musical notation and solmization. He has proved, at least to my satisfaction, that the sonnet is as complete and beautiful a form of verse as any that has been yet invented. I of course allude to the strict Petrarchan or Guidonian sonnet. The little poems of Bowles and Charlotte Smith are merely elegiac four line stanzas, with a concluding couplet; and though very pretty and pleasing compositions, possess not the charm which they would have acquired by a more rigid adherence to the Italian model.
Of later years a more intimate acquaintance with Italian literature has opened the eyes of our poets to the superior beauty of the legitimate construction. The true Italian sonnet is a labyrinth of sweet sounds. It has all the variety of blank-verse, with the additional charm of rhyme. There is no precise limit to the number or position of the pauses, and the lines may so run over into each other, that the cloying effect of a too frequent and palpable recurrence of the same terminations need never be experienced, if the poet turn his skill and taste to a proper account. The sonnet is not adapted to all subjects, but to those only which may be treated in a small compass. A single sentiment or principle may be expressed or illustrated within its narrow limits with exquisite and powerful effect, but it is not adapted for continuous feeling or complex thought. Pastorini's celebrated sonnet to Genoa, and the equally celebrated sonnet to Italy, by Filicaja, are examples of the capability of the sonnet to give effect to a single burst of feeling or to one pervading idea, suggested by a single scene, or circumstance. Wordsworth, who is the most legitimate and by far the finest sonnet-writer in the English language, since Milton, has produced several perfect specimens of the force and unity of this species of composition. I content myself with adducing one beautiful example. SONNET. COMPOSED ON WESTM INSTER BRIDGE. EARTH has not any thing to show more fair: Dull would he be of soul who could pass by A sight so touching in its majesty; This city now doth like a garment wear The beauty of the morning; silent, bare, Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie Open unto the fields and to the sky; All bright and glittering in the smokeless air. Never did sun more beautifully steep In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill; Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep ! The river glideth at his own sweet will; Dear God! the very houses seem asleep, And all that mighty heart is lying still /
* It was Ben Jonson who first made use of this now stale comparison; “He cursed Petrarch for redacting verses into sonnets, which he said was like that tyrant's bed, where some who were too short were racked, others too long cut short.” But Ben Jonson's taste was not infallible. According to Drummond's report of his conversations “Spenser's stanzas pleased him not, nor his matter,” while, “for some things, he esteemed Doune the first poet in the world.” # Spenser’s “Ruines of Rome,” and “Visions of Petrarch,” &c. are examples.
The reader feels as this fine sonnet is wound up with the sublime concluding image, that there is no want of an additional line or an additional illustration. Both the ear and mind are satisfied. The music of thought and the music of verse are exquisitely blended, and seem to arrive together at a natural termination. It reminds me of the Portuguese aphorism, that the sonnet ought to be shut with a golden key. The Italians say that it should be a body of sweetness with a sting, by which they do not mean that its tenderness or beauty should merge into an actual epigram, but that it should end with point and spirit. When a sonnet fails to exhibit a unity and finish, it is the fault of the artist. The question put by George Steevens, in allusion to Shakespeare's sonnets of “what have truth and nature to do with sonnets 2" is scarcely worthy of an answer. Truth and nature are not confined to any particular form of verse, and may be as well embodied in the 14-line stanza as in any other; they depend on the poet’s genius, and not on his choice of metre.
It is true that the sonnet imposes many peculiar difficulties on the poet, but it is his glory to overcome them; and we do not find that bad sonnets necessarily contain more nonsense than
14 lines of bad blank verse”.
* In the notice of Robert Walpole's poetical translations from the Greek, Spanish, and Italian, in the Edinburgh Review, (1805) it is observed that “This species of composition has been called by an excellent writer, the most eaguisite jewel of the Muses. With us it has never been completely naturalized. Milton and Gray, who have cultivated it with most success, both drank from the sweet streams of Italy, where a single sonnet can give immortality to its author, while the longer poems of his contemporaries are buried in oblivion.” In adding that the strict laws of the sonnet ought not to be departed from, the reviewer remarks, “Gray has observed them scrupulously.” I cannot understand this prominent notice of Gray as a sonnet-writer. He wrote only one, and even that is omitted in Chalmer's collection! Though a very good sonnet, its excellence is by no means extraordinary. Milton's sonnets are unquestionably the best in our language, and possess a severe dignity that may be referred to as a triumphant disproof of the vulgar notion, that this form of verse is necessarily confined to ingenious conceits or maudlin sentiment.