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XIII

THE SONNETS

EDUCATION sets spectacles before men's eyes. Each one sees what his learning and his avocations have taught him to look for; and thus the landscape of life resolves itself into a map. No two of these maps are exactly alike: your architect, your farmer, a university man, a theological student, a bank clerk - it is the early training of each that colors the world for him. He is seldom aware of this; for a man no more sees his own education than a man can see his own spectacles. It is the same with the fine arts. What are they but metaphysical lenses, a mental table on which men arrange their thoughts and feelings, bending over their poem, their plot, their picture, till the task absorbs their mind, and the work of art they leave behind teaches us to see what they saw, feel what they felt, be what they were?

The amateurs, and those who dabble in poetry, philosophy, or painting, think that these arts are clever games, played with bits and fragments of experience. But to the artist and the poet the games are life itself. Their palettes, and brushes, their majors and minors are parts of a harness which their souls have somehow slipped into, and by means of which their lives and experiences are mysteriously transmuted into poetry, plays, pictures, and so on.

Although no one knows how Shakespeare was employed between the ages of twenty and twenty-eight, when he emerged as an actor and dramatist, it would seem that the playhouse was his university. He was dipped in the theatrical business at so early an age that its conventions formed and controlled his thought. All the modern playwrights except Shakespeare have something else in their minds besides drama. They have opinions, prejudices, intentions

a training and a private life outside of their craft. If, for instance, a modern dramatist reads Aristotle's "Ethics," he thinks about Aristotle and about ethics; but if Shakespeare reads Aristotle's "Ethics,' he sees both Aristotle and Ethics dancing in his mind as part of a puppet-show that never ends. In the flush of his youth he entered the Cavern of Drama, where is enacted the eternal mystery play of human life. None of the creatures of the mystery play are persons, but resonances, realms of feeling, diapasons of the spirit. They are musical antiphonies which, when sounded properly, evoke that unity within us which responds only to the counter-strokes of mighty opposites.

Young Shakespeare stepped into this cavern and was never heard of again. The stage became his education; the drama was his life. We are puzzled by this — we who have been taught to see life as politics, religion, or morality; as conduct, or economics. We insist that there must have been some part of Shakespeare that we could meet outside his playhouse; and we almost resent the fact that he has no private opinions, and ask petulantly, “What did the man do for the rest of the day after his playwriting was finished ?" Well, he staged-managed a theatre, acted in plays, and went to the tavern to

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meet his friends. That is all that we positively know about him. Between the cavern and the tavern Shakespeare was content. He belonged to that class of artists who live for their work, like Mozart, Turner, Rembrandt, or Blake; and as his work was from the start very much appreciated, and he was, moreover, of a most happy disposition, he had no temptation to fume and worry, to wonder whether it was good, to struggle and suffer and write letters, and in one way or another to expose his own relation to his art. If he had any feelings about himself and his work, he worked them off, as he did the rest of his thoughts, in depicting stage characters.

That Shakespeare excited so little notice while he lived, and left so few personal records behind him, is indeed puzzling; but then we have no one with whom to compare him. Perhaps men like Shakespeare always live and die unnoticed. If a single specimen of a new insect should be found, and if its chrysalis should turn into a butterfly leaving no shell behind, we should be astonished at the rarity of the species; but we should not cry out that the absorption of the shell was a miracle. Shakespeare's mental grasp, facility, and learning so amaze us that he seems like a creature from another planet; and yet we are forced to judge him by our own. His dramas throw no direct light on his life; nor do the two romantic poems, “Venus and Adonis" and "Lucrece," for these poems are obviously pieces of formal art. Therefore the famished curiosity of the world has fixed itself upon his Sonnets.

A convention of heavy-footed critics, with shovels on their shoulders and cans of dynamite at their elbows, have been encamped about Shakespeare's Sonnets for a century. They feel that they are about to excavate Shakespeare, and set him up definitively in their museum. They think that, if they but knew the facts of his life, and the identity of W. H., to whom the Sonnets are dedicated, they would pluck out the heart of his mystery and write their names on his tomb. But the mystery of the Sonnets is a mystery that can be delved into only by imaginative perceptions which are apt to be blunted by learning. The study of documents hurts the eyesight.

The sonnet-form is a humorous opal, which hides or discloses its lights according to the sky and the weather, and turns to trash in a museum. It has a history that is knitted into the social life of Europe for six centuries; and the customs and costumes of Italy, France, and England are reflected in its hues. It forms a class of literature by itself: for the sonnet is not written to be printed, but to be shown in manuscript to one's friends as a social amenity. To publish sonnets is a pompous and academic thing to do, and is like handing about dead butterflies in a box. Petrarch established the practice, and thereby did much harm to the art. Shakespeare's Sonnets were not meant to be printed, and are thus true and lively creatures. Neither were they holy and intimate confessions, consigned to the drawers of a secret cabinet and found after his death by a friend. They were written from time to time during three years, and at a period when a sonnet-craze reigned among the literati of England, having been brought in from France in the wake of Renaissance influences.

The sonnet throughout its history had remained a highly specialized type of literary performance, conventional, candied, and dealing with conceits which had become common property. The vast authority of Petrarch controlled its form and substance for two centuries before Shakespeare's time, and the Elizabethan sonnets are imitative to a degree that was unsuspected till the scholars exposed the facts. What would have been thought plagiarism and theft in any other form of poetry was deemed correctness in the sonnet. The whole art and craft of sonnet-making was governed by ideas of the supersensuous which are vaguely attributed to the influence of Plato. The verses lived in a planetary region, above the touch of earthly passion, and the women to whom sonnets were written became metaphysical stalking-horses for the poets. Dante was not in love with Beatrice in any ordinary sense of the word, nor Petrarch with Laura, nor was Sir Philip Sidney in love with Stella. The feudal worship of imaginary womanhood mingled in the sonnet with a metaphysic of beauty and a cult of virtue.

There is, however, a difference between the Elizabethan sonnets and their continental forerunners which has not been sufficiently noticed by the scholars. The language of the continental sonneteers was more archaic than that of their British followers. In old Italian and old French sonnets the roses are wired upon an idiom which explains the pose and foundation of the whole art. Had Shakespeare adopted the Italian form of the sonnet, or used an archaic or mannered vehicle, as Dante does in his “Vita Nuova” or Ronsard in his Sequences, the

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