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And my laments would be drawn out too long,
Then be this all the task it hath to say,
The tale concludes with the self-slaughter of Lucretia, and with Brutus's casting off his masque of folly. Collatinus and his friends are standing, full of grief, by the body of Tarquin's victim, when—
“ Brutus, who pluck'd the knife from Lucrece side,
But now he throws that shallow habit by,
Now set thy long-experienc'd wit to school.'”
He proceeds to offer advice suiting the necessity of the time, and with this (and an intimation, that the mourners are about to publish “Tarquin's foul offence” to the people of Rome) the poem concludes.
There are more things in this production which we should be tempted to extract, did not our limits forbid. In fact, Shakespeare's excellence lies oftener in solitary thoughts and striking images, than in any splendid sweep of verse, or sustained eloquence of diction. It is difficult to select these jewels of poetry, so as to shew them to advantage.' They must be seen in their original setting, where, if the reader can forgive the antique fashion, he will find many things that are beautiful, and some that are rare and precious.
But setting aside the great dramas of our poet, the Sonnets of Shakespeare contain, perhaps, more absolute thought than any other poems of the same extent in our language. They have often the closeness (though not the turn) of epigrams. A good deal of discussion has been wasted upon them, in order to shew, by some, that they were addressed to a lady, and, by others, to a male friend. This is not a very important question, perhaps : but, if it be, we think there cannot be a doubt but that they refer to at least two persons of distinct sexes. Indeed, the language of the 19th and 130th sonnets puts this opinion past doubt.
The poem, called the Sonnet, seems to have been used, if not intended, for the developement of a single idea. It is the only poem, that we know of, in the English language, which has a defined fashion and limit; its extent being fourteen lines, neither more or less. Of these the first eight lines must have only two different terminations, and the last six lines two or three, at the option of the poet.* This, we apprehend, is the established rule. Milton has invariably observed it, and Drummond, Sidney,and Warton, we believe, with scarcely an exception. Shakespeare himself has deviated from this system : and, indeed, his poems have little claim, beyond the mere number of lines which each contains, to the title of Sonnets. The character of the Sonnet seems to approximate in a manner to the epigram. It is not a loose desultory composition of fourteen lines; but is the developement of one single idea, which is generally personal to the writer. It may consist solely of
* Note. Milton's beautiful Sonnet, addressed “ To Mr. Lawrence," will exemplify what we wish to say. He has chosen to use three rhymes (instead of two) in the six concluding lines.
What neat repast shall feast us, light and choice,
an elaborate antithesis :-or it may be grounded on a position obvious or even common place, with a new inference deduced from it. In this case it partakes of the nature of a syllogism. In fact, it is a poem for a logician. Something must be made out in it, some feeling, or likeness, or moral. Even the compliment conveyed by it should scarcely be simple, but should be made out by comparison or deduction. In ordinary poems, the writer steeps his thoughts in the rich dews of imagination, or exalts his passion by the help of fancy, and it is all sufficient. They may be loose, wandering, unconstrained; so that they possess poetry and beauty. But a Sonnet requires more compact texture, more strength and precision; and it should have its crowning thought at the close, in the same manner as an epigram or a jest. Without this last mentioned peculiarity it may be a quatorzain, a poem, or what the reader pleases,-but it can hardly be called, in the strict sense of the term, a Sonnet.
Under this impression, we consider Shakespeare's Sonnets, as Sonnets, to be defective. Nevertheless they are beautiful poems, replete with airy fancy, and profound thought, and amorous desire. Or they are gentle and uncomplaining, sighing out Æolian music, or tinged with splendid colours, or dark with tears. They are, in brief, transcripts of the poet's mind, shewing it in all its changes from joy to sorrow; and never, throughout the whole range, bearing testimony of any ungenerous feeling, any base exultation, or bitter wish. There is certainly a sameness about them, from the circumstance of their being addressed principally to one person, and turning generally upon one subject. But it is not an easy thing, perhaps, to carry an ordinary reader through upwards of one hundred and fifty Sonnets, without his experiencing some little sense of weariness. Without narrative, and without event, the curiosity of the multitude is not very easily preserved.
The best writer of English Sonnets is, we think, Milton. There is too much coldness and quaintness about Daniel, Drummond, and Sir Philip Sidney; and Warton (though he was a graceful writer) was inferior in poetry and power. Of the present day, Mr. Wordsworth approaches nearer Milton, in his Sonnets, than any other writer whom we are aware of, although even his Sonnets, not unfrequently, want that particular turn which seems to us to belong properly to the poem.
In order to give our readers an opportunity of comparing, without trouble, some of these great writers with each other, we shall take the liberty of extracting, for their amusement, some Sonnets from those whom we have mentioned.-But our first attention is due to Shakespeare: and we shall begin our extracts with a defiance to Time.
The following is beautiful and pathetic. (The reader will keep in mind the low station of Shakespeare, whilst he listens to his musical complaining.)
This melancholy feeling is indulged again in one or two instances afterwards, on which account we shall extract parts of a couple of Sonnets, which otherwise would be somewhat out of place. He says in the 110th :
“ Alas, 'tis true, I have gone here and there,
Most true it is, that I have look'd on truth
And again in the 11lth Sonnet :
“O for my sake do thou with fortune chide,
The three following are well known, and have not unfrequently been quoted. The first is something like a repetition of the 29th Sonnet, which we have already extracted. The second begins very magnificently, and the third has all the colour and odour of Spring.
“ Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchymy;