The remarkable, and in many respects preeminent, series of fourteen-line poems known as the sonnets of Shakspeare, present a dilemma on one horn of which the writer of a short essay must be impaled. They fill such a space and hold such a rank in the sonnet literature of England, that to ignore them is impossible, and to treat them adequately is not one whit less so. Numberless volumes, the outcome of long and loving study, have been devoted to a theme which I must needs dismiss in a few brief and necessarily unsatisfactory sentences. True, most of these volumes have been occupied with matters which are irrelevant to our main purpose. Wordsworth, whose briefest criticisms are generally full of insight, surely erred when he said that in these poems Shakspeare unlocked his heart, for the precious collection is still, like the book in the Apocalypse, 'sealed with seven seals.' We know by whom the poems were written, but we can hardly say without uncertainty that we know to whom they were addressed; and with regard to their true significance, speculation has followed speculation, and theory has set itself against theory. Perhaps it is impossible to repress the desire to penetrate those occult mysteries of literature of which the Shakspeare sonnet problem is among the most fascinating; but it is certainly unfortunate that perplexing questions concerning the genesis and final cause of these poems should so largely have diverted attention from those positive qualities which give them their main value and interest.
The first of these qualities--or rather that quality in which all others are included--is what must be called, for want of another word, their pervading Shakspearianism. We smile at the 'Correggiosity of Correggio,' and we may smile at the Shakspearianism of Shakspeare; but, after all, how can the bringer-in of a unique type be defined in the terms of an established nomenclature? Shakspeare has this and that quality which belonged to his predecessors--the insight of one, the imagination of another, the expressional felicity of a third; but he unites them all in a new synthesis, and for the product of this synthesis we are bound to make a new definition. Until Shakspeare has a compeer he is a class by himself, and as the world seems to have decided that the compeer has not yet arrived, he remains above all else Shakspearian. And in his poems, notably in these so-called sonnets, which are the richest and completest of them, this unique personal note is as clearly discernible as in the noblest of the plays, and much more discernible than in some of those earlier dramatic efforts which mark the tentative stage of his development. If we could imagine the existence of a person of cultivated taste who was still ignorant of the recognised place of Shakspeare in literature, he could not pass from the sonnet work of Shakspeare's contemporaries to that of the master himself without an instant sense of an enlarged outlook, of a freer, clearer air, of a more impressive spiritual presence. There is the recognition of an unmistakable amplitude of treatment, a large utterance, and ensuing upon this a feeling of fellowship with a soul wealthy enough to disdain the smaller economies of the intellect. In these sonnets there is no sense of strain; we do not feel, as in reading Drummond, that the poet has touched his possibilities, but that even in his farthest reaches they are still long ahead of him. Even when the intellectual level attained by an author is not absolutely high, as it is here, there is always a felt charm in his work if it leave such an impression as this; a charm like that which belongs to the feats of some trained athlete who performs what seem muscular miracles with the graceful ease of effortless strength.
Coleridge has spoken of the 'condensation of thought' in these sonnets, Dyce of their 'profound thought,' Archbishop Trench of their being 'double-shotted with thought'; but, if I mistake not, the thing which gives to them their specific gravity is not what is usually understood by thought, but what may rather be described as intellectualised emotion--that is the incarnation of pure emotion, (which is itself too rare and attenuated an essence to be adequately and at the same time sustainedly expressed), in a body of symbol or situation which is supplied by the intellect. The simple poring [pouring?] out of passion is apt to become tiresome to all save the lover and the beloved; but in reading Shakspeare's sonnets we are sensible of no loss of gusto; the last is as piquant as the first; and this because the mere passion, which is in itself an ordinary thing,--though the passion of a Titan must needs be Titanesque,--is supplemented by the tremendous intellectual force which lies behind and beneath it, and bears it up as the foam-bell is borne on the bosom of the great sea.
The connoisseur in these delicacies of verse loses little by passing per saltum from Shakspeare to Milton, whose sonnets as unmistakably as his epics bear the impress of the modelling of a Michael Angelo of literature. Dr Johnson and Hannah More, after quietly assuming that Milton's sonnets were very bad, set out upon an investigation into the causes of their badness; and it was in the course of this edifying and fruitful inquiry that Johnson distinguished himself by his description of Milton's genius as one 'that could hew a Colossus out of a rock, but could not carve heads on cherry-stones.' This curious remark has often been quoted in proof of Dr Johnson's absolute insensitiveness to the appeal of essential poetry, and it does undoubtedly prove this very conclusively; but it has not, we think, been noticed that it betrays an equally absolute ignorance of the true character of the sonnet. Critics have been more careful to maintain Milton's ability to carve heads upon cherry-stones than to inquire whether cherry-stone carving and sonnet writing have any real artistic affinity. A head upon a cherry-stone is at best an ingenious trifle, which can but show the dexterity of its artificer; a sonnet is of the nature of a cameo, which is either a satisfying work of art or nothing. The pre-Miltonic sonnet had certainly been largely devoted to the elaboration of amorous fantasies: Milton, as Landor gracefully said--
Caught the sonnet from the dainty hand Of Love, who cried to lose it, and he gave The notes to glory;--
but thus to apotheosise any literary form is the surest evidence of supreme mastery of its conditions and possibilities. It would not be too much to say that every sonnet from Milton's hand betrays this mastery as fully as the O of Giotto. They are unequal in conception; some are the utterances of a more and some of a less happy mood; but 'the spirit of the handling' is the same in all. We perceive everywhere the splendid sweep of a soul which revolves through vast circumferences around a fixed centre, with its centripetal and centrifugal forces in impressive equipoise; and the emotion born and maintained within us is that which would be roused by the swimming into our ken of a new planet, moving through the stellar spaces as through the halls of an ancestral home.
Even when Milton's matter repels or fails to interest, there is always something in his manner which compels an attentive and fascinated hearing. The personal quality, which was of pure and high self-containedness all compact, informs the language and gives it a magical power. He on his mountain-top had learned from the silent stars and voiceful winds a speech which was not the dialect of the crowd, and, whatever be the burden of the saying, there is a spell in the mere intonation. We feel the spell sometimes almost humorously, as in the rough-hewn sonnet with its harsh, unpoetic, bald, monosyllabic rhymes-'clogs,' 'dogs,' 'frogs,' 'hogs,'--which leaves almost the same sense of weight and mass that we derive from his nobler and more delightful utterances. Among these, it is needless to say, one stands apart in unapproached and unapproachable majesty. The great sonnet On the late Massacres in Piedmont is one of those achievements in which matter of the noblest order moulds for itself a form of the highest excellence, matter and form being, as in music and in all supreme art, so bound up and interfused that, though we know both of them to be there, we cannot know them or think of them apart. Much has been said in eulogy of this sonnet, and said worthily and well; but there is a perfection which mocks praise, and it is this perfection that is here attained; not the perfection which consists in this quality or in that, but which comes when all qualities which may be displayed, all potentialities which can be exerted, meet in triumphant, satisfying, utter accomplishment. When Lord Macaulay called it a collect in verse he was on the right track, for such comparisons are more expressive and less misleading than the more definite characterisations of criticism; but it would have been safer to compare it to some great work of nature, or even to some equally moving product of pictorial, or plastic, or musical art, than to any other work of literary craftsmanship, howsoever perfect. To undervalue the collects would simply be to show a total want of feeling for exquisiteness of form; but the peculiar quality of their indwelling virtue has a subtle but quite apprehensible difference from the something which makes Milton's sonnet just what it is. The collects have grace, pliancy, symmetry, and compactness; they have both stately phrase and tender cadence, and they are impregnated with an undying aroma of devotion; but they have not, and it would not be fitting that they should have, the splendid and sonorous rhetoric, the solemn majesty as of a judge pronouncing doom, the white heat of prophetic passion, which give its unique character to this invocation of divine vengeance.
Of Milton's other sonnets, 'soul-animating strains, alas too few,' nothing more need be said here. In the great utterance of which we have been discoursing all their varied virtues are gathered up and concentrated. What is true of it is true in less measure of its companions, and they are worthy of grateful study, not merely for their absolute perfections, but because they are the first successful attempts to vindicate on a large scale the possibilities of the true sonnet. The mighty intellectual and ethical force of which all Milton's work is the manifestation cannot blind us to the supremacy of his purely asthetic instincts. Whatever else he might remember, he never forgot that he was an artist, and in several of these sonnets his art achieves some of its finest triumphs. Even in those which are, comparatively speaking, of minor importance and interest, there is a restful adequacy, a satisfying fulfilment, which all sonnet-writers must necessarily strive after, but which very few attain; and, in addition to this inestimable quality of the sonnets as poetic wholes, there is not one without some line or lines which, for elevation of thought or magnificence of music, impress us at once with an ever-enduring sense of final mastery.