Habent sue fata libelli: and of no book is this more true than of the little quarto volume entitled Shakespeare's Sonnets which came into the world, irregularly and under ambiguous auspices, in 1609. Shakespeare, at the age of forty-five, had then already produced nearly all his greatest plays. He was loosening his hold on London and the world of letters and preparing to resume the life of a burgess of Stratford. The singular carelessness which, except in the case of the two juvenile pieces with which he graduated as a poet, Shakespeare always displayed towards his own work, is not the less surprising because it is so familiar. The Sonnets were printed from an imperfect and faulty MS. They were very probably brought out by what would now be called a pirate publisher, though this is taken for granted rather on general grounds than on any sufficient evidence. However this may be, Shakespeare never took the pains either to stop their publication or to issue an authentic edition. They stole into the world, in both senses of the phrase. There are no allusions to their appearance in contemporary literature, and there was, as it would seem, little demand for them among the public. A collection of Shakespeare's poems brought out in 1640 included a garbled, incomplete, and disarranged version of the majority of them. Except for this it was exactly a century from their first appearance before they were reprinted; and


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Lectures on Poetry


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