The Sense of Shakespeare's Sonnets

The Sense of Shakespeare's Sonnets

The Sense of Shakespeare's Sonnets

The Sense of Shakespeare's Sonnets

Excerpt

With the possible exception of Hamlet, none of Shakespeare's works has been the object of more investigation nor the subject of more controversy than the little book of sonnets published in 1609. The reader may well suppose that everything worth saying about them has been said--and perhaps it has. They have been subjected to endless scrutiny in the search for further biographical knowledge of Shakespeare and in the attempts to identify the unnamed persons addressed in them. There has been a continued effort ever since their second printing in 1640 to arrange them in a more satisfactory order than that of the first edition, usually with a view to making them tell a more coherent story. In our time there has been a prolonged and fruitful consideration of their relation to the conventions of the sonnet tradition. Yet there has been little critical attention paid to them as poems, and except for the attempt to establish the date of their composition by comparing their stylistic qualities with those of the plays, they have not been considered in relation to the rest of Shakespeare's work. Their content has, in our time, been found to be of little interest. The truth is that apart from studies in the history of ideas, thought has been at a discount in modern criticism, and in Shakespeare criticism the dominant fashion, now a half century old, asserts in all solemnity that Shakespeare "had no mind" or that "if he thought he thought to no purpose." It is a point of view peculiar to our age. Coleridge, whose best remarks on Shakespeare are still the best there are, called him the "myriad-minded Shakespeare." If we persuade ourselves that Shakespeare thought to no purpose, it can only be because we will not recognize that the creation of enduring poems and plays is conceivably purpose enough for a poet and playwright, or that the thought is not our . . .

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