Elizabethan and Jacobean Studies

By Frank Percy Wilson | Go to book overview

Variations on a Theme in Shakespeare's Sonnets

J. B. LEISHMAN


I

IT is a commonplace of criticism that there are certain obvious differences between Shakespeare's Sonnets and those of all his predecessors and contemporaries: that for no single one of them has it been possible to produce a recognizable 'source', that most of them are addressed to a man, not to a woman, and that behind the collection as a whole we are aware of situations and relationships which cannot have been invented, if for no other reason than that they have been left so tantalizingly obscure. Unfortunately, the fact of these undeniable differences seems to have been accepted by most writers on the sonnets as something like a dispensation from the task of literary criticism, and they have either devoted their whole energies to unprofitable speculations about the identity of 'Mr. W. H.', the friend, the rival poet, and the Dark Lady, or else, assuming, apparently, that because no recognizable 'sources' have been produced, Shakespeare's sonnets are in the most literal sense incomparable, they have omitted from their attempts at stylistic analysis many possible and illuminating comparisons. And yet nowhere else is comparison so possible and so profitable; in no other portion of his work can Shakespeare be so appropriately 'committed with his peers' as in the sonnets. For very many of them--perhaps, indeed, nearly all the most memorable--are concerned with a few large general topics, of which Shakespeare's treatment, both in its resemblances and in its characteristic differences, may be illuminatingly compared with that of various poets throughout the whole course of European literature. In the present study I propose to consider only one of these topics. I shall compare Shakespeare's treatment of Poetry as Immortalization with that of various poets from Pindar to Daniel.


II

In the poetry of Augustan Rome it is possible to distinguish between passages in which the poet speaks of the immortality he will achieve for himself and those in which he speaks of the immortality

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