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limited only by the degree of intellectual power brought to bear upon the subject by the individual critic?
To point out this single-minded train of ideas, to trace it through all the details of the sonnets, as it might otherwise be overlooked, is the task I have set myself. To display the highly moral, aesthetical and psychological value of these emanations; and to contribute an effort towards fulfilling Shakespeare's hope that some day his Psyche, freed from her sonnet-film, might unfold her inborn loveliness and perfection to the gaze of all the world - this is my end and aim.
For the full comprehension of the inner meaning of the sonnets an intellectual exertion is indeed necessary. The effort is nothing less than to transpose self into another special individuality. That this is difficult for most men, the fate of the sonnets hitherto proves; but that such an effort was surprisingly easy to Shakespeare is evident by the truthfulness of his dramatic characters. How far my command of language will enable me to guide others, and convey clearly to them the perceptions which have flashed upon my mind, this essay must prove. Let me at least hope that it may serve a way-mark towards the truth.— He, indeed, who shuns the intellectual labour of studying and analysing this work of the greatest, the most gifted perhaps of human kind, - a work in which, shaking off all the trammels of custom, he soars into regions of the purest
abstraction, and reflects his views in a mirror, the admirable clearness of which borders on the superhuman,
for such a one the sonnets will remain, as heretofore, the feeble effusions of an unhealthy mind.
I have only to hope that my work may meet with an unprejudiced criticism. It has no value, but in its great subject. The most, and doubtless the weightiest objections which can be brought to bear against me in an aesthetical and psychological point of view, I have already made to myself and overcome. In such an argument the plain letter of the poet can alone decide; and this, and this only, must be taken as the touchstone of my explanations. My whole and sole endeavour has been to comprehend Shakespeare by a candid and impartial analysis. To those who, adopting in principle my interpretation, can prove me to be wrong in detail from Shakespeare's own words I shall feel grateful; on the other hand, I ask those who still insist upon the vulgar acceptation to mention out of the one hundred and fifty four Sonnets only three with whose details the carnal interpretation better agrees than my intellectual one.
BREMEN, November 1861.
TIIE AUTIO R.
How could a doubt prevail in the literary world upon the subject of Shakespeare's Sonnets! How could a vulgar superficial reading of this work so cloud the intellects of thinking men, that they should remain satisfied with interpretations and assumptions, not only unreliable, but which tend to drag the name of the poet in the dirt of the earth. - It has been well said, that when we meet with a passage in any work of a Shakespeare's, that at the first reading appears strange and incomprehensible, we are to ponder over and criticize it with a settled conviction of our own intellectual inferiority,- of our utter insignificance compared with him. We echo this opinion; yet who, unless a mere blind admirer, on reading the sonnets, under the impression that they were addressed to a patron, a friend, or a mistress could help condemning these apparently overstrained and long-drawn verses as devoid of taste, and true feeling ; – altogether unmanly, and opposed to all elevation of soul? But Shakespeare, the Great Dramatist, was their author, and we have to read carefully and judge timidly. Shakespeare is distinguished for sound sense discretion, and discrimination. His detestation of bombast and mouthing is plainly shewn in the play of Hamlet. Now is it conceivable that he should have been so false to himself in these sonnets, as Laertes-like to prate, and whine, and rant of love,--or that he should waste his genius, and that Time upon which he sets so great a value in fawning, adulatory effusions dedicated to a young man of rank, to a friend, or to a mistress? This struck us as so utterly improbable, that we resolved to fling aside the vulgar acceptation and seek whether some other object more worthy of such an expenditure of time and talent might not be latent in the sonnets. Modestly and almost without the hope of obtaining a satisfactory result, we bent to our task; and discovered -- what? darkness? confusion ? No! light and order. Every word and every symbol displayed convincingly that the poet had been misunderstood.
We could now hardly comprehend the 'fact, that men of high attainments should have disputed about the corporeal beings to whom the poet was supposed to have dedicated these poetic emanations. We could still less familiarize ourselves with the flattering circumstance, that it should be reserved for us to perceive and draw aside the veil of allegory with which the poet had so cunningly hid himself. That we should discover in this literary stumbling block against which so many commentators have broken their shins, a literary gem of purest ray serene was more than we could possibly anticipate. Yet such was, as we hope to prove to every reader before he closes this book, the result of our study.
We scarcely know where to commence in proof of that which really requires no proof, We might say with
Winkelmann in reference to the beauties of the Apollo Belvidere: “Go and study the work, and if you see its beauty the first time, examine it again, and if you cannot perceive it the second time, go a third time, go again and again till you feel it, for be assured it is there.” It is indeed altogether a work of supererogation to attempt to render Shakespeare's language plainer than it is of itself. The mists of indifference, the surmises of presumptuous commentators which have hitherto surrounded the sonnets will not endure for a moment the steady penetrating gaze of independent analysis. We need indeed spend no words to prove that which a modest confidence in the poet's genius and good sense, and a careful unbiassed study of his work will render self evident. Nevertheless, experience teaches, - the fate of the sonnets teaches, how hard it is for the most of us to forsake an adopted, or rather imposed error, and disentangle ourselves from the meshes of misconception, and prejudice.
It is always difficult to disassociate ourselves from our environments, and transpose ourselves into the individuality of him we seek to understand. And the fact, that Hamlet, whom we had moving in flesh and blood so to speak before us, proved for a couple of centuries an enigma, may serve as an
excuse for the universal misconception regarding a poetic effusion which has its source in regions of the purest abstractness.
The subjects of the poet's muse, in these sonnets is no Earl of Southampton, no Earl of Pembroke, no Queen Elizabeth, no Mrs. Varnon-no corporeal friend, no corporeal mistress, but Genius and the Drama,