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PREFACE.

"A KEY to Shakespeare's Sonnets:"—thus I presume to designate this work, and am fully sensible of the significance of the title. I venture to give publicity to my opinion, and boldly claim the honour of being the first to reveal the hidden meaning of a work of the Great Poet's, which has hitherto proved an insoluble riddle to every commentator:- I say an insoluble riddle, for every conjecture that has been advanced, even by men of the highest attainments, appears like the random guess of ignorance when we steadfastly fix our mind upon, and seek to comprehend the spirit of these poetic emanations. Commentators, and critics who had no conception of the pure sphere of thought in which the poet ranged, could only skip over the incomprehensible, and represent as poetic embellishment that licientiousness which existed in their own imaginations alone, - not in the sonnets.

Every inexplicable, or apparently flat or obsolete passage in Shakespeare's poetry, instead of damping our ardour, or weakening our admiration, should spur us on

to profounder explorations into the spirit of it. This is more particularly applicable to the sonnets. In these, the language not being governed by the several individualities, as in the dramas, is so uniform, and so unequivocal, that it is our own fault, if we cannot trace the under current of thought, and follow it into those regions of pure abstraction whence it sprung; — if we cannot understand the poet, but partially, and piecemeal, some of us more, others less, we have only ourselves to blame.

Gervinus in his work upon Shakespeare, reviews the different conjectures that have been published upon the sonnets; and comes to the conclusion that “where the poet is occupied by such deep meditations and feelings, and these emotions of his soul are expressed to a friend in the form of amorous outpourings, such a friend must have truly and corporeally stood by his side.” He adds: “ the warmth of life animates them; the relations of actual existence also appear from beneath the thin varnish of allegory peculiar to this species of poetry; the healthy pulsation of a heart deeply affected, beats through the envelopements of poetic affectation.” This last observation strikingly describes the general impression which is made by the sonnets, apparently over-burthened with words. But for the very reason that an actual and ardent emotion seems to have given rise to the sentiments, our minds rebel against the assumption

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that they were addressed to a young man of flesh and blood, or to a woman of light character whose favours the poet enjoyed in common with his friend.

Did not every word of this poetic emanation contain proof, to me overwhelmingly convincing, that something totally opposite was meant; could I adopt the general and, erroneous view, or even admit that these were the effusions, of a friend or of a lover, based, as in the latter case they must have been upon carnal lust, unworthy of a man, a poet, a Shakespeare; I would not hesitate, in spite of my unbounded and reverential admiration for the Great Dramatist, to give my verdict as

man that the sonnets are, with all their beauties, inwardly unclean.

The standard by which we measure other masterminds is not sufficient to judge Shakespeare by. Where the wonderful poetry of his diction presents us with truths, emotions, and profound reflections in figurative language; and where, as in the sonnets, every comparison is a symbol, we are much too prone to regard, as poetic embellishment, passages in which the poet was chiefly striving to give the pure thought the most appropriate expression, – the deepest sentiment the most transparent dress. All his beauty is truth! Never, of this I am convinced, did he seek the Beautiful, it springs from him so naturally; his ideas, and feelings, blend so innately with the words of the language, with his allegories and

with the plot of his dramas, that where we discover the Beautiful in any work of his we may also expect to find the True.

Who that has perused the Sonnets in a spirit of interested enquiry, under the impression that they were dedicated to a man, a certain carl, can say that his attention has been rivetted by a single consoling, or elevating thought; or that his heart has in any degree been affected, or his sympathy caught by that which so deeply moved the poet? Must he not acknowledge that an instinctive feeling of the unmanliness and impropriety of the dedication, made much of the language and sentiment appear flat, and contemptible? The “listilling(Sonnets V-VI) of his young friend, before his beauty fades, what can it mean, what conceivable drift can such a word have, but what is repugnant to sense and sentiment? But how, if by flinging aside this low-minded interpretation, which is justified neither by internal nor external evidence; how, if by adopting another, higher, purer, nobler, and more intellectual interpretation all and every thing that presented a difficulty to the understanding vanished ? How if the discovery of a single-minded train of thought resolved all the jarring, conflicting details into the most delightful harmony, dispelling at the same time every image that could wound the most delicate moral nature, and spreading over all a brightness and perspicuity

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