Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB
[blocks in formation]

sonnets.

and scope, but with a variation in the arrangement of rhymes. Meantime, poems characterised by measureless variety of structure were by these poets and their contemporaries denominated

Down to Spenser, therefore, no deliberative effort appears to have been made to naturalise any specific form of the Italian sonnet, and hence the limitation sometimes observed as to number and length of lines must have been accepted merely for disciplinarian purposes, in order to curb the insatiate demand for

room, which was then, as it is now, the mark of a restless intellect. No consistent or sustained endeavour was made to obey the approved Italian code as to structure, and this, probably, was because the genius of our language did not demand such obedience. The rule which Petrarch had established of at least four different rhyme-sounds in the sonnet may have seemed to the early English sonnet-writers, as it did afterwards to Coleridge, to have arisen from the desire the Italians had to have as many as four rhymes within a space in which there might naturally occur no more than two, inasmuch as the great and grievous defect of their language is a sameness in the final sound of its words. (In the choice of a more varied rhymescheme the English poets may indeed have been influenced by a belief that it would be ridiculous to make the defect of a foreign language a reason for their not availing themselves of a marked excellency of their own.) Apart, however, from all regard for structural divergence, we have merely to set side by side the intellectual plotting of a sonnet by Petrarch and that of a sonnet by Spenser, to see clearly that this form of verse in England is a distinct growth. In the one we perceive a conscious centralisa

tion of some idea systematically subdivided, with each of its parts allotted a distinctive place, so that to dislodge anything would be to destroy the whole. In the other we recognise a facet of an idea or sentiment so presented as to work up from concrete figure to abstract application. The one constitutes a rounded unity, the other is a development; the one is thrown off at the point at which it has become quintessential and a thing in itself, the other is still in process of evolution.

We require clearly to see first that the very early Italians themselves sometimes (though rarely) used the term Sonnet in all its literal breadth of application, and next, that the first English writers who appropriated the name made no conscious effort of consequence to imitate the more approved archetypal pattern, before we approach the sonnets of Shakspeare in a temper that permits us to perceive wherein they constitute a native outcome of unsurpassable excellence and unimpeachable purity. A peculiar adaptability of language to vehicle is then seen to establish for the Shakspearean model the character of a perfect English

The metrical structure is plainly determined by the intellectual modelling. Let us therefore set ourselves to consider what constitutes the function the Shakspearean sonnet fulfils. The thing that first strikes us is that the thought, as a whole, is of the nature of an applied symbol. Then we see that it does not in the English, as in the Italian form, fall asunder like the acorn into unequal parts of a perfect organism, but is sustained without break until it reaches a point at which a personal appropriation needs to be made. Finally, we perceive that the ultimate application (which was also the primary purpose)

sonnet.

[ocr errors]

consolidates the thought, and gives it a separate and unified entity. We obtain a full view of this by careful analysis of any representative example. Let us examine the intellectual, emotional, and metrical structure of the sonnet on lust ::

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,

Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;

Past reason hunted ; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait

On purpose laid to make the taker mad :
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;

Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme ;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;

Before, a joy proposed ; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell,

First seizing the representative points of a noble idea, Shakspeare in this sonnet goes on from line to line begetting thought out of thought, kindling image out of image ; yet the whole gravitates about a central scheme, and the meaning is all inwoven. Here there is no distinct plotting of thought, no systematic placing of proportionated ideas, no building up to definite point other than that indicated at the outset. Where, at the ninth line, the thought appears to take a fresh departure such as is nearly always observable in sonnets by Petrarch, it is

really doing no more than evolve a new aspect out of the old one. Clearly there is no other form of verse that could have been made to serve so well the uses herein compassed. The stanza did not exist that could have embraced the whole business of the first twelve lines. The nature of the thought and its method of development (covering the growth of the idea from prologue to epilogue) forbade attempt at rounded unity of presentment. It made demand of a measure linking passage to passage, not compelling a focused centralisation whereof the first word should foretell the last. A succession of decasyllabic couplets kneaded in Shakspeare's hands would doubtless have answered a similar end, but it is proof of the purity and perfectness of the Shakspearean sonnet that couplets could not have been employed. By their use the emphasis and rest of the close would have been sacrificed. No form, obviously, but that of three interlacing English quatrains of alternate-rhyming lines followed, after a pause, by a couplet, could have afforded an adequate realisation of the English idea embodied. So absolutely is this so of a representative sonnet, that it were hardly rash to say that the sonnet by Shakspeare does not exist in which the structure of thought would allow of Petrarchian treatment. The reason is not far to seek. The mind of the Italian poet was wont to hold itself at poise above a thought, revolving it inwardly until the primary uncertain outlines took consistent shape and craved balanced utterance. (The mind of the English poet seized as they arose the thronging hints of an idea, and cast them forth one after one in the first beauty of conception, and knitted them into harmonious theme only in a final word of condensed appli

cation. And what is true of Petrarch is true of the bias of the whole Italian intellect; and what is true of Shakspeare is true of the bias of the whole English intellect. Hence the Shakspearean sonnet is distinctly the sonnet of the English mind and tongue, and must not be regarded as metrically an irregular outcome of the Petrarchian sonnet, to which, as we see, it bears not the remotest affinity of intellectual design. The relative excellence of the two models involves other considerations. All that is now necessary to establish is that the Shakspearean sonnet is wholly indigenous and, within itself, entirely pure.

A glance at the metrical indices which may be found at the close of this volume will readily show how desirable it is to redeem our sonnet literature from the unmerited reproach of illegitimacy. Therein it will be seen that a great body of English sonnets are cast in the English form with which Shakspeare's name is associated, and that many of the noblest extant examples could not exist apart from it. (The variation in the scheme of rhyme is the least point of divergence from the archetypal pattern, and seems to have been rendered necessary equally by the paucity of rhyme-words in our language and by the essential difference in the intellectual structure adopted. The radical distinction lies in the building of the thought, and this justifies all lesser differences.

And now that we have at least challenged an error of critical verdict relating to Shakspeare, it seems necessary to make effort to disturb an error of ascription concerning Milton. It is not more frequently maintained that the sonnets of the one are irregular, than that those of the other are perfect examples designed to vindicate the possibilities of the Italian sonnet in English.

с

« ZurückWeiter »