The Problems of the Shakespeare Sonnets. A review of The Problems of the Shakespeare Sonnets, by J. M. Robertson
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36 ] The Problems of the Shakespeare Sonnets A review of The Problems of the Shakespeare Sonnets, by J. M. Robertson London: Routledge, 1926. Pp. vii + 291. The Nation and Athenaeum, 40 (12 Feb 1927) 664, 666 Anyone with only ordinary literary knowledge of the subject, of which Mr. Robertsonisoneofthefewexperts,maybeexcusedforadoptingasomewhat more personal tone, in reviewing his book, than would be suitable from his peers. A detailed criticism of Mr. Robertson’s theories – such a criticism as might be of interest to the author – could only be performed by one of half-a-dozen other specialists.1 An ordinary man of letters, even if he have some special interest in the period and the subject, is entitled to an opinion only in the rough; but his general assent or disagreement may have some weight. I admit that I have always agreed (in the rough) to Mr. Robertson’s “disintegration” of the Shakespeare Canon,2 though I may question, or at least marvel at, the precision with which he and other specialists in Elizabethan textual criticism identify line by line; I am predisposed to accept his general theory of the Sonnets also.3 Mr. Robertson’s theory is simple, it is ingenious but not sensational, it is quite possible according to the curious practices of publishers in Tudor times. It is sure to impress anyone who, like myself, has never been sure either that the Sonnets were all in the right order, or that the whole one hundred and twenty-six were really a sequence at all, or that they were all by the same hand. Admit one of these doubts, and you admit the others; the only solid alternative to Mr. Robertson’s theory is to maintain that the Sonnets are all Shakespeare’s, that they were written consecutively, and that they all refer to the same experience or nexus of experiences. But the genuineness of certain sonnets has already been called into question; it has already been asserted that they form not one but several cycles, and that they are not all addressed to the same person; and there are good reasons, which you will find exposed in Mr. Robertson’s book, for believing that they were written at intervals over a long period of time. Consequently, the way is open for Mr. Robertson’s theory. [ 37 The Problems of the Shakespeare Sonnets Mr. Robertson expounds his views, as we should expect, in great detail (with a useful index to his mention of every sonnet); and recapitulates most of the views of his predecessors and contemporaries. I have neither space nor competence to resume all this matter. In brief, his conclusion is this:thefirstseventeensonnetswerewrittenatanearlydatebyShakespeare, tobepresentedtoyoungSouthamptonbyhismother.Shakespearereceived his commission by the intermediary of Mr. (Sir) William Hervey, the third husband of Southampton’s mother.4 They were copied into an album by Thorpe (the publisher), who subsequently, from time to time added other sonnets (apparently such as struck his fancy), and who eventually published the whole volume as Shakespeare’s Sonnets, dedicating the book to Hervey (Mr. W. H.), to whose efforts, perhaps at whose suggestion, the first set of sonnets had been written.5 Of the rest, some are by Shakespeare, many are not. Of those by Shakespeare, some are perfunctory, some intimate, some early, some late; but they allude to several experiences and moods. This solution is both revolutionary and modest. It disposes at once of the more sensational, gossipy, or mystery-mongering theories. At the same time it leaves Shakespeare with most of the best sonnets (and you are at liberty to disagree about many individual sonnets – though I should not venture myself to disagree about more than a very few – if you cherish as Shakespeare’s such lines as – The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet, Though to itself it only live and die,6 you can do so without rejecting Mr. Robertson’s thesis). And it leaves him with the dignity of his mystery and privacy. Mr. Robertson does not try to identify the Dark Lady, or the friend (although he sticks to Chapman as the rival poet).7 There are two points on which the literary critic ought to support the textual critic: in his reticence about the “autobiographic” element, and in his reliance upon exact stylistic texts rather than upon enthusiasm. For the first point, I believe that experience, for the poet, is a very different thing from experience for the stockbroker. A love affair, successful or fatal, might cause a successful...