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  • "Pyramids of Egypt":Shakespeare's Sonnets and a Victorian Turn to Obscurity
  • Rhian Williams (bio)

Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic you have frowned,Mindless of its just honours; with this keyShakespeare unlocked his heart.1

In literary value Shakespeare's sonnets are notably unequal. Many reach levels of lyric melody and meditative energy that are hardly to be matched elsewhere in poetry. The best examples are charged with the mellowed sweetness of rhythm and metre, the depth of thought and feeling, the vividness of imagery and the stimulating fervour of expression which are the finest proofs of poetic power. On the other hand, many sink almost into inanity beneath the burden of quibbles and conceits.2

For nineteenth-century readers Shakespeare's Sonnets promised much. The efforts of the previous century's scholars had seen Shakespeare's texts become the focus of a project seeking to refine and purify English into a language of culture and literary aspiration.3 In so doing, scholars were able to make of Shakespeare an "Enlightenment culture hero" whose example could formulate eighteenth-century readings of authorship as "Shakespeare the Author" moved to "the centre of a struggle for the right to speak for the core of the national culture."4 Such conditions formed the background to Edmund Malone's 1780 edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets, the first to print the unexpurgated 1609 Quarto together with extensive textual notes and commentary and so the first to bring the poems into the Shakespearean canon.5 Vital to Malone's handling of these poems, Margreta de Grazia asserts, was his desire to read them according to a developing notion of authorship that emphasized intention on the part of individual writers, who thus determined the precise dynamics at play in their texts. Accordingly, the Sonnets became the record of "personal artistic complexity and growth" as Malone emphasized the poems' importance as "writing in Shakespeare's own person."6 Strikingly, [End Page 489] the absorption of such lyrical potential into the Shakespearean canon offered the promise of compelling revelation just as the sonnet form was revived as a staple of sensibility, with writers such as Charlotte Smith characterizing it as especially suited to the expression of single, strong emotions. By moving away from the dramatic frames that more usually shaped this figure's cultural presence, and yet installing protective scholarly apparatus, Malone's edition promised a legitimized lyrical utterance from the heart of an iconic English speaker. Such a legacy was a rich one for the nineteenth century to inherit.

Yet, the revelation transpired to be troubling, not only to those who wished to protect a particular version of Shakespeare as English cultural icon, but also to those who understood the sonnet form itself as having a gentle, emotional appeal that, when used with "correctness of expression and harmony of structure," created "melody and softness of versification" that produced an "attractive tenderness in sentiment and expression."7 On reaching for the Sonnets for revelation, readers were confronted with a series of poems addressed (Malone's apparatus coolly insisted)8 in the first 126 poems to a young man, and in the remaining twenty-eight to a dark lady, apparently a mistress figure (emphatically not a wife). Intertwined between the two, and apparently the object of Shakespeare's jealousy, emerged a rival poet figure. Furthermore, such complex emotional and erotic addresses were expressed in highly wrought conceits, elaborate metaphors, and non-Petrarchan arrangements, directly contravening contemporary fashion for the Italian model, which persisted across the following century.9 If the Sonnets revealed Shakespeare's heart, they also revealed his non-conformity, his acute lack of "fit" with idealized notions, not only of national cultural authority, but also of legitimate sonneteering.

The Sonnets' profound and energetic challenge to the terms of Shakespeare's cultural authority has received considerable notice.10 This essay seeks to illustrate how nineteenth-century responses to this collection of poems also constitutes an intriguing and complex perspective on Victorian attitudes towards the sonnet form itself, particularly in terms of its perceived status as autobiography or emotional lyric. Indeed, I suggest that the Sonnets' example concentrates a debate between these two terms, with the former alluding to...


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