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And so the general of hot desire
Came there for cure, and this by that I prove,
"A Sonnet was surely the contrivance of some literary Procrustes. The single thought of which it is to consist, however luxuriant, must be cramped within fourteen verses, or, however scanty, must be spun out into the same number. On a chain of thirteen links the existence of this metrical whim depends; and its reception is secure as soon as the admirers of it have counted their expected and statutable proportion of rhymes. The gratification of head or heart is no object of the writer's ambition. That a few of these trifles deserving a better character may be found, I shall not venture to deny; for chance, co-operating with art and genius, will occasionally produce wonders.
Of the Sonnets before us, one hundred and twenty-six are inscribed (as Mr. Malone observes) to a friend : the remaining twenty-eight (a small proportion out of so many) are devoted to a mistress. Yet if our author's Ferdinand and Romeo had not expressed themselves in terms more familiar to human understanding, I believe few readers would have rejoiced in the happiness of the one, or sympathized with the sorrows of the other. Perhaps, indeed, quaintness, obscurity, and tautology, are to be regarded as the constituent parts of this exotick species of composition. But, in whatever the excellence of it may consist, I profess I am one of those who should have wished it to have expired in the country where it was born, had it not fortunately provoked the ridicule of Lope de Vega, which, being faintly imitated by Voiture, was at last transfused into English by Mr. Roderick, and exhibited as follows, in the second volume of Dodsley's Collection.
“ Capricious Wray a sonnet needs must have;
“ I ne'er was so put to't before ;-a sonnet !
“ Why, fourteen verses must be spent upon it:
“ Yet I shall ne'er find rhymes enough by half,
“ Said I, and found myself i' the midst o' the second.
“ If twice four verses were but fairly reckond,
“ Thus far, with good success, I think I've scribled,
“ And of the twice seven lines have clean got o'er ten. “ Courage! another 'll finish the first triplet;
“ Thanks to thee, Muse, my work begins to shorten : “ There's thirteen lines got through, driblet by driblet. “ 'Tis done. Count how you will, I warr'nt there's four
Let those who might conceive this sonnet to be unpoetical, if compared with others by more eminent writers, peruse the next, being the eleventh in the collection of Milton.
“ A book was writ of late call'd Tetrachordon,
“ And woven close, both matter, form, and style;
“ Cries the stall-reader, Bless us ! what a word on
“A little page is this! and some in file
« Colkitto, or Macdonnel, or Gallasp?
“ Those rugged names to our like mouths grow sleek,
“ That would have made Quintilian stare and gasp. “ Thy age, like ours, O soul of sir John Cheek,
“ Hated not learning worse than toad or asp, “When thou taught'st Cambridge, and king Edward Greek.”
The reader may now proceed to more pieces of the same structure, which the friends of the late Mr. Edwards were willing to receive as effusions of fancy as well as friendship. If the appetite for such a mode of writing be even then unsatisfied, I hope that old Joshua Sylvester, (I confess myself unacquainted with the extent of his labours) has likewise been a sonneteer; for surely his success in this form of poetry must have been transcendent indeed, and could not fail to afford complete gratification to the admirers of a stated number of lines composed in the highest strain of affectation, pedantry, circumlocution, and nonsense. In the mean time, let inferior writers be warned against a species of composition which has reduced the most exalted poets to a level with the meanest rhymers : has almost cut down Milton and Shakspeare to the standards of Pomfret and , but the name of Pomfret is perhaps the lowest in the scale of English versifiers. As for Mr. Malone, whose animadversions are to follow mine, “ Now is he for the numbers that Petrarch flow'd in." Let me however borrow somewhat in my own favour from the same speech of Mercutio, by observing that “ Laura had a better love to berhyme her.” Let me adopt also the sentiment which Shakspeare himself, on his amended judgment, has put into the mouth of his favourite character in Love's Labour's Lost:
“ Tut! none but minstrels like of Sonneting." STEEVENS. I do not feel any great propensity to stand forth as the champion of these compositions. However, as it appears to me that they have been somewhat under-rated, I think it incumbent on me to do them that justice to which they seem entitled.
Of Petrarch (whose works I have never read) I cannot speak; but I am slow to believe that a writer who has heen warmly admired for four centuries by his own countrymen, is without merit, though he has been guilty of the heinous offence of addressing his mistress in pieces of only that number of lines which by long usage has been appropriated to the sonnet.
The burlesque stanzas which have been produced to depreciate the poems before us, it must be acknowledged, are not ill executel; but they will never decide the merit of this species of composition, until it shall be established that ridicule is the test of truth. The fourteen rugged lines that have been quoted from Milton for the same purpose, are equally inconclusive ; for it is well known that he generally failed when he attempted rhyme, whether his verses assumed the shape of a sonnet or any other form. These pieces of our author therefore must at last stand or fall by themselves.
When they are described as a mass of affectation, pedantry, circumlocution, and nonsense, the picture appears to me overcharged. Their great defects seem to be, a want of variety, and the majority of them not being directed to a female, to whom alone such ardent expressions of esteem could with propriety be addressed. It cannot be denied too that they contain some farfetched conceits ; but are our author's plays entirely free from them ? Many of the thoughts that occur in his dramatick pro. ductions, are found here likewise ; as may appear from the numerous parallels that have been cited from his dramas, chiefly for the purpose of authenticating these poems. Had they therefore no other merit, they are entitled to our attention, as often illustrating obscure passages in his plays.
I do not perceive that the versification of these pieces is less smooth and harmonious than that of Shakspeare's other compositions. Though many of them are not so simple and clear as they ought to be, vet some of them are written with perspicuity and energy. A few have been already pointed out as deserving this character; and many beautiful lines, scattered through these poems, will, it is supposed, strike every reader who is not determined to allow no praise to any species of poetry except blank verse or heroick couplets. Malone.
The case of these Sonnets is certainly bad, when so little can be advanced in support of them. Ridicule is always successful where it is just. A burlesque on Alexander's Feast would do no înjury to its original. Some of the rhyme compositions of Milton (Sonnets excepted,) are allowed to be eminently harmonious. Is it necessary on this occasion to particularize his Allegro, Penseroso, and Hymn on the Nativity? I must add, that there is more conceit in any thirty-six of Shakspeare's Sonnets, than in the same number of his Plays. When I know where that person is to be found who allows no praise to any species of poetry, except blank verse and heroick couplets, it will be early enough for me to undertake his defence. STEEVENS.
That ridicule is generally successful, when it is just, cannot be denied; but whether it be just in the present instance, is the point to be proved. It may be successful when it is not just; when neither the structure nor the thoughts of the poem ridiculed, deserved to be derided.
No burlesque on Alexander's Feast certainly would render it ridiculous ; yet undoubtedly a successful parody or burlesque piece might be formed upon it, which in itself might have intrinsick merit. The success of the burlesque therefore does not necessarily depend upon, nor ascertain, the demerit of the original. Of this Cotton's Virgil Travestie affords a decisive proof. The most rigid muscles must relax on the perusal of it ; yet the purity and majesty of the Eneid will ever remain undiminished.— With respect to Milton, (of whom I have only said that he generally, not that he always, failed in rhyming compositions,) Dryden, at a time when all rivalry and competition between them were at an end, when he had ceased to write for the stage, and when of course it was indifferent to him what metre was considered as best suited to dramatick compositions, pronounced, that he composed his great poem in blank verse, “because rhyme was not his talent. He had neither (adds the Laureate) the ease of doing it, nor the graces of it; which is manifest in his Juvenilia or Verses written in his youth; where his rhyme is always constrained, and forced, and comes hardly from him, at an age when the soul is most pliant, and, the passion of love makes almost every man a rhymer, though not a poet." One of the most judicious criticks of the present, I might, I believe, with truth sav of any, age, is of the same opinion : “ If his English poems, (says Dr. Jobuson, speaking of all his smaller pieces,) differ from the verses of others, they differ for the worse, for they are too often distinguished by repulsive harshness: the combinations of words are new, but they are not pleasing, the rhymes and epithets seem to be laboriously sought and violently applied. All that short compositions can commonly attain is neatness and elegance. Milton never learned the art of doing little things with grace.” Life of Milton.
Cotton's work is an innocent parody, was designed as no ridicule on the Æneid, and consequently will not operate to the disadvantage of that immortal povem. The contrary is the case with Mr. Roderick's imitation of the Spaniard. He wrote it as a ridicule on the structure, not the words of a Sunnet ; and this is a purpose which it has completely answered. No one ever retired from a perusal of it with a favourable opinion of the species of composition it was meant to deride.
The decisions of Dryilen are never less to be trusted than when he treats of blank verse and rhyme, each of which he has extolled and depreciated in its turn. When this subject is before him, his judgment is rarely secure from the seductions of convenience, interest or jealousy; and Gildon has well observed, that in his prefaces he had always confidence enough to defend and support his own most glaring inconsistencies and self-contradictions. What he said of the author of Paradise Lost, is with a view to retaliation. Milton had invidiously asserted that Dryden was only a rhymist ; and therefore Dryden, with as little regard to truth, has declared that Milton was no rhymist at all. Let my other sentiments shift for themselves. Here I shall drop the controversy. STEVENS.
In justice to Shakspeare, whose cause I have undertaken, however unequal to the task, I cannot forbear to add, that a literary Procrustes may as well be called the inventor of the couplet, the stanza, or the ode, as of the Sonnet. They are all in a certain degree restraints on the writer; and all poetry, if the objection now made be carried to its utmost extent, will be reduced to blank verse. The admirers of that inferior kind of metre have remarked with triumph that of the couplet the first line is generally for sense, and the next for rhyme ; and this certainly is often the case in the compositions of mere versifiers ; but is such a redundancy an essential property of a couplet, and will the works of Dryden and Pope afford none of another character?—The bondage to which Pindar and his followers have submitted in the structure of strophé, antistrophé, and epode, is much greater than that which the Sonnet imposes. If the scanty thought be disgustingly dilated, or luxuriant ideas unnaturally compressed, what follows ? Not surely that it is impossible to write good Odes, or good Sonnets, but that the poet was injudicious in the choice of his subject, or knew not how to adjust his metre to his thoughts.
Supposing that Shakspeare meant to deliver his own sentiment in the passage quoted from Love's Labour's Lost, (for which there does not seem to be any authority,) whether his judgment was amended or not, cannot be ascertained, until it shall be proved that these poems were composed before that play was written.- If however his opinion is to determine the merit of this species of poetry, it may be urged in favour of it, as well as