Shakespeare was one of the major sonneteer of the Elizabethan Age. Nobody else could have his depth and variety, his simplicity but richness of thought. There is perhaps no collection of English poetry more widely known and praised than Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and certainly no collection of English poetry has been more often misused and misread.
Shakespeare’s sonnets, as mentioned by Benson, are “Seren. Cleere and elegantly plaine….no intricate or cloudy stuffed to puzzell intellect.” No doubt they are full offer-fetched conceits. Quibbles or puns, obscurity, yet they are pieces of great art. They were written when many forms of poetry were not fully developed in the English language. The Eighteenth Century was an age of prose and reason: it could not appreciate good poetry. That is why, Shakespeare’s sonnets were not liked much by the readers. But in other centuries, the praise of Shakespeare’s sonnets has been unqualified.
Many readers of the nineteenth century, Overwhelmed by what Dyce called their “transcendent beauty”, extravagantly praised the Sonnets for their verbal melody. Imagination. Intensity of feeling, and the variety and keen observation of their imagery. The twentieth century readers too have admired these sonnets for Shakespeare’s use of language, for their beauty and melody. These sonnets demonstrate Shakespeare’s rich imagination and mastery of the English language which is now agile and now subtle. The shifting imagery of the sonnets. The use of rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and other verbal and stylistic connections, in short, Shakespeare’s unique mastery over the vast resources of language, have all been duly praised and appreciated.
The sonnets are complex works of art and as such. They have both perfect harmony of expression and loftiness of subject. They reveal a true and perfect sense of melody Coolidge defined great poetry as “right words in the right place”, and the sonnets have their greatness. The right words are those which make for music. For the long-drawn harmonies and rhythmic roll of sounds that linger on the car and haunt our memory. Music sounds in every line of the sonnets and lifts us up to Paradise: music informs each one of them. Each is an instance of unique verbal felicity such as possible only for the greatest.
Shakespeare’s sonnets are remarkable for their verbal felicity also. They are perfect in their matter as well as in their manner. From the first to the last his sonnet is the:
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“….. Adventurous song
That with no middle flight intends to soar.”
The power of the language is taxed to its utmost. It can do more: its merit is a means of poetic expression, as an instrument for the expression of a thousand varying shades of emotion. Must stand or fall by such passages as these-
“Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all;
What hast thou, then more than thou hadst before;
N a love, my love, that thou mayst true love call:
All mine was thine before thou hadst this more.
Was it the proud full sail of his great verse,
Bound for the prize of all-too-precious you,
That did my ripe thoughts in my brain rehearse,
Making their tomb the wherein they grow.”
These lines and the like illustrate Shakespeare’s felicity of expression. And such passages are not the exception: they can be picked up at random.
There is the pervading element of beauty in the sonnets viewed as one long continuous work: and we shall find a parallel excellence in them if we disintegrate this collection of units and examine the poems individually. Each conforms, in a very remarkable degree, to what we may call the main canon of sonnet-writing, the principle which should guide all who attempt this form of art. The sonnet. In Wordsworth’s phrase, is a “scanty plot”: the poet cannot expatiate at will. He is chained, confined within the brief limits of fourteen lines, and in that tiny space must achieve his effect. Hence, he cannot afford to introduce variety of themes: he must deal with some one idea: his work must be wrought round a single motive, a single dominating emotion, that informs the whole and links the verses in the closest sequence and logical connection. Now, the Shakespearean sonnet is built pre-eminently on this principle. It is exactly what Rossetti calls “a moment’s monument”.
According to Irving and Marshall, “Each word is exactly fitted to its place: each touch tells: each phrase echoes what has just preceded and is echoed by what immediately follows: so that the poem is a gradual progression of ideas that advance from point to point till the climacteric pause is reached and the moral enforced. Each is a masterpiece of compression. Intensity, symmetry, Sonnets, to use Matthew Arnold’s definition of poetry, are a criticism of life. Some of the sonnets are obviously artificial, verbal essays in the conventional Sonneteering of the period. This is especially true of the dark woman series. In these poems, the merit is purely artistic. We can analyse a single sonnet and point out how the rhythmic beauty of the verse is built up: how the magic and melody of sound are achieved by alliteration. Balance, and what not. But it is not possible to disintegrate and dissect the thousand and one touches which bring home to us the fact that the poet who speaks to us is wise with wisdom from which nothing is hid. And, so we must leave each to discover for himself how and why the sonnets of Shakespeare are a revelation. A commentary on all things, a mirror held up to the human soul and reproducing all its phases. “O Menander and life! Which of you copied the other?”. Subtler praise or more perfect. No artist ever received: and it is the praise that we must lay at Shakespeare’s feet after reading these, His Sonnets.