Secret Drama of Shakespeare's Sonnets

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Vol. 6.  APRIL, 1872


AND what special interest may the reader of Human Nature be supposed to take in "The Secret Drama of Shakespeare's Sonnets"?  Much every way.  As the works of Shakespeare form a sort of text-book of humanity, anything which throws additional light upon his life and poetry possesses a claim on the attention of all intelligent minds.  Then Gerald Massey's way of thought is such, that be can write nothing which does not savour of far-reaching intuition, or of generous feeling.  But in this particular case, his task demanded the very highest powers, and he has performed it in a fashion worthy of himself and of his theme.  Remembering the biography of Mr. Massey prefixed to his earlier poems, and then observing the finished culture indicated by this work, we are fairly astonished at the author's vigour of mind.  For this is not a production which could have been the result of any amount of mere reading and simple power of imagination.  It evinces critical acumen, refinement of moral feeling, and patient study of Elizabethan literature, of which the most recluse scholar might well be proud; and it reminds us of the apothegm, that "genius is the faculty of taking infinite pains."

    Peculiar circumstances, which attended the writing of this secret drama, must invest it with no common interest in the eyes of spiritualists.  We heard from Mr. Massey himself some account of the assistance which he received in his labours from the unseen world, but it would be unbecoming, to anticipate in any measure that full history of the matter which has been partly promised by the author.  Suffice it to say here, that any aid received from occult sources, does not detract from his merit as an independent investigator and critic of the most mysterious portion of Shakespeare's works.  He had nearly finished an article for the Quarterly, which embodied his theory on the subject before any assistance was offered him.

    Almost every one has experienced on reading the sonnets of Shakespeare a feeling of disappointment and perplexity.   Together with much of exquisite beauty, we encounter there a number of poems that tend to destroy that loyal honour and reverence we would fain retain and cherish for the greatest poet of the world.  We do not want to think of him as a strait-laced moralist, yet anything which makes us lose our perfect respect for the man, William Shakespeare, should be, and is offensive.  Such is undoubtedly the character of some of these same sonnets, and no scheme of interpretation has hitherto succeeded in freeing the fair fame of our great dramatist from sundry awkward inferences which have seemed inevitable to the most charitable readers.  One of the chief delights and blessings which a man can enjoy is the satisfaction of boundless admiration.  This was almost impossible to the worshippers of Shakespeare, as long as the existence of these poems remained an unsolved problem.  Mr. Massey maintains, apparently with good reason, that he has found the key to the solution.

    "The reading of Shakespeare's Sonnets," he says, "now presented, affords the only theory yet adventured that is not full of perplexity and bewilderment.  It is the only one that surmounts the obstacles, disentangles the complications, resolves the discords, and out of various voices draws the one harmony.  It is utter folly to talk of a self-revelation made by Shakespeare so inward that we cannot reach it.  There are fifty plain facts to be met—facts of outer life, of character, of sex—on the surface of the sonnets, all opposed to the Autobiographic view, before any one need have dived into the deeps of their own subjectivity for the supposed dreadful secrets of the Poet's heart.  Nor will the theory work which holds that the sonnets are mere fantastic exercises of ingenuity, having, no root in reality—no relation to Shakespeare's own life.  They are intensely real from first to last, through a wide range of varying feelings, whatsoever their meaning.  The wisest readers have been content to rest with Mr. Dyce in his declaration, that, after repeated perusals, he was convinced that the greater number of them was composed in an assumed character, on different subjects, and at different times, for the amusement, and probably at the suggestion of the author's intimate associates.  And having cracked the nut, as I think, we find this to be the very kernel of it; only, my theory unmasks the characters assumed, unfolds the nature of the various subjects, traces the different times at which they were composed, and identifies those intimate associates of Shakespeare who supplied him both suggestions and subjects. The present theory, which is really an appeal to common sense on behalf of the most practical of men and poets, alone enables us to see how it is that Shakespeare can be at the same time the friend who loves and is blessed, and the lover who doats and is disconsolate; how the great calm man of the sweetest blood, the smoothest temper, the most cheery soul, can be the anxious, jealous, fretful wooer, who has been pursued by the 'stings and arrows of outrageous fortune;' and driven about the world as a wanderer, who, in his weakness, has said and done things for which he prays forgiveness.  Here we can see how the Poet has been the Player still in his 'idle hours,' and how he can personate a passion to the life, and disfigure his face past our recognition, and change the dramatic mask at will for the amusement of his 'private friends.'"

    A reference to the table of contents will throw as much light upon the nature of this theory as a detailed explanation. It will be seen there that the sonnets are divided into several series—

1. Those addressed by Shakespeare himself to the Earl of Southampton, wishing him to marry; in praise of his personal beauty; concerning a rival poet, adjudged to be Marlow, &c.

2. Dramatic Sonnets: Including some written for the Earl of Southampton to Elizabeth Vernon; and some from her to the Earl.

3. Sonnets expressing William Herbert's passion for Lady Rich (the dark lady of the latter sonnets).

    It would be presumption for any but a profoundly erudite Shakesperian scholar to give an opinion upon the truthfulness or otherwise of this explanation.  But we gladly accept it as removing a difficulty in the way of our unqualified reverence for Shakespeare.  We doubt not thousands will do the same, and feel grateful to Mr. Massey for his eloquent vindication of the poet's fame.  The following notice in the Fortnightly Review, by the late Robert Bell, will show how this book has been appreciated by critics of repute:— "Whatever may be the ultimate reception of Mr. Massey's interpretation of the Sonnets, nobody can deny that it is the most elaborate and circumstantial that has been yet attempted.  Mr. Armitage Brown's essay—close, subtle, and ingenious as it is—recedes into utter insignificance before the bolder outlines, the richer colouring, and the more daring flight of Mr. Massey.  What was dim and shapeless before, here grows distinct and tangible; broken gleams of light become massed, and pour upon us in a flood; mere speculation, timid and uncertain hitherto, here becomes loud and confident, and assumes the air of ascertained history.  It has been reserved for Mr. Massey to build up a complete narrative, and of materials which furnished others with nothing more than bold hints, and bits and scraps of suggestions."

    Let not our readers suppose that this work is made up only of elaborate analysis of evidence, and stirring of antiquarian husks.  It breathes throughout a poet's warmth of feeling—a power of imagination which reanimates the past, and throws a vivid light upon the rich court-life of the days of Queen Elizabeth.  Above all, it evinces a reverent appreciation of the genius, heart, and mind of Shakespeare, as deep and genuine, perhaps, as any which exists, expressed in English words.  In proof of this assertion, we shall not scruple to cite a page or two from the beautiful and comprehensive chapter, entitled "The Man Shakespeare":— "It is impossible to commune with the spirit of Shakespeare in his works and not feel that he was essentially a cheerful man, and full of healthy gladness; that his royal soul was magnificently lodged in a fine physique, and looked out on life with a large contentment; that his conscience was clear, and his spiritual pulse sober.  It is shown in his hearty and continuous way of working.  It is proved by his great delight in common human nature, and his full satisfaction in the world as he found it.  A most profound and perennial cheerfulness of soul he must have had to bring so bright a smile to the surface, and so pleasurable a colour into the face of human life; he who so well knew what an infinite of sorrow may brood beneath; what sunless depths of sadness, and lonely, leafless wastes of misery; who felt so intimately its old heartache and pain; its mystery of evil, and all the pathetic pangs, with which Nature gives birth to good. The dramatic mood could be troubled, contemplative, melancholy, according to his purpose; but the man himself was of a happy temperament.  A melancholy man must have been more self-conscious, and shut up within limits indefinitely narrower.  He has infinite pity for the suffering, and struggling, and wounded by the way.  The most powerful and pathetic pleadings on behalf of Christian charity out of the New Testament have been spoken by Shakespeare.  He takes to his large warm heart much that the world usually casts out to perish in the cold.  There is nothing too poor or too mean to be embraced within the circle of his sympathies.  He sees the germ of good in that which looks all evil to the careless passers-by, for his eyes are large with love, and have its 'precious seeing.'  If there be only the least little redeeming touch in the most abandoned character, he is sure to point it out; he recognises the slightest glimpse of the Divine Image in the rudest human clay-cast.  We may also find in our Poet an appalling sense of the supernatural, the nearness of the spirit-world, and its power to break, in on the world of flesh, when nature prays for help, or darkly conspires to let it in.  His working pastime was the world of human life.  His was the sphere of humanity, the real work-a-day world.  As a dramatist, he had to give that life a palpable embodiment in flesh and blood, and endow it with speech and action.  But he knew that human nature was made of spirit as well as flesh, and that it is under the 'skiey influences.'  Divine laws over-ride our human wishes.  The innocent suffer alike with the guilty, and things do not come about as they were forecast. Thus it is in life!  And so it is in Shakespeare.  This makes the tragedy.  He knew that there was a 'Divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them as we may.'  He feels that this human life is all very wonderful in its play of passions, its pleasures, and its pains, with all their crossing and conflicting lights and shadows; and he does what he can to shed a little light on the vast mystery.  But he feels how small is this little island of our human life, set in the surrounding ocean of eternity, and how limited is the light that he can throw upon it, and upon the darkness that hems us in.  The more we study the works of Shakespeare, the more we shall feel how natural piety made a large part of the cheerful sunshine that smile out in his philosophy of life.  And, in great emergencies, we may see the flash of a religious feeling large enough for life, and deep enough for death.  How frank and bold, for example, is that expression of his in the Divine, when Banquo, encompassed by dangers, exclaims, 'In the great hand of God I stand;' and when the fatal presentiment, which Shakespeare so often recognises, comes upon Hamlet, what does he say?  'Thou knowest, Horatio, how ill all is here about my heart: BUT there is a special Providence, even in the fall of a sparrow.'  Frequent and fervent is the appeal to the world hereafter that is to make the 'odds' of this all 'even,' and to Him who is the top of justice, and his eternal justicers, reverence he calls 'that angel of the world.'

    "But it is not in hints and allusions like these that I would seek for evidence of Shakespeare's religious feeling, so much as in his dumb appeal to such feelings as are left vibrating when some great tragedy of his are over.  It plainly appears to me that, amidst all the storms of life in which humanity may be Wrecked, the horror of great darkness in which the powers of evil prevail—the misery and madness, and midnight homelessness of poor, witless, white-headed old Lear, with his blindness of trust, and broken-heartedness of love, Shakespeare knew right well where there is peace beyond the tempest—he knew of all the love in the hearts of father and child, which would take an eternity to fully unfold; and where could he pillow it with more infinite suggestiveness than beside the grave.  It is for us to see what is dimly visible through that dark window of the other world!  He has said his say, let the rest be told in silence!  And the soul must be dull indeed whose sight has not been purged and feeling purified in the loftier vision on the spiritual stage.  Our interest does not cease when the drama is ended.  'To he continued,' is plainly written at the close of its fifth act.  The heartache which he has given us demands and draws the other world near for very pity and comfort.  You cannot help looking up from amid the shadows of the dark valley to where the light is breaking overhead, and feel a touch of those immortal relationships which live beyond the human.  Let no one suppose that Shakespeare's genius, being of such a stature as it was, could not rise up and 'take the morning' that lies beyond this night of time, where bewildered souls so often get beclouded.  It was not Shakespeare's place as a writer of tragedy to frighten us, and then say something for our comfort.  He points no moral—winds up with no sermon.  It is his work to create interest, to quicken sympathy, and enlarge life; the rest follows.  He knew how much Nature will work for her favourites, and he was her own best favourite, so he has only to set her well at work, and quietly steal away, leaving Nature to finish.  In this respect his negative power is as great and surprising as the positive capacity: what he does not do is often as remarkable and effective as what he does."

S. E. B.


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