Chasles & Massey: 'The Sonnets'

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No. 2051, FEB. 16, '67



Palais de l'lnstitut, Paris, Feb. 9, 1867.

BEFORE I intrude upon your pages and beg a short hearing for the result of my protracted researches concerning the old riddle of the Shakspearian Sonnets, allow me to address a few remarks to Mr. Gerald Massey, the clever author of the last elucidation of the same enigma.  I come fresh from the perusal of his eloquent and erudite pages, and begin by admitting that I have found them full of useful information, good hints, bright thoughts and pleasant flowers of rhetoric.  They also contain some very hard words against the small fry of sceptical critics who fail to chime in with the author's settled opinions. Although a I cannot always agree with him, I admire Mr. Massey's talent; and to Him I intend to dedicate my humbler volume on Shakspeare's Sonnets.

    As the form of my dedication explains my reading of a puzzle which remains unsolved, you will perhaps allow me to quote it here:—

MR.  P.  C.  ALL . HONOURS .

TO .


H. P.*

* Henry Plon, the Parisian Editor and Printer.


To . The . Onlie . Begetter . Of .
These . Isuing . Sonnets .
Mr.  W.  H.  All . Happinesse .
And . That . Eternitie .

Promised .
By .
Our. Ever-Living . Poet.
Wisheth .

The . Well-Wishing .
Adventurer. In .
Setting .
Forth .

T. T.

    The above is an exact copy of the famous dedication of Thomas Thorpe.  Why Mr. Massey wastes any doubts on the very evident sense of the words which I reproduce is more than I can understand.  Most dedications of the Elizabethan period are written in the same form, the name of the dedicator following closely that of the dedicatee, and the verb being left at the end of the sentence.

    But, says Mr. Gerald Massey, why divide a single sentence into two parts?  I answer, that Thomas Thorpe's addition is a mere signature, a flourish, a postscriptum. I answer, that the great man of the batch is the one first mentioned, the begetter, the only true creator, the father of Shakspeare's Sonnets, Southampton.  He figures at the head of the inscription, crowned with immortality, while T. T. remains humbly crouching at the base, and W. H. kneels in an obscure corner.

    Who is the begetter of Shakspeare's genius?—Lord Southampton.

    Who is the timid adventurer, T. T., who fears to lose his money and wishes well, hoping with a gentle sigh that the enterprise may be profitable?—Thomas Thorpe (the publisher).

    And, lastly, who is the still more bashful "well-wisher"?  Who is this W. H.?  To unravel this mystery seems the most difficult part of our task.

    Who is this W. H., who does not even claim a whole line for himself, and advances, hat in hand, with bended knee, requesting our great Lord to excuse him, asking pardon from the begetter of the poems which he dares to print with the help of the publisher Thomas Thorpe?

    Who is W. H.?

    W. H. is clearly a man of small note, a timid man; but he has a right to dedicate the book to Lord Southampton.  What kind of right?  Has he collected the scattered poems, the sibylline leaves, which had fallen, shaken by the tempest, from the aspen-tree of passion, love and meditation of Shakspeare's genius—to be handed from lord to lady, from lady to lord, circulating amongst the author's private friends?  My first idea, which the Athenæum had the kindness to record (No. 1737, Jan, 25, 1862), led me to believe that W. H. was William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke.  Maturer reflection induces me to abandon that ground.  A man of the world, a knight of the Garter, a Court-favourite, could scarcely submit, especially in the proud days of Elizabeth's reign, to such a forgetfulness of his rank and titles.

    After due consideration, and some obstinate peering into old books, I remain convinced that Lord Pembroke and W. H. are not the same person.  But who was he?  I wandered through the Hughes', Hewes', Harpmans, Hartmans, Heywoods, Hallaways, Holloways, Heartseasee, Hickmans, Horners, Hornbys, Hutchinsons, and others who happened to have a W. for their baptismal initial.  The man can have been but a Mister, or even a Master; still, he must have been rather intimate, or at least familiarly acquainted, with the poet, whom he salutes in the most hail-fellow-well-met style.

    I see but one person in whom the two requisite conditions could be fulfilled.  He must, about the time of the publication of the Sonnets, not only have been an inhabitant of London, but often and necessarily with Shakspeare.  The great thinker, after many years of hard labour as actor, author and manager, probably tired of the turmoil of the metropolis, had then made up his mind, counted his savings, built his future abode, settled his accounts with his partners, and was ready to retire to New Place, in order to enjoy a dignified rural repose.  He was loved and courted by the whole community of Stratfordians; some would wish to make an inroad on his purse; others sought his patronage.  We know of no quarrel between him, his cousins, half-brothers, or nephews.  That the brother of his wife Ann Hathaway (whom he married when he was still in his teens—a right strong woman, who survived him for six years),—that William Hathaway (W. H.) should have visited his relative, William Shakspeare, cannot be a matter of doubt.  That those visits may have become more frequent and protracted at the time of Shakspeare's projected withdrawal from London, when he had to draw up his inventories and arrange his papers, does not seem an idle surmise.  I use the word surmise purposely.  All Shakspearian facts, if we except some dates, are but conjectures.  Let us accept the most likely.  What ever may be the shrewdness, the sagacity, the divining art of the guesser, we must rest satisfied with a mere calculation of probabilities, partaking more or less of mathematical exactness.

    Without rashly venturing to affirm,—and putting forward some conjectures (which in such a matter have a right to claim a hearing, but nothing more), I say that W. H. and William Hathaway may be identical; that Shakspeare, whose youthful verses made much noise, had probably kept rough draughts, copies and duplicates of his fugitive pieces, seems also very probable.  He thought little about glory, publicity and literary rewards; this is most unquestionably proved by the incorrect state in which he left his dramas, and by the testimony of his colleagues, who became his publishers after his death.  His carelessness in this respect is one of the most curious anomalies recorded in the history of literature.

    Well, he cared little about his Poems, either amatory or dramatic.  He had made his fortune, and was tired with the battle of life, so valiantly waged by him during twenty long years.  This being the case, if the brother of his wife, then a young man, begged from his generosity the gift of those scattered, loose, unarranged poems, of those studies, imitations from the Italian, juvenile essays, passionate utterings, sentimental effusions, left all topsy-turvy, dateless, nameless, probably written on separate sheets (for what man of letters is not aware of the chaotic state in which such old papers are generally left?),—if W. H., or William Hathaway, who perhaps was no stranger to the money-griping propensities of the family, requested from his illustrious relative to give him (W. H.) the right of publishing the never-imprinted Sonnets,—how could Shakspeare refuse to comply?  It was a very good bargain for Shakspeare himself.  The Sonnets were really Lord Southampton's property,—that noble and impassioned gentleman of the Sydney school being the godfather, the truest begetter (Be and Ge, the Teutonic roots indicating acquisition and creation),—Southampton, I repeat, being the real Minerva, the Begetter and fecundating power of Shakspeare's Muse.  The Sonnets belonged (Be-Longed) to him; for they were made after his fashion, in the mood of Surrey's, Spenser's and Sydney's poetry.

    In 1606 and 1609 Southampton was following his stormy and sturdy career, travelling by land and sea, fighting through clouds and smoke.  Was it not a sort of breach of friendship to print; to render public, the Sonnets which, though addressed by Shakspeare to several persons, and alluding to many people and to many events, had been inspired by Southampton alone?

    Following the thread of our very simple and likely imaginings, we may fancy that William Hathaway was made aware of that difficulty by the poet whose tact never deserted him through the whole course of his life, and who, though attached to Essex, to James, to Southampton, was clever enough to avoid being embroiled in their dangerous plots, but remained true to friendship, and invincibly devoted to Southampton.

    A manuscript requires a publisher; the Sonnets wanted one.  Here steps forward the famous Thorpe.  He was, as appears from the little we know of his life, a rather odd man; literary, priggish, sententious, and a lover of erudite riddles.  Mr. Gerald Massey, in his useful work, produces specimens of the Holophernes-Malvolio style of that conceited publisher.  If William Hathaway, having in his possession the disorderly matter of the never-before-imprinted (and never-to-be-understood) Sonnets, chanced to meet Thorpe, and asked him to print them, no doubt the bookseller consented, but with a reserve.  He stood, of course, in awe of Southampton, and concocted for Hathaway the enigmatical dedication upon which so many pates and poetical annotators have floundered and been wrecked.

    "Pray, my Lord, (so says the good rustic to Southampton) excuse the liberty we take, Mr. Editor and I, in printing the poems of my brother-in-law, William Shakspeare.  I am aware they are yours, though Shakspeare wrote them.  Shakspeare is our poet, you know.  He is England's poet.  I am his by my sister's marriage, as he is yours by friendship and literary relationship.  You may forgive our breach of trust, since, in these very Sonnets, your name is gloriously emblazoned, crowned with immortality.  As I have no authority from you, my Lord, I dare not mention your name in full, and hope you will remain satisfied with my modest homage."

    Assuredly I am far from swearing to the absolute truth of these possibilities, the links of which agree, but which cannot bear the test of a judicial inquiry.  I aver only, and maintain (to use the energetic language of Mr. Massey) that my explanation is simple, probable, without a flaw; that it has in its favour the date of the publication, and the character of the persons concerned.  It harmonizes with Southampton's fiery pride, with William Hathaway's humble position, with Shakspeare's established reputation and literary habits, and, last of all, with Thorpe's eccentric personality, which appears in strong light at the end of the dedication, and shows itself in the flourish of his signature.

    "Well," says the Malvolio bookseller, "must I, the capitalist, the man who ventures his money and his credit, must I, T. T., be debarred from the benefit of publicity?  No!  I will have room, and be permitted to show my honourable face.  You, my Lord, are the begetter, and Mr. William Hathaway is the go-between; but I, Thomas Thorpe, the money'd man, am the adventurer, and say so.  May I not lose my money!"

    Such is my view of that business; and, if my scruples have delayed the publication of a work on which I have spent with love nearly ten years of study, I hope to be able to redeem my pledge by soon publishing the modest, but complete, mature, and definitive result of my long researches on the subject.  As to the bold and apocalyptic interpretation of Mr. Gerald Massey, though dressed in all the gorgeousness of modern draperies, and sustained by the most elaborate and subtle arguments, I confess that a second and third perusal of his 500 brilliant pages has not converted me to the author's strange dream.  Herr Barnstorff had imagined that "W. H." meant William Himself.  Chambers had fancied that Queen Elizabeth "transformed" was no other than W. H.  A more recent inventor declares that a Hegelian system of esthetics was concealed by Shakspeare under the Sonnets.  Mr. Gerald Massey ushers in the novel idea that Lady Rich's, Pembroke's, and Elizabeth Vernon's secret amours, jealousies, constancies, inconstancies, shifting and prismatic caprices are shadowed forth by Shakspeare, and form the web of his verses.  Not only do historical facts and dates run counter to this theory, but it is morally untenable.

    Gallantry—"that painted flame," as Dryden has it,—may use the Sonnet, as an experienced artist executes variations on the violin;—Malherbe, Desportes, Donne, Drayton, and perhaps Shakspeare in his lighter moods, have done so.  But can we imagine a Raleigh, a Southampton, who could write their own verses, and the proudest of men, borrowing or purchasing the pen of any poet to express their feelings and confess their vices?  What man who has seen something of the world, who knows the human heart, can fancy such a poet and such a gentleman as Shakspeare trudging at the heels of the fiery and serious Southampton, of the foppish and vain Pembroke (himself a poet), or of Elizabeth Vernon, the true and faithful wife of Southampton, in order to note down their faults and descant on their failings, and, what is more, on the mysteries of their love-bowers, their hidden tears, or gushes of illicit passion?



No. 2055, MAR. 16, '67




Ward's Hurst, H. Hempstead, March, 1867.

LIVING out of the world as I do, where my papers at times reach me irregularly, I have only just seen M. Chasles' letter in the Athenæum of Feb. 16.  Allow me to thank the learned Professor for the honour he proposes conferring on me in the dedication.  At the same time I can assure him that Englishmen will never see his intention; they will of necessity read the inscription as a dedication from "H. P." to "Philarète Chasles."  In proof, let me point to Mr. Neil's letter.  He has totally misapprehended the drift of M. Chasles' ingenuity.  And so will others. I could not desire a more conclusive proof of the rightness of my reading, in the matter of Thorpe's inscription, than M. Chasles is good enough to supply in his "exact copy."  I have not a single doubt to "waste on the very evident sense of the words."

    My argument is, that Thorpe inscribed the Sonnets to Mr. W. H. (William Herbert) as the "only Begetter," in the sense of the only obtainer.  The word beget originally signified obtain.  I have quoted proofs from the Anglo-Saxon, from Alfred, from Chaucer, and from Dekker; and that Thorpe inscribed the Sonnets to "Mr. W. S." in that sense, is illustrated by all the circumstances, enforced by all the facts, demanded by all the necessities of the case.  The Sonnets tell us in many ways that there was no "only begetter," in the creative sense; both sexes are addressed, and the speakers include various characters.  On this point M. Chasles defeats his own argument.  He says "the Sonnets were addressed by Shakspeare to several persons''!  How then could Southampton be the "only begetter" in the creative sense?  It is not to the inspirer of Shakspeare's genius,—nothing so general as that,—but to the "only begetter of these ensuing Sonnets, Mr. W. H.," which is doubly particular, that the Sonnets are inscribed.  But, after devoting years of labour to the whole subject, and, as I think, reaching the heart of the maze, I do not care now to stand on the outside, and argue about the inscription.  No making out of the "Mr. W. H." could be satisfactory to me which left all the rest of the difficulties in outer darkness.  M. Chasles is content to discuss the inscription on the condition that the Sonnets themselves are "never to be understood."  I am not. My reading of the Sonnets and interpretation of the dedication go together.  They throw light on each other; and this we have a right to demand from any grapple with the subject.  Still, there are two or three things in M. Chasles' letter I wish to reply to, if you will give me space.

    The learned Professor appears to entertain the notion that we have a confused collection of odds and ends, written for all sorts of purposes, and put forth as a general gathering of Shakspeare's Sonnets.  There is one fact quite fatal to this loose and drifting view.  In the 'Passionate Pilgrim' (1599) appeared some seven or eight Sonnets, undoubtedly written by Shakspeare, and only two of these come into print in Thorpe's book.  If the book had been intended to contain Shakspeare's Sonnets in the general sense, Thorpe would surely have printed all he could lay hands on.  This fact serves to shut up the Sonnets most securely in the hands of "Mr. W. H.," who, being one of those "private friends" mentioned by Meres, knew what was what, and only included those Sonnets which had been written for the "private friends."  Through the latter Sonnets I connect "Mr. W. H." with William Herbert.  They image his spirit, as it is reflected for us in his life and his poetry.  The players tell us with what favour and familiarity he, in company with his still more dissolute brother, pursued our poet.  My reading for the first time identifies or localizes their meaning.  And when M. Chasles urges that a man of the world, a Knight of the Garter, a Court favourite, could scarcely submit to such a forgetfulness of his rank and titles as is implied in his being addressed as "Mr. W. H.," I answer, such was his share in the transaction that he had his own, personal reasons for the concealment.  What these were I find in the latter Sonnets and in the underhand method of publication.  "Mr. W. H.," being the only obtainer of the Sonnets, had sufficient power to be inscribed to as he thought fit!  Of course it was not the custom of the time to address an earl as "Mr.," but who ever thought this was a case to be settled merely by referring to the custom of the time?

    I should be glad to know what historical facts and dates they are which, according to M. Chasles, run counter to my theory.  Certainly they are not to be found in the life of Southampton, or the characters of Herbert and Lady Rich.  There the external evidence is entirely corroborative, so far as it goes.  I did not, however, propose to make out the mystery of the Sonnets simply by what history has recorded.  If the matter had been so publicly explained, there would have remained nothing for me to evolve from the Sonnets themselves!  Contemporary history took but little note of Shakspeare's whole life; none whatever of his death.  But why there should be any difficulty, for instance, in believing that Southampton may have given his mistress some slight cause for her to become jealous of Lady Rich, who was such a siren, I cannot conceive, when history tells us that in the first year of King James's reign this same earl was arrested on suspicion of intriguing with the Queen for amatory purposes!  Here is one of those tallies of character in which my interpretation of the Sonnets abounds.  If M. Chasles alludes to the fact that Lady Rich was seventeen years older than Herbert in 1599, I reply, That is the fact of facts in my favour, for the two versions of Sonnet 138 are both founded on it, and the Sonnet was altered on purpose to suppress this very prominent fact of the speaker's youth, and the lady's age, which had been dealt with thus ironically.

    In common with others of my critics, M. Chasles holds that my view of the latter Sonnets is "morally untenable."  They refuse to believe that Shakspeare could do such a thing as write those Sonnets for a youth like Herbert, on his passion for a woman like Lady Rich, because in doing so he would be a panderer.  I ask, What answer is that to my theory?  Would it be any worse, in a moral point of view, than if he had written those latter Sonnets on a guilty amour of his own, and then given away the most damning proofs of his unfaithfulness to his wife?—especially if he had given them to the brother of that wife whom he had so wronged—eh, M. Chasles?  I do not see how that would be "morally tenable."  First, he would write them on his own sin; secondly, he would part with them to publish that sin; and, thirdly, to bring the matter home, he would be making the wife's brother the medium of publicly proclaiming the husband's shame.  My critics had better keep the question of morality in the background for the present.  They cannot touch my theory on the score of Shakspeare's character.  There are the Sonnets first to be accounted for, most of them bearing the indubitable marks of Shakspeare's own hand.  (I am satisfied for various reasons, but chiefly on the score of bad workmanship, that Herbert wrote Nos. 96, 130, 145, 151 and 153.)  The fact of morality is bound up with the writing of them rather than with their object.  But does he pander to the passion which he has accepted for his theme?  I think not; only so far as is implied in his acceptance of the subject.  When writing, he fights all he can against the frantic youth's infatuation.  The Sonnets paint the situations, but do not flatter the person addressed.  Such language is employed as could not have furthered the speaker's ends.  Her character is treated with the utmost levity and grossness.  She is mocked at on account of her age; she is asked to "play the mother's part"; her charms are derided; her broken marriage-vow is flung in her face; her breath is said to "reek" from her; her breasts are likened in colour to the dun-deer.  Love is called a blind fool for casting his spell over the lover's eyes, and making them put "fair truth upon so foul a face," and causing him to follow her who is as "black as hell, as dark as night."

    Again, M. Chasles asks, Can we imagine that Southampton would "borrow or purchase the pen of any poet to express," &c.?  There is no need to imagine.  Shakspeare himself tells us, in his Dedication to 'Lucrece,' that what he has written and what he has then to write was for Southampton, who was a part in all that he had devoted to him.  He there makes a promise which never had fulfilment except in the Sonnets; and in them it could only be fulfilled in one way.  He could only devote Sonnets to the Earl's service by writing about the Earl's affairs.  And, in perfect accordance with this declaration in prose, the thirty-eighth Sonnet tells us that the Earl is about to furnish his "own sweet argument" for the poet to versify, and has thus given "invention light," i.e. he has invented a new method of dealing with his own love affairs by suggesting the dramatic treatment.  And as M. Chasles cannot fancy that such a gentleman as Shakspeare would be "trudging after the heels of the fiery and serious Southampton," let me point to the fact of Shakspeare's alteration of 'Richard the Second,' with the deposition-scene newly added to suit the plans of the Essex conspirators—at whose suggestion, I wonder, if not at Southampton's!

    The unwillingness of critics to follow my reading of what I call the Dramatic Sonnets, perplexes me exceedingly. Will you allow me to quote just three of the Southampton series?—

Sonnet 123.

No; Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change!
Thy pyramids, built up with newer might,
To me are nothing novel—nothing strange—
They are but dressings of a former sight:
Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire
What thou dost foist upon us that is old,
And rather make them born to our desire
Than think that we before have heard them told:
Thy Registers and thee I both defy,
Not wondering at the present nor the past,
For thy Records and what we see doth lie,
Made more or less by thy continual haste!
    This I do vow, and this shall ever be,
    I will be true, despite thy scythe and thee.


Sonnet 124.

If my dear love were but the child of State,
It might for Fortune's bastard be unfathered
As subject to Time's love, or to Time's hate;
Weeds among weeds, or flowers with flowers gathered:
No, it was builded far from accident!
It suffers not in smiling pomp, nor falls
Under the blow of thrallèd Discontent,
Whereto the inviting time our Fashion calls:
It fears not Policy—that Heretic,
Which works on leases of short-numbered hours—
But all alone stands hugely politic,
That it nor grows with heat, nor drowns with showers
    To this I witness call the fools of Time,
    Which die for goodness who have lived for crime


Sonnet 125.

Were it ought to me I bore the canopy,
With my extern the outward honouring?
Or laid great bases for eternity,
Which prove more short than waste or ruining?
Have I not seen dwellers on form and favour
Lose all and more by paying too much rent?
For compound sweet foregoing simple savour;
Pitiful thrivers in their gazing spent!
No, let me be obsequious in thy heart,
And take thou my oblation, poor but free,
Which is not mixed with seconds, knows no art,
But mutual render, only me for thee!
    Hence, thou suborn'd Informer, a true soul
    When most impeach'd stands least in thy control!

    These three Sonnets have never been read on any theory.  No one can make them personal to Shakspeare.  But let us suppose Southampton to be the speaker,—that he is imprisoned in the Tower, which is made up of towers, or "pyramids," and which was then the great repository of national "Records" and "Registers,"—that he addresses his Countess, and exults in the fact of their marriage before this calamity came, so that if he be a prisoner of State his love is no longer the mere "Child of State," and, as such, subject to each whim of royal caprice or policy, that, being shut up, his "love" cannot come within range of the "blow of thralled Discontent," e.g., the Irish Rebellion, to suppress which the Earl's comrades were at the very moment being summoned by Mountjoy, —that, as witnesses, he summons the spirits of those who died on Tower Hill, to make sport for the crowd,—that, finally, after using the reflex image of Imprisonment, he flings his disdain at the "suborned Informer," who was the cause of the Earl's being impeached for treason,—the very man whom Camden alludes to, though he could not discover which of the Essex conspirators it was.  I am quite willing to stake my theory, that the poet wrote vicariously for his friend, on those three Sonnets.

    Yet, permit me to point out one more bit of evidence, as it is not in my book.  My argument is, that Sonnets 29, 30, 31 are spoken by Southampton chiefly in memory of his father's death; and he alludes to "Love's long-since cancelled woe."  Now, how can such a loss, such a woe, have been cancelled at all?  I answer, only in one sense, which warrants the legal expression, and only in Southampton's case.  The "woe" was the loss of his father, who died when Southampton was eight years old, and it was "cancelled" "long since" by the re-marriage of Lady Southampton to Sir Thomas Heneage, who became an affectionate step-father to the young Earl, and, as such, as well as from his relationship to the players, was thought worthy of the allusion.  I may add, that in fifty places does the dramatic interpretation touch ground as firm where no other touches ground at all; in truth, it offers the only anchorage in the midst of a tossed and troubled sea of speculation.

    But the Sonnets must be studied and dwelt with awhile in this new light, and the internal evidence must be pondered over from this stand-point, where alone its peculiar nature, its subtle allusiveness to facts that seem so plain, can be grasped.  There are persons who cannot believe in anything new, because they have grown old.  I do not appeal to such.  Nor have I any great faith in the so-called Shakspearians, with a very few exceptions; least of all those who have already formed a theory of the Sonnets.  So potent is the tyranny of association, and so few are the minds that can emancipate themselves from it!  My trust is rather in those who come fresh to the subject untrammelled by preconceived opinions.  Of course I am not alluding to Prof. Chasles.  I thank him for his courtesy; I sympathize with him in his labour of love, and sincerely wish him all success and honour.