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The Date of the Sonnets

An excerpt from Shakespeare's Sonnets. Ed. W. J. Rolfe. New York: American Book Company, 1905.

One of the most serious objections to the Southampton theory is the necessity which it involves of fixing the date of the poems as early as 1592 or 1593. That period of Shakespeare's career is so crowded with work, dramatic and poetic, that it is quite impossible to add anything more to it. If he did not begin authorship until 1590 (as is generally assumed, though a few critics believe it may have been as early as 1588 or 1589) the period of his literary apprenticeship covers only four (or at most six) years or to the end of 1594; and during this time he revised more or less thoroughly Titus Andronicus and the three parts of Henry VI and wrote at least seven original plays Love's Labour's Lost, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Richard III and Richard II. The two long poems, Venus and Adonis and Lucrece also belong to this period. To all this some critics (Mr. Lee among them) would add King John and The Merchant of Venice. And all this time Shakespeare was actively engaged in his profession as an actor. Is it conceivable that before the end of 1594. in addition to all this work, he could have produced the Sonnets, most of which Mr. Lee assumes to have been written between the spring of 1593 and the autumn of 1594? Personally, I believe that King John cannot be dated earlier than 1595 or The Merchant of Venice than 1596 or 1597, and yet the literary productivity of the preceding period, which must include all the other plays and poems mentioned, seems to me prodigious.

There are difficulties, it is true, according to some of the critics, in fixing the date of the Sonnets as required by the Herbert theory. The earliest of them cannot be supposed to have been written before 1597, when Herbert's friends desired that he should marry Bridget Vere; and it has been assumed that the rest, or the great majority of them, must have been written before Jaggard printed the 144th Sonnet in 1599, because, it is said, that sonnet proves that the intrigue with the "dark lady" had come to an end. But, though no critic appears to have pointed it out, this is clearly a misinterpretation of that sonnet, which, instead of marking the end of the story, really belongs to a comparatively early stage of it. The sonnet, which it is well to quote here in order to bring it directly before the eye of the reader, is as follows:

"Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still;
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman colour'd ill.
To win me soon to hell, my female evil
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
And whether that my angel be turn'd fiend
Suspect I may, yet not directly tell;
But being both from me, both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another's hell.
   Yet this shall I ne'er know, but live in doubt,
   Till my bad angel fire my good one out,"
This certainly refers to the period indicated in Sonnets 33-35, at the latest. The poet says that the woman "tempteth" (not, has succeeded in seducing) his friend. She "would corrupt " him, but whether she has actually done it, he adds, "Suspect I may, yet not directly tell," and "I guess one angel in another's hell;" but he does not "know" this, and will "live in doubt" until the affair comes to an end. But in Sonnets 34 and 35 he had no doubt that the "woman coloured ill" had corrupted his "better angel." He endeavours to excuse the "sensual fault" of his friend; but in the next sonnet he decides that
"We two must be
Although our undivided loves are one."
They cannot wholly cease to love each other, but "a separable spite" ("a cruel fate that spitefully separates us from each other," as Malone paraphrases it) must put an end to their friendly intercourse. In Sonnets 40-42 he recurs to the "robbery" his friend has committed; and laments, not only the loss of his mistress but that of his friend:
"That thou hast her, it is not all my grief,
And yet it may be said I loved her dearly;
That she hath thee is of my wailing chief,
A loss in love that touches me more nearly."
Is it not evident that Sonnet 144, with its suspicions and doubts and guesses, was written before rather than after 33-35 and 40-42, where the same facts are treated as facts well established, and thoroughly recognized as such by all the parties interested?

It is not necessary, then, to assume that all or most of the Sonnets were written before 1599, when The Passionate Pilgrim was published. Perhaps comparatively few were then in existence; and this may be one of the reasons why Jaggard was unable to get more of them for his sixpenny booklet. It would be easier to keep thirty or forty out of his reach among the poet's "private friends" than a hundred and fifty; and Meres may not have had even as many as thirty in mind when he referred to the "sugred sonnets," in 1598. The others may have been scattered through several years after 1599; and some of those which seem independent of the regular series may have been written only a few years before the whole collection was published in 1609.

Mr. Lee dates some of the sonnets much later than 159394. He believes, for instance, with Mr. Gerald Massey (Shakespeare's Sonnets, 1866) that the 107th was written in 1603, and refers to the death of Elizabeth and the release of Southampton from prison on the accession of James. "The mortal moon" of the sonnet is Elizabeth, whose "recognized poetic appellation" was Cynthia (the moon); and her death is more than once described as an eclipse. But the sonnet tells us that the moon "hath her eclipse endured" and come out none the less bright which could hardly refer to death; and the supposed allusion to the imprisonment of the poet's friend is extremely fanciful.

It may be added that Shakespeare's references to himself in the Sonnets as "old" appear to have a bearing on their date, and thus upon the question whether Herbert or Southampton was the person addressed. Thirty or more of them were written before 1599, when the poet was thirty-five years old, and the first seventeen appear to have been written in 1597, when he was only thirty-three; but in the 22nd, which seems to be one of the earlier ones, he intimates that he is already old:

"My glass shall not persuade me I am old,
So long as youth and thou are of one date;"
but in the preceding sonnets he has repeatedly admonished his young friend that the summer of youth is fast flying, and has urged this as a reason why he should marry; "for," he says in substance, "you will soon be old, as I am." In the 73rd we have a most beautiful description of his own autumnal age:
"That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang."
In the 138th, which was published in 1599, he refers to himself as "old" and his days as "past the best." We are told that here, as in some of the earlier sonnets, he is comparing himself, as a mature and experienced man, with a green youth of perhaps twenty. Thus in the 62nd Sonnet, after referring to his own face as he sees it in the glass, "Bated and chopp'd with tann'd antiquity," he adds that he comforts himself by "Painting my age with beauty of thy days." But in the 73rd there is no contrast of his own age with that of his young friend, but a long-drawn and apparently heartfelt lament that his life has fallen into the sere and yellow leaf. Mr. Lee says that this "occasional reference to his growing age was a conventional device traceable to Petrarch of all sonneteers of the day, and admits of no literal interpretation."

If the Sonnets were of the ordinary conventional Elizabethan type, poetical exercises on fictitious themes, we might think the "growing age" equally fictitious; but William Shakespeare, at twenty-nine or thirty (as Mr. Lee imagines him to have been when he wrote these sonnets), or even at thirty-five, was not the man to indulge in such sentimental foolery least of all through an entire sonnet when dealing with real experiences like those which form the basis of these poems.

However that may be, a man of twenty-eight or twenty-nine (as Shakespeare was in 1592 or 1593) writing to one of nineteen or twenty (as Southampton was in those years) would be less likely to assume that fictitiously exaggerated age than a man of thirty-three or thirty-four (in 1597 or 1598) writing to a youth of seventeen or eighteen, as Herbert then was.

How to cite this article:

Rolfe, W. J. Ed. The Date of the Sonnets. From Shakespeare's Sonnets. New York: American Book Company, 1905. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sonnets/sonnetdate.html >.

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