Shakespeare’s poems are the monument of a remarkable genius but they are also the monuments of a remarkable age. The greatness of Shakespeare’s achievement was largely made possible by the work of his immediate predecessors, Sidney and Spenser.
Shakespeare’s sonnets are intensely personal and are records of his hopes and fears, love and friendships, infatuations and disillusions that in turn acquire a universal quality through their intensity.
The vogue of the sonnet in the Elizabethan age was brief but was very intense. Sir Thomas Wyatt and The Earl of Surrey brought the Petrarchan sonnet to England and with that an admiration for lyrical poetry. This had major consequences on English verse; it was not only due to the beauty of the form of the sonnet but also because the Sonnet had become the vehicle of expression of one’s personal feelings. It was with the sonnet that Lyricism entered English Poetry. The Elizabethan sonnets show the mingling of the conventional with the original. There was a greater influence of Italy and France on the English sonnet form but in the hands of the three great masters Sidney, Spenser and Shakespeare it took a unique form. The sonnets had marks of sincerity that were in direct relation to life and their authors.
In the Elizabethan Age there were dramatic authors who wrote verse as secondary to their plays and the songs or the lyric were the best in these collections. The songs of this period had the blending of the genius of the people and the artistic sense awakened by humanism. England became the impassioned lover of songs. Most were love-songs, some very free and profane but there were religious songs as well and many were purely fantastic.
But Shakespeare’s songs were the most original and spontaneous and they were rich in their impression of Nature. They contained a sort of fresh and rustic realism. Like in ‘Winter’s Tale’ the image of “when daffodils begin to peer” and the white sheet is “bleaching on the hedge.” And also the purely fantastic songs, which borrow from Nature as in ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’, banishing the “spotted snakes with double tongue.” Shakespeare’s sonnets cannot be classified. They are embedded in a scene and lose their special beauty and subtlety when taken out of context.
The majority of Shakespeare’s poems were written in the early stage of his career. The narrative poems ‘Venus and Adonis’ (1593) and ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ (1594) are conventional in form and have many classical- mainly Ovidian- influences but Shakespeare has given them a “distinctively English bent.”
The Sonnets were published for the first time as a sequence late in his career in 1609 and these have been variously dated and were often tried to fit in with highly subjective interpretations unknown facts in his life.
The mysterious dedication of Shakespeare’s sonnets has confused critics and readers. Some of them are addressed to a patron of letter who is also addressed as a friend and the latter ones to an...