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The Sonnets, Songs and Poems of Shakespeare

by William Shakespeare

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William Shakespeare

The Sonnets, Songs and Poems of Shakespeare

Bantam Books, Paperback, 1964.

12mo. 346 pp. A Bantam Classic. Edited by Oscar James Campbell.

Venus and Adonis first published by Richard Field, 1593.
The Rape of Lucrece first published by Richard Field as Lucrece, 1594.
The Passionate Pilgrim first published by William Jaggard, 1599.
The Phoenix and the Turtle first published as a supplement to Robert Chester’s Loves Martyr, 1601.
The Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint first published by Thomas Thorpe, 1609.
This edition first published by Bantam, October 1964.

Contents

The Sonnets
Songs from the Plays
Venus and Adonis
The Rape of Lucrece
The Phoenix and the Turtle
The Passionate Pilgrim
A Lover's Complaint
Chronology of Shakespeare's Life
Bibliography

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There are those eccentric fellows who say that, had he written no plays at all, Shakespeare still would have enjoyed today the same critical acclaim, if not the same fabulous popularity, on the strength of his sonnets and narrative poems alone. I think this is tosh. In my outrageously uninformed opinion, in this case Will would have been little more than a footnote in literary history. This book eloquently testifies why. It collects all non-dramatic works by Shakespeare, but even the best of them – the sonnets, by far – are way more uneven and hard to get through than his finest plays.

In the following strictly personal remarks, I will address the editorial work, the poems and the songs. Whatever I have to say about the intrinsic value of the sonnets, I will save it for another review.

I don’t know at all – and neither does the Web – who Oscar James Campbell was, so we have to rely on the informative title page (“Professor Emeritus / Columbia University”) and the great authority of the back cover (“one of the world’s foremost living Shakespearean scholars”). Impressive credentials. I am glad to report that Mr Campbell has acquitted himself impressively. He has supplied all works with concise, erudite and sensible introductions; many of the songs and the sonnets, or groups of them, also enjoy short notes as a sort of running commentary. All cryptic words are marked with an asterisk and “translated” in the margins; obscure phrases, mythological allusions and the like, are explained in footnotes.

Mr Campbell’s introduction to the sonnets is a strong cocktail of rigorous scholarship and detective work, some 25 pages long. It is beautifully devoid of dogmatic assertions. The author is careful with his words (“I have adopted as a working hypothesis the assumption…”) and he never lets you forget that all those theories about the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady or the meaning and significance of the sonnets, no matter how vigorously argued, are little more than pure conjecture. Mr Campbell is by no means afraid of being provocative, but he is nothing like the belligerent A. L. Rowse when expressing his opinions and arguments. The introduction is separated into eight titled and numbered parts.

“1. The Key” attempts to provide just that: a key for understanding the sonnets as “half concealed autobiography”. Mr Campbell rejects the poems as “a narrative of events”, but he is convinced that if they are read in the order in which they are published, “with a few displacements”, they do tell the story “of Shakespeare’s relationship with a young aristocrat, who becomes his dear Friend, and with the Dark Lady, a seductive girl who served at the same time as the mistress of both men”, or, to use the stirring language of the back cover, “a searching poetic chronicle of one of the strangest love triangles in the history of literature”. Furthermore, the editor argues that the mysterious “W. H.” from the dedication is William Herbert, the third Earl of Pembroke (1580–1630), not Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton, to whom Will dedicated his two early narrative poems, and he alludes to the fourth character often mentioned by other authors, the so-called Rival Poet, as composed of several different people. He concludes in this tantalising way:

Therefore, following an approved method of scientific investigation, I have adopted as a working hypothesis the assumption that Pembroke was the man to whom Shakespeare addressed most of his sonnets. The conclusions that I drew from this tentative theory form the basis of my interpretation of individual sonnets and their sequence. This method brings order to a tangled situation and thus fulfills the editor’s main purpose. It enables the reader to follow without confusion the story of the poet’s way of meeting an intellectual and moral crisis of his middle years.

“2. The Date” makes a good case that Shakespeare wrote the first of these sonnets not earlier than 1595, and continued writing them at least until 1601; the analysis is based mostly on the so-called “dated sonnet” (107) and is not without some tenuous points, but I suspect it is no worse than many others. “3. The Sonnet Vogue” traces the form back to Petrarch and shows how Shakespeare followed some of the old conventions but radically changed others. “4. The Cult of Friendship” argues that passionate male-male relationships were frequent at the time, often expressed in extravagant terms (“dear religious love” is one Shakespearean example from sonnet 31), and not necessarily homosexual. “5. “The Rival Poet” makes wonderful sense of some painfully obscure sonnets (76, 79, 86) by suggesting that they might be referring to the rival poets, John Donne, Ben Jonson and George Chapman among them, who fought with Will for the attention of his beloved Friend. “6. The Dark Lady” examines critically the plenty of circumstantial evidence that Mary Fitton might have been the mysterious brunette immortalised in the sonnets (and in Love’s Labour’s Lost as Rosaline), and though Mr Campbell finds it “difficult to accept the identification”, he offers no alternative. “8. Glosses and Notes” explains briefly the editorial apparatus.

“7. Outline of the Sonnet Story” presents “the plot” as an amiable ménage à trois. This is easily one of the most important parts of the introduction. A brief summary might prove entertaining. (The sonnets are printed in their usual order, but to follow the story this must be disrupted.)

Captivated by the staggering beauty of the young Lord William Herbert, whom “he had probably not yet met”, Shakespeare urges him to breed, breed, breed, BREED (sonnets 1-17). Our poet, now hopelessly smitten, offers him a passionate friendship in florid terms (18-26), meanwhile modestly suggesting that sonnets may well be a better way to immortalise his beauty than mere procreation; he “evidently” sends the first two groups to the dedicatee as a packet called a “written ambassage” (26). At this lovely moment, the Dark Lady appears. Will innocently approaches her in a “half-teasing manner suitable to a drawing room”, but then is surprised how quickly she is seduced and revolted how easily he succumbs to the tyranny of sexual desire (127-32).

Our poet then embarks on some travel adventures (27-32), only to find on his return that the young lord has (been) seduced (by) the Dark Lady (33-47). He confronts the Youth and reduces him to tears (34), forgives him and then finds the naughty boy remains unfaithful (40). Will excuses his friend again, blaming the lady’s irresistibility, and then performs “a feat of triumphant rationalization” (42) by assuming that, since he and the lord are “one soul in bodies twain”, she really loves only him. (No soap opera could beat that!) Nevertheless, Will is tortured by his friend’s disloyalty (48-66) as well as by the Dark Lady’s flagrant promiscuity and sensuous power (133-42). After another 33 sonnets of trials and tribulations (67-99), our poet decides (100) “to revamp the record” in order to present the Youth as “fair, kind and true” (105). Having achieved this (101-108), he finally manages (143-52) to “dismiss the lady from his mind and his heart for good and all”. As for 109-126:

In these sonnets written last Shakespeare turns to Pembroke to explain how their love, well-nigh ruined by their rivalry for the Dark Lady, can be renewed in ways that an analysis of individual sonnets will make clear. The sequence thus closes with a re-establishment of the friendship that apparently remained firm to the end of the poet’s life.

It’s interesting to compare this summary with the titles that Mr Campbell gives to different groups of sonnets. He thought highly enough of them (or his publisher did) to print them at the top of every page. Only the first of these, so far I know, is commonly used:

1-17: The Procreation Sonnets
19-26: “The Written Ambassage”
27-32: Thoughts in Absence
33-47: Reactions to his Friend’s Disloyalty
48-66: Anxiety and Depression
67-74: Corruption and Death
75-99: Perils to the Friendship
100-108: The Truant Muse
109-126: In Retrospect
127-132: Enter the Dark Lady
133-142: The Dark Lady
143-152: Exit the Dark Lady

Sonnets 153 and 154, as evident also from the summary, are the only ones that “have no discernable relationship to the sonnet story”. The editor further dismisses them as “intruders into Thorpe’s manuscript” and mere translations of epigrams from The Greek Anthology, “a collection of about 4500 short Greek poems written between the Hellenistic Alexandrian age and the early Middle Ages.” It is not quite clear what he means by “translations”, however, as in the next sentence he says that Shakespeare is supposed to have found “the epigram translated in Giles Fletcher’s “Licia” (1593).” Presumably the editor means that the last two sonnets are Shakespeare’s “interpretation” of a single epigram. A rare and minor example of editorial vagueness.

On the whole, I am not sure that I am convinced by Mr Campbell’s operatic interpretation. He reads too much in these pieces, methinks; and he occasionally sounds contrived or far-fetched. It seems to me equally probable that the sonnets were written as pure exercises in verbal brilliance, quite divorced from the author’s trivial love affairs if not from his personality. For my part, the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady, if they ever existed, probably were insignificant individuals whose vices and virtues were greatly magnified and transformed by the poet’s wild imagination. On the other hand, Mr Campbell’s case is anything but poorly argued. In The Annotated Shakespeare (1978), A. L. Rowse builds a very similar theory about the sonnets as an autobiographical narrative, “quite a drama in itself […] commonly, and vulgarly, known as a triangle”; but he is opinionated, overweening and infinitely less convincing. Mr Campbell provides more solid arguments and superior speculation. Few shaky moments notwithstanding, he makes the sordid story, not just thrilling, but thoroughly believable. It makes you wonder why it hasn’t been filmed more often. A Waste of Shame (2005, the title comes from the savage sonnet 129) is a fine mixture of cinematic art and missed opportunities, though the story is rather different than Mr Campbell’s version.

I found the narrative poems remarkably enjoyable, perhaps because I expected nothing from them. Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece are rather long pieces – running to 1194 and 1855 lines, respectively – that are short on narrative but grand on rhetoric. Both are fantastically readable and eminently forgettable. It is a fine touch of historical irony that these now nearly forgotten poems were considered literature in Shakespeare’s time, while his plays are now considered the pinnacle of English literature but were then derided as popular entertainment. History, it seems, does have a sense of humour. Nevertheless, the poems are of great historical interest. The scholars seem to agree that they may well be the only writings, as evident from the signed dedications and the careful printing, Shakespeare approved for publication himself.

The Phoenix and the Turtle is a strange piece. It’s 66 lines long, but it feels like 666. I am not going to pretend that I make any sense of it. I appreciate Mr Campbell’s masterful elucidation – “celebration of the ideal love of a recently dead married pair under the allegory of the phoenix and the turtledove” – but I neither see nor feel this. The editor’s foray into scholastic philosophy and the Trinity doesn’t help the matter. Perhaps the most revealing comments are “experimental” and “Shakespeare’s imitation of the technical methods and imaginative resources of the metaphysical poets”.

The Passionate Pilgrim is a bizarre anthology, first published by the “sometimes-dishonest publisher” William Jaggart. Shakespeare’s name is the only one on the cover, but only five of the twenty pieces are definitely by him, and three of these are extracts from Love’s Labour’s Lost (which had been published in 1598). The other two pieces are early versions of sonnets 138 and 144, but the minor textual differences with the “definitive” texts are less revealing than one might suspect. The value of the collection is that it allows you to make (a very warped and superficial) comparison between Shakespeare and his contemporaries (ten anonymous poems; five by Marlowe, Barnfield, Deloney and Griffin). Considering the limitations on both sides, for Shakespeare’s five pieces are far from his best, the Bard comes off rather well.

I think Mr Campbell – and the critics in general – is a little too harsh on A Lover’s Complaint. The poem carries its 329 lines rather well. It is very readable, entertaining and, occasionally, moving. That said, the single best adjective I can think of to describe it is “clumsy”. And this is not the sort of clumsiness that is emotionally expressive, as in some of the sonnets, but the type that is unintentionally hilarious. I have never understood why the critics insist that an inferior work of a great writer must be an early exercise or a fraud, but their hard words about A Lover’s Complaint are worth keeping in mind:

If this poem is by Shakespeare, it must be an early work, the product of his “prentice hand.” Most critics find the language forced and full of awkward verbal inventions. Moreover, the imagery is so far-fetched and infelicitous as often to seem absurd. The general consensus now is that, in spite of the appearance of A Lover’s Complaint in the same volume with the sonnets, none of it is Shakespeare’s work.

The volume includes the following songs, sorted in chronological order by the plays from which they were extracted and with illuminating notes by the editor about the context (modern scholarship has somewhat different ideas about the dates of writing, but no matter):

Two Gentlemen of Verona (1592)
- “Who is Silvia?”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1594-1595)
- “You spotted snakes with double tongue” (Fairies)
- “The ousel cock so black of hue” (Bottom)
The Merchant of Venice (1595)
- “Tell me, where is fancy bred”
Much Ado About Nothing (1598)
- “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more!” (Balthasar)
- “Pardon, goddess of the night” (Claudio?)
As You Like It (1600)
- “Under the greenwood tree” (Amiens)
- “Who doth ambition shun” (Amiens)
- “If it do come to pass” (Jacques)
- “Blow, blow, thou winter wind” (Amiens)
- “What shall he have that killed the deer?” (Forester)
- “It was a lover and his lass”
Twelfth Night (1601)
- “O mistress mine, where are you roaming?” (Feste)
- “Come away, come away, death” (Feste)
- “I am gone, sir” (Feste)
- “When that I was and a little tiny boy” (Feste)
Hamlet (1601-1602)
- “How should I your true-love know?” (Ophelia)
- “To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day” (Ophelia)
- “By Gis and by Saint Charity” (Ophelia)
- “In youth, when I did love, did love” (Gravedigger)
Troilus and Cressida (1601-1602)
- “Love, love, nothing but love, still love, still more!” (Pandarus)
Othello (1604)
- “And let me the canakin clink, clink” (Iago)
- “King Stephen was a worthy peer” (Iago)
- “The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree” (Desdemona)
Measure for Measure (1604)
- “Take, O, take those lips away”
Antony and Cleopatra (1607-1608)
- “Come, thou monarch of the vine”
The Winter’s Tale (1611)
- “When daffodils begin to peer” (Autolycus)
- “I have served Prince Florizel and in my time” (Autolycus)
- “Jog on, jog on, the foot-path way” (Autolycus)
- “Lawn as white as driven snow” (Autolycus)
- “Get you hence, for I must go” (Autolycus, Mopsa, Dorcas)
- “Will you buy any tape” (Autolycus)
The Tempest (1611)
- “Come unto these yellow sands” (Ariel)
- “Full fathom five thy father lies” (Ariel)
- “While you here do snoring lie” (Ariel)
- “The master, the swabber, the boatswain and I” (Stephano)
- “No more dams I’ll make for fish” (Caliban)
- “Where the bee sucks, there suck I” (Ariel)

Some of Mr Campbell’s remarks go way beyond mere context. They provide stimulating interpretations. For instance, the excerpts from “three different bawdy songs” sung by the mad Ophelia are supposed to have been “suppressed in her subconscious, until insanity releases them.” The editor considers this as “proof that her malady was erotic insanity caused by the thwarting of her love for Hamlet when she thought it on the verge of fruition.” The analysis of the only song in The Merchant of Venice (III.2.) is even more subtle and suggestive:

This song, the only one in the comedy, is a device for allowing Bassanio time to consider which of the three caskets, gold, silver, or lead, he should choose. It contains hints that the leaden casket is the right one. The lines warn him to beware of what is pleasing only to the eye, for the appeal of superficial beauty is only transient. Bassanio got the point at once. When the music fades, he wisely remarks:

So may the outward shows be least themselves.
The world is still deceived with ornament.

The song also contains a more obvious hint. The end rhymes of the first three lines, “bred,” “head,” “nourishèd,” would suggest to the attentive Bassanio “lead.” The relation of the song to the dramatic situation is thus vital for the suitor and for the expectation of the audience.

The song was sung by musicians attached to Portia’s household, for in Elizabethan establishments like hers it was usual for musicians to be part of the ménage. The refrains were probably sung in parts by the entire group.


Passages like these make you pay attention to the songs in Shakespeare’s plays. At least some of them seem to have great dramatic significance. The example from The Merchant is telling. We know, of course, that Bassanio is anything but stupid and that Portia is quite a clever manipulator herself. But if he can grasp instantly such allusions, maybe he is even smarter than we suppose; and if Portia, who no doubt instructed her musicians what to play and when, can give such hints to the suitor she prefers, maybe she has an even greater ability to have her own way than we suppose.

One thing Mr Campbell says nothing about, to my regret, is on what music were all those lyrics sung. I suppose he thought the matter irrelevant or nothing much is known. Probably these were popular tunes at the time; if anybody bothered to write them down at all, the manuscripts cannot be expected to have survived. As a matter of trivia from later centuries, Franz Schubert immortalized two of the most indifferent lyrics by composing charming lieder on German translations. This is how “Who is Silvia?” became An Sylvia (D891) and “Hark, hark! the lark at heaven's gate sings” (from Cymbeline, II.2., not mentioned by the editor) became Horch, horch, die Lerch (D889). The latter is much better known in Liszt’s piano transcription and contains another two stanzas not by Shakespeare; it is often referred to as “Ständchen” (Serenade), which is very confusing because this is also the generic name of Leise flehen meine Lieder (D957, text by Ludwig Rellstab), one of Schubert’s most famous creations.

Superb editorial work, delightful completeness, literary value and pleasant compactness, in that order of importance, make this collection worthy of the highest possible rating. It’s a great place to start with any of the works included. Later, you may always acquire the legion of other editions available. I do think the sonnets, warts and all, are by far the best of Will’s non-dramatic works and should be reprinted separately as a collection. But it’s nice to have the narrative poems as a bonus. The only fault of this lovely little book is that the internal margins are just a bit too small and you have to rape the spine while reading. No matter. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Mar 22, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
William Shakespeareprimary authorall editionscalculated
Campbell, Oscar JamesEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Campbell, Oscar JamesEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Simon, Henry W.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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This work refers to Shakespeare's complete sonnets, poems and songs in one volume. At least two such collections have been published, edited by Henry W. Simon (Pocket Books, 1951) and Oscar James Campbell (Bantam, 1964), and probably there are many more. Every work that contains the 154 sonnets, the 5 poems (Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, The Phoenix and the Turtle, A Lover's Complaint and The Passionate Pilgrim) and at least a substantial selection from the songs belongs here. Please do not combine with works that contain, for example, only the sonnets and the poems but none of the songs (e. g. Everyman's Library).
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