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Concerning the Order of the Sonnets

From Shakespeare's Sonnets. Ed. W. J. Rolfe.

Certain sonnets in the first group appear to be out of place, though many of the editors attempt to prove that the order of the series is Shakespeare's own. But if the 70th Sonnet is addressed to the same person as 33-35 (to say nothing of 40-42) it seems to be clearly out of place. Here the poet says: —
"That thou art blam'd shall not be thy defect,
For slander's mark was ever yet the fair;
The ornament of beauty is suspect,
A crow that flies in heaven"s sweetest air.
So thou be good, slander doth but approve
Thy worth the greater, being woo'd of time;
For canker vice the sweetest buds doth love,
And thou present'st a pure unstained prime.
Thou hast pass'd by the ambush of young days,
Either not assail'd or victor being charged;
Yet this thy praise cannot be so thy praise
To tie up envy evermore enlarg'd."
His friend has been charged with yielding to the seductions of vice, but the accusations are declared to he' false and slanderous. He is said to present "a pure unstained prime," having passed through the temptations of youth either "not assailed" by them or "victor being charged;" but in 33-35 we learn that he has been assailed and has not come off victorious. There the "stain" and "disgrace" of his "sensual fault" are clearly set forth, though they are excused and forgiven. Here the young man is the victim of slander, but has in no wise deserved it. If he is the same young man who is so plainly, though sadly and tenderly, reproved in 33-35, this sonnet must have been written before those. One broken link spoils the chain; if the order of the poems is wrong here, it may be so elsewhere.

Mr. Tyler's attempt to show that this sonnet is not out of place is a good illustration of the "tricks of desperation" to which a critic may be driven in defence of his theory: "Slander ever fastens on the purest characters. His friend's prime was unstained, such an affair as that with the poet's mistress not being regarded, apparently, as involving serious moral blemish. Moreover, there had been forgiveness; and the special reference here may be to some charge of which Mr. W. H. was innocent." Whatever this charge may be. the "pure unstained prime" covers the period referred to in Sonnets 33-35 and 40-42; and the young man's conduct then appeared a "trespass" and a "sin," a "shame" and a "disgrace," to the friend who now, according to Mr. Tyler, sees no "serious moral blemish" in it. Let the reader compare the poems for himself, and draw his own conclusions. Mr. Tyler has the grace to add to what is quoted above: "But (as in 79) Shakespeare can scarcely escape the charge of adulation." Rather than believe William Shakespeare guilty of "adulation" so ineffably base and sycophantic, I could suppose, as some do, that Bacon wrote the Sonnets.

Both Furnivall and Dowden, in their exposition of the relation of each sonnet to the story involved in the series, fail to explain this 70th Sonnet satisfactorily. Furnival's comment, in his analysis of Sonnets 67-70, is this : "Will has mixed with bad company, but Shakespeare is sure he is pure, and excuses him." At this stage of the friendship, then, Shakespeare is "sure" that the young man is "pure;" but in the analysis of Sonnets 33-35, we read: "Will's sensual fault blamed, repented, and forgiven;" and this "fault," as the context explains, is taking away Shakespeare's mistress. There can be no doubt as to the fact and the nature of the sin mourned and condemned in the earlier sonnets; nor can there be any question that the later sonnet congratulates the youth to whom it is addressed, not on having repented after yielding to temptation, but on having either escaped or resisted all such temptations. If this youth and the other youth are one and the same, the sonnets cannot be in chronological order.

Dowden, in like manner, infers from the earlier sonnets that "Will" has been "false to friendship," and that the only excuse that Shakespeare can offer for him is that "he is but a boy whom a woman has beguiled;" but in the 70th Sonnet the poet says that the charges of loose living brought against his friend "must be slanders." Dowden cannot mean that this sonnet is a friendly attempt to apologize for Will's disgrace after the poet has forgiven him. We have that in Sonnets 35, 36, 40, 41, and 42, where Elizabethan conceits are racked to the uttermost to excuse both his friend and his mistress for playing him false; but, in 70 his friend is "pure," though he cannot escape slander, "unstained," though envy would fain besmirch him.

Mr. Gollancz, in the "Temple" edition of the Sonnets, after quoting what I say in my former edition (as here) to prove that 70 is out of place, simply repeats Tyler's attempt to prove the contrary. "Surely," he says, "the faults referred to in the earlier sonnets are not only forgiven, but here [in 70] imputed to slander." This is an evasion of my argument. That the sin was forgiven is obvious; but the latter sonnet says that the sin was never committed, and it therefore needed no forgiveness. How lightly such lapses were regarded in the olden time we all know; but in this case the treason to friendship was added, and the earlier sonnets show that Shakespeare did not regard the double sin as "involving no serious moral blemish."

The critics who believe the Sonnets to be autobiographical generally agree in assuming that all of them (or all but two) are either addressed to one man and one woman, or connected with the poet's relations with those two persons. Is it not probable, on the face of it, that a poet who "unlocked his heart" to such an extent in this form of verse would occasionally, if not often, have employed it in expressing his feelings towards other friends or with reference to other experiences? Is it likely that the two Cupid sonnets (153, 154) and the Venus and Adonis sonnets in The Passionate Pilgrim (if we believe those to be Shakespeare's — which is extremely improbable) and the sonnets in Love's Labour's Lost are his only efforts in this kind of composition outside of this great series? Is it not far more probable that some sonnets in this series really have no connection with the persons and events supposed to be directly connected with the series?

How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare's Sonnets. Ed. W. J. Rolfe. New York: American Book Company, 1905. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. < >.

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