Are the Sonnets, wholly or in part, autobiographical, or are they merely "poetical exercises" dealing with imaginary persons and experiences? This is the question to which all others relating to the poems are secondary and subordinate.
For myself, I firmly believe that the great majority of the Sonnets, to quote what Wordsworth says of them, "express Shakespeare's own feelings in his own person;" or, as he says in his sonnet on the sonnet, "with this same key Shakespeare unlocked his heart." Browning, quoting this, asks: "Did Shakespeare? If so, the less Shakespeare he!" to which Swinburne replies, "No whit the less like Shakespeare, but undoubtedly the less like Browning."
The theory that the Sonnets are mere exercises of fancy, "the free outcome of a poetic imagination," as Delius phrases it, is easy and specious at first, but lands us at last among worse perplexities than it evades. That Shakespeare, for example, should write seventeen sonnets urging a young man to marry and perpetuate his family is strange enough, but that he should select such a theme as the fictitious basis for seventeen sonnets is stranger yet; and the same may be said of the story or stories apparently underlying other of the poems. Some critics, indeed, who take them to be thus artificially inspired, have been compelled to regard them as "satirical" � intended to ridicule the sonneteers of the time, especially Drayton and Sir John Davies of Hereford. Others, like Professor Minto, who believe the first 126 to be personal, regard the rest as "exercises of skill, undertaken in a spirit of wanton defiance and derision of commonplace." The poems, to quote Dowden, "are in the taste of the time; less extravagant and less full of conceits than many other Elizabethan collections, more distinguished by exquisite imagination and all that betokens genuine feeling. . . . All that is quaint or contorted or 'conceited' in them can be paralleled from passages of early plays of Shakespeare, such as...
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