“The peremptory decision of Mr. Steevens on the merits of these poems must not be omitted. ’We have not reprinted the Sonnets, etc., of Shakespeare, because the strongest Act of Parliament that could be framed would fail to compel readers into their service. Had Shakespeare produced no other works than these, his name would have reached us with as little celebrity as time has conferred upon that of Thomas Watson, an older and much more elegant sonnetteer.’ Severe as this may appear, it only amounts to the general conclusion which modern critics have formed. Still, it cannot be denied that there are many scattered beauties among his Sonnets, and in the Rape of Lucrece; enough, it is hoped, to justify their admission into the present collection, especially as the Songs, etc., from his plays have been added, and a few smaller pieces selected by Mr. Ellis....”
No comment can add to, or take from, the stupendousness of this. And yet it was the criticism proper to its time. “I have only to hope,” writes Chalmers in his preface, “that my criticisms will not be found destitute of candour, or improperly interfering with the general and acknowledged principles of taste.” Indeed they are not. They were the right opinions for Chalmers; as Dyce’s were the right opinions for Dyce: and if, as we hope, ours is a larger appreciation of Shakespeare, we probably hold it by no merit of our own, but as the common possession of our generation, derived through the chastening experiences of our grandfathers. That, however, is no reason why we should not insist on having such editions of Shakespeare as fulfil our requirements, and refuse to study Dyce except as an historical figure.
It is an unwise generation that declines to take all its inheritance. I have heard once or twice of late that English poets in the future will set themselves to express emotions more complex and subtle than have ever yet been treated in poetry. I shall be extremely glad, of course, if this happen in my time. But at present I incline to rejoice rather in an assured inheritance, and, when I hear talk of this kind, to say over to myself one particular sonnet which for mere subtlety of thought seems to me unbeaten by anything that I can select from the poetry of this century:—
Thy bosom is endeared
of all hearts
Which I by lacking have supposed dead;
And there reigns Love and all Love’s loving parts,
And all those friends which I thought buried.
How many a holy and obsequious Tear
Hath dear religious love stol’n from mine eye,
As interest of the dead, which now appear
But things remov’d that hidden in thee lie!
Thou art the grave where buried
love doth live,
Hung with the trophies of my lovers gone,
Who all their parts of me to thee did give;
That due of many now is thine alone!
Their images I lov’d I view in thee,
And thou, all they, hast all the all of me.