Published online by Cambridge University Press: 07 September 2010
§ I. The collected Sonnets as we have them were first published in 1609. We are told by the publisher that they were ‘never before imprinted.’ The meaning to be assigned to the statement is that no substantial collection of the poems had previously appeared in print; we must not press it to mean that none of them whatever had so appeared. In point of fact two of them (CXXXVIII, CXLIV) are included in William Jaggard's piratical compilation The Passionate Pilgrim of 1599, although the form in which they are there presented might at first sight suggest that in the interval they had been revised, and one of them (CXXXVIII) in a considerable measure re-written. The case cannot, with this latter poem, be one of mere miscopying, as will be evident from a comparison of the two versions.
Yet such divergences as they show are not sufficient proof of a studied revision by the poet. We should first require to be satisfied (1) that the version printed in 1599 was necessarily the earlier, (2) that Shakespeare was himself responsible for the accuracy of either version. Inasmuch as (according to Hey wood) Shakespeare was greatly vexed when, on the republication of The Passionate Pilgrim by Jaggard in 1612, its contents were ascribed to him, we may put out of court the author's own responsibility for the versions of the two sonnets there given.
The variations, great as they are, might perhaps be taken simply as showing that, during its transmission orally or in manuscript, a piece might suffer remarkable changes.