Published online by Cambridge University Press: 07 September 2010
A Considerable number of the sonnets of Shakespeare are by no means easy reading. Those who are not content with vague or approximate comprehensions, but who insist, with William Harvey, upon connecting ‘sensible images,’ and not ‘inane phantasms,’ with what they read, must often have failed to make this or that line, if not a whole piece, yield them the full satisfaction of its contents. Benson (1640) may speak of the sonnets as ‘serene, cleere, and elegantly plaine, such gentle straines as shall recreate and not perplexe your braine, no intricate or cloudy stuffe to puzzell intellect,’ but most modern readers will regard that description—probably provoked by vexation at the ‘metaphysical’ school of poets—as needing no small qualification.
That Shakespeare was incapable of writing without fully realising his own conceptions or duly weighing his words, goes without saying. Of whatever strained conceits of thought or tricks of expression he may be guilty, we may be sure that he was at least guiltless of any vagueness or slovenly inconsequence in his own apprehension. If therefore we sometimes find a passage enigmatical, or suspect a conclusion to be comparatively pointless, we must believe that it is because we have ourselves missed the key to its meaning or application.
That even a distinguished critic may often fail to achieve a full interpretation is the only explanation of the remarkable statement of Brandes that the final couplet ‘ often brings the burst of feeling which animates the poem to a feeble, or at any rate more rhetorical than poetic, issue.'