Oxford Wells Shakespeare Lecture 4: Shakespeare's Dateless Sonnets

For almost two centuries, Shakespeare had no biography. Neither did he have the structure of a biography (a chronology), nor the materials for one (an archive). And his canon did not include the Sonnets (his only work written in the first person). In sum, the mainstays of modern Shakespeare criticism were simply not there. Does this mean that Shakespeare was not valued or understood until after 1800? Each of these four lectures will focus on one of those critical absences, not as an empty place holder for what eventually is to come, but as evidence that other viable priorities were once at work.

It is ironic that the work by Shakespeare that expressly aspires to immortality should itself have come so close to extinction. The “eternal lines” of the 1609 Sonnets were out of print for over a century and not fully incorporated into the canon until almost another had passed. During that long stretch, the sonnets were ensconced in an eclectic miscellany, John Benson’s 1640 Poems. Though discredited as spurious and corrupt by 1800, the sonnets in the 1640 format endured longer than in the authentic 1609 quarto. What gave the sonnets in their 1640 remake their power to endure? Certainly it was not the promise of access to the life of the poet. Through its distancing and generalizing rubrics, the edition rendered them quite impersonal. How then did Benson’s Poems secure, at least for a time, a future for the sonnets? How did they capture what the Sonnets themselves presume: the literary attention of “ages yet unborn”?