[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]
William Shakespeare (1609)
The True History of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Ed A Douglas, Martin Secker 1933; rebound in half red Morocco and cloth, with gilt label and humped spine.
Love is too young to know what conscience is;
Yet who knows not, conscience is born of love?
This volume stands on this shelf for all the work of Shakespeare, but in particular the plays. They have had more effect on me than any other source of literature. I have written about them separately. This note can then be brief.
This very handsome book was presented to me by an English friend and colleague after we had finished a long hard case. My friend has a dry sense of humour. He was aware of my infatuation with the playwright, and he thought that this edition was just right for me. It was compiled by Lord Alfred Douglas – Bosie to Oscar Wilde. His Lordship was moved to effect the compilation for this purpose:
The present writer, while accepting it as perfectly obvious and indisputable that the great majority of Shakespeare’s incomparable Sonnets (which comprise among them the finest poetry that has ever been written in this or any language) were written to, or about, a boy whom Shakespeare adored, utterly rejects the notion that Shakespeare was a homosexualist.
Now, some Loony Tunes think that Shakespeare was a spook, or a fairy at the bottom of the garden; here he is defended by Bosie against charges that he was queer. I wonder whether the playwright shared these views of Bosie:
Any honest man who has been at public school or university must know perfectly well that young men and boys are liable to fall in love with other young men and boys, and they must also know equally well that some of these relationships are innocent and some are not…..If Shakespeare is to be convicted of homosexuality on the evidence of his sonnets to Mr W H, then David, the Psalmist, who is venerated by Catholics as a Saint and one of the precursors of Christ, must be equally convicted on the strength of his lament for Jonathon. Would anyone in his senses make such a contention, unless he were an ‘eminent counsel’ speaking for his brief.
Well, whatever else it was that lured Wilde to Bosie, it was not the refinement of his intellect.
Here are some typical lines.
When to sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear times’ waste:
Then can I drown an eye unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long-since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a banish’d sight.
It was the mission of this poet to put us at ease with our humanity. There is not much else to say, except that my favourite remark about Shakespeare was made by Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘When I read Shakespeare, I actually shade my eyes.’