Even in this day and time with all we have to concern ourselves, there’s still a question about to whom Shakespeare dedicated his sonnets. Really. Oscar Wilde thought he knew – or he wanted us to think he thought he knew.
This is from his longish short story ( or shortish novel) “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.”
I had been dining with Erskine in his pretty little house in Birdcage Walk, and we were sitting in the library over our coffee and cigarettes, when the question of literary forgeries happened to turn up in conversation. I cannot at present remember how it was that we struck upon this somewhat curious topic, as it was at that time, but I know that we had a long discussion about Macpherson, Ireland, and Chatterton, and that with regard to the last I insisted that his so-called forgeries were merely the result of an artistic desire for perfect representation; that we had no right to quarrel with an artist for the conditions under which he chooses to present his work; and that all Art being to a certain degree a mode of acting, an attempt to realise one’s own personality on some imaginative plane out of reach of the trammelling accidents and limitations of real life, to censure an artist for a forgery was to confuse an ethical with an æsthetical problem.
Erskine, who was a good deal older than I was, and had been listening to me with the amused deference of a man of forty, suddenly put his hand upon my shoulder and said to me “What would you say about a young man who had a strange theory about a certain work of art, believed in his theory, and committed a forgery in order to prove it?”
“Ah! that is quite a different matter,” I answered.
Erskine remained silent for a few moments, looking at the thin grey threads of smoke that were rising from his cigarette. “Yes,” he said, after a pause, “quite different.”
There was something in the tone of his voice, a slight touch of bitterness perhaps, that excited my curiosity. “Did you ever know anybody who did that?” I cried.
“Yes,” he answered, throwing his cigarette into the fire, – “a great friend of mine, Cyril Graham. He was very fascinating, and very foolish, and very heartless. However, he left me the only legacy I ever received in my life.”
“What was that?” I exclaimed. Erskine rose from his seat, and going over to a tall inlaid cabinet that stood between the two windows, unlocked it, and came back to where I was sitting, holding in his hand a small panel picture set in an old and somewhat tarnished Elizabethan frame.
It was a full-length portrait of a young man in late sixteenth-century costume, standing by a table, with his right hand resting on an open book. He seemed about seventeen years of age, and was of quite extraordinary personal beauty, though evidently somewhat effeminate. Indeed, had it not been for the dress and the closely cropped hair, one would have said that the face, with its dreamy wistful eyes, and its delicate scarlet lips, was the face of a girl. In manner, and especially in the treatment of the hands, the picture reminded one of Francois Clouet’s later work. The black velvet doublet with its fantastically gilded points, and the peacock-blue background against which it showed up so pleasantly, and from which it gained such luminous value of colour, were quite in Clouet’s style; and the two masks of Tragedy and Comedy that hung somewhat formally from the marble pedestal had that hard severity of touch – so different from the facile grace of the Italians – which even at the Court of France the great Flemish master never completely lost, and which in itself has always been a characteristic of the northern temper.
“It is a charming thing,” I cried; “but who is this wonderful young man, whose beauty Art has so happily preserved for us?”
“This is the portrait of Mr W H,” said Erskine, with a sad smile. It might have been a chance effect of light, but it seemed to me that his eyes were quite bright with tears.
“Mr W H!” I exclaimed; “who was Mr W H?”
“Don’t you remember?” he answered; “look at the book on which his hand is resting.”
“I see there is some writing there, but I cannot make it out,” I replied.
“Take this magnifying-glass and try,” said Erskine, with the same sad smile still playing about his mouth.
I took the glass, and moving the lamp a little nearer, I began to spell out the crabbed sixteenth-century handwriting. “To the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets.” . . . “Good heavens!” I cried, “is this Shakespeare’s Mr W H?”
“Cyril Graham used to say so,” muttered Erskine.
“But it is not a bit like Lord Pembroke,” I answered. “I know the Penshurst portraits very well. I was staying near there a few weeks ago.”
“Do you really believe then that the Sonnets are addressed to Lord Pembroke?” he asked.
“I am sure of it,” I answered. “Pembroke, Shakespeare, and Mrs Mary Fitton are the three personages of the Sonnets; there is no doubt at all about it.”
“Well, I agree with you,” said Erskine, “but I did not always think so. I used to believe well, I suppose I used to believe in Cyril Graham and his theory.”
“And what was that?” I asked, looking at the wonderful portrait, which had already begun to have a strange fascination for me.
“It is a long story,” said Erskine, taking the picture away from me rather abruptly I thought at the time – “a very long story; but if you care to hear it, I will tell it to you.”
“I love theories about the Sonnets,” I cried; “but I don’t think I am likely to be converted to any new idea. The matter has ceased to be a mystery to any one. Indeed, I wonder that it ever was a mystery.”
“As I don’t believe in the theory, I am not likely to convert you to it,” said Erskine, laughing; “but it may interest you.”
“Tell it to me, of course,” I answered. “If it is half as delightful as the picture, I shall be more than satisfied.”
New ideas… mystery to anyone. Words in combination have a strange allure. Like the kids say, read the whole thing.