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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)
The Sonnets

The general name for the best-known sequence of sonnets in the English language, those of *Shakespeare (154 in all). They are believed to have been written in about 1593–8 (a period when there was a craze for sonnet-writing in England, following the publication of *Sidney's Astrophel and Stella), but they were not printed until 1609. The volume was published by Thomas Thorpe with a dedication 'to the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets Mr W.H.'. The search for the identity of W.H. has been ceaseless but inconclusive.

On the assumption that he was the young aristocrat who inspired many of the sonnets, the leading contenders have been William Herbert (1580–1630, 3rd earl of Pembroke) and Henry Wriothesley (1573–1624, 3rd earl of Southampton). There is no firm evidence to support either. It has also been argued that W.H. may have been the man who procured the poems for Thorpe, for there is also no evidence that Shakespeare intended their publication.

In the early poems (1–17) the poet urges the young man to achieve immortality by marrying and having children, but in 18–25 he develops the thought that the recipient will be immortal anyway through the sonnets addressed to him. No. 18 ('Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?') introduces the theme and concludes:
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


The poems up to 126 (addressed to 'my lovely boy') continue on the relationship with the young man, including passages of disillusion, betrayal and rival affection. In some (40–42) he appears to have been unfaithful with a woman, and it may be the same woman to whom the last sequence of sonnets (127–52) is addressed. This is the mysterious dark lady of the sonnets, described as dark both in her physical colouring and in the bitter turmoil she creates for her lover. With even less to go on, there has been almost as much speculation about her identity as that of Mr W.H.

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