That makes them all the more remarkable. For, let’s not forget, as late as 1960 Penguin Books was tried for obscenity when it published Lady Chatterley’s Lover in Britain.
Shakespeare’s sonnets, on the other hand, have been appearing in popular anthologies like Palgrave’s Golden Treasury since the 19th century. Book 1, containing poems selected by Palgrave himself in 1861, included Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”) and Sonnet 73 (“That time of year thou mayst in me behold”). Both are addressed to a young man. No doubt they are beautiful poems. Sonnet 18 especially.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
The poet praises the incomparable beauty of the person he is addressing who, he says, will be immortalized by his verse. But he doesn’t say who he is speaking to — whether it’s a man or a woman.
He is equally vague in Sonnet 116, my favourite.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.