Poetic Personae and Literary "Truth"
Compare the relative anonymity of Shakespeare's sonnets with the more direct hints about the personae who are the subjects of Astrophil and Stella (#37, the "Rich" puns) and of the Amoretti (#74, the three "Elizabeths"). Remember that Shakespeare had read both sonnet cycles, and that he knew still others (e.g., Samuel Daniel's Delia, 1592, and Giles Fletcher's Licia, 1593) which either made no claim of autobiographical truth, or even denied there was a real woman behind the name which stood in the place of beloved. This is from Fletcher's introduction:
"If thou muse what my Licia is, take her to be some Diana, at the least chaste; or some Minerva; no Venus, fairer far. It may be she is learning's image, or some heavenly wonder which the precisest may not mislike... It may be, I mean that kind courtesy which I found in the patroness of these poems; it may be some colledge [i.e., collage]. It may be my conceit, and portend nothing. Whatever it be, if thou like it, take it; and thank the worthy Lady Mollineux, for whose sake thou hast it" [Lady M. being the patron Fletcher mentions before].
Given that these kinds of open discussions of sonnet personae were known to Shakespeare, why would he resist imitating them in this sequence of sonnets? We know that the absence of an introduction may indicate the poems were published without permission, or at least without the author's active participation. But individual sonnets or ballades easily can be tagged with those kinds of clues to identify the persons behind the personae, and court wits would have been quick to decode them, as in Wyatt's use of Anne Boleyn's "posse"'s falcon badge in "Lucks my falcons" (photocopied handout in class). Might it have something to do with the "immortality in verse" subset of the "devouring time" poems, in which the beloved is to live (in glory or in infamy) forever in the poem itself? Think about Donne's claim (in "The Canonization") that "if no piece of chronicle [he and his beloved] prove, / We'll build in sonnets pretty rooms" (ll. 31-2). Who or what really lives in those quatrains and couplets? Haunted houses come to mind, but I'm not sure whether we might not be the phantoms there. Which will endure longer?
This also takes us back to Falstaff's impish semiotic analysis of the mighty feudal concept of "honor" as nothing but a "breath," the mere word's physical phonemes vibrating the air. Since the poems claim to "stand for" various things, in what sense are the hidden historical references behind them relevant to our interpretations of them? In the historical moment in which they were composed, they might have resulted in practical outcomes important to their authors and addressees. For instance, Wyatt's "The Flee From Me" might have chastened the owner of that "naked foot" who might regretfully recognize his capturing her voice and actions in a midnight tryst, just as Shakespeare's #147 might well have brought "thee" a severe shock. In fact, one of #147's great sources of power might be the "non-'thee'" reader's emotional swerving as s/he dodges being identified in that vicious last couplet just where a Petrarchan poem might deliver a lovely compliment. However, since we are readers outside the poems' personal frame of reference, we also can be interested in them as signs of their creators' techniques, of their cultures' broader values and conflicts, and of the language's growth. For instance, Sir Sidney Lee (C19 critic/historian) estimated that about 300,000 sonnets were written in Europe and England during the sixteenth century. The reason we single these few out for such scrutiny should have something to do with their richness as archeological sites for the discovery of Elizabethan poetic culture in general as well as Shakespeare's personal, mortal art. This works even when there is a solid biographical link to the persona (e.g., Byrtnoth in Battle of Maldon), and it becomes even more important when we have weak or no evidence to support that link. Even in the case of Byrtnoth, we have no "legal guarantee" that he or his warriors actually said those words, only the poet's faithful participation in a poetic tradition that preserves those words and the personae they record. Much good can be had from figuring out how the poet made those words move us so that we might, over the wastes of a thousand years, still thrill to the doomed heroism of Byrtwold's boast, or find ourselves gazing at our own vacant halls when the Wanderer asks "Where has the horse gone...where is the young warrior...where is the giver of treasure?"
Think about this when reading Sidney's Defense of Poesy, because it's what differentiates us from the History Department. We're at least as interested in how Shakespeare wrote the sonnets as we are in to whom or why he wrote them, and he is at liberty ("poetic license") to violate the historical facts if it produces a great work of art. "How can we hold up our heads in pubic?", you may ask! As Falstaff says, when Hal challenges his claim to have killed Hotspur, "Lord, Lord, how this world is given to lying!" Can a poet really lie?