The Sonnets: All or Nothing at All?
edited: Wednesday, February 07, 2007
By Gene Gordon
Not "rated" by the Author.
Posted: Wednesday, February 07, 2007
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A talk prepared for a Shakespeare seminar on a cruise to Hawaii.
Welcome, everyone, to the session on The Sonnets. Shakespeare’s Sonnets are considered to be the greatest love poems in the world.
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.
But the Sonnets are also the biggest mystery in the world! Everything about them is puzzling. Shakespeare’s Sonnets are so fascinating and yet so frustrating.
In the first place, we don’t know why the Sonnets were written. People sail on opposite oceans – on the Atlantic and Pacific as it were - on this question. They debate each other from the depths of two schools of thought: 1) the Sonnets are a grand and extensive exercise – a literary exercise, a technical exercise. Shakespeare is simply playing at poetry. It’s as if one were to tinkle around with the piano keys, putting together a little study in each key.
2) The Sonnets are essentially autobiographical. These poems are portals into the very soul of Shakespeare. Or as Wordsworth said of the Sonnets “With this same key Shakespeare unlocked his heart.” The Sonnets tell a story, the story of a love triangle in which Shakespeare was involved, and the poems are deeply personal. See what you think as we go along and at the end we’ll discuss it.
In any case, there are 154 Sonnets. The first 17 – and there is no argument about this - the first 17 urge a young man to marry and have children. Here’s a good example – Sonnet No. XII:
When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silvered o'er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer's green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.
Nothing can save you from death except children. Yes, for seventeen sonnets - to a young man - Shakespeare goes on in that loving vein: “Dear my love,” he says. “The beauty of your eyes.”
How do we know Shakespeare is speaking to a man? Listen to Sonnet III:
Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another;
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose unear'd womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb
Of his self-love, to stop posterity?
Thou art thy mother's glass and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.
But if thou live, remember'd not to be,
Die single and thine image dies with thee.
Where is the woman in the world who would be too proud to sleep with you? What woman is too beautiful? “For where is she so fair whose unear'd womb/Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?”
“Unear'd” here means unploughed. The reference here is to sexual intercourse: ploughing the womb. As the plough enters into the soil so does the man enter into the woman, and sowing it with seed (semen) leads to children, as ploughing and sowing the land leads to crops. Without a question Shakespeare is in these first seventeen Sonnets speaking to a man. And with frankly sexual metaphors!
“Your sweet form,” he writes for 17 sonnets...“your lovely gaze.” But number 18 leaps to a still higher level of affection:
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 ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Ah, what a lovely love poem! And written by one man to another! Or rather by an older man to a youth... Many people feel that there was a homosexual relationship between the poet and the young lord. Look at Sonnet XX:
A woman's face with nature's own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion:
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
But look how that sonnet ends:
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell adoting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.
Yes, in that sonnet Shakespeare explicitly denies a homosexual relationship. “But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure/Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.” Again very frank language, to say the least!
Yes, he bluntly denies a homosexual relationship. And yet, and yet – does one man talk to another like this (Sonnet LVII)?
Being your slave what should I do but tend
Upon the hours, and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend;
Nor services to do, till you require.
Nor dare I chide the world without end hour,
Whilst I, my sovereign, watch the clock for you,
Nor think the bitterness of absence sour,
When you have bid your servant once adieu;
Nor dare I question with my jealous thought
Where you may be, or your affairs suppose,
But, like a sad slave, stay and think of nought
Save, where you are, how happy you make those.
So true a fool is love, that in your will,
Though you do anything, he thinks no ill.
This is a poem of abject humility. The pain is obvious. Shakespeare uses the words “bitterness," "absence," "sour,"
"servant," "jealous," "sad," "slave,'
Look how Shakespeare writes when he is absent from his lord (Sonnet L):
How heavy do I journey on the way,
When what I seek, my weary travel's end,
Doth teach that ease and that repose to say,
'Thus far the miles are measured from thy friend!'
The beast that bears me, tired with my woe,
Plods dully on, to bear that weight in me,
As if by some instinct the wretch did know
His rider lov'd not speed being made from thee.
The bloody spur cannot provoke him on,
That sometimes anger thrusts into his hide,
Which heavily he answers with a groan,
More sharp to me than spurring to his side;
For that same groan doth put this in my mind,
My grief lies onward, and my joy behind.
Yes, that heart is heavy with love. And some still wonder whether it was a sexual relationship after all. In Sonnet XXIX he speaks of himself as in disgrace, as an outcast among men, of one who curses himself, and – most tellingly – as of one who is “contented least” with what he “most enjoys.” Here is another sonnet people point to in the claim that Shakespeare was gay:
When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Remember back in Sonnet XVIII in which Shakespeare promises that his poetry will give his love immortality? Here (in Sonnet LV) we have the same idea again:
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear'd with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword, nor war's quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
'Gainst death, and all oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.
Ah, but suddenly the series takes a troubled turn (Sonnet XXXIV). The poet is indignant; he is hurt, he feels wronged.
Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,
And make me travel forth without my cloak,
To let base clouds o'ertake me in my way,
Hiding thy bravery in their rotten smoke?
'Tis not enough that through the cloud thou break,
To dry the rain on my storm-beaten face,
For no man well of such a salve can speak,
That heals the wound, and cures not the disgrace:
Nor can thy shame give physic to my grief;
Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss:
The offender's sorrow lends but weak relief
To him that bears the strong offence's cross.
Ah! but those tears are pearl which thy love sheds,
And they are rich and ransom all ill deeds.
What is happening here? What is Shakespeare saying in Sonnet XXXIV? He speaks of “ill deeds” on the part of his friend – of “shame,” of repentance, and of “sorrow.”
No more be grieved at that which thou hast done:
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud:
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
Can we begin to get a feeling for what seems to be happening here?
Take all my loves, my love, yea take them all;
What hast thou then more than thou hadst before?
No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call;
All mine was thine, before thou hadst this more.
I do forgive thy robbery, gentle thief,
Although thou steal thee all my poverty:
It’s getting explicit now – as clear and plain as anyone could want. “I do forgive thy robbery, gentle thief.” Who is robbing whom? What has been stolen here?
Sonnet XLI tells us a little more:
Those pretty wrongs that liberty commits,
When I am sometime absent from thy heart,
Thy beauty, and thy years full well befits,
For still temptation follows where thou art.
Gentle thou art, and therefore to be won,
Beauteous thou art, therefore to be assail'd;
And when a woman woos, what woman's son
Will sourly leave her till she have prevail'd?
Ay me! but yet thou might'st my seat forbear,
And chide thy beauty and thy straying youth,
Who lead thee in their riot even there
Where thou art forced to break a twofold truth:--
Hers by thy beauty tempting her to thee,
Thine by thy beauty being false to me.
Our poet is plainly speaking of a betrayal. Apparently the friend, the young lord, has stolen from Shakespeare a woman whom he loved dearly. And yet – incredibly - he seems to lament not so much the loss of his female lover as much as his male.
That thou hast her it is not all my grief,
And yet it may be said I loved her dearly;
That she hath thee is of my wailing chief,
A loss in love that touches me more nearly.
Shakespeare fears that his young lord hates him and will leave him.
Then hate me when thou wilt; if ever, now;
Now, while the world is bent my deeds to cross,
Join with the spite of fortune, make me bow,
And do not drop in for an after-loss:
Ah! do not, when my heart hath 'scaped this sorrow,
Come in the rearward of a conquered woe;
Give not a windy night a rainy morrow,
To linger out a purposed overthrow.
If thou wilt leave me, do not leave me last,
When other petty griefs have done their spite,
But in the onset come: so shall I taste
At first the very worst of fortune's might;
And other strains of woe, which now seem woe,
Compared with loss of thee, will not seem so.
“Let me confess that we two must be twain,” Shakespeare writes in Sonnet XXXVI, and continues with
I may not evermore acknowledge thee,
Lest my bewailed guilt should do thee shame,
Nor thou with public kindness honour me,
Unless thou take that honour from thy name:
“Farewell,” says Shakespeare to his young lord.
Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know'st thy estimate,
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.
Thy self thou gavest, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me to whom thou gav'st it else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgement making.
Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.
And now he speaks of his death...
No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it, for I love you so,
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O! if, I say, you look upon this verse,
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse;
But let your love even with my life decay;
Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
And mock you with me after I am gone.
A sad and bleak and very beautiful poem... Here is more on death...
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by...
All this is most remarkable. But what is to come is almost scandalous. So far we have been considering the sonnets written to a male, the fair youth - the “lovely boy.” These are sonnets one through 126.
But beginning with Sonnet CXXVII Shakespeare speaks of his “mistress.” And in the most astonishing way:
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
Isn’t that surprising? And there is more of it – much more!
In faith I do not love thee with mine eyes,
For they in thee a thousand errors note;
But 'tis my heart that loves what they despise,
Who, in despite of view, is pleased to dote.
Nor are mine ears with thy tongue's tune delighted;
Nor tender feeling, to base touches prone,
Nor taste, nor smell, desire to be invited
To any sensual feast with thee alone:
But my five wits nor my five senses can
Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee,
Who leaves unswayed the likeness of a man,
Thy proud heart's slave and vassal wretch to be:
Only my plague thus far I count my gain,
That she that makes me sin awards me pain.
On and on he goes in this vein:
My love is as a fever longing still,
For that which longer nurseth the disease;
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now Reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen's are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed;
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.
Unbelievably, in Sonnet CXXXVII Shakespeare speaks of his woman as “the bay where all men ride,” and “the wide world’s common place.”
Let’s be plain and honest about this. Shakespeare certainly was. What does he mean by “the bay where all men ride?” Can anyone say? And what is he saying with “the wide world’s common place?” Don’t be shy. Interpret that for us.
I’ll interpret the next one if you like, if you don’t mind bawdy gestures.
... I do betray
My nobler part to my gross body's treason;
My soul doth tell my body that he may
Triumph in love; flesh stays no farther reason,
But rising at thy name doth point out thee,
As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride,
He is contented thy poor drudge to be,
To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.
No want of conscience hold it that I call
Her love, for whose dear love I rise and fall.
Yes, these are Shakespeare’s Sonnets! He craves - he lusts after - a woman he does not love or even admire. He is disgusted with himself for his sexual enslavement. In the following sonnet, CXXIX, he expresses a profound hatred of sexuality.
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action: and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
What do you think of all this? Isn’t it surprising to say the least? But hold on; there is one more surprise: Shakespeare acknowledges that he loves the man more than the woman!
Beshrew that heart that makes my heart to groan
For that deep wound it gives my friend and me!
Is't not enough to torture me alone,
But slave to slavery my sweet'st friend must be?
Yes, Shakespeare’s young lord had an affair with his mistress, and Shakespeare forgave him it.
That thou hast her it is not all my grief,
And yet it may be said I loved her dearly;
That she hath thee is of my wailing chief,
A loss in love that touches me more nearly.
He sums it all up in one of the most famous sonnets, CXLIV:
Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still:
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.
To win me soon to hell, my female evil,
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
And whether that my angel be turned fiend,
Suspect I may, yet not directly tell;
But being both from me, both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another's hell:
Yet this shall I ne'er know, but live in doubt,
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.
So! Are the Sonnets an artificial literary exercise, or a deeply felt personal expression? Granted, in the way I presented the case there is no question of how I feel. Perhaps there is a case to be made for the other point of view, and maybe I’ll make that case on our next cruise. Yes, I’ll do it as an exercise.