[What follows is a record of the emails that were sent to our Sonnets group.]
Sonneteers, good morning.
We’re now on the downward slope: fewer than 10 sonnets to go. Today’s is an unusual one, which doesn’t form part of an apparent narrative:
Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
[…] these rebel powers that thee array,
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? is this thy body’s end?
Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
So shall thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.
It’s a bit of an inward turn: Shakespeare’s mistress is absent from it, as is the young man; this sonnet is, instead, an exhortation to the soul. The second line is also notorious for including what is almost certainly a misprint — but we’ll get to that in a moment. First, a gloss:
Q1 Poor soul, trapped in my body, why do you pine and suffer yet expend to much time and energy pleasing the body?
Q2 You’re only in the body for a little while: why expend so large cost upon it? For the benefit of worms?
Q3 Reverse the relationship, and let the the body’s want feed you, building up your stores and preparing for the beyond
C Thus you’ll conquer Death, which usually conquers us; when Death is dead, there’s no more dying then
The first two lines, as originally printed, run as follows: ‘Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth, / my sinful earth these rebel powers that thee array’. Despite the opacity of the second line, I’d be inclined to leave it as is — except that it is unmetrical, leaving the line with six beats. So, something has to give. Various editors have proposed various solutions, all of them informed guesswork, all of them suggestive. Some go with the idea that the ‘rebel powers’ are somehow deceiving the soul, and propose emendations like ‘Fool’d by these’. Others go with the military metaphor, with suggestions like ‘Seiged by these’. I’ve just left an ellipsis, and encourage you to think about it.
The sonnet sets up a three-way relationship between the soul, the body, and death, and poses the question of how they are related. Shakespeare proposes there are two possible arrangements: in the first, the body is dominant, feeding on the soul, and eventually decaying and becoming mere food for worms: in the end, death wins. Or the soul dominates, starving the body and feeding itself, eventually growing strong enough to overcome death. To my ear this set of ideas sounds rather more Platonist than Christian, given the absence of any reference to salvation or faith. But if it is Platonist, it is an almost Gnostic strand, with its suggestion that the divine soul can be fed upon and weakened by the sinful flesh, and possibly even die along with it if it does not develop sufficient strength (which can only be done at the expense of the body). In any case, there’s something interesting going on here, and the resulting couplet is very strong.
Sonneteers, good morning.
After that brief philosophical interlude, Shakespeare is back in the grip of the fever he seems sure will kill him:
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 express’d;
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.
It’s a compelling portrait of someone in the grip of a passion they know is bad for them, that they can’t justify even to themselves, and which they are powerless to break. (Many of you will know that I’ve been reading Proust this year, and this sonnet almost reads as though it could have been composed by M. Swann during the episode ‘Swann in Love’, which has substantial thematic overlap with the Sonnets.) A gloss:
Q1 My love is like a fever that causes me to desire what will feed it
Q2 My reason was serving as my physician, seeking to cure my love, but has quit because I didn’t follow his prescriptions — now I uncritically affirm my desire, even knowing it is death
Q3 So now I’m past cure, and frantic, and deranged
C For I have sworn you are fair, and thought of you as bright, even though you’re dark and wicked
There’s a narrative here that I’m not sure is true. Shakespeare says that, at first, he still had his reason, which nursed him and gave him advice on how to cure himself. He failed to follow this advice (a tale as old as time itself), and now his reason has quit and he feels himself to be bereft and deranged; now he approves ‘desire is death’, which his reason took exception to. Whether that proposition means ‘all love/desire debilitates the organism, leading it towards death’ or ‘this desire will be the death of me’, it’s clear that it was something his reason objected to, but which he now has no resistance to accepting. But this is the thing: is this whole sonnet not a form of just such resistance? He’s unable to reform his feeling, or his conduct, but he’s overstating it when he says that he’s got no self-critical faculties left.
The role of reason is interesting here. ‘Reason’ is evidently what philosophers have traditionally called ‘practical reason’, and it’s the faculty by which we identify what would be good for us, and work out how we can achieve those goods, setting out from the circumstances in which we find ourselves. As soon as the concept was coined, a problem immediately made itself felt: why do people often not pursue their own good, even when they know full well what it is? Why do we often feel so powerless to resist things we know won’t do us any good?
This problem achieves a powerful expression in Augustine’s Confessions, in which he is able to identify all of the ways in which he thinks he makes himself unhappy, and what it would take to change things, but finds himself simply unable to do it. At one point he prays, famously: ‘Give me chastity, Lord, but not yet.’ Augustine is apt in this context, because his diagnosis of human unhappiness and dysfunction is all to do with disorders of love: he thinks the human self is partly constituted by the things it loves, and that it is prone to loving the wrong things, or loving things in the wrong way, and thus causing itself harm. (The positive side of his diagnosis, that the solution lies in Christianity and grace and salvation, we can bracket and leave to one side.) The deep part of the problem, as Augustine notes, is that loving is not a free act — we cannot decide to do it, or not do it. As W H Auden asks in his poem ‘Canzone’: ‘When shall we learn, what should be clear as day, / We cannot choose what we are free to love?’
Shakespeare’s sonnet, I think, is fruitfully read in this tradition.
Good morning, Sonneteers.
Shakespeare is baffled again by his love-addled vision:
O, me! what eyes hath Love put in my head,
Which have no correspondence with true sight!
Or, if they have, where is my judgement fled,
That censures falsely what they see aright?
If that be fair whereon my false eyes dote,
What means the world to say it is not so?
If it be not, then love doth well denote
Love’s eye is not so true as all men’s: no,
How can it? O, how can Love’s eye be true,
That is so vex’d with watching and with tears?
No marvel then, though I mistake my view;
The sun itself sees not till heaven clears.
O cunning Love! with tears thou keep’st me blind,
Lest eyes well-seeing thy foul faults should find.
This has been a repeated theme in the past, that love is messing with Shakespeare’s perceptions, such that he is unable to see aright. He feels as though his judgement is aligned with popular opinion, that his mistress is not fair, yet he cannot but see her as though she were. A gloss:
Q1 What eyes has Love put in my head, such that what I see corresponds not to what is there? Or is it that my judgement is wrong, and I see correctly and yet judge her unfair?
Q2 But if she is fair, why does the world say she is not so? Is she is not fair, love quite patently does not see as well as everyone else
Q3 No, love does not see clearly — but then how could it, when its vision is always clouded by tears? No wonder I am mistaken: the sun itself cannot see unless the sky is clear
C Love is cunning: it hampers vision with tears, so that its illusions are never seen through
Here the octave (Q1 + Q2) wrestles with the possibilities of whether Shakespeare’s eyes (which dote on his mistress) or his judgement (which declares that she is not so lovely as he often thinks) is right, and in either case he wonders what is to blame for his faculties being split. He’s as divided as he’s always been. Then the sestet makes clear that he’s not really confused about whether his judgement or his eyes are right: he sides with his judgement, and proceeds to speculate about what is wrong with his eyes.
The most interesting thing here is the two levels he sets up in the sestet. On the primary level, there is a very good image of his eyes filling with tears, which accounts so viscerally for why his vision is not clear. But on the metaphorical level we are left to wonder what these tears are. I wonder whether they are the desperate attachments we are prone to forming in love, projecting our vulnerabilities and insecurities onto the beloved, rendering ourselves more vulnerable and more insecure, and equating the loss of them with the realisation of our deepest fears: thus we become unable to see them properly through the veil of tears we throw over them. ‘O cunning Love! with tears thou keep’st me blind…’
Good morning, Sonneteers.
This may well be our final week — how have we got here? It has been a long journey since April!
For today, a sonnet that fits firmly within the Dark Lady sequence, fixated as it is on both Shakespeare’s (alleged) inability to see her clearly, and her (alleged) disdain for him.
Canst thou, O cruel, say I love thee not,
When I against myself with thee partake?
Do I not think on thee, when I forgot
Am of myself, all tyrant, for thy sake?
Who hateth thee that I do call my friend?
On whom frown’st thou that I do fawn upon?
Nay, if thou lour’st on me, do I not spend
Revenge upon myself with present moan?
What merit do I in myself respect,
That is so proud thy service to despise,
When all my best doth worship thy defect,
Commanded by the motion of thine eyes?
But, love, hate on, for now I know thy mind;
Those that can see thou lov’st, and I am blind.
Q1 How can you say I don’t love you, when I take your side against myself?
Q2 I’ve cast out all those who don’t like you, or whom you don’t like. If you frown on me I even take it out on myself
Q3 I don’t care for those parts of me that are still independent of you; all the best of me worships the worst of you — I’m commanded by your eyes
C But keep on hating, I know your mind: you only love those who can see your faults, and I am blind to them
There’s a bit of an echo here, particularly in line 2, of some of the young man sonnets, in which Shakespeare had offered to take the young man’s side against himself (for example: 35, 88). Here it’s different, in that on those occasions he really seemed to, whereas here he only declares that he does, while instead railing spitefully.
In Q3 and C, Shakespeare repeats the claim he’s made several times before, that he is blind to his mistress’s faults. I’ve said before that this seems implausible if taken literally (he appears very aware of what he claims to be blind to), but he does seem to be blind in the sense that even an awareness of these faults doesn’t shake his infatuation. The sonnet as a whole, and the final line in particular, points to a psychological truth that people are typically uninterested in those who are uncritically besotted with them. It’s a truth that underpins the age-old story of unrequited love.
What I find curious is that the traditional response of frustrated Romeos is to sing hymns of praise to the beloved in the futile hope that this will change things. While this is what Shakespeare did with the young man, and what he says he’s doing with his mistress, in the latter case it isn’t so — while loudly insisting he is blind to her faults (for which read: things he, or others, don’t like about her), he declares them for all to hear.
Sonneteer, good morning.
We’re still pondering the inexplicable hold Shakespeare thinks his mistress has over him:
O, from what power hast thou this powerful might
With insufficiency my heart to sway?
To make me give the lie to my true sight,
And swear that brightness doth not grace the day?
Whence hast thou this becoming of things ill,
That in the very refuse of thy deeds
There is such strength and warrantise of skill,
That, in my mind, thy worst all best exceeds?
Who taught thee how to make me love thee more,
The more I hear and see just cause of hate?
O, though I love what others do abhor,
With others thou shouldst not abhor my state:
If thy unworthiness rais’d love in me,
More worthy I to be belov’d of thee.
I do feel for him: it’s not a happy state, to feel unrequited love for, on the one hand, someone you think is much too perfect for you; and, on the other, someone you can’t see any or much real merit in. The young man is absent in this one, but one can’t help but hear echoes of the way Shakespeare spoke about him, not least in lines 9-10: ‘Who taught thee how to make me love thee more, / The more I hear and see just cause of hate?’ Here, of course, the sentiment isn’t underpinned by adoration. A gloss:
Q1 From whence have you obtained this power to make me love you even though I don’t think you’re that great?
Q2 How is it that I somehow judge what is worst in you as better than the best of others?
Q3 Why do I love you more every time I learn something that should make me hate you?
C Seeing as your unworthiness arouses such love in me, your love is all I deserve
Oddly, the Wikipedia article for this one suggests that this sonnet belongs more properly in the Young Man sequence, which strikes me as deeply confused: this is all of a piece with the dominant theme of the Dark Lady sonnets, which one might gloss thus: why am I so besotted with you? (To be honest, the Wiki articles on individual sonnets frequently are very strange.) But I don’t think it’s wrong in seeing a close relationship between this and the young man sonnets. Shakespeare again and again insisted that the young man’s flaws could only make him love him more; here the same apparent line of argument is employed, yet we can feel the bitterness in it. What is different is that Shakespeare thought the young man basically perfect, and his flaws were just like beauty spots (however delusional this was); when it comes to his mistress, Shakespeare is sure that she’s pretty ordinary — yet he just can’t shake his feelings for her.