[What follows is a record of the emails that were sent to our Sonnets group.]

Sonnet 31

Good morning, Shakespeareans, and welcome back.

It seems Shakespeare is still musing on the way we carry the past with us:

Thy bosom is endeared with all hearts,
Which I by lacking have supposed dead,
And there reigns love, and all love’s loving parts,
And all those friends which I thought buried.
How many a holy and obsequious tear
Hath dear religious love stol’n from mine eye,
As interest of the dead, which now appear
But things remov’d that hidden in thee lie:
Thou art the grave where buried love doth live,
Hung with the trophies of my lovers gone,
Who all their parts of me to thee did give;
That due of many now is thine alone:
     Their images I lov’d I view in thee,
     And thou, all they, hast all the all of me.

I find this one slightly dizzying, and it’s all in the ambiguity of who the friends he’s referring to are. Are they literally deceased friends of his, are they ex-lovers (‘dead’ loves), or is Shakespeare suffering from unpopularity, and these are the people he had thought were his friends, but who have now abandoned him? I can’t settle on any one of these, so here’s a triple gloss accounting for all three:

Q1 Perhaps: everybody loves you, and the spirits of the dead – including my old friends – make their way to your heart, where they recall themselves to me. Or perhaps it means: your heart is universal, and the old, ‘dead’ loves I once had for others are re-awoken and found again in you. Or perhaps it means: you’re still popular; I was once: and all those friends I presumed to be dead, because they no longer call on me, I find still have love for you.

Q2 Maybe: I have piously grieved for the dead, yet it turns out that the dead are not gone – they live on in you! Or it might mean: I’ve wept over ex-lovers as the bereaved weep at a funeral, but now I find that the love I carried for them is not dead – it lives now in you. Or maybe: I wept for these so-called ‘friends’ like they were deceased, yet it turns out they’re still calling on you.

Q3 Could be: my old friends are buried in your heart, and willingly gave to you those parts of me that I gave them. Or: everything I have vowed and owed to past lovers has now been bequeathed to you. Or: those bloody ex-‘friends’ of mine are now bestowing everything on you that was once mine.

C is conciliatory, whichever way you read it: in you I see the images of my dead friends / ex-lovers / ex-‘friends’ – indeed, you encompass all of them. Therefore, all of me belongs to you.

The poem is an amazing piece of construction, not least because each of the lines really can be read in any of these three ways. I can hardly believe this is a deliberate effect, but I suppose in Shakespeare all things are possible. Consider lines 5-6 (‘How many a holy and obsequious tear / Hath dear religious love stol’n from mine eye’) for example. If it’s about ex-lovers, it’s a slightly impious way of indicating just how much he’s mourned for the end of that love. If it’s about ex-‘friends’, it’s impressively bitter, and as a metaphor I think quite ingenious. But if it’s about dead friends, it’s quite literal.

And this holds true for the poem as a whole. If it’s literally a compliment-poem to the young man about how all of the dead come to dwell in his heart, it’s oddly literal, it’s startlingly ghoulish, and one wonders how it was received. If it’s about the way Shakespeare’s past loves are picked up and invested in the young man, it’s an interesting account of the psychology of love, and not a universal one. (Don Paterson argues, against Shakespeare, that a new love tends to erase rather than recall past loves.) If it’s a poem about unpopularity, then it is likewise a poem of forgiveness (‘Even though you hang out with those bastards I still love you’), and one would be interested to know the biographical circumstances.

More tomorrow, when Shakespeare will muse on his own death. Cheerful!


Sonnet 32

Good morning, Sonneteers.

Shakespeare reflects today on his posterity:

If thou survive my well-contented day,
When that churl Death my bones with dust shall cover,
And shalt by fortune once more re-survey
These poor rude lines of thy deceased lover,
Compare them with the bettering of the time,
And though they be outstripp’d by every pen,
Reserve them for my love, not for their rhyme,
Exceeded by the height of happier men.
O, then vouchsafe me but this loving thought:
“Had my friend’s Muse grown with this growing age,
A dearer birth than this his love had brought,
To march in ranks of better equipage:
     But since he died, and poets better prove,
     Theirs for their style I’ll read, his for his love.”

Projecting himself into an imaginary future at some point after his own death, Shakespeare pictures the young man reviewing these sonnets, and imagines how he’d like to be remembered by him.

It unfolds thus:

Q1 If you survive me, perhaps one day you’ll find these poems again

Q2 If that happens, no doubt you’ll compare them to the works of newer and better poets, and find them wanting; but don’t consider them only for the quality of their verse – preserve them for the quality of their love

Q3 Comparing me to other poets, please think this: ‘If he were still alive, no doubt he’d have got better…’

C ‘…but seeing as he died, I’ll read other poets for their style, yet I’ll still read him for his love.’

I’m struck by that repetition. Q3 and C, taken together, simply rehearse what was said in Q2, but from a different angle: where Q2 is Shakespeare speculating, Q3+C amounts to what he would like the young man to say to himself. The effect is insistent, almost anxious; and this effect gives me pause. It would be easy to read the sonnet as self-deprecating: Shakespeare, the premier poet of the English language, is making out that he’ll be found wanting in times to come? Yeah, right. Fishing for compliments, more like it. But why then does he seem so hooked on this one point?

Perhaps he really was genuinely anxious that fashions would change and his poetry would be left behind; that was indeed the fate of almost every one of his contemporaries, most of whom only get read – if they get read at all – because they are Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and we want to deepen our appreciation of his work. Plenty of writers aspire to the status of canonical author, and a few of those who have canonical pretensions really do achieve them; but it’s an anxious project, given that one will never get to find out whether one is still being read 500 or 1,000 years hence. Shakespeare’s oscillation between bold self-confidence (think of Sonnet 18: ‘So long as men can breathe…’) and shrinking self-effacement (Sonnet 16: ‘my barren rhyme’) may point to this ambition and its attendant anxieties.

Lastly, can I just remark how much I like line 2? It’s all in ‘that churl Death’ – what an excellent piece of anthropomorphism, personifying death and rendering him not as cruel, or malevolent, or sly… but as churlish!


Sonnet 33

Sonneteers, good morning.

Today, Shakespeare turns weatherman. (I think trouble might be brewing in paradise.)

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine
With all-triumphant splendor on my brow;
But, out, alack! he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask’d him from me now.
     Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
     Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.

We’re in for a few sonnets now unpacking some kind of upheaval between Shakespeare and the young man. The sonnets are not a narrative in any straightforward sense – we are of course completely in the dark about exactly what has gone on; but they are emotional drama, we’re about to learn an awful lot about how Shakespeare feels about it, and how those feelings unfold.

This whole poem makes use of one extended metaphor (one that also extends over the next sonnet). Here’s how it goes:

Q1 The sun is often glorious in the morning, and its light makes everything it touches beautiful in reflected glory

Q2 But sometimes the nasty, horrible clouds hide the sun from the earth, and he slinks off disfigured and ashamed

Q3 My own sun once shone on me, and it was wonderful, but it did not last: those bloody clouds hid him from me

C But that didn’t decrease my love for him; even heaven’s sun stains sometimes, so of course earthly suns will too

The metaphor develops nicely through the octave (lines 1-8): first, the glory of the sun (Q1); then the hiding of the sun by clouds (Q2). Q3 gives the same relative amount of space to the parallel behaviour of Shakespeare’s own personal sun: it was lovely when my sun shone on me (2 lines); now the sun is hidden from me, and it’s horrible (2 lines). That couplet sounds conciliatory, but commentators often point out how equivocal the final line is: ‘sun of the world’ might mean someone of great importance (whether of public importance, or just of private importance to Shakespeare); but its pun, ‘son of the world’, suggests a fallible, worldly human being. It’s the first cloud in the sky suggesting Shakespeare sees a stain on the young man’s moral character.

If that’s the case, it’s still mild. It’s not the sun’s fault the clouds cover it up, although it might feel disgrace; it’s those clouds: they spoil everything. One suspects that Shakespeare is here still in denial – it’s as though he’s thinking, ‘Surely this blot can’t be something he’s done on purpose?’ As we’ll see over the next few days, he’ll come to feel differently.

But for now, just look at how important he makes the sun in the octave. When the sun shines, it blesses everything, and is generous with its gifts, flattering, kissing, gilding. And those clouds are terrible spoilers: without the sun’s light, the world is ‘forlorn’; and the sun itself suffers from shame, making an embarrassed flight for the western horizon. Poetic overstatement, sure, but he’s setting us up for just how wretched a slight from his beloved made him feel (and perhaps hopefully projecting a sense of remorse onto his slighter).

Let’s see what the weather’s like tomorrow.


Sonnet 34

Good morning, good morning.

Today’s forecast: still a bit stormy.

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 brav’ry 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;
Th’offender’s sorrow lends but weak relief
To him that bears the strong offence’s loss.
     Ah, but those tears are pearl which thy love sheds,
     And they are rich, and ransom all ill deeds.

There’s real outrage breaking through here. That first line is almost aggressive: ‘Why didst thou promise…’ It tells a narrative in miniature: first anger, then indignance, then proud refusal, and finally reconciliation. Something like this:

Q1 Why did you lull me into a false sense of security, only to hurt me?

Q2 It’s not enough that you want to pretend that nothing’s happened

Q3 And it’s no good making out that you’re upset about what you’ve done – I’m still the injured party

C And yet I see your tears, and my heart melts

What’s the nature of the betrayal in Q1? We’re not told, so we don’t know. ‘Base clouds’ picks up ‘basest clouds’ from Sonnet 33, but there the clouds were concealing the face of the sun; this time they envelop Shakespeare. The suggestion of the image, as in the previous sonnet, is that Shakespeare doesn’t entirely blame the young man, but rather the company he keeps, for the clouds merely conceal the sun’s finer qualities – the sun hasn’t changed its nature, or turned out not to be so celestial after all. And yet he still feels hurt by the sun.

Q2 and Q3 are an impressively compressed portrait of wounded pride, and highlight the dynamic that gets in the way of forgiveness. It is not enough, for the wounded party, to simply pick things up as they had been: the sun shines, it dries the rain (or, perhaps, one’s tears), but the memory of the betrayal lives on and, unacknowledged, cannot pass. It’s also not enough for the guilty party to make a show of how upset they are for what they’ve done; feeling bad about it doesn’t make amends.

Then C offers a morally unconvincing yet psychologically plausible reconciliation. The young man hasn’t adequately acknowledged whatever he’s done to hurt Shakespeare; he can only pretend nothing’s happened, or make a big show of how sorry he is. What is needed for a genuine reconciliation is some kind of direct confrontation with the problem; what we get instead is the young man’s histrionic display melting Shakespeare’s heart, and he thinks: ‘I can’t be mad with you!’

One last textual point of interest. In the text I’ve used above, line 10 and line 12 end with the same rhyme-word, ‘loss’. This is how it appears in the 1609 Quarto, but it’s such a poetic dud that editors have overwhelmingly followed the emendation put forward by Edward Capell (in the 18th Century), and ended l. 12 with ‘cross’. This has good and bad points. The bad point is that it introduces a very strong image, of Shakespeare as Christ bearing his cross, which is not at all otherwise suggested elsewhere in the sonnets. So it’s quite a big deal to introduce. On the good side, it avoids a dud rhyme, and – if it’s correct – it picks up on a very suggestive allusion. The allusion is to John 19:17, which in the Geneva Bible (the translation Shakespeare knew) reads ‘And he bare his own cross, and came into a place named of dead men’s skulls, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha’. So Shakespeare in his betrayal resembles Christ on his way to his crucifixion; yet, unlike Christ, he is refusing to forgive those that offend him – until the couplet, that is, and even then his reasons are not, shall we say, holy.

Tomorrow we will see how Shakespeare, masochistically, takes the young man’s side against himself.


Sonnet 35

Shakespeareans, Sonneteers, good morning.

Today, Shakespeare picks up where he left off, turned against himself by his lover’s tears:

No more be griev’d 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.
All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authorizing thy trespass with compare,
Myself corrupting, salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are;
For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense—
   Thy adverse party is thy advocate—
     And ’gainst myself a lawful plea commence:
Such civil war is in my love and hate,
   That I an accessary needs must be
     To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.

What a mess. Poor Shakespeare. He can see that he was too quick to ‘forgive’, too easily swayed by tears and a desire to take away his lover’s pain. Now he’s been exerting himself in exculpations for his friend, and we see him here flagellating himself for it. Let’s gloss:

Q1 All men make mistakes, roses have thorns, etc.

Q2 Look at me: I’m exerting all my energy on making my betrayer feel better about himself

Q3 You’ve committed a sin of the body, but I’m bringing the mind to bear on advocating for you, despite being at war with myself

C And so I find myself aiding and abetting you in your crimes against me

This one is superficially addressed to the young man, but I hear at as more in the mode of a soliloquy: the poet is addressing himself, and excoriating himself for being such a schmuck. The young man has committed a ‘sensual fault’ – he’s been seeing someone else. Yet Shakespeare can’t bear to see him put on a show of remorse, and finds himself offering sentimental platitudes (of the kind we get rehearsed in Q1) to try to salve the young man’s ego.

Q2 is remarkable: it says, in essence, that Shakespeare counts it as a fault of his own that he’s writing sonnets about all roses having thorns, etc., when his lover has betrayed him. And this conflict drives the rest of the sonnet, which ends in a civil war within Shakespeare, in which his ‘sense’ tries to make it all OK while his heart feels robbed.

You’ll notice I have printed this sonnet in a slightly different form to the others, and in doing so am taking my cue from David West’s commentary on the Sonnets. Q3 is a bit incoherent, with lines 9-11 forming a thought, while line 12 just hangs off the end, commencing the thought completed in the couplet. The thoughts actually fall into an Italian pattern of eight-line octave (divided into 4-4) and six-line sestet (divided into 3-3), and this is his closest yet approximation to that form (normally his sestets are still 4-2). But where a genuinely Italian sonnet would rhyme ABBA CDDC EFG EFG, this one retains an English/Shakespearean rhyme and goes ABAB CDCD EFE FGG. Just an interesting case of Shakespeare varying his form a little.

Have a lovely weekend, and we’ll have more on the unfolding of this tiff next week.