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

Welcome, all, to the Fullers Sonnets guided reading.

Over the next 30 weeks or so I’ll be sending out a daily email discussing each of Shakespeare’s sonnets in turn. Please feel free to distribute these emails to anyone who is interested, and they’re able to sign up themselves if they’d like to.

There have been issues with sourcing enough books for everyone, which I hope will be (mostly) resolved over the next couple of weeks, so in the meantime I will include the text of each sonnet in these bulletins just to make life a bit easier.

Sonnet 1

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory;
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding.
    Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
    To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

Most famous books have decidedly odd beginnings. In my experience they often do not at all match the expectations one might have on the basis of their reputation. Plato’s Republic, for example, by reputation one of the great works of metaphysics and of political/moral philosophy, begins with Socrates banging on about his visit to a religious festival the day before. And so Shakespeare’s Sonnets, by reputation one of the great sequences of love poetry, begins with an exhortation to a young man to go forth and procreate – and the reasoning has nothing to do with love.

Why this odd beginning? The short answer is nobody knows. The first 17 sonnets form what is known as the Procreation Sequence, and are all more or less variations on this theme. The identity of the young man addressed by them is not known with certainty; the leading contenders are William Herbert, Third Earl of Pembroke (to whom the First Folio was dedicated), or Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton (to whom Shakespeare’s long poems, Venus & Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece were dedicated). There is a theory that Shakespeare started writing the Sonnets as a commission, paid perhaps by a member of the addressee’s family for the purpose of encouraging a young bachelor to settle down and start a family: the theory appeals to me, but the reality is that we just don’t know.

In any case, on to the sonnet itself. It falls into four parts: three quatrains (groups of four lines unified by a rhyming scheme, henceforth referred to as Q1-3) and a concluding couplet (a pair of rhyming lines, henceforth C), with an overall rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. (This is the standard form for the English or Shakespearean Sonnet, a form he didn’t invent but is famous for perfecting. Most, but not all, of the Sonnets have this form.) The poem’s content, its argument, also conforms to this form, thus:

Q1: We desire that beautiful things reproduce themselves; reproduction carries on their memory

Q2: But you’re too busy admiring yourself to be bothered reproducing, which is actually doing you an injury

Q3: You’re in the springtime of youth now, but it won’t last

C: Have pity on the world, or the grave will eat you without remainder

All very cheerful. The argument of this sonnet actually slyly blends two perspectives: that of the world (we desire that beautiful creatures reproduce themselves so that beauty doesn’t die out) and that of the individual (if I die without an heir my memory will die out). Do it for us, Shakespeare says, or if not for us then do it for yourself. It’s a heady mix of flattery and appeal to self-interest.

The self-interest argument has a pleasing air of paradox, encapsulated in l. 12, ‘waste in niggarding’. The logic is that, by saving yourself for yourself you actually deplete yourself; you gain more life by giving it away. The poem focuses on the question of posterity, but it is still a nifty reminder that selfishness is its own punishment.

More tomorrow!


Sonnet 2

Welcome back, Sonneteers. Here is today’s sonnet:

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tattered weed, of small worth held.
Then being asked where all thy beauty lies—
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days—
To say within thine own deep-sunken eyes
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserved thy beauty’s use 
If thou couldst answer “This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count and make my old excuse”, 
Proving his beauty by succession thine.
     This were to be new made when thou art old,
     And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

Picking up on the dual perspectives of the last sonnet, this one unpacks the same argument a bit further. The structure is something like this:

Q1: You’re pretty now, but eventually you’ll be old and decrepit, and nobody will care how you once looked

Q2: Asked what happened to your beauty, it’s not much good to say that it’s still there in your eyes (they’re sunken now anyway)

Q3: Wouldn’t you earn the world’s praise if you could point to a beautiful child?

C: A child will also warm the blood and make you feel young again

There are two things that catch my interest. One is in the positioning of the two motives: social praise/blame, and self-satisfaction. Sonnet 1 gave much more focus to social motivations, which is to say what will others think. In this one the social motivation (praise) is in Q3, subordinate to the ringing of self-satisfaction in the couplet. It’s as though it says look, everyone will praise you for your beautiful child, which is nice, but also think about how great paternity will make you feel. It’s as though we catch a glimpse of Shakespeare the proud father.

Second, there’s a note about the inexorability of time. The fear that gives the argument its force is the fear that eventually it will be too late: you might be young now, and think this is all far off, but eventually this ship will sail and you don’t want to wake up one day wishing things were otherwise. In the background of this poem somewhere is that sense of panic we have when we realise that it’s suddenly too late for something we wanted, or now wish we had.

It’s a panic we now closely associate with the midlife crisis, and it’s interesting that he runs together middle and old age in the way he does here. It isn’t like the human lifespan was any shorter: average life expectancy was lower, sure, but 40 was still in the middle of our allotted span (think of the Biblical ‘three score years and ten’). I think we’d (now) naturally see adult life in three stages: youth, middle age, old age. But Shakespeare’s picture, here at least, is simpler: youth, then decline. I suppose it’s not irrelevant that Montaigne, a generation older than Shakespeare, suggested that life is all downhill after 30. Cheerful.


Sonnet 3

Good morning, Sonneteers. Today we’re onto number 3:

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 uneared 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 rememb’red not to be,
     Die single, and thine image dies with thee.

Yes, I’m afraid we’ve got yet more procreation to get through. Structurally, this sonnet goes something like this:

Q1: It’s time to reproduce while you’re still pretty, else you’ll fall into disrepair and rob the world and some poor would-be mother

Q2: What woman would ‘disdain the tillage of thy husbandry’ (good euphemism)? What man is so caught up in himself he wouldn’t want to reproduce?

Q3: Your mother is glad she had you: when she looks at you she can remember her prime. A child will do for you likewise

C: But if you’d prefer not to be remembered, sure, die single

The argument has developed slightly: not only does Shakespeare suggest the young man is depriving himself and the world, but now he adds that some young woman is also being deprived.

I find the idea that someone could be persuaded to have children by a series of sonnets charmingly quaint, but the ‘commission’ theory (that is, the theory that Shakespeare was originally paid to write this series of sonnets as part of a gambit by a young bachelor’s family to get him to reform his ways) does at least make sense of how odd the chosen theme is. Southampton seems to have been a bit of a Shakespeare fan – Will dedicated two long poems to him – and I quite like the idea that his mother commissioned his favourite poet to write a sequence of sonnets to bring him around to her way of thinking.

And this perhaps is why the young man’s mother is mentioned in Q3, when father would have been a more natural comparison – the poem is, after all, about paternity. Southampton was also quite fair and almost lady-like in his appearance (something we’ll have cause to note again later), and maybe he really did resemble his mother quite strikingly. Here’s a portrait.

Poetically, what I find most striking is the introduction of the mirror and the idea of resemblance. Mirrors are mentioned in Q1 and Q3 (the poem even opens with an injunction to look in one), and the idea of the image of oneself is raised in Q1 (‘that face should form another’), Q3 (the young man’s mother seeing herself in him, the young man seeing himself in his own child), and C (‘thine image dies with thee’). In Q3 and C the image is explicitly linked to memory and recall, and Shakespeare repeatedly suggests (in this sonnet and others) that a thing isn’t dead while it lives in memory, with things around that recall it. In these procreation sonnets the primary image that ensures one’s memory is the child, but we will see later that he usurps this function for his own verse.


Sonnet 4

Good morning, Sonneteers – and yes, we’re on for another procreation sonnet today!

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?
Nature’s bequest gives nothing, but doth lend,
And being frank, she lends to those are free.
Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largess given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums, yet canst not live?
For having traffic with thyself alone,
Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive.
Then how, when nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
     Thy unus’d beauty must be tomb’d with thee,
     Which, used, lives th’ executor to be.

We have here a return to the logic of waste in hoarding that we saw in Sonnet 1, and Shakespeare here gives a kind of justifying myth of nature’s gift in order to demonstrate just how wrong it is not to procreate. Oddly, for a myth about nature, it’s all framed in the language of commerce: legacies and usury and executors and accounts.

Let’s look at the structure:

Q1: Nature’s gifts are not yours to keep, but rather a loan that you are expected to pay forward

Q2: Why do you abuse nature’s bounty?

Q3: When the time comes, and you’re called to account for how you’ve spent your life, what will you say?

C: Unused beauty dies with you, but make use of it and it will live on to give your account to nature

In Shakespeare’s myth, nature visits each person, and loans them some amount of her bounty (and this bounty is more or less an aesthetic one); this is a loan she doesn’t want repaid as such, but rather one she only offers on the condition that it’s paid forward and remains in circulation, rather than dying with the person on whom it was bestowed. It is Quantitative Easing as creation myth.

The basic thrust, that life lives on being given away, and dies in hoarding, I find quite moving. One’s life is not just one’s own, and living for oneself alone simply isn’t living (‘profitless usurer, why dost thou use so great a sum of sums, yet canst not live?’). ‘Having traffic with thyself alone’ is quite an amusing euphemism, and I like the hard edge of Shakespeare’s direct accusation that, if the young man thinks living the self-interested life of the committed bachelor is really living, he’s just deceiving himself.


Sonnet 5

Happy Friday, Sonneteers, and once more into the breach:

Those hours that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell,
Will play the tyrants to the very same
And that unfair which fairly doth excel:
For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter and confounds him there;
Sap check’d with frost and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’ersnow’d and bareness every where:
Then, were not summer’s distillation left,
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it, nor no remembrance what it was:
     But flowers distill’d, though they with winter meet,
     Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.

This might be a good moment to introduce a couple more terms of art with which to discuss a sonnet: the octave and the sestet. The Italian Sonnet, a form that predates the English one, has two main parts: the octave, consisting of the first 8 lines (typically rhyming ABBA ABBA); and the sestet, consisting of the last 6 lines (typically rhyming CDE CDE or CDC CDC). The sonnet forms a kind of little argument, in which the octave states a proposition or poses a question, and then the sestet proposes a solution. The transition from octave/problem to sestet/solution is known as the ‘volta’ or ‘turn’.

I bring this up now because this sonnet, despite being an English Sonnet and not an Italian one (I must stress that English/Italian Sonnet refers to the form, not the language of composition), nicely also observes the octave/sestet distinction. Thus the octave poses the problem of the inexorable march of time: it makes you pretty, then it makes you unpretty (Q1); summer declines into winter (Q2). But then we have a volta, and Q3 starts to offer a solution: suppose there were some way of escaping time, like summer’s distillation in ‘walls of glass’? And C offers a riddle by way of a metaphor: when flowers meet with winter they normally decay, but if they have been distilled, although their outward show is lost, their substance lives on.

From context, we can pretty easily guess at the solution to this last riddle: how does one distil one’s essence so that it lives on when winter comes? By having a child, of course! As we’ll see next week, Sonnet 6 will follow closely on the heels of this one, picking up exactly where it leaves off – the pair form a kind of double-sonnet.

Have a lovely weekend, and you’ll hear more from me next week.