[What follows is a record of the emails that have been sent to our Sonnets group. You can head to the Sonnets main page to sign up for future emails.]

Sonnet 101

Sonneteers, good morning.

Continuing on the theme of his inspiration, Shakespeare again chides his muse:

O truant Muse, what shall be thy amends
For thy neglect of truth in beauty dyed?
Both truth and beauty on my love depends;
So dost thou too, and therein dignified.
Make answer, Muse: wilt thou not haply say,
“Truth needs no colour, with his colour fix’d;
Beauty no pencil, beauty’s truth to lay;
But best is best, if never intermix’d”?
Because he needs no praise, wilt thou be dumb?
Excuse not silence so, for’t lies in thee
To make him much outlive a gilded tomb
And to be praised of ages yet to be.
     Then do thy office, Muse; I teach thee how
     To make him seem long hence as he shows now.

This seems to follow closely on the heels of the last one, but the questions here are to do with truth and beauty, and poetry as painting. Has his Muse been quiet, Shakespeare asks, because it sees painting the young man as unnecessary? A gloss:

Q1 Muse, why have you been silent? Beauty and truth depend on my beloved, as do you

Q2 What will you say, Muse? That truth and beauty have no need of your painting, and are best when presenting themselves?

Q3 Will you be silent just because he needs no praise? Then you’ve forgotten your true purpose: to make sure these gifts shine on in later ages

C This is your task: when he is gone, show him still as he is now

The opening is oddly ambivalent. The dominant sense is picking up on Shakespeare’s earlier Platonising metaphysics, where he made the young man the very form of beauty (to which he now adds truth); but line 3 is ambivalent when read by itself: it could equally mean ‘the appearance of truth and beauty depend on the love I feel’. Then line 4, which on the surface is stating that Shakespeare’s muse depends on Shakespeare’s beloved, has an echo of the opposite sense — and this question, of who is dependent on whom, plays out through the rest of the sonnet. Q2 is the voice of Shakespeare’s muse insisting that the young man has no need of it; then Q3 (and C) are Shakespeare trying to show his muse the way in which the young man does indeed depend on it.

Line 8 is particularly interesting: ‘best is best, if never intermix’d’. This is part of the muse’s apologia for its silence; and the point seems to be that, if something is perfect, trying to depict it (with a copy that will necessarily be lesser than it is itself) will only adulterate it. Lying behind this is the idea that a thing is not ontologically separate from its representations; a representation is part of the thing itself. Thus a bad painting harms its subject in some way. This is not totally irrational, for each image we see of something feeds into how we see it in future; a bad photo, a caricature: we cannot help but be reminded of these things when we see the real person.

Perhaps, despite Shakespeare’s urging of his muse, the muse got the upper hand, and this is the ultimate reason why Shakespeare avoids depicting the young man directly: he is afraid of generating an unflattering image. But, if that’s what he was trying to avoid, he hasn’t succeeded: as we’ve noted before, the image of the young man we’re left with is not particularly flattering.


Sonnet 102

Good morning, good morning.

This one has an almost valedictory ring, though there is still plenty yet to come:

My love is strengthen’d, though more weak in seeming;
I love not less, though less the show appear:
That love is merchandiz’d whose rich esteeming
The owner’s tongue doth publish every where.
Our love was new, and then but in the spring,
When I was wont to greet it with my lays;
As Philomel in summer’s front doth sing,
And stops her pipe in growth of riper days:
Not that the summer is less pleasant now
Than when her mournful hymns did hush the night,
But that wild music burthens every bough,
And sweets grown common lose their dear delight.
     Therefore, like her, I sometime hold my tongue,
     Because I would not dull you with my song.

That couplet could almost round out the sequence, although that ‘sometime’ renders it less conclusive than it might otherwise be. Following the theme of the last few sonnets, Shakespeare meditates on the apparent silence of his muse. But there has been a shift, from berating his muse to offering some justification. A gloss:

Q1 Though my love seems weaker, it is actually stronger; loudly proclaiming one’s love smacks of salesmanship

Q2 I sang of our love through the spring, and through the summer

Q3 But singing without cease cheapens singing

So therefore, so as not to dull you, I hold my tongue

There’s a lovely progression here through the seasons. Q2 deals quickly with the springtime and high summer of love, when it is most intensely felt. The reference to Philomel is riddling for the modern reader; we are supposed to recognise the allusion to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which Philomela is transformed into a nightingale. (On the nightingale as a symbol of love, I cannot help but recall Oscar Wilde’s satire ‘The Nightingale and the Rose‘.)

But it’s Q3, taken together with Q1, where the real interest is. Q3 says that love naturally deepens, and moves inward; as it moves inward, it is less given to expression. Those intense feelings on the surface belong to the springtime and the summer, and it is those that inspire expression; but someone who tries to keep that same expressiveness going on into the autumn is false: as Q1 says, it is as though they are trying to sell it to someone. Autumn, in the hierarchy established here, is superior to spring and to summer — it is the season of ‘riper days’, in which what is grown through the spring and the summer is harvested. (We are not given an indication of where winter fits.)

Applied to his own muse — and perhaps, implicitly, his rivals — Shakespeare is making a virtue of something that had been bothering him. We’ll see tomorrow whether he has succeeded in persuading himself.


Sonnet 103

Sonneteers, good morning.

Despite yesterday’s valiant effort, Shakespeare appears unpersuaded by his own argument that his silence is a virtue:

Alack, what poverty my Muse brings forth,
That having such a scope to show her pride,
The argument, all bare, is of more worth
Than when it hath my added praise beside!
O, blame me not, if I no more can write!
Look in your glass, and there appears a face
That over-goes my blunt invention quite,
Dulling my lines and doing me disgrace.
Were it not sinful then, striving to mend,
To mar the subject that before was well?
For to no other pass my verses tend
Than of your graces and your gifts to tell;
     And more, much more, than in my verse can sit,
     Your own glass shows you when you look in it.

Again he shifts; as we’ve seen a number of times, it’s not unusual for mini-sequences to develop in the Sonnets in which Shakespeare repeatedly approaches something that has been bothering him, each time from a slightly different angle, as though we are watching him turn it over and over in order to try to work it out. Right now, he can’t quite move past his sense that he should be able to write a lot more — and/or better — about his beloved. A gloss of this one:

Q1 My muse brings forth such poverty; my subject is better off when left unadorned by my verse

Q2 Don’t blame me if I cannot write: look in the mirror, and see how impossible it is to write something that matches that

Q3 Isn’t it reprehensible of me to try to write about you, when I cannot match you?

C Just look in the mirror: my verse cannot capture that

The excuse this time is an idea that Shakespeare has returned to quite often: that the loveliness of his subject is too much to be captured in verse. This idea isn’t unique to him; for a comparison, we can look at Edmund Spenser’s take on a similar theme in his Amoretti (this is XVII):

The glorious portrait of that Angel’s face,
Made to amaze weak men’s confused skill:
and this world’s worthless glory to embase,
what pen, what pencil can express her fill?
For though he colours could devise at will,
and eke his learned hand at pleasure guide:
least trembling it his workmanship should spill,
yet many wondrous things there are beside.
The sweet eye-glances, that like arrows glide,
the charming smiles, that rob sense from the heart:
the lovely pleasance and the lofty pride
cannot expressed be by any art.
     A greater craftsman’s hand thereto doth need,
     that can express the life of things indeed.

Read literally, Spenser seems to be suggesting that it is literally painting that cannot capture his beloved; for, he says, while it could capture her colour, there is more that would elude a portrait — not least, those quick eye-glances and charming smiles. So perhaps Spenser is contrasting painting with another, unspecified but ‘greater’ medium, that could more satisfactorily express the ‘life’ of his beloved — perhaps, that is to say, his verse. But, he says in line 12, there are things that cannot be expressed ‘by any art’. So, following that lead, we could read Spenser as expressing doubts about verse as well. But if that’s the case, then there’s something paradoxical here — for it seems to me that the things he enumerates, in lines 9-10, as uncapturable he has indeed captured. Or am I alone in feeling like I know exactly what he means by ‘The sweet eye-glances, that like arrows glide, / the charming smiles, that rob sense from the heart’?

This seeming paradox — that by detailing what seems to be beyond capture one appears to capture it — could be behind Shakespeare’s otherwise peculiar reticence about telling us anything very much directly about the young man. I don’t think we’ve had anything as precise from him about the young man as we get from Spenser about his own beloved in the sonnet just quoted; in reading Spenser’s lines, I could complete in my own imagination what he was pointing to. But it is as though Shakespeare (sometimes, at least) doesn’t want me to superimpose my own imagination onto his beloved: he would rather leave him as a blank space, surrounded by ornamentation, than let me believe that I can comprehend him.*

(* I won’t explore this, but there is a connection here with Montaigne, who describes one of his own essays as ornamentation around a blank space left behind when the censors removed some sonnets by his own beloved young friend, Étienne de La Boétie, from the original version of Montaigne’s Essays. — And, for those with a taste for more contemporary French philosophy, I also have in mind here Emmanuel Levinas’s distinction between the saying and the said.)


Sonnet 104

Good morning, Sonneteers.

Today, something on the passing of time:

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I ey’d,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turn’d
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burn’d,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah! yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure and no pace perceiv’d;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceiv’d:
     For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred;
     Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.

The reference to three years is interesting in that it gives us a sense for how much time has passed since the beginning of these sonnets, suggesting that he was producing them at an average pace of two every three weeks, and that rate is probably skewed towards the beginning — although this does, of course, suppose that they are presented to us in the sequence in which they were written, an idea contested in a new edition of the Sonnets (it only arrived in the last day or two, so I can’t comment yet). But the biographical detail isn’t what’s most interesting here: that, instead, is how Shakespeare handles his theme of the relations between time, memory and change. First, a gloss:

Q1 My friend, you will never be old to me; you seem as young and fresh now as when we met — and since then three winters and three summers have passed…

Q2 … and three springs and three autumns, three Aprils, three Junes, yet you’re still fresh and green

Q3 But beauty only appears to stand still: really it is in motion, and I am deceived

So know this, future ages: beauty’s summer has already been and gone

We note the way Shakespeare runs together Q1 and Q2, spilling his riff on the passing seasons from the one to the other. There is an amusing oddity in the boldness of the opening (‘To me, fair friend, you never can be old’) contrasted with the bathos of the very meagre timeframe considered; it gets even odder when one reflects that the probable age of the young man (call him late teens) is a time in life when he is still in bloom: the passing of three years has probably, if anything, improved his looks.

Nonetheless, Shakespeare recalls us to the function of memory. Memory makes the past so close to us that it continues to live in the present; in a sense, so long as the young man is remembered vividly as such, a part of him (nearby, but just out of reach) does remain young — and Shakespeare is claiming the performance of this function (rememberer-in-chief) for himself.

But, he reflects, even though memory preserves, time still moves on; the young man is changing, even if Shakespeare cannot note it; and what is subject to change will one day pass away. Q3 is quite beautiful in its description of the stealing away of youth with the ticking of the clock. Life’s intense moments, the good and the bad, can so easily feel like they will last forever, and it is either melancholy or reassuring to be reminded that they will pass, even if the change is too slow to see. Shakespeare recalls us to that.

Finally, C expresses the narcissism of the lover: woe to that future time that cannot witness my beloved. It is in the nature of each lover to prefer his/her own to anyone else’s; but Shakespeare wants to go beyond this. He wishes he had the power to render his own beloved with such power and vividness that every reader would prefer Shakespeare’s beloved to their own, and accept his judgement that ‘Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead’ — his perpetual frustration is that it is beyond his capacity.


Sonnet 105

Sonneteers, good morning.

Seems Shakespeare is feeling worshipful:

Let not my love be call’d idolatry,
Nor my beloved as an idol show,
Since all alike my songs and praises be
To one, of one, still such, and ever so.
Kind is my love to-day, to-morrow kind,
Still constant in a wondrous excellence;
Therefore my verse to constancy confin’d,
One thing expressing, leaves out difference.
“Fair, kind, and true,” is all my argument,
“Fair, kind, and true,” varying to other words;
And in this change is my invention spent,
Three themes in one, which wondrous scope affords.
     “Fair, kind, and true,” have often liv’d alone,
     Which three till now never kept seat in one.

Shakespeare’s offering us here another apologia for why he keeps repeating himself so often: he keeps saying the same thing, he says, because nothing has changed! But the idolatry angle is new, and he’s using it as a fresh opportunity for blasphemy. First, a gloss:

Q1 Don’t call my love idolatry, nor think my beloved an idol — all my praises of him are one and alike

Q2 My beloved is kind today and kind tomorrow, always constant, and thus my verse is constant too

Q3 Really all I’m saying is “Fair, kind, and true” over and over and over, which exhausts my powers of invention

C Fairness, kindness and truth have often lived apart — until my beloved, they had never dwelled in one person

The opening lines are a nice piece of misdirection. In Christian theological terms, idolatry is the worship of some finite, imperfect thing as though it were the infinite and perfect God. It involves the investment of energies, hopes and desires into something that cannot possibly satisfy them, because it is temporal and finite and subject to change. From a more religiously orthodox poet, you’d expect a poem opening with the lines ‘Let not my love be call’d idolatry, / Nor my beloved as an idol show’ to develop in a way that makes clear the difference between love of a human and love of God; the poet would be at pains to make clear that he wasn’t making what theologians (especially Augustine) would regard as a basic and (ultimately) painful mistake.

Not Shakespeare: he heads straight in the opposite direction, and spends the rest of the sonnet explaining that his beloved possesses precisely those qualities that one is supposed to love in God — the three transcendentals of goodness, truth, beauty — and he is constant in possessing these things, and therefore Shakespeare’s total devotion to his beloved is not idolatry at all. It’s daring and quite amusing.

Well, I call it amusing, but a lot hinges on precisely how ironic or knowing he’s being. I can never quite shake the sense that Shakespeare is in deadly earnest; the Sonnets are rarely obviously ironic, which means that his irony in them is either so global it’s hard to see — or absent. Perhaps these two possibilities are not mutually exclusive: it may be that the speaker of the Sonnets is in earnest, but as author Shakespeare is detached, and has other points to make; and my own view is that Shakespeare (as author) knows precisely how outrageous he’s being, but that what he’s trying to show are those depths of un-ironic depravity the lover’s mind (perhaps his own mind) can sink to. Despite everything that has happened, despite his repeated complaints of his beloved’s fickleness and changeability, he just keeps circling back to the idea (repeatedly falsified by experience) that his beloved is perfect.