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

Sonnet 106

Good morning, and welcome back.

Shakespeare’s still feeling just a little bit blasphemous:

When in the chronicle of wasted time
I see descriptions of the fairest wights,
And beauty making beautiful old rhyme
In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights,
Then, in the blazon of sweet beauty’s best,
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,
I see their antique pen would have express’d
Even such a beauty as you master now.
So all their praises are but prophecies
Of this our time, all you prefiguring;
And, for they look’d but with divining eyes,
They had not skill enough your worth to sing:
     For we, which now behold these present days,
     Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.

It’s a strong opening, and quite an amusing poem. We’ll get to the blasphemy in a minute, but first a gloss:

Q1 When I read accounts of olden days, and find descriptions of beautiful ladies and lovely knights…

Q2 … I find in these old descriptions the signs of a talent that could have adequately described you

Q3 All the praises in these old poems are just prefigurations, prophesying the coming of one who could truly warrant such praise

C Now we get to live with the coming of beauty — but we lack the skills to praise it

We had, in 105, Shakespeare’s equation of his love of his beloved with love of god; now he parodies prefiguration, the Christian practice of hunting through the  Old Testament in search of characters and events that can be read as a symbolic prelude to Christ. (Thus the three days Jonah spends in the whale prefigure the three days Christ spends in the tomb; Abraham’s words to Isaac on their way to the sacrifice — ‘My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering’ (Genesis 22:8) — prefigure Christ as the lamb of God; and so on.) Shakespeare, instead, reads secular literature and finds in all the glorious praise of ‘ladies dead and lovely knights’ praise that was clearly (he thinks) overblown for its real recipients, but has finally found a fitting subject in his beloved.

There is a connection here with earlier sonnets in which he criticised other poets for being overblown in their praise, especially 82 and 21; but now he is taking another tack. Rather than insist that their praise was false to its object, he’s co-opting it by claiming that their praise is merely a prefiguration of its true object, the young man. He’s also making his oft-repeated claim that nobody living is up to the task of truly rendering the young man in verse.

The sonnet makes its point without needing to be about a particular poem or poet, but there is some reason to suppose that Shakespeare has Edmund Spenser in mind, whose Faerie Queene does indeed fit the bill of ‘descriptions of the fairest wights, / And beauty making beautiful old rhyme / In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights’. If Shakespeare is referring to Spenser, who had died in 1599 (the final part of The Faerie Queene was published posthumously in 1609, the same year as the Sonnets), then he seems to be expressing an ambivalent attitude: on the one hand, he calls Spenser’s greatest work a ‘chronicle of wasted time’; on the other hand, he’s suggesting that perhaps Spenser could have successfully praised the young man.

But what does ‘chronicle of wasted time’ mean? Probably not actually the sense that would be insulting to Spenser, of a waste of time for the author or for the reader (although these meanings can’t be excluded); probably he means a chronicle of a time that was wasted, because it was still waiting for the coming of the young man. He’s offering a version of the BC/AD division of history, but placing that dividing line late in the sixteenth century, when at last beauty was born on earth. What a time to be alive.


Sonnet 107

Sonneteers, good morning.

The thought of immortality returns:

Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Suppos’d as forfeit to a confin’d doom.
The mortal moon hath her eclipse endur’d,
And the sad augurs mock their own presage;
Incertainties now crown themselves assur’d,
And peace proclaims olives of endless age.
Now with the drops of this most balmy time
My love looks fresh, and Death to me subscribes,
Since, spite of him, I’ll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o’er dull and speechless tribes:
     And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
     When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent.

This is one that has sustained a lot of debate, especially about the reference of line 5, ‘The mortal moon hath her eclipse endur’d’. First, a gloss:

Q1 I might fear it, and the prophetic soul of the world might foresee it, but none can control when my beloved might die, although it’s supposed he must meet the common doom

Q2 The moon has endured her eclipse [on the ambiguity of ‘endured’, see below], and those who prophesied badly must mock themselves; uncertainty proclaims itself assured, and peace declares it will last forever

Q3 My love still looks fresh and young; and death has acknowledged that he is defeated, for I’ll live forever in my poems while he goes on tormenting others

C And you, my love, will live alongside me, finding this your monument

This poem has two levels. There is the literal level, which is very cryptic; but then there is the poetic level, which is relatively clear. Essentially, the poem says: none can say when my beloved will die; things are basically uncertain — supposedly bad things come to pass without all of the attendant bad consequences people prophesy — yet nonetheless uncertain things are always declared to be definitely going to happen; Death himself must submit, because I will live forever in my verse; and so will my beloved. Q3 introduces an idea that’s usually muted, that Shakespeare will also be immortalised by his Sonnets; sometimes, absurdly, he’s tried to deny that, insisting that people will read them for their rendering of the young man, and forget the poet who penned them (I fear precisely which sonnet I have in mind is eluding me at this moment); the idea that they will live together in the Sonnets is quite sweet, and in a sense it’s turned out to be true, although it is the character of Shakespeare, with his neuroses and mood swings, who dominates, while the young man is quite shadowy.

I have read line 3, ‘Can yet the lease of my true love control’, to mean ‘[be]love[d]’ rather than ‘[feeling of] love’, on the basis that the ‘confin’d doom’ means death/mortality, but one could also read it as saying that Shakespeare doesn’t know how long his feelings of love will last. This latter is how Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells read it in their new edition, All the Sonnets of Shakespeare, but I’m not persuaded: the Sonnets proclaim, again and again, Shakespeare’s undying love for his young beloved; he will even insist (a little later) that his love will not change even though the young man turns out to be unworthy (yes, it seems he does eventually realise this).

Q2 contains most of the contentious lines. It has frequently been supposed that line 5, ‘The mortal moon hath her eclipse endur’d’, must be a reference to a real event, and various candidates have been proposed, the most interesting being an eclipse in 1595, and the death of Elizabeth in 1603. I’ll follow Colin Burrow in supposing the latter; as he notes, the supporters of James I were prone to claim that his reign would be one of perpetual peace, giving sense to line 8, ‘And peace proclaims olives of endless age’.

What is interesting is the ambiguity this highlights in the word ‘endured’. If the line refers to the literal eclipse of the moon (or analogous event), then it means ‘waited out’, ‘lived on after’, or similar. But if it refers to the death of Elizabeth, it means quite the opposite: it means ‘suffered’ or ‘underwent’. There is an instance of Shakespeare using the word in precisely this sense, ‘suffering death’, a few years after the probable composition of this sonnet (again, I owe this to Burrow): ‘Men must endure / their going hence even as their coming hither’ (King Lear [Folio] 5.2.9-10; the speaker is Edgar).

Whatever the historical references, we have here a sonnet of Shakespeare shoring up himself and his beloved against death’s inevitable coming.


Sonnet 108

Good morning, good morning.

Shakespeare today muses again on the limits of expression in the face of unchanging inspiration:

What’s in the brain, that ink may character,
Which hath not figur’d to thee my true spirit?
What’s new to speak, what new to register,
That may express my love, or thy dear merit?
Nothing, sweet boy; but yet, like prayers divine,
I must each day say o’er the very same,
Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine,
Even as when first I hallowed thy fair name.
So that eternal love in love’s fresh case
Weighs not the dust and injury of age,
Nor gives to necessary wrinkles place,
But makes antiquity for aye his page;
     Finding the first conceit of love there bred,
     Where time and outward form would show it dead.

He’s found this a problem before (see especially 76): what is there to say that is new and fresh if the inspiration you’re drawing from is unchanged? A gloss:

Q1 What thought is there that I can write that hasn’t already been used to write of you, my love for you, and your merit?

Q2 Nothing; yet I must still say something every day, counting nothing old even though it’s been used before: you’re mine, I’m yours, just as when first we met

Q3 I try to keep eternal love fresh, not letting it show the signs of age (dust, injury, wrinkles); my aim is to make age submit in defeat

C Finding, still alive, the first impulse of love, even though time — and the repetition of forms — would make it seem dead

Shakespeare again grasps the nettle: he’s aware that his compositions don’t always show a lot of variety, and that he’s prone to repeating himself; he’s confronted this challenge before. Again he insists on the virtue of constancy: this is what true love is like, he says: it means finding ‘the first conceit of love’ alive and well, every day.

Q2 links the art of love with the art of prayer, and once again Shakespeare draws a parallel between his love for the young man with the love of god. The central way in which this one differs from 76, its main predecessor, is that it comes after a few sonnets in which he has been drawing theological parallels; now, he’s again insisting on the unchanging nature of his love, and we can hear in the background his insistence that the young man is an unchanging, and therefore fitting, object of that love.

The best lines are 9 and 13-14: ‘So that eternal love in love’s fresh case….’ and ‘Finding the first conceit of love there bred, / Where time and outward form would show it dead.’ Shakespeare is consistently opposed to the superficial appeal of novelty in love; he’s keen, instead, to stay true, and keep his love alive.


Sonnet 109

Sonneteers, good morning.

Shakespeare here poses a question: could he ever really be absent from his beloved, if his heart is always with his beloved?

O, never say that I was false of heart,
Though absence seem’d my flame to qualify.
As easy might I from myself depart
As from my soul, which in thy breast doth lie:
That is my home of love: if I have rang’d,
Like him that travels, I return again;
Just to the time, not with the time exchang’d,
So that myself bring water for my stain.
Never believe, though in my nature reign’d
All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood,
That it could so preposterously be stain’d,
To leave for nothing all thy sum of good;
     For nothing this wide universe I call,
     Save thou, my rose; in it thou art my all.

There are two themes being pulled together here. The first is a variation on one we’ve seen before, particularly in the 30s, of Shakespeare and his beloved being united; the other is the theological theme running through a number of recent sonnets, in which Shakespeare treats his beloved as divine. A gloss:

Q1 Never say my heart was false to you, even though my absences might give cause to doubt it; I cannot detach myself from my soul, which lives in your breast

Q2 That is my home of love, and whenever I travel it is to there I return; [lines 7-8 are cryptic: more below]

Q3 Never believe I’d leave you for anything, even if I possessed all the faults one could have

C For nothing in the universe means anything to me, except you: you are all

This is one of those sonnets that can stand apart from its context as a great love lyric; and it can do this despite the fact that lines 1-2, along with lines 7-8, are enigmatic at best: at worst, they darken any potential reading, since one doesn’t offer a defence against the charge of faithlessness unless one feels there is something to defend against. Nonetheless, it is a fine song of a love that subordinates everything to itself. Shakespeare has, on a few occasions, bemoaned how empty and dull the world seems to him when his beloved is absent from it; this is another theme he rehearses here.

I confess I struggle to make much sense of line 7. Colin Burrow glosses it thus: ‘exactly at the appointed moment, unchanged by the passage of time’, which I’m happy to adopt, having no better alternative to offer. The line following has something to do with water cleansing him of wrongdoing; Burrow — sorry, I know, I’m leaning on him a bit: just quite into his edition at the moment — draws a parallel with Lady Macbeth: ‘A little water clears us of this deed’ (Macbeth 2.2). But what is the relation between the two lines? Does Shakespeare mean: ‘I’m back on time, and unchanged from my journey: what need have I for water to cleanse a stain from me?’ Or does he mean: ‘Whatever stain I have is not much; it will be easily cleared by water’? Why bring it up in the first place? And what is this absence he opens with? Was it less the absence of physical distance and more that he has been (or has been seen to be) striking up a little something with someone else? Has he been playing a little hard to get for once? I have so many questions.

The sestet is my favourite here: Q3 says, essentially, that no matter how many forms of madness I may be beset by (I think we’re supposed to think of bad humours in the blood in line 10), I will never lose sight of the fact that the rest of the world is, essentially, as nothing to me — you are my highest good. ‘Sum of good’ recalls the Latin summum bonum, or highest good, which was in turn a translation of what in Plato is called the Idea of the Good, which (in a teleological conception of the cosmos) is the ultimate end and purpose towards which everything is oriented and by which everything is ordered; this idea was taken over by the early Christian philosophers and adapted as their idea of god. I don’t know how well Shakespeare knew his medieval, Roman, or Greek philosophy, but he seems to know it well enough to have just made a pun on it; and he’s again taking concepts usually reserved for application only to the divine, and applying them to his beloved. I really do admire his daring.


Sonnet 110

Good morning, Sonneteers.

For mine, today’s is a particularly good sonnet:

Alas, ’tis true I have gone here and there,
And made myself a motley to the view,
Gor’d mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new;
Most true it is that I have look’d on truth
Askance and strangely: but, by all above,
These blenches gave my heart another youth,
And worse essays prov’d thee my best of love.
Now all is done, have what shall have no end:
Mine appetite I never more will grind
On newer proof, to try an older friend,
A god in love, to whom I am confin’d.
     Then give me welcome, next my heaven the best,
     Even to thy pure and most most loving breast.

Yesterday’s sonnet was a fine love lyric that could just about stand alone, although tinged with darkness; today’s is much more strongly independent, but at the same time it casts some light back onto 109. A gloss:

Q1 I have been known to wander, and make myself a fool; [lines 3-4 seem too rich in possible meanings to sketch: see below]

Q2 I have looked on true love and shunned it, but my errors and dalliances have given my heart renewed youth, and they have shown me how true your love is

Q3 Now those strayings are over, my love is yours forever: I will not test my love elsewhere, but confine myself to you

C Welcome me to your heart, which rivals heaven above

This is a sonnet that is supposed to mark a turning point, one of those moments at which one recognises one’s earlier errors and affirms them as having led the way to where one finds oneself: ‘Now I know where it is I need to be,’ one says to oneself, swearing to follow the straight and true path from now on. These are always pleasant moments, even though the picture of life they offer — before this moment, disorder and confusion; after this moment, order and clarity — are, typically, more fantasy than reality. The form of the sonnet even embodies this turning point, with the octave focused on the past, and the sestet on the future.

Lines 3-4 are too much for me to feel like I can paraphrase. They run: ‘Gor’d mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear, / Made old offences of affections new’. Even  the first word, ‘gored’, is much too much: it might mean ‘wounded’, ‘hung with cloth gores or strips / made foolish’ [picking up on ‘motley’, line 2, meaning both a cloak of varied colours and the fool who wore it], ‘tinged with shame’ (a ‘gore sinister’ was, apparently, a heraldic mark assigned to those who fled from their enemies) — polysemous is the word we want. (I’m again leaning on Burrow and a half-remembered perusal of KDJ’s Arden.) It’s not unreasonable to suppose that some mix of these senses is intended, rendering ‘gor’d mine own thoughts’ as something like: ‘doing myself an injury, rendering myself a fool, and shaming myself with my thoughts’.

Then we have the second half of line 3, which is a wonderfully compressed way of referring to that feeling of self-betrayal, when one knows what is best for oneself and yet have somehow strayed from it. But then there’s line 4. This either means: ‘have offended old affections with a new affection’; or, more daringly, ‘have carried old problems into the new affection’. The latter seems the more likely to me, which would mean Shakespeare is referring to the way people carry their emotional problems with them, re-enacting ‘old offences’ in their new relationships. That’s a penetrating insight into dysfunction, although if that’s what’s meant it raises doubts about the sunny picture he paints of his emotional future, even in the young man’s ‘most most loving breast’. One can never escape oneself.