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

Sonnet 11

Welcome back, Sonneteers, for our third week!

I’m afraid to say that we are in for one last full week of procreation, with two more next week. It is, I agree (and there has been quite a lot of correspondence on this point), a decidedly odd beginning to the Sonnets, and one that has not aged well, between the social mores of reproduction having changed and the issue of an heir being rather less pressing. Never fear: once we get to Sonnet 18, we are out of the woods.

Today, Sonnet 11:

As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou grow’st
In one of thine, from that which thou departest;
And that fresh blood which youngly thou bestow’st
Thou mayst call thine when thou from youth convertest.
Herein lives wisdom, beauty and increase;
Without this, folly, age and cold decay:
If all were minded so, the times should cease
And threescore year would make the world away.
Let those whom Nature hath not made for store,
Harsh, featureless and rude, barrenly perish:
Look, whom she best endow’d she gave the more;
Which bounteous gift thou shouldst in bounty cherish:
     She carv’d thee for her seal, and meant thereby
     Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die.

As is clear already, the Sonnets are less a collection of individual lyrics than an experiment in narrative delivered in the form of individual poems. Shakespeare could, of course, compose a narrative poem when he wanted to, and even rounded out the original edition of the Sonnets, in 1609, with a poem of some 300-odd lines titled A Lover’s Complaint (which I shan’t discuss now but that we’ll probably have reason to return to down the line). As a narrative sequence, it divides into the following groups: Procreation Sonnets (1-17), during which Will realises he’s fallen in love, and which serve as a prelude to the Young Man Sonnets (18-125, with 126 as a conclusion), then the Dark Lady Sonnets (127-152), and finally a two-part conclusion (153-154).

Poems like this one make clear the extent to which it is a sequence: if one came across this poem in isolation from its sequence – for example, in an anthology of poems – it would be very cryptic. What on earth does ‘so fast thou grow’st in one of thine, from that which thou departest’ mean? Or ‘if all were minded so, the times should cease and threescore year would make the world away’ – if all should be so minded what? Yet we find ourselves in possession of the key, so let’s unpack the poem:

Q1: As you age, if you have a child they will grow with the same pace you decline, and you can call that growth your own

Q2: Reproducing is a great idea; the opposite is not: if nobody reproduced, the whole species would die out

Q3: Nature made two kinds of people: on the one hand, the ugly, barren and harsh – let them perish; on the other, the fair and well-endowed – let them reproduce. (You’re one of the latter)

C: Even better than being one of the pretty, well-endowed, etc. – you’re Nature’s seal yourself, and you should take pride in that and imprint yourself on as much wax as possible

Even knowing the key, those first four lines remain terse and cryptic – which is pleasing to my ear; what is not so pleasing is that rhyme, pairing ‘ow’st’ sounds with ‘test’ sounds, which are much too similar – and, I confess, I find my tongue stumbles over those sounds when I read them aloud. In my own humble view, not his best work.

Things pick up with Q2, though: the first two lines are some good list-making, and the second two I take it are tongue-in-cheek – as though people would collectively get it into their heads to stop reproducing, especially in Shakespeare’s day with its paucity of contraceptives. Q3 is odd, in that the sentiment it expresses is the natural corollary of the opening line of Sonnet 1 (‘from fairest creatures we desire increase’) – but it is stated with such bold ruthlessness that I guess we can only admire the brazen logic by which Shakespeare has arrived at it.

Then there’s that couplet. On the one hand, there’s an interesting metaphor in which an unborn child is like formless wax that receives the stamp of its parents; on the other, I can’t stop thinking the metaphor through, and wondering how the stamped wax in turn reproduces itself. Yet this is not Shakespeare’s problem, for he is trying to convince a vain young man to have children, and his chosen strategy here limits itself to flattering said young man into thinking it is uniquely important that he himself reproduce because he is so special.


Sonnet 12

Sonneteers: good morning!

Today, the slow march of time and decay with Sonnet 12:

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silver’d o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
     And nothing ’gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
     Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

This is my favourite so far. The whole thing unfolds over one long sentence (by itself an impressive feat), and one feels the injuries of time piling up culminating in Q3, where the passing of beauty calls beauty itself into question. And then the couplet risks sheer bathos.

The argument:

Q1-2: When I see the various forms of decay that time brings…

Q3: …then I start to wonder whether anything will last, and to question the value of things if they will inevitably fall into decay

C: But you know how to defend against decay? Breed!

The structure here is worth commenting on: the first two quatrains fit together so neatly that they needn’t be separated – the one follows the other directly, forming a nice octave (recall the terminology we discussed with Sonnet 5). Q3 then develops the octave’s line of though, deriving a depressing conclusion – which the couplet then tries feebly to dispel.

It is Q3 that really shines – if the threat of nihilism and despair can be said to ‘shine’. It seems to question everything: given that all things are subject to time, and must pass away, where does their value lie? What is the point of something being beautiful today if tomorrow will bring its destruction? Can one be happy today if one knows one will be sad tomorrow? It looks backward to St Augustine’s despair at the death of his friend, and his consequent meditation on the perils of mortal love (Confessions, Book IV); and forward to Philip Larkin’s midnight terrors in ‘Aubade’.

This is why I find the couplet so disappointing. It isn’t necessarily the idea it expresses – there’s something in the idea of immortality and self-transcendence through procreation, and I’m sure Shakespeare could have done something interesting with it – but it’s the way it’s tacked onto the body of the poem like a punchline. It’s like he had an excellent idea for a poem, and decided to shoehorn it into the project he was working on.

Shakespeare is good on the passing of time, and by way of contrast with this sonnet compare Henry VI’s speech on (what he thinks are) the comforts of the stress-free shepherd’s life:

O God! methinks it were a happy life,
To be no better than a homely swain;
To sit upon a hill, as I do now,
To carve out dials quaintly, point by point,
Thereby to see the minutes how they run,
How many make the hour full complete;
How many hours bring about the day;
How many days will finish up the year;
How many years a mortal man may live.
When this is known, then to divide the times:
So many hours must I tend my flock;
So many hours must I take my rest;
So many hours must I contemplate;
So many hours must I sport myself;
So many days my ewes have been with young;
So many weeks ere the poor fools will ean:
So many years ere I shall shear the fleece:
So minutes, hours, days, months, and years,
Pass’d over to the end they were created,
Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave.
Ah, what a life were this! how sweet! how lovely!

Here Shakespeare depicts the passing of time not as decay but as comfort: time for work, time for play, time for rest – and, eventually, time for death, but death not as struggle and demise (as in the reaper’s scythe in the sonnet above) but as a final rest.


Sonnet 13

Happy Wednesday, Sonneteers.

We’re on for lucky 13 today, and a deepening of the love plot:

O, that you were yourself! but, love, you are
No longer yours than you yourself here live:
Against this coming end you should prepare,
And your sweet semblance to some other give.
So should that beauty which you hold in lease
Find no determination; then you were
Yourself again, after yourself’s decease,
When your sweet issue your sweet form should bear.
Who lets so fair a house fall to decay,
Which husbandry in honour might uphold
Against the stormy gusts of winter’s day
And barren rage of death’s eternal cold?
     O, none but unthrifts: dear my love, you know
     You had a father; let your son say so.

The first thing to note about this poem is that it is very forward. Sonnet 10 marked the first appearance of ‘love’ in the sequence, but there it referred to the young man’s love for Shakespeare: here Shakespeare is directly addressing the young man in exceptionally familiar terms as ‘my love’.

Second, here Shakespeare delivers what I was wanting in the last sonnet: an expansion on the idea that procreation is the only way of beating death – a limited form of immortality, true, and not a form of personal immortality (i.e. the one continuing my being is not me), but something nonetheless. Let’s look at how he does it:

Q1: You will not be yourself forever: eventually you will die. The only solution is procreation

Q2: Your form/beauty shouldn’t be allowed to perish with you – let it continue in another

Q3: Who would let their lovely house fall into disrepair?

C: Only the unthrifty. Therefore, maintain the house / have a son

There’s some interesting stuff here about personal identity and time. The opening line suggests that to fully be oneself would be to be immutable: what is subject to change will change, and thereby become different to itself; eventually it will change so much, or perish, such that it is no longer itself. The second line clarifies that it is the concern with perishing that is uppermost in Shakespeare’s mind, but it does prompt the reflection that, because anything that is subject to change will eventually not be itself anymore, it never was itself in the first place. Or, put another way: if something is subject to change, it cannot be fully itself at any given moment because its identity unfolds over time. This is what it means to be a temporal being.

But, again, this isn’t Shakespeare’s worry here: his worry hinges on the distinction between what Medieval philosophers called substance and accident. Substance is the essence of a thing that makes that thing what it is; accidents are those properties that a thing might possess that aren’t essential to what it is. He doesn’t share my worry that when a thing changes it becomes different to itself; he thinks what makes a thing itself is its substance. A cat, for example, might have white fur, but it would still be a cat if that fur turns black. What the substance of a thing is is a notoriously tricky issue (what precisely makes a cat a cat, as opposed to a dog – its ‘cat-ness’? what actually makes a cat this cat, and not a different one?), but Shakespeare hazards a solution: the substance of the young man is his form, which he also refers to as his beauty. This form can be passed on to another via procreation, and therefore (Shakespeare says) the young man can defeat death by passing on his form/beauty to his offspring. He will personally die, but his form (which is his essence) will live on.

That’s the philosophy done; now let’s talk punctuation. In the original 1609 edition, the couplet read thus:

O none but unthrifts, dear my love you know,
You had a father, let your son say so.

Elizabethan punctuation and publication being what it was (i.e. different and looser than modern punctuation, and riddled with printing errors on top of that), editors frequently repunctuate to assist the modern reader, in much the same way they modernise the spelling. The punctuation of the couplet in the text above divides the sense so that ‘you know you had a father’ is a single unit running across the two lines. However, my ear prefers to hear each line separately, and if I were to repunctuate it I would do it thus:

O none but unthrifts, dear my love you know;
You had a father, let your son say so.

This is a minor point, but I like ‘none but unthrifts, dear my love you know’ as a poetic way of saying ‘my love, you know that none but unthrifts would… etc.’, and I like the solidity of the declaration of the last line, and I like the structural integrity of each line being free-standing yet complementary; whereas I find enjambment – the spilling of sense from one line to another – in this case weakens the verse,* and I dislike ‘you know you had a father’ as a clumsy bit of poetry.

(* I stress in this case – not as a general rule!)

More tomorrow: I foresee that Shakespeare will turn from philosophy to astrology…


Sonnet 14

Good morning, Sonneteers – here’s your daily dose of Shakespeare.

Today, he looks to the stars (of a sort) to tell the future:

Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck;
And yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons’ quality;
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well,
By oft predict that I in heaven find:
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As “truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert”;
     Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
     “Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.”

This is bold, but reads nicely in light of the gathering love narrative of the sonnets. Shakespeare has not yet abandoned his procreation campaign, but his growing passion for the young man is making itself more and more felt. He here gives a humorous twist to the convention of comparing the beloved’s eyes to the stars, pretending that the eyes could be an object of astrology. (He’ll later use the same theme for a different gag: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun…”) The structure:

Q1: I have a kind of astronomy, not based on the stars, that doesn’t tell me anything of the big things…

Q2: …or anything very specific…

Q3: …but it does tell me this: if you breed, your children will be both beautiful and true.

C: Or don’t have children, and that’s the end of truth and beauty.

Read simply as a procreation sonnet it borders on histrionic and rings false. Who cares that much about whether or not someone unrelated to them has children? Yet if one reads it as a love sonnet the emotion it carries suddenly rings true. Is romantic love not precisely the feeling that this person, the beloved, really is the embodiment of everything important, both truth and beauty? That their death really will be the end of everything that matters? And read in those terms, suddenly the procreation thing becomes much more sympathetic. Shakespeare loves the young man: and here he more or less comes out and says that, by extension, he will also love the young man’s children.

Ah, the throes of early love. Shakespeare here calls the young man’s eyes ‘constant stars’, which he will later find he has cause to revise: by the end, he will be meditating on the ways in which one can love constantly in a world subject to change. But this is to anticipate.

One of the nice developments here is that he stops commenting merely on the beauty of the youth, and adds truth to his virtues. Truth is here a stand-in for the moral virtues, in the sense in which one might use it as a synonym for ‘faithful’, ‘honest’, ‘loyal’, and so forth. In my correspondence, LT has particularly made note of the absence of any comment hereto by Shakespeare on the moral virtues of the youth – my own surmise is that in the earlier sonnets he is merely praising a pretty young man for cash, and to begin with hadn’t taken any real interest in him, sticking to his appointed task of persuading a vain lad to reproduce himself; but now that he is developing real feelings – and, who knows, perhaps he knows the youth better, and perhaps it turns out that he really does have some admirable qualities – he has become attuned to the youth’s ‘truth’, and not just his beauty.

Last thing: it’s an idiosyncratic association, but this sonnet recalls to me a poem of Emily Dickinson’s:

I never saw a Moor.
I never saw the Sea –
Yet know I how the Heather looks
And what a Billow be –

I never spoke with God
Nor visited in Heaven –
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the Checks were given –

More tomorrow, when we’ll see Shakespeare hint at a new theme.


Sonnet 15

Good morning, Shakespeareans, and happy Friday.

Today, a brief reprieve: for the first time, no mention of procreation!

When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheer’d and check’d even by the self-same sky,
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory;
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful Time debateth with Decay,
To change your day of youth to sullied night;
     And all in war with Time for love of you,
     As he takes from you, I engraft you new.

We return to the theme of Sonnet 12, the transitoriness of everything valuable and the inevitability of decline. Evidently, Shakespeare wasn’t quite content with the feeble exhortation to procreation with which he ended that one, and so he’s circled back and tries out for the first time what will become one of the major themes of the Sonnets: the immortalising function of verse. As we’ll see on Monday, he’s not yet quite feeling bold enough to sustain it, but a seed has been planted.

Here’s a look at the structure:

Q1: Everything that is subject to change reaches its peak only briefly before declining, and all the world is but a series of passing shows

Q2: The sky doesn’t change, but underneath it we grow, celebrate ourselves, peak, decline, then pass from memory

Q3: I reflect on all of this, and think that even you, young man, will be subject to time and decay…

C: …and so, at war with time, I set out to immortalise you as best I can

This is another nice example of an Italian sonnet: the first eight lines form an octave (with both quatrains beginning ‘when…’) reflecting on impermanence and decay, and then the sestet (the quatrain of which begins ‘then…’) rebels and seeks a way to save the beloved from time’s clutches. There’s also a pleasing repeated contrast in the octave, pitting change against impermanence: first, the world is a stage on which the unchanging stars comment; then people are compared with plants that bloom and fade (one pictures a time-lapse film of a flower), cheered on by the ‘self-same sky’.

The last sonnet was bold, and this one is no less so. ‘All in war with Time for love of you’ is a very strong line, and that word ‘you’ is repeated three times in the closing couplet, which underlines just how often the word appears in the poem: as Helen Vendler points out, you/your appears five times in the course of the sestet, and the sound is repeated in the word ‘youth’ twice more (and also once in Q2). I would add that the first-person pronoun (mostly ‘I’, but also ‘my’) appears in all three quatrains as well as the couplet. This is very much a sonnet built around the twin poles of ‘you’ and ‘me’. (Given the structural importance of the second person address, I’m almost willing to overlook how strained I find that repetitive closing rhyme ‘you’, ‘you’, ‘new’ three times in two lines.)

But let’s circle back to my favourite lines:

That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment

That’s very good: both the image itself, of the stars as the audience of the human drama, watching from a distance and commenting in secret (not being a keen astrologer I’ll pass over the ‘influence’ bit); and also the perspective that it invites us to take up, that of the stars themselves, looking down at our lives from a cosmological distance beyond the reach of our worries here.

And with that, have a restful weekend, and you’ll hear from me on Monday.