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

Sonnet 121

Good morning, good morning, welcome back.

Quite a good one today on public versus private esteem:

’Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed,
When not to be receives reproach of being,
And the just pleasure lost, which is so deemed
Not by our feeling, but by others’ seeing:
For why should others’ false adulterate eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?
Or on my frailties why are frailer spies,
Which in their wills count bad what I think good?
No, I am that I am, and they that level
At my abuses reckon up their own:
I may be straight, though they themselves be bevel;
By their rank thoughts my deeds must not be shown;
     Unless this general evil they maintain,
     All men are bad and in their badness reign.

Shakespeare demonstrates rather more self-confidence here than he’s typically been showing through the course of these sonnets; one definitely senses again that something has changed. A gloss:

Q1 It’s better to actually be bad, than for everyone to assume so even though one isn’t — not being so, one suffers the same judgement, which saps one’s pleasures

Q2 Why should the false eyes of others spoil my fun? Why to people feel free to criticise my weaknesses, when they are no better? Why do they criticise as bad the things I think to be good?

Q3 I am that I am — they that criticise me actually show their own flaws; I may be straight, they they themselves be bevel; their depraved thoughts shouldn’t determine how my deeds are depicted

C I’ll only accept their criticism if they generalise it: all men are bad

That couplet is another fraught one. It has two difficulties: first, that ‘unless’ — what is that contrasting with? Second, the relation of line 14 to line 13. Is the ‘general evil’ that Shakespeare’s critics are maintaining that ‘all men are bad’, when really it is these critics who are bad, and reigning in their badness? Or is Shakespeare trying to out-do them, and saying: I’ll only accept your criticism that I am bad if you accept the general point that all men are bad. I’ve opted for this second reading: Shakespeare is defending himself by saying that the only standard by which he could be found at fault is one that finds everyone at fault. There is something of the concept of original sin to it, except that he is obviously not decrying himself: he doesn’t mean to say that everyone is in fact bad, for he wants to affirm himself; instead he’s pointing to just how strenuous, unforgiving and unfun the standard would have to be that finds him guilty.

Guilty of what? Well, evidently there are those that find his love affair unsavoury. In confronting this, he raises interesting questions about the self, social sanctions, and the social nature of that self. In philosophy, these problems begin with Plato’s Republic, which sets out to answer the question: is it better to be good, or is it enough just to receive all the perks of an (unearned) reputation for goodness? Would it be better to be a good person wrongfully maligned, or a bad person erroneously praised for being good? Plato spends the next 300 pages trying to demonstrate that it would be better to be a good person wrongfully maligned, which many readers have not found particularly persuasive, and it seems that Shakespeare would agree with this, for he opens in strident terms: ‘’Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed / When not to be receives reproach of being.’ In other words, one would be better off being actually a bad person than to be a good person who is blamed anyway. And the reason he gives for this is interesting: the mere fact of being blamed saps the pleasure one takes in the things one is being blamed for; the self is quite porous, and readily absorbs the opinions of others.

But why should it be like this? Q1 had set up the problem — criticism from others, regardless of merit, can be toxic. Q2 starts to build a response: the people doing the criticism are actually no better themselves; they may well be worse; and in fact they have no idea what they’re talking about. Against this, Shakespeare tries to shore himself up by quoting the words Yahweh speaks to Moses, when Moses asks who he is: ‘I am that I am.’ It’s pretty firm self-assertion. Line 9-10 could be paraphrased in a favourite expression of my mother’s: ‘What somebody says about something tells you more about them than it does what they’re talking about.’ So, Shakespeare says, people reveal their own flaws when they criticise; though Shakespeare may be straight, they may be bevel (a line so good I haven’t tried to paraphrase it in my gloss). He refuses their judgements: their rank thoughts shouldn’t determine how he is depicted. And thus he invites them to damn mankind universally, if they think he’s so bad.


Sonnet 122

Sonneteers, good morning.

This one seems to me quite specific to a particular occasion:

Thy gift, thy tables, are within my brain
Full character’d with lasting memory,
Which shall above that idle rank remain,
Beyond all date, even to eternity:
Or, at the least, so long as brain and heart
Have faculty by nature to subsist;
Till each to raz’d oblivion yield his part
Of thee, thy record never can be miss’d.
That poor retention could not so much hold,
Nor need I tallies thy dear love to score;
Therefore to give them from me was I bold,
To trust those tables that receive thee more:
     To keep an adjunct to remember thee
     Were to import forgetfulness in me.

A ‘table’ is a small notebook, so it seems that what has happened here is the young man has given Shakespeare a manuscript of some description, which Shakespeare has then passed on to someone else. By way of defending this act, he declares that his own memory is vastly superior to some mere notebook. A gloss:

Q1 The notebook you gave me has been permanently stored in my memory, where it will remain for all eternity

Q2 Well, maybe not eternity, but at least until my death; nature will eventually raze the memories of you from my head and my heart

Q3 My head and heart retain memories of you so much better than a notebook, so I had no need of it — therefore I was so bold as to give it to someone else

C To keep some aide-mémoire would just be to encourage forgetfulness

It’s impressively weak as an excuse. There’s an old tradition (going back to Plato) that the invention of writing was a disaster for the art of memory, and Shakespeare’s playing with that here, but who is convinced that — even if Shakespeare’s memory is as good as he says — it is superior to do away with the sentimental object, especially when (as seems to be the case here) there was some presumption that he should keep it?

The move from Q1 to Q2 is amusing: Q1 begins with full bombast, declaring that what is etched in Shakespeare’s memory shall last ‘beyond all date, even to eternity’; this is immediately walked back to ‘so long as brain and heart / Have faculty by nature to subsist’ — not quite eternity, then. He continues, and despite the feebleness of the sonnet’s conceit,  still manages a strong, tragic image of love and memory: ‘Till each to raz’d oblivion yield his part / Of thee, thy record never can be miss’d’.

In the earlier immortality sonnets, Shakespeare kept insisting that the mechanism of immortality-through-verse was the way the dead characters on the page were capable of summoning a living image in the mind of the reader; and this idea is operative in the present sonnet, in the contrast between the ‘idle rank’ and ‘poor retention’ of writing, and the mind’s ‘tables that receive thee more’. What is curious here is the absence of the minds of others, especially those of posterity, with whom Shakespeare was so concerned previously. Expecting some such reference, I had thought at first that the ‘adjunct’ of line 13 was the person to whom the notebook had been given, who would continue the work of memory after Shakespeare’s death, and would thus symbolise posterity — but no, that is a reference to the notebook itself. Very curious.

Despite its relation to a very specific occasion, and despite that feeble conceit, the sonnet raises an interesting question: what is the relationship between the people we care about, our memories of them, and the sentimental objects that recall them to us? Shakespeare gives an unpersuasive answer — do away with the objects! — but it’s not clear he really believes that himself.


Sonnet 123

Good morning, good morning.

Shakespeare takes his stand against time itself:

No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change:
Thy pyramids built up with newer might
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange;
They are but dressings of a former sight.
Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire
What thou dost foist upon us that is old;
And rather make them born to our desire
Than think that we before have heard them told.
Thy registers and thee I both defy,
Not wondering at the present nor the past,
For thy records and what we see doth lie,
Made more or less by thy continual haste.
     This I do vow, and this shall ever be,
     I will be true, despite thy scythe and thee.

There are a number of interesting thoughts in here, but I’m not entirely sure how to make them cohere. I will have a go, anyway. First, a little gloss:

Q1 Time, you will not be able to boast that you have changed me; building new pyramids is nothing exciting, we’ve been there before

Q2 Because of our short lifespans, we admire things just because they’re old relative to us; and we prefer to suppose we invented things ourselves, than realise we’ve got the idea from elsewhere

Q3 I defy your register (of the dead? of the changed?), and do not marvel at things present or things past, for historical records — and our own eyes — lie, being products of time

C I vow this, and will not ever change: I will be true, even in the face of time and death

Superficially, it reads like a sonnet about change and constancy, in which Shakespeare suggests that even the pyramids are not so unchanging as he is. But as one looks at the details, this appearance evaporates, and one is left with a jumble of parts. There’s the opening, defying time; then a digression on pyramids, or possibly new pyramids under construction; Q2 contains a pair of aphoristic observations about human nature  (‘Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire / What thou dost foist upon us that is old’, ‘And rather make them born to our desire / Than think that we before have heard them told’), the first of which makes sense applied to the pyramids, but the relation of the second is a mystery; Q3 decries both past and present, for historical records lie — but he also seems to throw our senses under the bus (‘what we see doth lie’); and finally, in C, he pledges his constancy despite all of this.

How do we untangle it? I wonder whether we might read it as Shakespeare listening to his Platonising impulse again. We’ve already had him suggesting the young man might be the Platonic form of beauty; this reads a little bit like a riff on the myth of the cave, from Plato’s Republic. In that myth, Plato describes a group of prisoners chained in a cave and held in a position such that they are forced to stare at a wall. On that wall are shadows cast when people walking behind the prisoner carry objects in front of a fire. The prisoners, knowing no different, suppose that those shadows are the real world, and pride themselves on correctly spotting patterns or guessing what will come past next. (Whether Shakespeare had actually read Plato I have no idea, although various of Plato’s ideas will have had currency in Renaissance England. My point here is only that Shakespeare exhibits a similar impulse, away from the products of time and towards a deeper truth; my contention is that this impulse can be fruitfully elucidated with reference to Plato.)

Similarly, in this sonnet, Shakespeare presents the world as unduly impressed by the products of time. The pyramids, which last longer than our brief lives, we esteem as images of eternity, though they are no such thing. Apparently, a ‘pyramid’, in the English of that time, equally referred to what we would now call an obelisk; and the construction of new obelisks/pyramids was a fairly standard symbol of ambition and vanity. (This detail comes from Burrow.) So ‘pyramids built up with newer might’ probably refers to this activity, in which a pretend pyramid is constructed, a pyramid being a pretend image of eternity anyway. It is a shadow of a shadow, which only impresses the easily fooled — those who trust what they see (line 13).

Against this, Shakespeare reaffirms his constant commitment to a truth that is implicitly contrasted with this kind of temporal illusion; while no explicit reference to the young man, we can suppose from context that this is what he is driving at — and we know from other sonnets that he is keen to see his beloved as endowed with some of the properties of eternity.


Sonnet 124

Sonneteers, good morning.

Shakespeare’s back to trying to work out his conception of love:

If my dear love were but the child of state,
It might for Fortune’s bastard be unfather’d,
As subject to Time’s love or to Time’s hate,
Weeds among weeds, or flowers with flowers gather’d.
No, it was builded far from accident;
It suffers not in smiling pomp, nor falls
Under the blow of thralled discontent,
Whereto the inviting time our fashion calls:
It fears not policy, that heretic,
Which works on leases of short-number’d hours,
But all alone stands hugely politic,
That it nor grows with heat nor drowns with showers.
     To this I witness call the fools of time,
     Which die for goodness, who have liv’d for crime.

Q1 If my love were of the worldly sort, it could lose its object, or otherwise be subject to time’s whims

Q2 But it was not made in the world of accidents; it doesn’t smile more when times are good, nor is it felled when times are bad

Q3 It does not fear what happens, or what is done to it by fickle plans, for those things are counted in mere hours; it stands by itself, wise, and neither grows nor shrinks with circumstance

C As witnesses [presumably, against the idea that one should hang onto the twists of fortune], I call those fools of time, whose fortunes have changed so radically: maligned during their lives, praised after their deaths

One of the things that is immediately striking is the quantity of political (and political-adjacent) metaphor here. Immediately, we have the ‘child of state’, followed swiftly by ‘bastard’ (very much a political issue in a world in which power is largely hereditary), ‘pomp’, ‘policy’, ‘heretic’, ‘politic’, and ‘crime’. The couplet also suggests political martyrs who are maligned during their lives, executed for their ‘crimes’, then celebrated after their deaths (which is how I’ve chosen to gloss it above). It’s hard not to suspect that some political event forms the background, and there are various candidates as to which event Shakespeare had in mind: the Essex Rebellion (1601), the Gunpowder Plot (1605), something else?

For mine, I don’t think it’s so important. What does matter is the distinction between public and private it sets up, a division between the world of fate and reversal as against a world of constancy and stability. As Shakespeare says a couple of times, worldly people are pleased when fate smiles on them, and sad when their luck turns bad; his love, on the other hand, remains constant throughout. Q3 opposes the ‘policy’ of the world, those plans people make that may cause us harm, against the ‘hugely politic’ (i.e. wise) nature of Shakespeare’s love — the image it calls to mind is of something big and slow, staying the course, not swayed by incidentals.

The most interesting question is how this relates to his developing conception of love. It seems to me in substance similar to the view he sketched out in 116; he still seems to have rejected the view of 115, in which he’d experimented with the idea that ‘Love is a babe’ that ‘still doth grow’. There is a suggestion, in Q1, that he is still concerned with one of the questions of 116: what happens when love’s object changes? This is posed quite starkly in line 2: what is it for love to be ‘unfather’d’? An unfathered love, one supposes, is a love that is brought forth by its object — being thus bound up with something finite, it could lose this object, and become an orphaned love. Against this, Shakespeare is saying, his love is prior to (and independent of) any particular object; it is as though he has shifted his emphasis off the young man himself, and instead become interested in love as something within himself — to which the young man himself is almost incidental.

It is probably relevant that we are very nearly at the end of the Young Man sonnets!


Sonnet 125


Today’s marks a momentous occasion: the final proper sonnet in the Young Man sequence. And it’s a puzzler:

Were’t aught to me I bore the canopy,
With my extern the outward honouring,
Or laid great bases for eternity,
Which prove more short than waste or ruining?
Have I not seen dwellers on form and favour
Lose all, and more, by paying too much rent,
For compound sweet forgoing simple savour,
Pitiful thrivers, in their gazing spent?
No, let me be obsequious in thy heart,
And take thou my oblation, poor but free,
Which is not mix’d with seconds, knows no art
But mutual render, only me for thee.
     Hence, thou suborn’d informer! a true soul
     When most impeach’d stands least in thy control.

It poses an awful lot of questions. Why the defensive tone? Who is the ‘suborn’d informer’? Why is this the last sonnet in the sequence? A gloss:

Q1 Would it mean anything to me to carry the canopy over the head of a king on his way to coronation? [Members of the aristocracy did this, apparently, so it’s an image of success and prestige.] Or lay the groundwork for some grand ‘eternity’, which would merely last a short time?

Q2 Have I not seen people pursuing worldly success come to nothing, wasting all on rent and expense, foregoing what is wholesome for what is sweet?

Q3 No, let me be a humble petitioner to your heart, making my offerings, simple, unmixed, honest

C Get thee gone, you who would accuse me of base motivations; a true soul does not fall into the hands of his accusers, even when most strongly accused

The gist here isn’t too hard to puzzle out. As he has done a few times, Shakespeare counterposes his own simplicity of spirit with a desire for worldly success — on this occasion, framed in a way that suggests he’s been accused of base motives. There’s something pleasingly pedestrian about the line ‘paying too much rent’ — something impressively unpoetic. But ‘pitiful thrivers’ is good, i.e. those who appear to be succeeding, but really are just doing well at the rat race, and living superficial and unsatisfying lives, and hence deserving of pity although they seem to be thriving.

But what’s this sonnet doing here, at this point? I confess myself at a loss. The next sonnet, 126, isn’t really a sonnet at all (as we’ll see), and marks the turning point from the Young Man to what are known as the Dark Lady sonnets. So the present sonnet occupies a very important position, yet it’s hardly one of the greats. Rather than going out with a bang, it’s as though Shakespeare, wrapping up, confronts the accusation that these sonnets themselves are a ploy from him to gain favour and prestige; perhaps they are supposed to be the ‘poor but free’ oblation he’s offering to the young man, no second pressing, an offering of himself.

Don Paterson thinks nobody gets sufficiently excited by the oddity of the couplet here, where suddenly an accuser is introduced. His own view is that the suborn’d informer is Time itself, and reads the body of the sonnet that way, although he’s also at a loss to make sense of the final line.