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

Sonnet 126

Good morning, Sonneteers.

After 125 sonnets to the young man, we have one that rounds the sequence off:

O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
Dost hold Time’s fickle glass, his sickle hour;
Who hast by waning grown, and therein show’st
Thy lovers withering as thy sweet self grow’st;
If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,
As thou goest onwards, still will pluck thee back,
She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill
May time disgrace and wretched minute kill.
Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure!
She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure:
Her audit, though delay’d, answer’d must be
And her quietus is to render thee.
     (                                                                                )
     (                                                                                )

I’ve called it a ‘sonnet’, although strictly it is no such thing. It is still in iambic pentameter, but is only 12 lines long — the missing couplet is indicated by two sets of empty brackets; those empty brackets are original, occurring in the 1609 edition (I’d insert an image, but the device I’m using won’t let me — still, you can check out a facsimile from the Folger Shakespeare Library). The 12 lines it does have are organised into couplets themselves (rhyming AA BB CC DD EE FF), rather than the usual quatrains (ABAB CDCD EFEF), although the sense is still organised by quatrains, and I will gloss it thus:

Q1 Lovely boy, you hold in your power time’s fickle mirror/hour glass, as well as the time he wield’s his sickle; as time has passed you’ve grown in beauty, showing up your waning lovers

Q2 If nature is sparing you from the general wrack, she must have some purpose, and it is this: she wants to disgrace time

Q3 Yet you must still fear her, for she cannot keep you forever; she does not own you, and at some point the debt will be called

C ( )

That missing couplet is as ominous as it is obscure. It’s pretty certain that the text isn’t simply missing, either because it was absent from the manuscript or deleted for one reason or another; the strange form — couplets rather than quatrains — makes clear all bets are off. But there are three questions that are hard to answer: Why a 12-liner in the first place? Why in couplets? And, if you’re doing to do a 12-liner, why the brackets to indicate missing lines?

There are oceans of speculation out there, but I’m going to indulge in my own amateur stab. A couplet is, for Shakespeare, a very final thing. Each of the Sonnets concludes with a couplet; but he also frequently concludes scenes in his plays with a rhymed couplet. It functions kind of like a full stop. And here, at the end of a sequence of sonnets charting his love affair, he doesn’t just come to a halt: he repeatedly underlines the ending by rendering the whole thing in couplets. Quite a finale.

As to why he cuts it short, and then puts those brackets around the missing lines, it is almost too rich with symbolism. His love affair has ended, and he marks that ending with a missing couplet/couple. In a sonnet about death, those empty brackets are darkly suggestive of mortality. The couplets were frequently the part of the sonnet in which he commented directly on their relationship; now the relationship is gone, the couplet is unnecessary. A sonnet that breaks off after 12 lines is a sonnet cut short before its appointed end, which we may take as a reference to mortality, or the ended relationship, or both. And so forth.

Tomorrow, a completely fresh departure: enter the Dark Lady…


Sonnet 127

Sonneteers, good morning.

What a change begins today. We’ve been discussing the Young Man since April, so it’s hard to believe we might now — in the last week of October — be starting something different.

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slander’d with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with art’s false borrow’d face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profan’d, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her brows so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Slandering creation with a false esteem:
     Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,
     That every tongue says beauty should look so.

Thus begins the Dark Lady sequence. We should note, immediately, that this is the traditional name used by critics to refer to the subject of these sonnets — but it isn’t what Shakespeare calls her. So far as I know, he never calls her a lady, let alone ‘dark lady’, though he does refer to the darkness of her hair and eyes (hence ‘black’). Shakespeare also doesn’t really mark this new sequence off from the one before; as we saw yesterday, 126 serves as a kind of boundary, but it’s a subtle one at best. Nonetheless, as we’ll see as we proceed, it is very clear that this is a fresh sequence; the tone is different, the preoccupations are different, and today marks the first time a sonnet is about only a female subject.

Where this sequence fits relative to the one before isn’t so clear. There’s good reason to think that they in fact occurred concurrently: something very similar to the unhappy ménage à trois from sonnets 40-42 will recur here, so we can reasonably suppose that the same incident is being referred to.

Shakespeare kicks off this sequence with what will become its major theme: his deep-seated ambivalence about his mistress (I will sometimes follow convention and refer to her as the Dark Lady, other times as his mistress). A gloss:

Q1 In older times, beauty was a natural phenomenon: the naturally fair were beautiful, the naturally dark-featured were not. But now dark features have succeeded fair for the crown of beauty, and beauty has been slandered

Q2 For nature’s power to make one person beautiful and another ugly has been usurped by the human hand, which uses cosmetics to ‘fair the foul’: thus beauty has been profaned, and has no dwelling place

Q3 My mistress’ dark eyes seem to be in mourning, when they regard those wear the false face of cosmetic beauty

C Yet they are so becoming in their mourning, that people say that this is how beauty should be

The Bard loves a paradox, and this one is mightily paradoxical. Q1 suggests that there has been some revaluation of beauty, such that dark features have succeeded fair features as the mark of beauty, which he sums up in the paradoxical phrase ‘now is black beauty’s successive heir’ — or, ‘black has succeeded beauty as beautiful’. Then Q2 takes it in a different direction: the use of cosmetics removes the mark of beauty from the domain of nature and chance, and makes it something anyone can do; since anyone can be beautiful, there is no essence to beauty, and it is no longer ‘holy’. Q3 makes us think he’s applying this formulation to his mistress: she has black hair and dark eyes, and appears to be mourning the profanation of beauty (given she has dark eyes, she is presumably also mourning herself?). But then the couplet steers us back to the idea of Q1: she mourns so prettily that people say that she is the image of beauty.

He really can’t make up his mind. Is the rise of cosmetics the death of ‘natural’ beauty? (The complaint about cosmetics is very old: one will find it already in Plato.) The sonnet seems to think the idea of an eternal standard of beauty has died, but it can’t decide whether the death of this standard means beauty is a free-for-all ruled by cosmetics (Q2 and Q3), or whether one standard has just given way to another (Q1 and C). It also can’t decide whether the death of an eternal standard is to be mourned: the body of the sonnet is pretty shrill with its talk of slandering and foulness and profanation; but then C actually seems to affirm the idea of a new standard, as set by his mistress’ dark eyes.


Sonnet 128

Good morning, good morning.

For one of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, this one is remarkably straightforward:

How oft, when thou, my music, music play’st,
Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds
With thy sweet fingers, when thou gently sway’st
The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,
Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilst my poor lips, which should that harvest reap,
At the wood’s boldness by thee blushing stand.
To be so tickled, they would change their state
And situation with those dancing chips,
O’er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait,
Making dead wood more blest than living lips.
     Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,
     Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.

There are no contortions here, no self-flaggelation, no conflict. Shakespeare just rehearses a conventional conceit (jealousy of the instrument his mistress is playing), rehearses it elegantly, and brings it to a harmonious conclusion. A gloss:

Q1 How often, when I watch your fingers play a musical instrument…

Q2 … do I envy those jacks [think: keys] you press, which get to kiss the inside of your hand, while I stand by blushing, my lips wishing for a kiss

Q3 To get that kiss, they would happily change place with the keys; for the dead wood of those keys is more blessed than my living lips

C But since you’re making those keys happy, let them keep your fingers: I’ll kiss your lips

It unfolds in three parts. First, Shakespeare sets up his jealousy of the instrument; then he proposes a mock solution, in which his lips and the jacks swap places; then he overcomes that jealousy by proposing a solution that keeps everyone happy.

A ‘jack’ is part of the internal mechanism of instruments in the harpsichord family: the player presses the key, the key raises the jack, the jack has a plectrum attached to it, and the plectrum plucks the string. So, technically, Shakespeare’s mistress is not touching the jacks with her fingers at all; she is touching the keys. But then he would lose the pun on ‘jacks’, which also refers to ill-mannered, rough men — so he can pretend his mistress is running her hands over any old bloke. This could easily darken the sonnet considerably, if one took the jealousy it expresses to be real, but oddly I don’t sense that in its overall tone. At this stage, at least, it reads like a piece of faux-jealousy for the sake of the conceit.

This is a bit of an odd calm before the storm; where this sonnet seems formal and elegant and devoid of real feeling, tomorrow’s will be spectacularly turbulent.


Sonnet 129

Sonneteers, good morning.

This is one of my favourites:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjur’d, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and prov’d, a very woe;
Before, a joy propos’d; behind, a dream.
     All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
     To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

What appeals most about this one is that Shakespeare is able to attain such emotional force and such rhetorical heights while still sticking to the sonnet form. I find I get so carried away by it that I lose sight of its formal features, an experience (for me) not unlike that of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est‘ (although the two poems have next to nothing in common). A gloss:

Q1 Wasting life force on something pointless is lust in action; unfulfilled lust is unscrupulous, savage, etc. and not to be trusted

Q2 Lust is no sooner satisfied than it leads to feelings of disgust; it defies reason, and affects one like a poison bait

Q3 It makes one mad in pursuit, and in the possession, knowing no boundaries or measure; it promises joy, seems to fulfil that promise, then straight abandons one

C Everyone knows this — yet nobody knows how to resist it

It’s a powerful piece of self-disgust, and one of the few sonnets that fully yields to analysis without the need for context. Taken by itself, it’s a vivid, powerful, arresting account of the power of lust to overwhelm the higher faculties and corrupt one’s decision-making capacities; then also an account of the oily feelings of disgust and self-disgust that remain after those torrential waters recede.

Taken in sequence, it perhaps has a whiff of misogyny to it. The sonnets to his beloved were largely about love in quite a refined, spiritual, sublimated form, although there were plenty that revealed the subterranean upheavals taking place. This sonnet, in the sequence about his mistress, has no higher yearnings: it is about desire in its most basic, primal form, mad, an enemy of reason, hostile to civilised natures. To what extent she evokes these higher feelings, we’ll see; but it’s nothing like his response to the young man.


Sonnet 130

Good morning, Sonneteers.

Ah, another favourite. The hits keep coming. In this one, Shakespeare indulges in a little parody:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
     And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
     As any she belied with false compare.

Don Paterson can’t stand this sonnet, finding it an unbearable piece of mockery at Shakespeare’s poor mistress’s expense, with a feeble attempt to salvage it at the end by making out that the sonnet is really about false compare. I don’t find the mockery as vicious, and am amused. It’s the energy of it that gets me.

I’m not sure this one will benefit from a gloss, so on this occasion I’ll skip it. Instead, some remarks:

It seems likely that Shakespeare is parodying some sources directly here. Burrow quotes a particularly apt target in his commentary, the third sonnet of Richard Lynche’s ‘Diella’ (from 1596):

Swift-footed Time! look back! and here mark well
Those rare-shaped parts my pen shall now declare!
My mistress’ snow-white skin doth much excel
The pure-soft wool Arcadian sheep do bear;
Her hair exceeds gold forced in smallest wire,
In smaller threads than Ariadne spun;
Her eyes are crystal fountains, yet dart fire
More glorious to behold than midday sun;
Her ivory front (though soft as purest silk)
Looks like the table of Olympic Jove,
Her cheeks are like ripe cherries laid in milk,
Her alabaster neck the throne of Love;
     Her other parts so far excel the rest,
     That wanting words, they cannot be expressed.

Read that, then Shakespeare’s again: the overlap is too much to be coincidental, even allowing that some of the comparisons are probably conventional. The couplet at the end, interestingly, moves partly in the direction of Shakespeare’s sonnet, but it’s more a euphemistic gesture (‘Her other parts, hey?’) — Shakespeare makes it an aesthetic principle, and turns to parody the very idea of overblown parody. We’ve been here before, with Shakespeare trying to undermine the idea of poetic comparison (see 17, 18 and 21 for examples), but there is a meanness to this one. When it came to the young man, it was always that he exceeded any possible comparison; with his mistress, Shakespeare instead suggests that he loves her despite her inferiority. He’s aware, as 127 makes clear, that his mistress does not match the canons of female beauty; while in this one he’s mocking the standard kinds of comparison poets make, he’s also mocking her. When he says that her breath ‘reeks’, that apparently didn’t have the connotation of bad smell that we now associate with it — the comparison is with smoke from a chimney ‘reeking’, i.e. rising — but it’s still uncomplimentary.

And yet, despite all of that, it remains so funny: the bold opening (‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’), the energy, the daring of so openly undermining the conventions of love poetry. It’s a mark of good art to make moral considerations seem so secondary.