[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.]
Good morning, good morning.
There is definitely trouble afoot:
Thou art as tyrannous, so as thou art,
As those whose beauties proudly make them cruel;
For well thou know’st to my dear doting heart
Thou art the fairest and most precious jewel.
Yet, in good faith, some say that thee behold,
Thy face hath not the power to make love groan:
To say they err I dare not be so bold,
Although I swear it to myself alone.
And to be sure that is not false I swear,
A thousand groans, but thinking on thy face,
One on another’s neck, do witness bear
Thy black is fairest in my judgment’s place.
In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds,
And thence this slander, as I think, proceeds.
There are two things to note here. First, the way it picks up on 127 and the question of how Shakespeare feels about his mistress’s appearance; second, the way it lays the ground for a growing sense of betrayal. In neither of these two facets does Shakespeare come off well: one might want to offer some defence of him, on the one front or the other, but it’s hard to shake the sense that he’s being both shallow and histrionic. A gloss:
Q1 You’re a tyrant, like one who knows that their good looks will excuse all manner of ills; as you know, in my eyes your the most precious jewel
Q2 But I am honour-bound to add that my opinion doesn’t seem to be universal: I experience the pangs of love when I look on your face, but everyone else tells me that you leave them cold
Q3 But really, I’m not lying: just thinking of your face makes me groan a thousand groans, each rapidly succeeding another (‘one on another’s neck’); truly, your dark features are as fair as fair to me
C Your deeds, on the other hand, are reprehensible: and thus you stand accused
The opening lines, with their ‘you’re tyrannous as though you are beautiful’, set us up for what is to follow; and the whole thing is, frankly, mean: as much as Shakespeare professes he thinks his mistress as fair as fair, he goes out of his way to tell her that his mates think she’s a dog, devoting the whole of Q2 to the topic. The way he opens Q2 with ‘in good faith’ reeks of bad faith. He’s evidently hurt about something (as the couplet makes clear), and so he pens a sonnet in passive-aggressive revenge.
Yet he still raises interesting issues concerning beauty and perception. You’ll recall that in 127 he pondered the question of the standards of beauty, and how timeless they are, and what happens if they are changeable; here he ponders the way even the thought of his mistress’s face will give him palpitations, yet she leaves others cold. He doesn’t speculate on the cause of this (he’s got other things on his mind), but happily Proust has some helpful reflections:
Event the simple act which we describe as ‘seeing someone we know’ it to some extent an intellectual process. We pack the physical outline of the person we see with all the notions we have already formed about him, and in the total picture of him which we compose in our minds those notions have certainly the principal place. (Swann’s Way)
With reference to Shakespeare’s mistress, this suggests (if we can put it in a circular way) that she makes his heart leap precisely because she is his mistress; they have a shared history, and her face (for him) is — or has been — at the centre of what has been delight. He evidently cares what she says or does. (I get the sense that these sonnets about his mistress were composed quite late in that relationship, where with the young man we get the whole arc.)
But there must be more: why her? Something must have lit the spark. There’s a suggestive distinction Shakespeare makes in the opening lines of 127: ‘In the old age black was not counted fair, / Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name‘. That is to say, there’s a distinction between ‘the beautiful’ (which is canonical) and, to give it a name, ‘the desirable’ (which may or may not be idiosyncratic). In this one, and in 127, he has been exploring the potential gap between these two concepts, albeit not in a way that affirms it.
Shakespeare is nothing if not inconsistent. After yesterday’s ambivalence and reproach, today he’s once again all praise:
Thine eyes I love, and they, as pitying me,
Knowing thy heart torments me with disdain,
Have put on black and loving mourners be,
Looking with pretty ruth upon my pain.
And truly not the morning sun of heaven
Better becomes the grey cheeks of the east,
Nor that full star that ushers in the even
Doth half that glory to the sober west,
As those two mourning eyes become thy face:
O, let it then as well beseem thy heart
To mourn for me, since mourning doth thee grace,
And suit thy pity like in every part.
Then will I swear beauty herself is black,
And all they foul that thy complexion lack.
What is this? To me, it reads like a reaction against 131: Shakespeare has repented of the attacks he made and, hoping to make amends, or to sooth his own conscience, pens a sonnet of praise in which he is the wretched party. A gloss:
Q1 I love your eyes, which pity me, as your heart disdains me; they are pretty mourners, and compassion (‘pretty ruth’) is becoming
Q2 Your eyes are prettier than the morning sun or the evening star
Q3 As your mourning eyes become your face, let your heart mourn for me, for pity suits you
C Then I will swear that you are the very figure of beauty, and they are foul that do not have your complexion
In basic shape this is a thoroughly conventional sonnet; the sonnet was basically invented in order to house a lover’s complaint that his beloved is cold and distant and won’t yield to his advances. What sets Shakespeare’s efforts apart are the ways he toys with the genre; in this case, the way he’s back to standing the conventional standards of beauty on their head, as he did in 127. Just as in that sonnet, it is the conflation of dark/’black’ complexion with the black of mourning that drives him to paroxysms of desire. Apparently he just can’t help it, and in this one has managed to link his lust for the mournful look with his own masochism and need to be pitied. (In 127, the mourning was for those who didn’t look like her.)
Is it interesting to anyone else that his fixation is on her eyes? They might be ‘nothing like the sun’, yet it seems he can hardly stand to look at them directly; unlike the sun, they are very dark, and perhaps for that reason resemble pools that draw him in and into which he fears falling. With the young man, he was constantly insisting that his entire figure was the form of beauty; but with his mistress, her eyes are (at least sometimes) enough for him to insist that she is the epitome of womanhood.
Lastly, I’ve recently discovered the joys of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and can’t help but quote her parody of the traditional love-sonnet:
I do but ask that you be always fair
That I forever may continue kind;
Knowing me what I am, you should not dare
To lapse from beauty ever, nor seek to bind
My alterable mood with lesser cords;
Weeping and such soft matters must invite
To further vagrancy; and bitter words
Chafe soon to irremediable flight,
Wherefore I pray you if you love me dearly,
Less dear to hold me than your own bright charms,
Whence it may fall that until death, or nearly,
I shall not move to struggle from your arms:
Fade if you must,–I would but bid you be
Like the sweet year, doing all things graciously.
This was just an interlude; tomorrow, Shakespeare’s intense anguish resumes.
Good morning, Sonneteers.
It’s time to circle back for another look at the tangled threesome of sonnets 40-42:
Beshrew that heart that makes my heart to groan
For that deep wound it gives my friend and me!
Is’t not enough to torture me alone,
But slave to slavery my sweet’st friend must be?
Me from myself thy cruel eye hath taken,
And my next self thou harder hast engrossed:
Of him, myself, and thee, I am forsaken;
A torment thrice threefold thus to be crossed.
Prison my heart in thy steel bosom’s ward,
But then my friend’s heart let my poor heart bail;
Who’er keeps me, let my heart be his guard;
Thou canst not then use rigour in my gaol:
And yet thou wilt; for I, being pent in thee,
Perforce am thine, and all that is in me.
You’ll recall the way Shakespeare lamented, back then, that his beloved young man and his mistress had got together and excluded him, leaving him feeling like he’d been simultaneously betrayed by both. It’s hard not to sympathise, even if one recalls that this love triangle decidedly does not include his wife (the famous pun on her name in 145 notwithstanding). A gloss of this one:
Q1 Woe to that heart that makes my heart groan, that has wounded both me and my friend — isn’t it enough just to torture me? Why include him?
Q2 You’ve taken me from myself, and ensnared my second self; I am abandoned by you and myself and my friend — a threefold torment, but thrice as bad as that
Q3 Imprison my heart, if you must, but take it as bail for my friend; if we’re imprisoned together, I will be his guard — and keep him safe
C But it’s all for nought: you’ve got me captured, and thus by extension my friend as well
This one employs that same friend-is-a-second-self conceit from 40-42 (and thereabouts), and the contortions of its logic drive most of the momentum of this one. In Q1 the stage is set: the mistress and the friend have got together; Q2 employs the second self conceit yielding ‘me from myself thy cruel eye hath taken’, etc. It underlines just how desolate Shakespeare feels about it: he identifies very strongly with his young man, and thus feels as though he has been abandoned by himself (‘a torment thrice threefold’).
But the sestet is more perplexing. It begins with an offer to ransom himself in exchange for his friend (as though the young man were being held against his will — more on this below); then there are the puzzling lines 11-12, which I can only make sense of if they are implicitly accepting that Shakespeare cannot ransom his friend’s heart with his own. This then feeds the couplet, which seems to imply the logical conclusion of his doctrine of two-hearts-in-one: if his own heart is imprisoned, so is the young man’s (‘I, being pent in thee, / Perforce am thine, and all that is in me’); and they are both imprisoned, so Shakespeare’s cannot stand guard and disallow the use of ‘rigour’ (i.e. harsh punishment) in the gaol. He and his beloved must serve their time and suffer their trials together.
Yet the whole conceit is weird. Despite Shakespeare blaming her ‘cruel eye’ (her eyes again!) for ensnaring the young man, does anyone believe he is so passive as that? And then, having been seduced (or having done the seducing), by what power do we think the young man is being held captive? Nothing in the young man sonnets suggested that he was vulnerable to yearning, besotted capture in the same way Shakespeare is; quite the opposite, for Shakespeare on at least one occasion insisted that, given how young and virile he was, it was quite right for him to spread his love around.
The perplexing sestet seems to be pure, masochistic wish fulfilment. What has upset Shakespeare is his sense of being excluded; in suggesting that he and his beloved will have to be imprisoned together, in the gaol of his mistress’s heart, he has at least found a way in which he can be part of it.
Sonneteers, good morning.
Today Shakespeare expands on yesterday’s conceit, that could use himself as ransom:
So, now I have confess’d that he is thine
And I myself am mortgag’d to thy will,
Myself I’ll forfeit, so that other mine
Thou wilt restore, to be my comfort still:
But thou wilt not, nor he will not be free,
For thou art covetous and he is kind;
He learn’d but surety-like to write for me,
Under that bond that him as fast doth bind.
The statute of thy beauty thou wilt take,
Thou usurer, that put’st forth all to use,
And sue a friend came debtor for my sake;
So him I lose through my unkind abuse.
Him have I lost; thou hast both him and me:
He pays the whole, and yet am I not free.
The twist is here is that — ah ha! — the young man only entered the picture in the first place so that he could use himself as ransom to free Shakespeare! But the plan didn’t work: Shakespeare is still bound fast. A gloss:
Q1 I confess that he is yours, and I am also bound to your will — I would forfeit myself to free him
Q2 But you won’t allow it, and he can’t free himself, because he has a good nature and you abuse it — he tried to use himself as surety to free me
Q3 You lend out your beauty in order to receive it back with interest, suing my friend who became a debtor for my sake — and thus I have lost him
C You have both him and me: he paid the whole debt, and yet you will not let me go
I wonder whether we hear a yearning at the end to be done with the whole mess: part of Shakespeare evidently wishes he could release the bonds that keep him held fast, but he cannot. It’s his ambivalence on this issue — at one and the same time wishing he could have nothing more to do with his tormenters, and also desperately wanting to insert himself in the middle of their dalliance — that animates this and a number of other sonnets.
Perhaps he introduced them; perhaps he had confided in one, the other, or both the turbulent feelings each of them conjures in him; in any case, he finds the thought that their feelings for each other have something to do with him inescapably tempting. Back in 42, he had written of the young man: ‘Thou dost love her, because thou know’st I love her’; of his mistress: ‘And for my sake even so doth she abuse me, / Suffering my friend for my sake to approve her’. But the precise motivations he ascribes to them are different in this one: here, the young man approaches her to free Shakespeare from the torments he finds in her (or so Shakespeare says); she, on the other hand, is motivated less by a desire for Shakespeare’s approval than by base and all-consuming covetousness (line 6).
On the issue of being tortured and wanting to be free: I have mentioned Proust already this week, which might exhaust my allowable Proust-reference budget, but I will mention him again anyway for there is further light he can cast. In the first volume’s little novella-within-the-novel, ‘Swann in Love’, Swann has developed intense, jealous, and unshakeable feelings for Odette. Sometimes, when the waters of his passion are not too turbulent, he is able to reflect as follows:
Of course, [Swann] fully suspected at times that in themselves Odette’s daily actions were not passionately interesting, and that the relationships she might have with other men did not exhale naturally, universally and for every intelligent creature a morbid sadness capable of infecting one with a feverish desire to commit suicide. He would then realise that this interest, this sadness existed only in him like a disease, and that, once this disease was cured, Odette’s actions, the kisses she might have given would become once again as harmless as those of so many other women.
(This is from The Way by Swann’s, p. 281.)
Proust goes on to note that, even though Swann can recognise this, it is not enough to free him. And this is much the same state in which Shakespeare finds himself: though he is tortured by the knowledge (or perhaps merely a suspicion: see 144) that his mistress has other lovers, he cannot will himself to feel otherwise — he feels himself, rather, mortgaged to his mistress’s will.
Good morning, Sonneteers.
I hope you are ready for a sudden change of pace: this sonnet rapidly descends into bawdy.
Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy “Will,”
And “Will” to boot, and “Will” in overplus;
More than enough am I that vex thee still,
To thy sweet will making addition thus.
Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious,
Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?
Shall will in others seem right gracious,
And in my will no fair acceptance shine?
The sea, all water, yet receives rain still,
And in abundance addeth to his store;
So thou, being rich in “Will,” add to thy “Will”
One will of mine, to make thy large “Will” more.
Let no unkind ‘no’ fair beseechers kill;
Think all but one, and me in that one “Will.”
The thing to know is that ‘will’ can mean a few different things, and Shakespeare most definitely intends all of them: it is his name, ‘Will’; it means what one wants or desires; it means what one wants or desires sexually; and it can also refer to either the male or female sexual organs. (Booth says of line 6 in particular that it is ‘more or less a single entendre’.) I have experimented with a po-faced commentary in my usual style, but it cannot be done: the other layers do not make sense if you divorce them from the bawdy. So here’s a gloss:
Q1 You’re mightily wilful, but you also have Will — wouldn’t you like to add mine to yours?
Q2 You’ve got such a capacious will, and you seem to have no trouble accommodating the wills of others — why not mine?
Q3 The sea is never full; so add my will to yours
C Don’t be unkind, and kill the will of others with refusal; think of everybody as one ‘Will’
It is, essentially, a sexual proposition expressed in a sonnet. Shakespeare accuses his mistress of being wilful, and strong in her desires, and of having a pretty broad sexual appetite (lines 7-8). So, he says, why not accept my proposition, if you accept so many others? It is, I fear, a pretty classic piece of misogyny: if a woman has sexual interests of which a man disapproves, especially if they exclude him, he accuses her of being indiscriminate. What perhaps salvages this one is the way Shakespeare (comically?) makes himself the avatar of all lovers unified (in line 14), implicitly extending the second-self conceit of previous sonnets to include the whole brotherhood of men in love; he makes of himself the universal man, to match his mistress, the universal woman.
If we bracket the misogyny for a minute, there are other interesting things going on here. The first is the extent to which he sees himself as a fairly small will, in the sense of having a wilful personality — this is very plausible, given his evident tendency to interiorise things, to be frustrated in love. It makes a lot of sense of his capacity for inventing characters, when he so quickly identifies with other people — his own will not getting too much in the way.
Then there’s the way his punning on ‘will’ also points us towards the way lovers often desire to be unified with each other, not merely sexually but emotionally, psychologically, socially — two wills become one, as it were.
There’s more of this to come in the next one.