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

Sonnet 16

Sonneteers: welcome back!

We have two more procreation sonnets to get through, then you can all breathe a collective sigh of relief. You’re in for a treat on Wednesday, when Shakespeare will play a little something from his greatest hits.

Today, Sonnet 16:

But wherefore do not you a mightier way
Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?
And fortify yourself in your decay
With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?
Now stand you on the top of happy hours,
And many maiden gardens, yet unset,
With virtuous wish would bear your living flowers
Much liker than your painted counterfeit:
So should the lines of life that life repair,
Which this time’s pencil, or my pupil pen,
Neither in inward worth nor outward fair,
Can make you live yourself in eyes of men.
     To give away yourself keeps yourself still;
     And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill.

This one picks up where Sonnet 15 had left off. You’ll recall from last week that 15 marked a bit of a departure in that it contained no reference to procreation, explicit or otherwise: now Shakespeare corrects that oversight. The two together form a double-sonnet, as Sonnets 5 and 6 did. In the closing of 15, Shakespeare declared himself ‘all in war with Time’; now he urges the young man to go one better against the ‘bloody tyrant’.

The structure (*see below for a quick note):

Q1: Why only survive in my barren poetry, when you could really score a victory against time and reproduce?

Q2: You’re a particularly handsome chap, and lots of lovely maidens would happily bear your children

Q3: Only a child (i.e. heir, genealogical line, ‘line of life’) can repair the way time makes you fall into ruin, or rectify the inevitable shortcomings of my rendering you in poetry

C: Giving yourself away is the only way to have more life – and it would be best if you lived on in a ‘self-portrait’ (as it were)

I’m hazarding a bit with Q3, which is notoriously ambiguous. The general sense is clear enough: biological reproduction is superior to artistic reproduction (an idea Shakespeare will apparently abandon – just wait for Wednesday and Sonnet 18). I take it that ‘repair’ should recall us to the image we’ve had before of the young man ageing and falling into ruin like a house, and the required maintenance of this house being done via procreation; added to this is the idea that poetry is an inadequate way of reproducing someone, which could use correction from life.

This is an oddity that we’ll have cause to return to, but the conflation of poetry and painting in this poem strikes me. Shakespeare decries his verse as a ‘painted counterfeit’, and despairs that it can make the young man live in neither ‘inward worth nor outward fair’. The poet as painter calls to mind Wallace Stevens’s ‘A Study of Two Pairs’. I hesitate to reproduce the whole poem here (copyright), and I can’t find an adequate link, but this gives you a flavour (really, look the whole thing up):

They are yellow forms
Composed of curves
Bulging toward the base.
They are touched red.

In six brief sketches, Stevens tries to give a clear, precise description of exactly what one sees when studying two pairs (ending ‘The pears are not seen / As the observer wills’ – it’s very good). But at no point does Shakespeare attempt the same: he describes the young man’s appearance in only the most general terms, and cheerfully denounces all comparisons (here I am, foreshadowing Sonnet 18 again…). I don’t find this particularly surprising: the nature of the medium is that poetry struggles to vividly describe the precise thisness of an object: even Stevens’s marvellous attempt only serves to highlight the problem; but Shakespeare doesn’t even try.

Yet Shakespeare doesn’t really try to do the other, either – which is to say, give us an accurate sense of his beloved’s character or ‘inward worth’. He doesn’t seem to quote or paraphrase him at all, gives us no examples of his conduct or his judgement; what he does record, over and over again, is how he feels about the young man – and the result is that the one immortalised by the verse about immortalising the young man is Shakespeare! A lyric poem – as opposed to, say, a narrative poem – does naturally tend to emphasise the poet/speaker over his/her subject, but there are degrees of this, and I for one think that Will’s refusal to say anything specific about his beloved at all puts his sonnets very much in the self-focussed camp. Which is interesting, because Shakespeare’s plays are notorious for telling us pretty well nothing about who he was: there is so little self in them. Evidently it’s all in the sonnets instead – except they, too, by pretending to be about someone else, end up giving away so little.


Sonnet 17

Good morning, Sonneteers!

Today, the last of the Procreation Sonnets:

Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were fill’d with your most high deserts?
Though yet, heaven knows, it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life and shows not half your parts.
If I could write the beauty of your eyes
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say “This poet lies;
Such heavenly touches ne’er touch’d earthly faces.”
So should my papers, yellowed with their age,
Be scorn’d like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be term’d a poet’s rage
And stretched metre of an antique song:
     But were some child of yours alive that time,
     You should live twice, in it and in my rhyme.

Shakespeare almost seems to be responding to my worries from yesterday. I’d said that it struck me as odd that he makes no real effort to describe precisely what he’s praising in the young man; now, he says that the reason for that is that nobody would believe him if he came out and said just how beautiful his beloved is.

The structure:

Q1: Nobody would believe me if I showed how great you are. My verse is at best a tomb that will point to your qualities without showing them

Q2: If I could set your eyes accurately in verse, I’d be accused of lying

Q3: Like an old man telling tall tales, my writings would be scoffed at by those that come after if I depicted you truly

C: But if you had a child, people would be able to see how great you were, and it would make my poems believable

He’s evidently still musing on Sonnet 15, where he introduced the idea that his own verse could immortalise the young man. As we saw, in Sonnet 16 he partly walked that idea back, and now he presents it as complementary: unless the young man reproduces, nobody will believe his verse. But a living descendant would be such good supporting evidence!

There’s something quite elegiac about the tone of this one. It’s there explicitly in the reference to a tomb, but the whole thing is a poem about how the poem will be read in the future when both author and subject are long dead. There’s something uncanny about a poem that is written about precisely the circumstances in which one is reading it, so far removed from the author; and yet he’s quite right: I don’t believe him! Not that I don’t believe he is besotted – he needn’t worry about that, it’s obvious – it’s that, if anything, all of the praise (or, better: flattery) so far has made the young man seem rather vain and unattractive. But perhaps I’m too judgemental.

There are some good lines in here. I quite like ‘If I could write the beauty of your eyes / And in fresh numbers number all your graces’ as a nice piece of Shakespearean wordplay, where ‘numbers’ first means poetry (by way of the counting of metrical feet and other technical parts of verse), and then means a list. And ‘of less truth than tongue’ is a lovely way of saying that someone is bullshitting.

More tomorrow: procreation no more!


Sonnet 18

Sonneteers: good morning, happy Wednesday, and do I have a treat for you.

Today we have the first of the non-Procreation Sonnets. Sonnets 1-17 form a little prelude to the main sequence in the Sonnets, which runs from 18 to 126. I like to think of that prelude as cryptically telling the tale of how Shakespeare and his beloved young man met; now we get into a sequence of 108 sonnets that tell the tempestuous tale of their relationship. The first, Sonnet 18, you’ll recognise as one of the most famous sonnets of all time:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
     So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
     So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

This is strong stuff: a poem directly addressing the inadequacy of poetry, which so often relies on simile and metaphor in order to make its point, and yet it still strikes a triumphant note about how a poem can immortalise its subject. The structure:

Q1: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Summer is nice, but you’re better

Q2: Summer’s pretty fleeting, too

Q3: You’re not going to be fleeting, though…

C: …because you’ll live forever in this poem, which everyone will read forever

The maddening thing about this is that it’s so hubristic, yet he’s not wrong. It’s now more than 400 years later, and we’re still reading it. (On this occasion we’ll tactfully overlook the fact that we know nothing for sure about the young man it ‘gives life’ to.)

My favourite is line 3, ‘Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May’. I’m not sure I can tell you exactly what it is that appeals to me: I think it’s partly the way so much is compressed into so specific an image; and it’s partly the use of ‘darling’ to modify ‘buds’, which makes me smile; and it’s partly the syntax and the way it implies, ‘Well they do, you know’.

There’s something odd about line 12, ‘When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st’, and I think it’s the use of ‘grow’. Shakespeare has been preoccupied with things that are subject to time, which are nice at the time but then subject to decay. He’s saying that the young man, as immortalised by the Sonnets, will no longer be subject to decay in this way. But by also saying that he will grow in these lines, he seems to be creating an implicit contrast with Sonnet 17, in which he worried that his verse was going to be a ‘tomb’, recalling the young man but not being him. In this sonnet, the young man ‘grows’ in these ‘eternal lines to time’ which ‘give life’. What’s changed?

I think Shakespeare has continued thinking through the thing that’s been bothering him since Sonnet 15. He doesn’t want to compose an elegy to the young man, or construct a tomb with words: that’s not sufficient to his desires. Recall that in earlier sonnets Shakespeare has introduced the idea that someone is not truly dead so long as they are remembered. The child, the portrait, the tomb: all of these things serve to recall someone, and therefore to keep them alive in memory. That’s not nothing, but it’s like he’s decided that’s not enough. I think that what’s happened now (what he’s been building to over the last few sonnets) is that he’s hit on a new ambition: he doesn’t want the life-in-death of a memorial; he wants to give the young man more life, so that he’ll never age or die, yet he won’t be frozen: he’ll remain dynamic and alive. Hence ‘grow’. How to do that? Turn him into a dramatic character, so that he will live on in the consciousness of every reader. Hamlet will outlive us all. Can’t the young man?


Sonnet 19

Good morning, Shakespeareans.

Today, Shakespeare holds up his hand up against time:

Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-liv’d phœnix in her blood;
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleets,
And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets;
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:
O, carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.
     Yet do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,
     My love shall in my verse ever live young.

Shakespeare invites Time to do his worst: not just ageing lions and tigers, but rendering them toothless and clawless; encouraging mother earth to devour her own children; even boiling a phoenix to death. He then forbids Time to age his young man; then, apparently abandoning the hope that he might persuade Time to leave his beloved alone, he declares himself triumphant in any case.

Q1: Time, de-claw lions’ paws and de-tooth tigers’ jaws, burn the phoenix

Q2: Do thy worst, but I forbid you one thing:

Q3: Don’t you dare age my young man – he’s beauty’s pattern

C: Yet do thy worst, for he will live forever young in my verse

I’m informed by the notes in my Arden edition of the Sonnets that the idea of the earth devouring her children was a commonplace, but I can’t help but wonder if Shakespeare’s going a bit further here. All of the other injunctions (de-claw the lion, de-tooth the tiger, kill the phoenix) go against nature, and simply repeating a commonplace about mother earth doesn’t seem enough to justify inclusion on the list. It strikes me: in Greek mythology, Saturn – which is to say, Cronus, or Time – is the one who devours his children. Here’s Goya’s exceptionally distressing rendering:

Gaia (earth, the mother of all life) is the mother of Saturn (time): is Shakespeare here inviting Time to make his own mother repeat his most gruesome act? Just a thought.

On a different note, what is the significance of ‘him in thy course untainted do allow / for beauty’s pattern to succeeding men’ (lines 11-12)? I had worried at first that we had here another procreation sonnet, snuck in after the close of that sequence; perhaps not technically a procreation sonnet, in that its addressee is Time rather than the young man, but too close for comfort in any case. But those lines are quite cryptic, and one wonders whether procreation is intended at all – it reads a bit stronger than that. ‘Beauty’s pattern’ could be his good genetics and beautiful form, but ‘succeeding men’ seems a rather indifferent way of referring to someone’s offspring. I wonder whether what Shakespeare is suggesting is that his beloved young man is in fact the very form of Beauty itself; if so, he’s blasphemously combining the idea of a Platonic form with the incarnation. As God became a man in Christ, so the eternal form of Beauty has taken on a temporal life, and will now age and die; if Beauty itself dies, there will be no future of beauty for succeeding men – rather the opposite of good news – except that Shakespeare intends to rescue him off the temporal plane and into the eternal life of verse.

He’s bold, right?


Sonnet 20

Good morning, Sonneteers: happy Friday!

Today, Sonnet 20:

A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
     But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,
     Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.

Ah ha: fun. This isn’t a favourite of mine poetically, but there are a few things going on in here that grab my attention. The structure:

Q1-2: Young man, you’re like a lady only better

Q3: Nature meant to make you as a lady, but fell in love with you and so turned you into a man to suit her own purposes, which is frustrating for me

C: Still, we can make do: marry a woman, but love me the best

Like a few sonnets we’ve seen already, this one has an Italian structure: the first eight lines make an octave listing all the ways the young man is better than a woman; the last six lines form a sestet musing (I think bemusedly) on the nature of their relationship. There is some solid misogyny in here (it gets worse before the end, never fear), and there is no getting around it. Harold Bloom says that he thinks Shakespeare has a much higher opinion of women than he does of men; but even if that’s true in general it’s not true of this poem.

The mood of this sonnet is somewhere between laughter and tears. Shakespeare is frustrated with women for not being the young man, and frustrated with Nature for not making the young man a woman. There’s bitterness, but an undersong of comedy: he’s trying to make a point about his desire for the young man, and the social impossibility of acting it out; and he deals with this frustration by telling an amusing creation myth.

The myth runs something like this. Nature first created the young man as a woman, but fell in love with her own creation. Apparently not being able to cope with the idea of loving a woman (evidently, even Nature had internalised the sexual mores of the time), Nature decides to add a penis (‘adding one thing’, l. 12); cruelly, for Shakespeare, she thereby turned what would have been the ideal love-object for him (a woman with the qualities of the young man) into someone he can’t have. In the couplet he tries to salvage the situation by severing love from desire/pleasure, and granting the pleasure of the young man to women, and trying to claim the love for himself. It is both sad and heroic. The comedy is in the outrageousness of the myth he tells, having Nature lusting after hew own creation; and in the pains he takes in the octave to pre-emptively defuse the offence the young man would presumably take at being told he’s actually, in essence, a woman.

On a biographical note, this sonnet is often cited as evidence that Southampton was the young man in question. Back in the first week, commenting on Sonnet 3, I noted Southampton’s fair appearance. Here’s another portrait of him, which for a long time was assumed to be a portrait of a woman (if I’m not mistaken, the woman in question was his great-granddaughter) – only in the last 20 years has it been reidentified as him.

Have a lovely weekend, and you’ll hear from me again next week.