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

Sonnet 21

Good morning, Sonneteers, and welcome back.

Thanks for all your correspondence. Between one thing and another I haven’t had time to reply to all of it (nor to put together a little digest, which I would still like to do), but rest assured I read it with pleasure so please do keep it coming.

Today, Shakespeare considers his rival poets, the nature of the muse, and the purpose of poetic comparison:

So is it not with me as with that Muse
Stirr’d by a painted beauty to his verse,
Who heaven itself for ornament doth use
And every fair with his fair doth rehearse,
Making a couplement of proud compare,
With sun and moon, with earth and sea’s rich gems,
With April’s first-born flowers, and all things rare
That heaven’s air in this huge rondure hems.
O, let me, true in love, but truly write,
And then believe me, my love is as fair
As any mother’s child, though not so bright
As those gold candles fix’d in heaven’s air:
     Let them say more that like of hearsay well;
     I will not praise that purpose not to sell.

In Sonnet 18 Shakespeare had already started slyly undermining the idea of poetic comparison, stating quite baldly that comparing his love to a summer’s day would not do justice to just how lovely his love is. This time, he goes further, and suggests that there may be something morally suspect in the motivation of those poets who overreach in their comparisons. It’s the first time we’ve heard explicit mention of rival poets, and this is a theme that will be developed later on.

Let’s look at the structure:

Q1-2: I’m not like those other poets (for ‘Muse’ read ‘poet inspired by the Muse’) who get over-excited by some false beauty, and wind up making stupid and excessive comparisons.

Q3: For my part, I’ll say that my love is perfectly nice, but not as bright as the stars.

C: People who say more than that are liars who have some ulterior motive.

The way Shakespeare structures the argument of the poem we’ve seen a few times. He uses the octave (lines 1-8) as a single unit, forming it out of one long sentence and making one point. In Q3 he reacts to the octave, and the couplet both summarises and develops the body of the sonnet. The couplets don’t always do much for me – this is probably a hangover from the Procreation sequence, where they were so often just an injunction to procreate – but this one I like: ‘Let them say more that like of hearsay well’ is a strong line, and a bold attack on his rivals; ‘I will not praise that purpose not to sell’ is superbly epigrammatic.

Evidently he has someone in mind here that is not himself. He’s attacking rival poets who compose verse that (in his view) pathetically overdoes it; but he’s also attacking the men and women they’re writing about, implying that they’re not true beauties but rather only pretty because they spend so much time preening themselves and wearing cosmetics (‘painted beauties’). The attack has two prongs: first, poetry – in order to be truthful – must stick close to its subject, praising them through comparisons that makes sense of them, rather than in a way that swallows them up (like the vastness of the heavens). Second, he poses the question: what is it that inspires people to write bad poetry that fails in this way? It can’t be a desire for truth, which (he suggests) should stick to concrete comparisons. He implies that it must be linked to the inadequacies of the subject of the poem: a poem that assessed them honestly would hardly be praise, and so in order to praise them the poets wind up over-selling them.

Does Shakespeare himself fall foul of his own critique? I’m honestly not sure. Here he’s amusingly modest, claiming that his love is as fair as any mother’s child, which is nicely ambiguous: on the one hand, that means as fair as any old chap; on the other, the child is the most beautiful thing in the world to the mother. Either way it’s a far cry from Sonnet 18. Yet even there he manages to be nicely concrete: his beloved doesn’t just have a series of comparisons thrown at him, which are supposed to be flattering but aren’t worked through (as would be the case if, for example, Sonnet 18 simply said he was like a summer’s day); rather, Shakespeare makes a point of specifying the nature of the comparison: you aren’t superior than a summer’s day in some undifferentiated way; rather you are ‘more lovely and more temperate’ (and he goes on to spend 5 lines undermining the otherwise simple comparison ‘you are like a summer’s day’).

Perhaps this is why Shakespeare is so keen on the conceit of undermining comparison. We had it in Sonnet 17 (‘Who will believe my verse in time to come, / If it were fill’d with your most high deserts?’), we had it in 18, we’ll have it used to comic effect in 130 (‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’) – and these are just the ones that come straight to mind. So, we may say (and I do wonder if I’m being a bit too charitable here), he doesn’t fall foul of the critique because the point is not that a poet should avoid bold comparisons, but rather that a poet should not just throw comparisons blindly; they should be fitting to the subject, and their precise relation to the subject worked out; and the subject should be deserving of them (else it’s just false praise).

But I’m open to alternative suggestions: any thoughts?


Sonnet 22

Good morning, good morning, good morning.

Today, the intertwining of hearts with Sonnet 22:

My glass shall not persuade me I am old,
So long as youth and thou are of one date;
But when in thee time’s furrows I behold,
Then look I death my days should expiate.
For all that beauty that doth cover thee
Is but the seemly raiment of my heart,
Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me:
How can I then be elder than thou art?
O, therefore, love, be of thyself so wary
As I, not for myself, but for thee will,
Bearing thy heart, which I will keep so chary
As tender nurse her babe from faring ill.
     Presume not on thy heart when mine is slain;
     Thou gav’st me thine, not to give back again.

It’s the couplet that gives me particular pleasure here, but let’s look at the structure first:

Q1: So long as you’re young, I cannot be old; but when (one day) I see that you are old, I’ll know death is coming for me

Q2: I can’t be older than you, for just as your heart lives in me, mine lives in you

Q3: And since my heart lives in you, be careful with yourself, for my sake (as I will for yours)

C: When I die, watch out: your heart dies with me

On the surface, this is a rather lovely sonnet this, playing with the image of two lovers swapping hearts; and, by comically pretending to take the metaphor literally, it’s also gently funny. Q1 sets us up with a bit of a riddle: why is it impossible for someone to be old, if their lover is young? Answer: because their heart beats in a youthful breast! It’s the dark twist of the couplet that gets me: where one might expect a poem to offer some kind of consolation for the prospective death of the beloved, Shakespeare doubles down on his conceit: for his beloved to survive Shakespeare’s own death, Shakespeare would have to give him back his heart – which he has no intention of doing. It’s pleasingly impish.

There’s something moving, too, in its acknowledgement of a significant age gap between the young man and Shakespeare. It’s sometimes speculated that some of the emotional tone of the Sonnets, where an older man suffers the pains of love for a younger man who seems to be at least partly indifferent to him, is echoed in the relationship between Falstaff and Hal in the two parts of Henry the Fourth.  Falstaff loves Hal, and is something of a father figure to him – as well as being a rather bad influence. Hal, for his part, seems ambivalent about Falstaff – seeking him out, taking pleasure in his company, but also making sport of him, and delighting in acting sadistically towards him. Poor Falstaff suffers the anxiety of not being sure of the reciprocity of his love, and in the end is rejected terribly.

We’ll see that the Sonnets express many of these same anxieties as we go through; but it may just be that there’s a hint of fear of betrayal in the couplet of today’s sonnet. How, one might wonder, could Shakespeare’s heart be slain if it’s in the safe keeping of the young man? And why the aggressive imagery of slaying? Perhaps, if the young man is careless with it, or worse: slays it himself. If that’s the intended sense of l. 13, then l. 14 is saying: by betraying me you’ll only be hurting yourself; you’ll suffer the pangs of guilt and remorse before you know it, for your heart still beats in me; we traded hearts, and that commitment is not so light as you might think. If this is the sonnet’s motivating anxiety, one could look back up through the sonnet and ponder what its fixation on ageing really means: is Shakespeare worried that, because he is so much older, his young man will throw him aside for someone younger? He makes the same point twice, in Q1 and Q2: ‘I’m not really old! We’ve traded hearts – we’re the same age!’ What has provoked this anxiety? Is there already competition for the young man’s affections?

This second line of thought is highly speculative, but I think it is not in contradiction with my first, lighter reading. The surface play of the sonnet is humorous, but the more one thinks about that couplet the more one feels it needs explanation. It is not at all what one expects; it is a turn, and a somewhat violent one. I think what we have here are dark feelings animating a light poem.


Sonnet 23

Happy Wednesday, Sonneteers.

Today, we’ll look at what a difference a single letter makes.

As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put besides his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s right,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharged with burthen of mine own love’s might.
O, let my books be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast;
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more express’d.
     O, learn to read what silent love hath writ;
     To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

We open with a powerful image of the poor actor who hasn’t quite learned all his lines (‘unperfect’ means ‘not word-perfect’), who gets out on stage and finds that stage-fright makes him unable to perform his part. I think it’s l. 2, ‘who with his fear is put besides his part’, that really makes it. Being beside one’s part: what a perfect image of that feeling of being unable to do what one is supposed to, unable to do what everyone expects one to, of that feeling of self-consciousness in which one feels less like oneself and more like a spectator watching oneself. For mine, the best line of the sonnets so far.

Shakespeare pairs this image with another: the man who is so angry he doesn’t even have the energy to be outwardly angry anymore. It is excess of emotion as self-emptying, rage as enervating.

In Q2, Shakespeare applies this to his own situation: for fear of not being believed, he grows tongue-tied and unable to express his love; overcome with love, he feels his strength ebb.

Now, at Q3, comes the tricky bit, and the reason why I’ve abandoned my usual brief synopsis. In the version above, he says ‘let my books be then the eloquence / and dumb presagers of my speaking breast’. He’s then pleading that the young man read what he has written – perhaps these as-yet-unpublished sonnets, perhaps the longer poems he’d already published as books – and find there the statement of his love, which he is too tongue-tied and overwhelmed to say himself. (Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece were in fact dedicated to Southampton – just saying.) If the sonnets are meant, ‘to hear with the eyes’ is a stolidly literal metaphor for reading; if the longer poems are meant, then it’s a plea that love read between the lines, which is nicer.

But there’s an alternative reading. ‘Books’ is certainly what was printed in the first edition of the Sonnets in 1609 – but what if that’s a printer’s error? What if (as has been suggested by some textual critics) Shakespeare actually wrote ‘looks’? ‘O, let my looks be then the eloquence / and dumb presagers of my speaking breast’ – is that not better? He’s saying: ‘I might be tongue-tied with fear, and overcome with love, but just look at me! Read the room!’ Love makes us unable to say what we mean – isn’t it charming that Shakespeare of all people feels this too? – but it therefore teaches us to hear with the eyes: and does not the body language of someone in love speak so much louder than anything they can say?

So much hangs on that one word – on the one letter that distinguishes the two possibilities!


Sonnet 24

Good morning, Sonneteers, good morning.

Today we battle with bafflement: this is quite a cryptic one.

Mine eye hath play’d the painter and hath stell’d
Thy beauty’s form in table of my heart;
My body is the frame wherein ’tis held,
And perspective it is best painter’s art.
For through the painter must you see his skill,
To find where your true image pictur’d lies;
Which in my bosom’s shop is hanging still,
That hath his windows glazed with thine eyes.
Now see what good turns eyes for eyes have done:
Mine eyes have drawn thy shape, and thine for me
Are windows to my breast, where-through the sun
Delights to peep, to gaze therein on thee;
     Yet eyes this cunning want to grace their art,
     They draw but what they see, know not the heart.

I confess, I like it. There’s something so pleasingly elliptical in the way it doesn’t quite spell out what it means. And if I’m following the structure at all, it seems highly unconventional.

Lines 1-3 are clear enough: ‘My eyes have played the painter, and painted you upon my heart; my body is the frame of this painting.’ Good. But what on earth is line 4 supposed to mean? ‘And perspective it is best painter’s art’ – he says this with reference to what exactly? Just try reading Q1 aloud. I stumble on l. 4 just about every time, because my tongue can’t find the sense. Giving it a classic iambic stress-pattern (‘And perspective it is best painter’s art‘) just compounds the mystery. Let’s suppose ‘it’ is redundant, and read it as a poetic way of saying ‘perspective is the art of the best painters’ (‘poetic’ here is a nice way of saying ‘jumbled’) – what has that got to do with lines 1-3?

Don Paterson (in Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets)* makes a good suggestion: l.4 doesn’t have anything to do with Q1 at all: from the perspective of sense, it’s actually the first line of Q2, giving us a 3-line ‘quatrain’ followed by a 5-line ‘quatrain’. This is madness, structurally, but it does at least make sense: ‘Perspective is the best painter’s art (l. 3), and through the [best] painter you see their skill (l. 4)…’

(*I know, I know – I mentioned Don Paterson early on, but pandemic delivery times mean I’ve still received barely any stock of his book. More is on its way, but we’re still talking weeks or months. Thanks for your patience! It’s worth the wait!)

So far so good. Where does this leave the sense? Q2 then means something like: ‘The best painters employ perspective, and allow you to see yourself through them, which means to see a true picture of yourself; your true picture lies in my heart, and the windows into my heart are your eyes.’ This is a good turn: normally one refers to the eyes as the windows of the soul – but one person’s eyes are not normally the windows to someone else’s soul!

This is very suggestive, and he develops it further in Q3: ‘My eyes have drawn your shape, but yours give me a window to my heart.’ Then things get murky again: ‘The sun likes to shine through your eyes into my heart to see the image of you my eyes drew there.’ Eh?

By calling his beloved’s eyes the window to his own breast, Shakespeare develops an interesting idea he’s introduced in l. 4: that the truth of things is seen from a perspective. (If that is indeed what Shakespeare is saying, he’s anticipated the philosophy of Nietzsche by nearly 300 years; yet it is sometimes said that Shakespeare’s genius as a dramatist lies in his handling of perspective.) The young man’s true image can be seen only when rendered by a skilful painter (i.e. Shakespeare), employing a perspective (i.e. that of a lover); the young man’s eyes offer Shakespeare a perspective on himself, and a way to see into his own heart, and the love that dwells there for the young man.

Yet the couplet takes a dark turn. Shakespeare suggests his loving painting captures the true image of the young man, and the young man’s eyes allow him to truly see himself – but while he can capture the beauty and character of the young man (while he’s only really mentioned beauty, I think both character and form are suggested by the concept of a ‘true’ image), he cannot himself see into the young man’s heart. There’s a sad and lonely thought here, that the beloved can help us to know ourselves by giving us another perspective, but in the end they always remain ultimately unknown to us themselves.

That, at least, is the best sense I can make of this poem. All poetry worth reading will strike different readers in different ways; but this one is so elliptical that I don’t think different readers will necessarily even come close to each other in what they think the poem means. Having consulted a few commentaries, I can see I’m not alone in my bafflement; but I do seem in the minority in finding it quite powerful.


Sonnet 25

Sonneteers, we end the week with a poem of happy love.

To wit, Sonnet 25:

Let those who are in favour with their stars
Of public honour and proud titles boast,
Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars,
Unlook’d for joy in that I honour most.
Great princes’ favourites their fair leaves spread
But as the marigold at the sun’s eye,
And in themselves their pride lies buried,
For at a frown they in their glory die.
The painful warrior famoused for worth,
After a thousand victories once foil’d,
Is from the book of honour razed quite,
And all the rest forgot for which he toil’d:
     Then happy I, that love and am beloved
     Where I may not remove nor be removed.

After the turmoil of 24, this is elegant and clear. Let’s unpack it:

Q1: Those who are favoured by fortune or the high and mighty might boast of public triumphs, but I’m lucky in the thing that matters most to me

Q2: Those that are the favourites of princes flourish while they’re in favour, but wither and die as soon as that favour is removed

Q3: Everyone loves you while you’re successful, but screw up badly even once and they’ll turn

C: Meanwhile I, who doesn’t care for public esteem, am happy in the simple and most important pleasure of loving and being loved, which nobody can do anything to spoil

Each of those quatrains is structured around a ‘but’: Q1 contrasts the public esteem of the successful with the private esteem of being in love; Q2 highlights the fickleness of favour; Q3 notes that all success is only one failure away from being yesterday’s news.

I wonder whether the same might also be true of the couplet. Superficially it’s triumphant, and it certainly starts that way: ‘Then happy I, that love and am beloved’ – but do we read the next line as secure, or as a bit defensive? ‘I may not remove nor be removed’: who said anything about removing?

Whether or not there is a note of anxiety in there, the poem comes at the emotional high point of the sequence. I almost prefer to read it without the anxiety, as an expression of love triumphant – yet, however one reads it, it does overreach in the last line, and fall into hubris. Yes, contrast the emptiness of public esteem with the things that really matter; yes, highlight the fickleness of those with power, whose favour we might be tempted to curry; yes, remind us that some of the deepest things in life revolve around love and mutual recognition, the pleasure that someone we esteem esteems us in return. But why, in the face of all that is changeable in human life, in the face of brute experience, in the face of the fickle realities of youth – why, as an older man, as a man experienced in love, as the possessor of one of the sharpest minds we’ve ever produced – why make out that lovers are never jilted?

The answer may well be that Shakespeare is a master dramatist, and it always pays to remember that what we are reading is not his diary but a published sequence he probably had a hand in arranging. ‘I may not remove nor be removed’: is that not inviting fortune’s counter-blow? And, we’ll see before long, it falls.