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

Sonnet 26

Good morning, Shakespeareans; I hope you’ve had lovely weekends.

Today, Shakespeare takes a more courtly tack:

Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage
Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit,
To thee I send this written ambassage,
To witness duty, not to show my wit:
Duty so great, which wit so poor as mine
May make seem bare, in wanting words to show it,
But that I hope some good conceit of thine
In thy soul’s thought, all naked, will bestow it;
Till whatsoever star that guides my moving,
Points on me graciously with fair aspect,
And puts apparel on my tatter’d loving,
To show me worthy of thy sweet respect:
     Then may I dare to boast how I do love thee;
     Till then not show my head where thou mayst prove me.

He’s playing a bit, pretending to write a letter or a dedication. Let’s see if we can pull it apart:

Q1: Salutations – I’m sending this letter/sonnet not to show off but in fulfillment of the duty I owe you for being so great

Q2: My poor wit isn’t up to the task of adequately expressing what I ought to, but hopefully some leap of the imagination on your part will make this seem better than it is

Q3: Eventually, I hope, some lucky star will grace me with the capacity to truly express how I feel about you

C: In the meantime, I’ll avoid being put on the spot

We’ve returned to the theme of 23: the incapacity of Shakespeare’s words to express what is in his heart. This time he approaches it from a different angle: not decrying himself as an actor who has forgotten his words in fright, nor the man so angry he collapses in on himself; now he uses a formal conceit in order to state what he feels, without the demand of giving it a truly expressive form. A letter, such as a vassal might write to his lord, allows him to state facts, although the topic of the letter is less political and more romantic: ‘I think you’re great; I can’t find words to express just how great I think you are.’ After the opening ‘lord of my love’, which is not quite as outrageous as ‘master-mistress of my passion’, he manages to stay fairly formal right up to line 12, where ‘puts apparel on my tatter’d loving’ just breaks your heart. (The 1609 Quarto has ‘totter’d loving’, which is equally good in itself, but it doesn’t make sense of ‘apparel’.)

Q2 contains a wonderful image of mutual understanding. Shakespeare is making out that the love he feels for his young man is singularly impossible to express, and love can indeed by a singularly inarticulate emotion; but surely all serious thinking and feeling goes beyond our power to adequately put it into words, because it consists of too many strands all experienced in parallel, whereas language is a serial medium with rules of its own. A big idea or a big feeling is always poorly expressed from the perspective of the speaker. What saves it is the sympathetic ear of the right listener, sadly rare, who brings to what is said something of their own, allowing them to go beyond the inadequacy of the words themselves. And this is the understanding Shakespeare yearns for: ‘I hope some good conceit of thine / in thy soul’s thought, all naked, will bestow it.’

Lastly, Q3 recalls to me some lines of Pindar:

Creatures of a day! What is a man? What is he not?
A dream of a shadow is all that we are.
But when there comes to men
A gleam of splendour given by heaven,
Then rests on them a light of glory,
And blessed are their days.

Is that not a glorious expression of the extent to which we’re all fortune’s vassals?

More tomorrow.


Sonnet 27

Sonneteers, good morning.

It seems Shakespeare has had a sleepless night:

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travail tired;
But then begins a journey in my head
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:
For then my thoughts, from far where I abide,
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see;
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which like a jewel hung in ghastly night
Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new:
     Lo, thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
     For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.

For once this is refreshingly straightforward, but I’ll proceed with a little paraphrase anyway:

Q1: After a hard day, my body tired, I head to bed – but then my mind begins its journey

Q2: My thoughts begin a pilgrimage back to you, keeping me awake in the dark

Q3: And then the dark is not so dark, because the thought of you illuminates it

C: I find no rest, day or night – but nor, do I suspect, do you

This is a classic theme for love poetry, and the sonnet in particular. By way of contrast, let’s look at an example from Petrarch on a similar theme:

The golden car of the sun dips into the sea
and the blue sky darkens to grey and then
to black as does my mind, which faces again
a bitter night of anguish and misery.

I rehearse my griefs to one who does not pay
attention and I quarrel with my fate
and with an indifferent world I have come to hate,
and Love, and her, and myself whom I betray.

I have no hope of sleep or even of rest
but only lamentation that lasts until dawn
and tears welling up from my soul to pour from my eyes.

At daybreak, although the gloom of the sky is gone,
mine intensifies within my breast
as I wait for another sun that fails to rise.

(trans. David R. Slavitt)

(Enthusiasts for form will note that this is a properly Italian sonnet, with an octave (two quatrains rhyming ABBA CDDC) and a sestet (going slightly free-form with a rhyme EFG FEG).)

The context of this sonnet is quite a different sequence from Shakespeare’s. Petrarch’s sonnets tell the story of frustrated love from afar, with an idealised and unattainable love-object. Shakespeare’s sonnets also have an unattainable love-object – that’s true, at least, of addressed to or about the young man (1-126); as we’ll see, the Dark Lady sequence that closes the Sonnets is a rather different affair. But even the Young Man sonnets are rarely love from afar; rather, they speak to a remarkable – and daring – intimacy.

Sonnet 27 is love from afar, but it is the afar of the separated lover, not the distant admirer. Petrarch’s rest is disturbed by thoughts of a woman who was unattainable, and with whom he almost certainly had little or no contact; Shakespeare’s is disturbed by a longing to be in the company of a man with whom he clearly has a deepening relationship. Shakespeare is disturbed, but Petrarch is despairing.

The real kicker is the couplet, which is daring. The thrust of the poem is the restlessness of the lover longing for his beloved – but then in the couplet we get that ‘for thee’. You’re certainly not getting anything as forward as that from Petrarch. Is this slyly knowing? Or is it projection? Does Shakespeare know his feelings are reciprocated, or does he just wish that they are?

Whichever it is, at the heart of this poem is a powerful image of the lover, separated from the beloved, as blind, able only to see the faintly glowing, ghostly image of the beloved. The poem is ambivalent about whether the thought of the beloved is a comfort or a torment: on the one hand, its glow ‘makes black night beauteous’; on the other, the thoughts are clearly not comforting ones, causing agitation and restlessness. We’ll see tomorrow just how agitating Shakespeare finds them.


Sonnet 28

Good morning, Sonneteers – is it Wednesday already?

Shakespeare still is not sleeping well:

How can I then return in happy plight
That am debarred the benefit of rest?
When day’s oppression is not eased by night,
But day by night and night by day oppressed?
And each, though enemies to either’s reign,
Do in consent shake hands to torture me,
The one by toil, the other to complain
How far I toil, still farther off from thee.
I tell the day to please him, thou art bright,
And dost him grace, when clouds do blot the heaven;
So flatter I the swart-complexioned night,
When sparkling stars twire not thou gild’st the even;
     But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer,
     And night doth nightly make grief’s length seem stronger.

Poor fellow. He’s not having a good time. A little paraphrase:

Q1: How can I happily greet the day when I get no rest? Day wears me out, then night wears me out further!

Q2: Night and day are enemies to each other, always opposed, yet somehow they cooperate just fine when it comes to torturing poor old Will

Q3: I try to appease my torturers by telling them how great you are: that you grace the day when it is cloudy; that you make the evening lovely even on a starless night.

C: With each day my sorrows grow longer, and sleepless nights make my grief seem endless

There’s rage in those opening lines. The last sonnet was ambivalent about whether the nightly image of the beloved was a comfort or a distress (though it inclined to the latter); here the pent-up feeling bursts out. It is hard to live with an obsession like that, perhaps impossible to ‘live’ in any strong sense, perpetually absorbed in thoughts directed towards something or someone that is absent. We cannot live if we cannot attend to what is around us; and we cannot live if we are too bone-tired to want to engage with those things even if we could attend to them.

Yet after the rage of the opening, he slips into an ironic mode with his mythologising in Q2. The image of the great impersonal forces of day and night shaking hands and forming an alliance for the purpose of torturing him is glorious comic overstatement.

But it’s Q3 that gets me. You’d think, reading line 9 by itself, that he’s saying to the day ‘Thou art bright’, which is an odd thing to say to the day; but when we get to line 10 it becomes evident that isn’t what he means at all: he’s telling the day that the young man (i.e. the ‘thou’ the poem is addressed to) is bright, and this apparently by way of appeasing the day. The thought seems to be that like appeals to like – and the day, being bright, will instinctively approve of something akin itself. He’s on trickier ground with the night, calling it ‘swart-complexioned’, which (whatever Shakespeare’s own view, which we’ll get to with the Dark Lady sequence) was not a compliment to an Elizabethan; nonetheless, he tries to appease the night by telling it that the young man gilds* the evening even when the stars aren’t shining. Sounds more like an insult than an appeasement to my ear, something like ‘the young man prettifies the evening despite you slacking off’. In both cases it’s a mad gambit. Is he presenting us with a portrait of himself as a mad obsessive? It’s the monomania of the lover to suppose that everyone else is as interested in, and moved by, their beloved as they are.

(* Textual point: the 1609 Quarto has ‘guil’st’, which might mean ‘beguile’, or – in the emendation I’ve adopted – ‘gild’. I prefer ‘gild’ because it makes sense of how the young man might substitute for the stars – by glowing like gold – but ‘beguile’ in the sense of ‘charm’ could perhaps do it. Some read it as ‘beguile’ in the sense of ‘deceive’, but I can’t make sense of how Shakespeare thinks he’s appeasing the night by telling it that a charming young man deceives it. But then again I don’t get how Shakespeare thinks he’s charming the night with this strategy anyway.)

And then the couplet. ‘Day doth daily’ and ‘night doth nightly’ risk being a bit too cute, but I still find them effective as ways of expressing the perpetual character of what he’s experiencing. Some emend ‘length seem stronger’ in the final line to ‘strength seem stronger’, as more idiomatic, but I confess I quite like the odd conflation of strength and length; Don Paterson pictures in it Shakespeare stretched out on his bed in the grip of the full strength of his grief. I hear in it the late-night terrors in which some ongoing thing feels not only like it will never end but that even another moment of it will be unendurable; the urgency of it has receded by morning, but it has left one so drained that one cannot face the day.

Shakespeare’s feeling the strain, and we’ll get another take on it tomorrow.


Sonnet 29

Sonneteers, good morning!

After a few restless nights, Shakespeare is once again finding comfort rather than torment in his love:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
     For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
     That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

(Before we proceed to anything else, let’s just pause to note what I suspect is a cheeky re-writing of this sonnet, Andrew Mitchell’s ‘Celia, Celia’:

When I am sad and weary
When I think all hope has gone
When I walk along High Holborn
I think of you with nothing on

I think what I like best is the way it combines something of the sentiment of Shakespeare’s poem with the tone of ‘To His Coy Mistress’ by that other Andrew, Marvell. If one were feeling Freudian one might like to say that he de-sublimates Sonnet 29, dropping the spiritual mystification and laying bare the base drive motivating it. If one were feeling Freudian, that is.)

Whatever separation was causing Shakespeare distress over the last two sonnets has apparently passed, but now he’s finding other things to worry about it. One is reminded of Montaigne’s quip that, whatever worries one has, one will inflate them and fan them until they overwhelm one, even if they might (viewed objectively) be comparatively minor. Shakespeare, no longer fretting about his love, is now fretting about some other thing, but at least his love is now a comfort.

The first two quatrains set out a fairly bleak picture of self-dissatisfaction, of feeling outcast, poor, ignored, alone, hopeless, ugly, talentless, and so generally unhappy that one is unable to take satisfaction in anything. Then we have a turn at Q3, when suddenly things start to look up: who cares about these worldly things, when one is loved by one’s beloved?

This sonnet, then, is a companion to 25. In 25, apparently feeling upbeat, Shakespeare suggested that worldly goods were as nothing against the importance of mutual love; but that’s easy when you’re feeling fine. Now, in 29, feeling impressively down on himself, Shakespeare puts it to the test and apparently succeeds: the emotional tone of the poem plumbs the depths of despair over the first 9 lines, but turns triumphantly towards the heights in the last 5, ending with the ringing ‘I scorn to change my state with kings’.

Line 13 is also interesting, and its interest lies in its use of memory. Shakespeare doesn’t say, ‘I’m feeling miserable but then I see you and you make me feel better’; he says that recalling the love of his friend/beloved cheers him up. It speaks to the way those we love become part of ourselves, such that they exercise their innervating effects on us in a way that is partly independent of their actual presence. They live in us, as we live in them.

We’ll hear more of this tomorrow.


Sonnet 30

Sonneteers, it is the end of another week, and Shakespeare is in a reflective mood:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
     But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
     All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

A good one, this. Alone, pensive, more past than present, Shakespeare summons memories of friends dead, loves ended, pleasures lost, grievances forgotten and old pains, and he weeps for them. It’s a profound account of the extent to which the past is only past when it is forgotten, and consequently the extent to which we’re historical beings immersed in our own history.

It tells a kind of narrative:

Q1: Sometimes, thinking, I summon old memories, and long for things I now lack that I expended so much time and energy to acquire, and suffer again for old sufferings

Q2: I begin to weep. I think of friends dead, and lovers gone, and pleasant things now past

Q3: I grieve past grievances again, suffering past hurts all over again

C: But then I think of you, dear friend, and find solace

The young man is, at least, still a solace to Shakespeare, after that rocky patch earlier in the week. That couplet is controversial, and a lot of people find it a bit tacked on. Lines 1-12 do make for a powerful poem of remembrance and loss, and their pathos is somewhat undermined by the couplet, which seems so suddenly upbeat.

On the other hand, one might read him as making a point that is more often associated with Nietzsche. In Nietzsche’s view, it is not sufficient for present happiness to be founded on amnesia, in which our absorption in the present distracts us or leads us to forget the pain of our past. The real challenge, he says, is to be able to affirm the present in such a way that one can say: this is worth all of that; given the opportunity, I’d live it all over again so that I could arrive at this point. So, in this sonnet, perhaps Shakespeare is saying: it has been a hard road, with plenty worth weeping over; but if it has led me to you, then all losses are restored. If so, it’s a powerful expression of just how strongly he feels about the young man.

In the last sonnet, I noted that it was the memory of the young man, and not his presence, that was a balm to Shakespeare, and commented that this spoke to the way those we love live partly within us. This sonnet is about the dark side of that relationship, for when our link is broken with those we love – by death, or by prolonged separation – the inevitable consequence is grief, for that part of our loves that lives within us always points to them, and if they are inaccessible to us that remembrance can be painful.

On the other hand, a note about the narrative sequence of the sonnets. If one read this sonnet by itself – and, given its fame, I imagine this is the most frequent way people come across it – the identity of the ‘dear friend’ is unclear. I have supposed that it is the young man, but that is the force of narrative. There is actually nothing preventing the supposition that the dear friend is in fact one of the ‘precious friends hid in death’s dateless night’, changing the dynamic of the poem entirely: rather than finding only grief in the loss of a loved one, it would be about finding solace in their memory.

Have lovely weekends, and you’ll hear from me again on Monday.