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

Sonnet 46

Welcome back, Sonneteers, and good morning.

Shakespeare’s eye and his heart seem to be giving him trouble:

Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war,
How to divide the conquest of thy sight;
Mine eye my heart thy picture’s sight would bar,
My heart mine eye the freedom of that right.
My heart doth plead that thou in him dost lie,
A closet never pierc’d with crystal eyes,
But the defendant doth that plea deny,
And says in him thy fair appearance lies.
To ’cide this title is impanneled
A quest of thoughts, all tenants to the heart;
And by their verdict is determined
The clear eye’s moiety and the dear heart’s part:
     As thus; mine eye’s due is thy outward part,
     And my heart’s right thy inward love of heart.

This and the next sonnet explore the relation between eye and heart in love (picking up on a theme from 24). In this one, the conflict is set out; in the next, the truce arrived at at the end of this one is explored. The structure:

Q1 You are possessed by both my eye and my heart, and they are fighting over how to split the spoils; each desires total possession and the exclusion of the other

Q2 My heart prosecutes his case, insisting that your essence lies in him, and that the eye never penetrates to the heart; my eye, the defendant, denies this, and points to your outward fairness as the essence of your loveliness

Q3 To decide this, a jury is brought together, all of them residents of the heart

C And they assign your outward part as the due of my eye, and your love the domain of my heart

This conflict between eye and heart risks being baffling (Don Paterson professes himself unmoved by it), but the more I think on it the more I like it. There are two interesting ways one might take it.

First, in terms of a battle between the different faculties, concerning where the truth of things lies, in matters of love especially. The eye might like to say to the heart: you only like him because he is pretty; all of your fulminations about ‘true love’ are really just a matter of getting confused about what has excited you, and that is his beauty. The heart might say: the eye wanders, but true love remains; what is most important about the beloved is not something ever given to the eye, or to any other sense: it is given to the heart. Which is right? (I’ve contemporised it a little, but this essentially the old Platonic battle between appearance and reality.)

Alternatively, one might take it as a conflict between lust and love: for lust is an affair of the eye, and it thrives on distance and mystery, which feed desire; affairs of the heart, on the other hand, lead one to want to get to know the beloved better, and to grow closer to them. One need only listen, for example, to a discussion with sex therapist Esther Perel to see: love can be a genuine threat to lust, and lust to love. No wonder they are at war.

Hearteningly, Shakespeare sees the two as reconcilable, though he gives us little to go on here. We’ll discuss this bit in more detail tomorrow.


Sonnet 47

Good morning, good morning.

Picking up from where we left off yesterday: the heart and the eye have ceased their squabbling, and now work in concert.

Betwixt mine eye and heart a league is took,
And each doth good turns now unto the other:
When that mine eye is famish’d for a look,
Or heart in love with sighs himself doth smother,
With my love’s picture then my eye doth feast
And to the painted banquet bids my heart;
Another time mine eye is my heart’s guest
And in his thoughts of love doth share a part:
So, either by thy picture or my love,
Thyself away art present still with me;
For thou not farther than my thoughts canst move,
And I am still with them and they with thee;
     Or, if they sleep, thy picture in my sight
     Awakes my heart to heart’s and eye’s delight.

Where Sonnet 46 explored the ways in which the eye and the heart might come into conflict, 47 looks at the ways they can reinforce each other. The structure:

Q1 Whenever my eye wishes for a look at you, or my heart yearns for you, each helps the other out

Q2 You being absent, my eye recalls your image and comforts my heart; or my heart comforts my eye with feelings of love and tenderness

Q3 Between the two of them, you are always present with me even when you’re gone; for you cannot go further away than my thoughts can reach

C But sometimes, when both eye and heart are asleep, I happen to see a picture of you, and both my eye and heart are delighted

I wonder whether it is best here to take ‘eye’ in a slightly different sense to the last sonnet. In 46, the eye stood for outward appearance and lust; the heart stood for inward feeling and love. Now, heart is still the domain of inward feeling, but the eye seems to refer to what we call ‘the mind’s eye’: it is the memory of the image of the beloved that is doing the comforting. So while this sonnet is a companion to the one preceding it, it also develops their shared symbols in an interesting way: while Shakespeare, in the young man’s company, can feel riven by the competing demands of his love and his lust, when the young man is absent a reminder of either brings pleasant memories of both. When his heart yearns for the feeling the young man arouses in him, recalling his appearance restores it; similarly, when he is unable to call the young man’s face to mind, he dwells on his love for him and it returns. If this is right, then what Shakespeare presents us with in this pair  of sonnets is an analysis of the way the very same psychological forces that can cause us anguish when our beloved is present can also bring us comfort when they are absent.

Reading the eye in this poem as standing for the mind’s eye also makes sense of what is otherwise a confusing turn in the couplet, in which sight is said to awaken the sleeping eye. But if the eye is the mind’s eye, and its sleep is its inability to recall the young man’s image, then seeing a real, actual portrait would do the trick. And, if recalling the young man’s image is enough to rouse those sleeping feelings, then it will wake the heart too.

Now, if a literal portrait is indeed meant in the couplet, then (as Don Paterson notes in Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets) that would count as evidence in favour of the theory that the Sonnets were written about a man of high station – what pleb was going to have a portrait painted of himself? So perhaps this is a good moment to introduce the other leading contender for the title of Young Man Addressed by the Sonnets: William Herbert, Third Earl of Pembroke. (We have already discussed his chief rival, Southampton.)

Pembroke’s claim has a number of keen supporters, including Katherine Duncan-Jones (editor of the Arden Sonnets). Where Southampton had been the dedicatee of Shakespeare’s longer poems of the early/mid-1590s, Pembroke and his brother were the dedicatees of the First Folio (1623). Born in 1580, he was 16 years Shakespeare’s junior (so ‘lovely boy’, as Shakespeare refers to the young man, would fit), 7 years younger than Southampton, and only 29 when the Sonnets were published (to Southampton’s 36). One elegant surmise has Shakespeare beginning work on the Sonnets in the late 1590s, at the request of Pembroke’s mother, producing the first 17 (the procreation sequence, you recall) in honour of Pembroke’s 17th birthday (Pembroke, apparently, was notoriously wary of marriage, having by that age already dodged at least one attempt to marry him off, and going on to slip that noose several times more). His mother Mary was the sister of Sir Philip Sidney – famous, among other things, for his sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella, to which Shakespeare makes frequent allusion. There is also a pleasingly mercenary theory about the date of publication of the Sonnets: 1609 was a time of plague, and the theatres had been shut down (feels familiar); Shakespeare, in need of cash, published a sequence of sonnets he had once written for Pembroke, and dedicated it to him, Pembroke being a famously generous patron of the arts.

It’s all surmise, of course, and there’s little-to-no hard evidence to be had. Yet the detective work is so intriguing.


Sonnet 48

Sonneteers, good morning.

Another poem of absence today, and (superficially, at least) it’s more absence-of-distance than emotional unavailability:

How careful was I, when I took my way,
Each trifle under truest bars to thrust,
That to my use it might unused stay
From hands of falsehood, in sure wards of trust!
But thou, to whom my jewels trifles are,
Most worthy comfort, now my greatest grief,
Thou, best of dearest and mine only care,
Art left the prey of every vulgar thief.
Thee have I not lock’d up in any chest,
Save where thou art not, though I feel thou art,
Within the gentle closure of my breast,
From whence at pleasure thou mayst come and part;
     And even thence thou wilt be stol’n, I fear,
     For truth proves thievish for a prize so dear.

On the surface it’s a pleasant little exercise in contrast, this, setting the extraordinary care we take to guard our worldly possessions (which are but trifles) against our incapacity to protect what matters most to us in the same way. The structure is pretty clean, but Q3 just breaks your heart:

Q1 Whenever I go travelling I make sure to lock up anything I have of value, even thought its value is slight

Q2 But you’re so much more important, yet I can’t protect you against theft in the same way; you can be such a comfort, but right now this makes you my chief sorrow

Q3 For I haven’t locked you in a chest, except my own chest/breast/heart, where you aren’t really, although I feel you there; and you’re hardly locked away, but free to come and go as you please

C And I fear you’ll be stolen from my heart, for you’re so desirable that even honest and good (‘true’) people would turn thief for you

See what I mean? Line 10, ‘where thou art not, though I feel thou art’, is so sad, and it speaks to a universal pain, which is the pain of being a separate being to the beloved, while they also constitute part of one. I have previously spoken about Shakespeare’s repeated turn to this theme; but this particular sonnet, for some reason, has recalled a wonderful, short, early, and rarely anthologised poem by W H Auden, ‘Alone’:

Each lover has some theory of his own
About the difference between the ache
Of being with his love, and being alone:

Why what, when dreaming, is dear flesh and bone
That really stirs the senses, when awake,
Appears a simulacrum of his own.

Narcissus disbelieves in the unknown;
He cannot join his image in the lake
So long as he assumes he is alone.

The child, the waterfall, the fire, the stone,
Are always up to mischief, though, and take
The universe for granted as their own.

The elderly, like Proust, are always prone
To think of love as a subjective fake;
The more they love, the more they feel alone.

Whatever view they hold, it must be shown
Why every lover has a wish to make
Some other kind of otherness his own:
Perhaps, in fact, we never are alone.

It raises a question: what is the ache Shakespeare feels when he is with his love? Asking that makes us realise that we don’t really know; Shakespeare rarely writes about it, and never directly; rather, the Sonnets seem for the most part to be composed in states of turmoil and separation. So far as he has hinted at it, the impression he gives is that the particular ache he feels when he’s with his beloved is the ache of being mute: what he feels outstrips his powers of articulacy. (See, for example, 23.)

Another question: what is the ache Shakespeare feels when he’s alone? That’s easier to answer: it’s a yearning, and a sense that true life is elsewhere. (For example, 43-45.)

Does he have a theory for the difference between the two? We might be able to construct a bit of one on his behalf. Love, for Shakespeare, runs beyond the power of any words to contain or express it; felt directly, it makes one mute or ham-tongued. Separation, on the other hand, is a keenly articulate emotion, and a state in which the mind is dominated by images and memories of the beloved. Both are highly anxious states: the former, anxious it will not be seen or appreciated for what it is; the latter, anxious that its hopes and claims will be dashed. Looking at today’s sonnet, we might also say: being with one’s love contains them, and – perhaps – keeps them safe from theft; being apart, they cannot be locked up like objects, though Shakespeare might wish it were otherwise – one’s love has a will of his/her own, and it will not be contained.

This fear of love straying will be played out more directly tomorrow.


Sonnet 49

Good morning, Sonneteers, good morning.

Well, I say ‘good morning’, but it does not appear to be so for Shakespeare. He’s really taken a dark turn:

Against that time, if ever that time come,
When I shall see thee frown on my defects,
When as thy love hath cast his utmost sum,
Call’d to that audit by advis’d respects;
Against that time when thou shalt strangely pass,
And scarcely greet me with that sun, thine eye,
When love, converted from the thing it was,
Shall reasons find of settled gravity;
Against that time do I ensconce me here
Within the knowledge of mine own desert,
And this my hand against myself uprear,
To guard the lawful reasons on thy part:
     To leave poor me thou hast the strength of laws,
     Since why to love I can allege no cause.

That repetition of ‘against that time’ really is a grim knocking, and the doubts consequent on his anxiety are causing him to question everything. The structure:

Q1 If ever you come to frown on my defects, or perform an accounting and realise my bad qualities outnumber my good…

Q2 If ever you come to pass by me as a stranger, and no longer meet my eye – when love is pulled from its flight to the ground…

Q3 Well then, against that time I brace myself with the knowledge that actually you’d be quite right to do so, and in fact I hear testify against myself:

C You’d be well within your rights to reject me, and I can give no reason why you should love me in the first place

It’s a strong poem, and it is grim, grim, grim. Poor guy. He feels so deficient relative to his beloved that he cannot make any sense of why the young man would take any interest in him. In a way it’s a companion to 41’s suggestion that it’s only fitting that the young man should attract a variety of lovers; but the polygamous sentiment there has given way to fear of rejection. Shakespeare has taken the step from ‘I get that I can’t completely satisfy you’ to ‘I don’t get why you would find any satisfaction in me at all’.

The masochism is mostly piled into the sestet. The turn in Q3 takes me by surprise: you expect him to tell you about something productive he’s been doing to defend himself or at least to mitigate the pain of rejection; instead, it turns out that he’s the counsel for the prosecution again. You do sometimes want to shake him. Have some self-respect, man!

It’s the octave that I think the more profound. The precision of its enumeration of the signs of lost love are (painfully) exquisite: frowning on defects, where once they were perhaps amusing foibles; passing like a stranger in the street; not even bothering to acknowledge the other’s presence; the moral accounting, once the infatuation has faded, that tallies up the lover’s defects and finds them wanting. The best lines are 7-8: ‘When love, converted from the thing it was, / Shall reasons find of settled gravity’. Converted from the thing it was is mighty strong, and the image of something falling to earth, something that had flown, something perhaps lighter than air (recall Shakespeare’s desire to fly like a thought), and its fall being like a restoration of reason: the return of judgement, which finds that actually the beloved isn’t that great.

Then there’s that couplet. The final line especially is a very strong close. Given the momentum leading up to it, its primary sense is ‘I can find no reason why you would love me (given all my defects)’. But it is more ambiguous than that, because the subject and object of the verb ‘to love’ is unclear. Taken in itself, it says ‘why should anyone love anyone’; or, more reachingly: why love? Katherine Duncan-Jones (Arden) suggests that Shakespeare is pointing to the basic irrationality of love and saying: I can give no cause why you should love me; but, conversely, I can find no cause why I should love you. This strikes me as exhibiting slightly more equanimity and poise than he usually does. But I do wonder whether, given his experience of the pain and disappointment of love, he might be feeling a bit sick of the whole thing and asking why one would bother loving at all.

On that cheerful note: more tomorrow!


Sonnet 50

Happy Friday, Sonneteers.

Something of a calmer day today, after yesterday’s bluster. He’s hardly happy (he’s miserable) but at least it’s more your garden variety I-miss-my-beloved kind of yearning.

How heavy do I journey on the way,
When what I seek, my weary travel’s end,
Doth teach that ease and that repose to say,
Thus far the miles are measur’d from thy friend.
The beast that bears me, tired with my woe,
Plods dully on, to bear that weight in me,
As if by some instinct the wretch did know
His rider lov’d not speed, being made from thee:
The bloody spur cannot provoke him on
That sometimes anger thrusts into his hide;
Which heavily he answers with a groan,
More sharp to me than spurring to his side;
     For that same groan doth put this in my mind:
     My grief lies onward, and my joy behind.

Shakespeare is off on some journey, but (to judge by the continuation of this sonnet in 51) he hopes to return soon. Heavy with sadness, he projects his feelings onto his poor horse. A gloss:

Q1 I travel heavily, in the knowledge that at my destination all I’ll be able to think about is how far we are apart

Q2 My horse even plods along, as though he knows that each step only takes me further from you

Q3 Even the spur does nothing to hurry him; he only groans, which hurts me deeply

For his groan echoes my own feelings: whatever I am travelling to isn’t worth parting from you for

I’ve paraphrased the last line, but I regret it: it’s too good, both more elegant and clearer than anything I could change it to, so let’s have it again: ‘My grief lies onward, and my joy behind.’ This is one of those (surprisingly rare) sonnets that speak (without a hint of Shakespeare’s peculiar neuroses) to something universal, which is to say the pain of a journey undertaken when one’s love is left behind. There’s nothing like a strange hotel room to make you want to call home; and poor old Shakespeare didn’t have that option.

Perhaps it does change the emotional tenor of the poem somewhat, though, if we recall that he hasn’t written this poem to, say, his wife (or even his children — the love here doesn’t seem necessarily romantic or erotic). No, this is Shakespeare writing to the young man he has quite a thing for, the same young man who not that long ago slept with his mistress; further, it’s not a great stretch to suppose that the occasion for this sonnet was a journey home from London to Stratford to visit said wife and children. Bit of a tangle.

His poor horse is the silent/groaning hero of the piece, though. You really feel for him (and we’ll get more in 51); not only is he carrying mopey old Shakespeare, but Shakespeare is taking out all his pent up frustration and anger on him! The sympathy in Q3 is nicely wrought: Shakespeare, angry, spurs the horse, who replies only with a groan, which Shakespeare finds is an outward echo of the feeling in his own heart. It’s moving, if you suspend your overwhelming preference for the horse over the rider.

The conceit of this poem is that Shakespeare’s feelings are not merely his own, but are being sympathetically reflected back to him by things beyond him — specifically, in this case, his horse. I’ve already mentioned Auden once this week, I know, which is probably the total of my Auden allotment, but nonetheless I cannot resist just one last mention. The poem I’m thinking of is ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, and I’ll just quote one line, a verbal echo of line 6, echoing it yet contradicting it. The poem is about the way suffering takes place in a world that is indifferent to it, and the line is this: ‘how it takes place / while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along’. (OK, that was a line and a half.) Shakespeare is thinking his horse suffers with him; Auden might wonder whether it’s just walking dully along.

Have lovely weekends, and we’ll have a companion to this sonnet on Monday.