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

Sonnet 51

Welcome back, Sonneteers.

More horses today, as we pick up where Friday left off.

Thus can my love excuse the slow offence
Of my dull bearer when from thee I speed:
From where thou art why should I haste me thence?
Till I return, of posting is no need.
O, what excuse will my poor beast then find,
When swift extremity can seem but slow?
Then should I spur, though mounted on the wind,
In winged speed no motion shall I know:
Then can no horse with my desire keep pace;
Therefore desire, of perfect’st love being made,
Shall neigh no dull flesh in his fiery race;
But love, for love, thus shall excuse my jade;
     Since from thee going he went wilful-slow,
     Towards thee I’ll run, and give him leave to go.

In Sonnet 50 we had Shakespeare wondering whether his horse was empathising with him; now he’s saying he forgives his horse for being slow, on the outward journey — but when it’s time for the return, Shakespeare’s desire will outrun his (or any other) horse. A gloss*:

(*It’s been a while, so if anyone would like a refresher on sonnet structure and terminology see my notes from the first week.)

Q1 My love can forgive the horse for being so slow in this journey, since after all every step takes me away from you; there’s no need for haste until the return

Q2 But what excuses for slowness will my horse find then? Even were I mounted on the wind I would keep on using my spurs to go even faster

Q3 In my desire to return, no horse could keep pace — my desire, made from perfect love, will race ahead

Since my horse was so slow in my journey away from you, for the return I’ll run myself, and let him go his own way

What we have, in this sonnet, is Shakespeare sitting astride a horse, travelling away from the young man, fantasising about how fast he’d travel on his return if only he could. His desire echoes sonnets 44 and 45, in which he wished he could be composed of thought, and leave his dull flesh behind — and this connection is clearest in line 11, which itself is famously a problem for editors. You know I love a textual problem, so let’s dive in.

In the text of the sonnet above, I’ve used a reading of line 11 that follows the original 1609 edition, which itself read as follows:

Shall naigh noe dull flesh in his fiery race,

So, no internal punctuation, and only the question of what on earth it means to ‘neigh dull flesh’ (or not to). Some editors abandon the word ‘neigh’ as a compositor’s error resulting from having horses on the brain, and propose instead ‘weigh’ (in the sense either of ‘carry’ or ‘consider’) or ‘wait’ (as in ‘wait for’). Edmund Malone, in the 18th century, suggested dropping ‘no’ in favour of ‘to’, giving us ‘neigh to dull flesh’ (as in neigh at the sluggish horses to hurry them up). Other editors keep the word but repunctuate, offsetting ‘no dull flesh’ with dashes, commas or brackets, so that the line means ‘[desire] shall neigh — [being] no dull flesh [but rather perfect love] — in his fiery race’.

Shakespeare has form for this kind of association between neighing and desire; take, for example, the following from his narrative poem Venus and Adonis (lines 259-276):

But, lo, from forth a copse that neighbors by,
A breeding jennet, lusty, young and proud,
Adonis’ trampling courser doth espy,
And forth she rushes, snorts and neighs aloud:
     The strong-neck’d steed, being tied unto a tree,
     Breaketh his rein, and to her straight goes he.

Imperiously he leaps, he neighs, he bounds,
And now his woven girths he breaks asunder;
The bearing earth with his hard hoof he wounds,
Whose hollow womb resounds like heaven’s thunder;
     The iron bit he crusheth ‘tween his teeth,
     Controlling what he was controlled with.

His ears up-prick’d; his braided hanging mane
Upon his compass’d crest now stand on end;
His nostrils drink the air, and forth again,
As from a furnace, vapours doth he send:
     His eye, which scornfully glisters like fire,
     Shows his hot courage and his high desire.

So, I’m inclined to keep ‘neighing’ — its oddity is somehow appealing in any case. For much the same reason I’m inclined towards leaving out the punctuation: its borderline incomprehensibility results in a pleasingly turgid aesthetic. But it’s also suggestively ambiguous, and possibly deliberately so. Here’s an example: Stephen Booth (in his mighty commentary) notes that ‘neigh’ is a homophone for ‘nay’, and so one possible meaning for the line taken (or, as it were, misheard) by itself would be ‘would decline no dull flesh’, i.e. will take what he can get — which is to say, one of the elements of this depiction of Shakespeare’s desire as having one sole object (towards which it stampedes) could be readily mistaken for meaning the opposite (it will happily accept other offers along the way), which to me seems an impressively sly gag.

Or another example of the line’s suggestive ambiguity (again, from Booth): suppose we read the sense as ‘[my desire] shall neigh; [there is] no dull flush in his fiery race’ — i.e. the race of horses composed not of flesh but of ‘perfect’st love’, who can outrace horses of the regular variety. This picks up on 45, in which Shakespeare described his desire as composed of ‘purging fire’. Quite some horses.

A thought about the word ‘love’ in this poem. Interestingly, Shakespeare basically equates it with desire (line 10), which is striking. He’s writing in a tradition of love poetry in which the pangs of love are typically given a spiritual twist; but he rarely, if ever, makes that twist himself, keeping his love very much more in the world and of the flesh. (The bold might like to trace this association he’s making between horses and desire back to Plato’s Phaedrus.) But ‘love’ appears four times, and I’m not sure I can iron out its ambiguities: it might variously mean ‘Shakespeare’s emotion, love’, ‘the object of Shakespeare’s love, the young man’, ‘Shakespeare’s affection for his horse’ (no really, that could fit one or two instances), or ‘love in general’. Try reading the poem through with these different senses of ‘love’ in mind, and see how the meaning shifts and twists.

Now, happy news: from tomorrow we’re entering into a run of sonnets with a bit more cheer to them.


Sonnet 52

Good morning, good morning.

I feel I may have oversold the cheerfulness of these next few sonnets, but one has to admit that they are much more upbeat than what we’ve seen recently. Rather than focus on his own wretchedness, Shakespeare keeps his attention on the young man’s charms:

So am I as the rich, whose blessed key
Can bring him to his sweet up-locked treasure,
The which he will not every hour survey,
For blunting the fine point of seldom pleasure.
Therefore are feasts so solemn and so rare,
Since, seldom coming, in the long year set,
Like stones of worth they thinly placed are,
Or captain jewels in the carcanet.
So is the time that keeps you as my chest,
Or as the wardrobe which the robe doth hide,
To make some special instant special blest,
By new unfolding his imprison’d pride.
     Blessed are you, whose worthiness gives scope,
     Being had, to triumph, being lack’d, to hope.

Despite its upbeat surface, it doesn’t take long to realise that this is actually another poem of absence, albeit one that tries to put a positive spin on it. It says:

Q1 I am like a rich man who takes a tantric approach to his valuable treasures, only peeking at them every now and then so as to keep them a pleasure

Q2 In the same way, feasts (think religious feast days and holidays, rather than just large meals) only occur at long intervals, like valuable stones sparsely scattered through a crown

Q3 Thus time keeps you from me, like a chest, or like a wardrobe hiding a beautiful robe that only comes out for special occasions, making them more special

C You’re blessed to be the kind of person who is either wonderful (for those that have you) or inspires hope (in those who might)

Taken by itself, this is a hymn to absence making the heart grow fonder. The sonnet develops that opening idea, ‘so am I as the rich’, to the point where it suggests that the truly rich are those who possess treasures and refuse to spoil them. We say that a spoiled child is one who takes its treasures for granted, and thus fails to appreciate those treasures; in the same way, the false rich are so inured to their riches that they no longer realise what they have. To be truly rich is to possess something wonderful, but to also exercise the self-control that refrains from blunting the pleasure that wonderful thing gives. It’s a compelling logic, but it suffers from a blind spot: would it not be even better to possess something wonderful, and to appreciate it in such a way that seeing it every day still doesn’t simply habituate one to it?

I don’t think this blind spot is accidental, and I’m moved by the psychological realism of this sonnet. From its place in the sequence, we can surmise that Shakespeare has been experiencing frequent (or continued) prolonged distance from the young man, which he has no power to change. But he’s not feeling quite so hopeless, and thus has the strength to try to see in this deplorable situation some benefit. And so he muses: absence does make the heart grow fonder; the tension that builds from not seeing your beloved makes the release of seeing them all the sweeter. Perhaps separation is not so bad after all… — It’s a portrait of the mind functioning healthily, not retreating into despair (as he does at other times) but calling on its resources to fortify itself.

Lastly, a note on Shakespeare’s sacrilegiousness in those last lines, in his use of blessedness and hope. The young man is blessed, he says, and this blessedness consists in making those who ‘have’ him ‘triumphant’, and in being an object of ‘hope’ for everyone else. This might be the closest he’s come to making the young man a Christ-figure (although he’s come close a few times). And he’s not done making the young man divine: tomorrow, you’ll see, he’ll turn the young man into the Platonic form of beauty itself.


Sonnet 53

Sonneteers, happy Wednesday.

Shakespeare has turned metaphysician today.

What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since every one hath, every one, one shade,
And you, but one, can every shadow lend.
Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
Is poorly imitated after you;
On Helen’s cheek all art of beauty set,
And you in Grecian tires are painted new:
Speak of the spring and foison of the year,
The one doth shadow of your beauty show,
The other as your bounty doth appear;
And you in every blessed shape we know.
     In all external grace you have some part,
     But you like none, none you, for constant heart.

This is the language of Renaissance Neoplatonism, but since that isn’t my forte I’m going to give this to you in (what I find) the much more straightforward language of Plato himself. First, a gloss:

Q1 What is your substance? So many things seem to depend on you. Everybody has but one shadow, but everything seems to contain your own shadow.

Q2 Describe Adonis, or Helen of Troy, and really they’re just counterfeits that dimly recall your beauty

Q3 Even the spring, or the bounty of each year’s harvest, just reveal the shadow of your beauty, or your abundance. You appear in everything

Every beautiful thing is part of you, yet nothing has a constant heart like you do

At this point, I think you’ll all join me in guffawing at that last line. The young man, a constant heart? Ha! We’ve seen no evidence of it. Yet Shakespeare seems hell-bent on seeing the best in his beloved, even when that requires rampant delusion.

This is one that can only be sensibly read, I think, as rhetorical overstatement. The most conservative way of reading it is as expressing a psychological realty. He is so taken by the beauty of his young man that every pleasing thing calls the young man to mind as a kind of echo. The dawn is lovely; my beloved is lovely too. That painting is beautiful; so is he. Shakespeare is so besotted that everything is a reminder of his beloved. It expresses a kind of personal metaphysics, in which what is first in priority to me is first priority to being.

But the actual language of this sonnet goes beyond that. Plato, in his myth of the cave (this appears in the Republic) asks us to imagine a group of prisoners chained in place, such that all they can see is the wall of a cave. Onto this wall are cast the shadows of men, women and things as they pass by behind the prisoners. The prisoners, Plato says, are like us: all they can see are shadows, and they mistake those shadows for real things. But if only they could turn around, they would see that there is a much more substantial reality that is the source of those shadows.

The young man, Shakespeare is saying in this sonnet, is one such more substantial reality. The world is composed by shadows, and each shadow is only itself, because that’s all it takes to exhaust it. It draws its power to be itself from some deeper reality, its form; and this is true too for its beauty, its truth, and its goodness (for the tradition of metaphysics, these three are the most important realities). The young man, apparently, is the form of beauty itself. Thus every beautiful thing is beautiful only because it partakes somehow in the young man’s beauty, but only as a weak copy. If it weren’t for the young man, there would be no beauty: all beautiful things are subordinate to him, and in all of them he has a part.

It’s all so over-the-top that I can’t detect any explicit irony (although implicit irony may be everywhere) until that last line. ‘Constant heart’? I’m still laughing. After sonnets 40-42 there’s no way we can take him seriously. He remains besotted, and very committed to that fact; he’ll find any way he can to smooth things over. That’s the only way I can read this. Yet I’m still impressed by how audacious the gambit in this sonnet is.


Sonnet 54

Sonneteers, good morning.

Today we leave that brief foray into metaphysics behind, and instead Shakespeare circles back to a theme he tried out a little in the procreation sonnets (but don’t worry, the theme in question isn’t procreation):

O how much more doth beauty beauteous seem
By that sweet ornament which truth doth give!
The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour which doth in it live;
The canker blooms have full as deep a dye
As the perfumed tincture of the roses,
Hang on such thorns, and play as wantonly
When summer’s breath their masked buds discloses;
But for their virtue only is their show
They live unwoo’d, and unrespected fade,
Die to themselves. Sweet roses do not so;
Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made;
     And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth;
     When that shall vade, by verse distills your truth.

This idea of distillation of substance echoes back to Sonnet 5, in which ‘flowers distill’d’, when they meet with winter, ‘leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet’ — in a vial, as perfume. So here too Shakespeare opposes the beauty of outward form to the real value of inner truth, and again he does it in terms of flowers and perfume. The structure:

Q1 Beauty is so much better when ornamented by truth; just as the rose is so much lovelier when augmented by its smell

Q2 Canker blooms* are just as colourful as real roses, and in outward respects are very similar

Q3 But it is only show, and thus nobody cares about them — they die without anyone much noticing. Roses, on the other hand, are used to make sweet perfume when they die

C So you, when your beauty and youth fade, will have your sweet essence distilled by verse

(* Probably dog-roses, but possibly the common wild poppy, according to Colin Burrow’s commentary. I quote: ‘Poppies are richly coloured (as dog-roses are not) but lack scent. In these respects they would suit the context; but it is hard to believe that Shakespeare thought they hang on such thorns [as dog-roses do], and this sense of canker was found chiefly in East Anglia.’ So there you go.)

The last line is another controversial one. In the 1609 edition, it reads ‘by verse’, but this was quite early on emended to ‘my verse’. This change makes it better fit Shakespeare’s repeated claims for his own verse, and better anticipates the very next poem; but the neutral ‘by verse’ is the better compliment, suggesting that it is not just Shakespeare who could/would do it, but that the young man has such an appealing essence that it will certainly be done independently of who precisely does it. (This would perhaps anticipate the ‘rival poet’ sonnets coming up before too long.) So, I don’t think there’s a lot riding on this one, but I’ve preferred the original wording.

Is it too much to wonder once again what precisely the young man’s truth is supposed to be? I doubt any reader of the Sonnets really thinks he seems particularly true (or constant, as in yesterday’s sonnet): he seems self-involved, self-indulgent, and quite possibly uninterested. This is another of those sonnets the general sentiment of which seems so beautiful and moving, as an expression of love, of the lover’s sense that the beloved is both true and beautiful (and good as well); yet read in context it raises one’s eyebrows. But — and maybe this is the genius of it — in another sense we do have the young man’s truth, which is to say the truth of him: that he was untrue, vain, charming, and self-interested. We have no certain idea who this person was, and yet I find that I have a burgeoning sense of what he was like — or, at least, of part of him, of how he was to Shakespeare. And Shakespeare achieves this effect by only capturing the young man in flashes, and in negative: he rarely fails to praise, and compared with the praise his occasional censures are mild; yet the composite sense that develops is not of the young man as Shakespeare appears to depict him. It’s brilliantly done.

I haven’t pointed out any innuendo in a while, but there might be a good piece in lines 10-11: ‘They live unwoo’d, and unrespected fade, / Die to themselves.’ The flower/person who ‘lives unwooed’ ‘dies to themselves’? Don Paterson (Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets) encourages us to hear ‘la petite mort‘, making ‘die to themselves’ … well, you get the picture.

We’ll get more on how verse distills someone’s truth tomorrow.


Sonnet 55

Good morning, Sonneteers, and happy Friday.

As promised, more on Shakespeare promising to immortalise his young friend:

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword, nor war’s quick fire, shall burn
The living record of your memory:
’Gainst death, and all oblivious enmity,
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
     So, till the judgement that yourself arise,
     You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.

Just as the last sonnet echoed 5 and 6, this sonnet echoes the sequence of 15 through 18; yet I think it also develops and enlarges on its predecessors’ themes. First, a gloss:

Q1 Buildings and statues are as nothing compared to the lasting power of verse; in these lines you will last so much longer than mouldering monuments

Q2 War might topple structures, but my words will outlast

Q3 You’ll walk away from death, and posterity will always remember you

C On the day of judgement you’ll be resurrected in the body; until then, you’ll live on in this, and the eyes of lovers

In the earlier sonnets, Shakespeare had already compared a tomb, which recalls the dead, with the ‘eternal lines’ in which his subject would continue to grow. Here we get a more explicitly statement: ‘You live in this,’ he says in the last line.

But sometimes I wonder how ironically to read him. In my commentary to 18 I suggested that Shakespeare’s aim was to render his beloved young man as a dramatic character who would continue to live in the minds of those who read these sonnets. He says so pretty well explicitly here:, in the line I’ve already quoted half of: ‘You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.‘ Yet he’s maintaining the conceit that these are love poems of the sort that lovers might read to each other moonily — and as we’ve seen, they are frequently anything but, and even the ones that could be are darkened by their context. So is he being serious, and proposing that he intends this sequence as standing straightforwardly in the tradition of love poetry? Or is it a pretence, one we are supposed to see through, but that perhaps the young man is supposed not to (making the joke on him, in the manner of Socrates)? Or is it part of Shakespeare’s sophisticated rendering of his true subject, not the young man but the speaker of the sonnets (considered as a dramatic character distinct from Shakespeare the man), where the conceit is that the speaker is hopelessly besotted and hopelessly earnest yet hopelessly misguided, but the reader is supposed to see him as such? It’s all enough to make the head spin.

Part of the problem, of course, is that we just don’t think of verse as a particularly good way to immortalise someone; partly because we have different ideas about immortality, and partly because we don’t — as a whole — care an awful lot about verse. Writing poems about someone seems instead a mighty fine way to confine them to obscurity: if you want them to be remembered, create a 10-part Netflix series. And because of this cultural gap —between Shakespeare’s time and ours — it can be hard to know how seriously to take his claims, and how to read his ambitions

Verse, as it turns out, is (or was) actually a very good way to memorialise someone: we all know Achilles, Hector, Odysseus, Helen — but few statues of them survive from ancient times, and we wouldn’t appreciate those statues if it weren’t for Homer. And Shakespeare, too, has succeeded in having his Sonnets survive the ravages of time, memorialising the young man, although whether or not the memorial is as he intended is lost to us.

Finally, I quote (but without the time to discuss and compare), Shelley’s Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

More next week! Also, did I mention we’re a third of the way there?