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

Sonnet 56

Sonneteers, welcome back for another week.

Today, Shakespeare muses on the relationship between love and desire:

Sweet love, renew thy force; be it not said
Thy edge should blunter be than appetite,
Which but to-day by feeding is allay’d,
To-morrow sharpen’d in his former might:
So, love, be thou; although to-day thou fill
Thy hungry eyes even till they wink with fullness,
To-morrow see again, and do not kill
The spirit of love with a perpetual dulness.
Let this sad interim like the ocean be
Which parts the shore, where two contracted new
Come daily to the banks, that, when they see
Return of love, more blest may be the view;
     Or call it winter, which, being full of care,
     Makes summer’s welcome thrice more wish’d, more rare.

I think of this one as a kind of bait-and-switch: the octave is a powerful meditation on the lasting power of love; then the sestet launches into the sonnet’s true topic, or occasion: Shakespeare’s beloved is absent again. Rather a lot of that going on, it seems. A gloss:

Q1 Love, don’t be blunter than desire, which, though satisfied today, is ravenous tomorrow

Q2 Be like desire, love: gorge yourself blind today, see again tomorrow. Don’t let the sharpness of love fall into dulness

Q3 Thus let this interval of separation be like a body of water, across which daily two lovers stare at each other

 Or like winter, which makes summer’s return all the sweeter

The couplet of an English sonnet is often a kind of epigrammatic summing up of the point being made, and so I think it’s notable on this occasion that (1) the couplet doesn’t really stand alone, being rather an extension of Q3; and (2) it’s about the less interesting topic of separation, rather than the octave’s anxiety over the duration of love. This drives home once again the importance of the narrative in the sonnets: the narrative is of a position of significance within this poem; and without an understanding of that narrative, the turn from octave to sestet is somewhat baffling.

The octave’s anxiety is that love is not a form of desire. All forms of desire are self-renewing: we desire food, we eat, we are satiated, that wears off, we grow hungry again. They are self-renewing, and so we don’t typically fear that our desire for food will leave us. Yet there is a kind of vertiginous fear that can grip us, that one day we’ll wake up and our beloved will no longer be our beloved: they’ll leave us cold; those tender threads will be gone. The fear is that love, which feels so much more important than any desire, will perish while petty desires live on. Given that love is our main and central form of valuation, that by which we give point and structure to our lives, the prospect of a life that outlives it is terrifying and empty. As much as Shakespeare is suffering for a love that appears hopelessly one-sided, at least it gives him purpose and meaning.

In what way is love different from a desire? The poem invites this question, but does not answer it, so let’s speculate. Love is like a desire in that both have an object. But I would contend this: a desire is something that already exists within us in a generalised sense: I have a general desire for food, and this desire then latches onto some particular bit of food that I happen across at the right time. If you’re hungry enough just about any old thing will do. Love is not like this, or at least we don’t experience it that way: it feels like it is called from its object. This is not to say that people don’t experience a generalised desire for love — they patently do — but when this desire rules them it misfires, since love for love’s sake never fills the void it is supposed to. And it is the sense that love’s source is — unlike desire’s — outside oneself that underpins Shakespeare’s anxiety in this sonnet, for the question is: what happens when we no longer hear that call?

It’s all a rather dark brooding, which Shakespeare is employing here to salve himself for another forced separation from his beloved: absence makes the heart grow fonder; hopefully that will serve to keep love’s keen edge sharp.

Tomorrow, Shakespeare gets a bit sassy.


Sonnet 57

Good morning, good morning.

Now a pair of sonnets on the indentured servitude of the pining lover:

Being your slave, what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend,
Nor services to do, till you require.
Nor dare I chide the world without end hour
Whilst I, my sovereign, watch the clock for you,
Nor think the bitterness of absence sour
When you have bid your servant once adieu;
Nor dare I question with my jealous thought
Where you may be, or your affairs suppose,
But, like a sad slave, stay and think of nought
Save, where you are how happy you make those.
     So true a fool is love that in your will,
     Though you do any thing, he thinks no ill.

It’s a portrait of Shakespeare reverently, passionately waiting (staring at the clock, listlessly pottering), anticipating the time when he can be with his beloved; meanwhile, the young man is off gadding about without a care. (But while Shakespeare refers to ‘affairs’, I’m informed that this probably didn’t yet have the meaning of sexual liaisons.) A gloss:

Q1 Like a slave, I have nought to do but attend your pleasure

Q2 But I don’t dare complain against the clock, or feel bitter

Q3 And I definitely don’t jealously think about what you’re doing or who you’re doing it with — I just think about how happy you’re making whoever you’re spending your time with

C Love renders one a fool, unable to believe ill of the beloved

This one builds nicely. Q1 sets the scene, and captures in miniature how all-consuming the thought of the beloved is when you’re kept apart, how no matter how busy you are they’re always at the edges of your mind and your thoughts keep drifting in their direction. Q2 turns to how the mind comes to resent time itself: for the mind, which dwells partly in the past, partly in the future, but ultimately in the present, feels this dispersal particularly acutely when the beloved exists for it only in the past or the future. Then Q3 gives us the poem’s emotional centre: poor old Shakespeare is not only pining but bitterly jealous, and he can’t help but dwell on who and what the young man is doing. And C then nicely underlines the irony of Q2 and Q3: Shakespeare knows he’d be a fool to think his young man is faithful… and yet he also can’t help but want to believe it. I find the emotional complexity of this one exquisite.

The middle part of the poem (Q2+Q3) is amusingly couched in negatives, and one way it can read is rather sassily. ‘Oh no,’ Shakespeare says, ‘I definitely don’t just pine away pathetically while you’re gone; and I definitely don’t just dwell on who you might be with. Nope, like a good slave I just sit passively.’ But it’s also painfully accurate: he really does feel like there is nothing precious in time that is absent of his beloved; he can’t help but pine.

Lastly, a comment on world without end hour, which is to say an endless hour, echoing this little hymn:

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son:
and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be:
world without end. Amen.

Many editions hyphenate as ‘world-without-end’ for clarity, but it has no such punctuation in the 1609 edition, and I’ve followed Stephen Booth’s suggestion (in his mighty commentary) that the ambiguity is interesting: the reader, as they progress along the line, reads ‘chide the world’, then ‘chide the world without end’ (which would mean either endlessly chide the world or, more daringly, chide the eternal world), before finally ‘chide the world-without-end hour’. The line builds through suggestive misdirection.

More slavery tomorrow!


Sonnet 58

Sonneteers, happy Wednesday.

Today, the second of two instalments on love and slavery:

That god forbid that made me first your slave,
I should in thought control your times of pleasure,
Or at your hand the account of hours to crave,
Being your vassal, bound to stay your leisure.
Oh let me suffer (being at your beck)
The imprison’d absence of your liberty;
And patience tame to sufferance bide each check,
Without accusing you of injury.
Be where you list, your charter is so strong
That you yourself may privilege your time
To what you will; to you it doth belong
Yourself to pardon of self-doing crime.
     I am to wait, though waiting so be hell,
     Not blame your pleasure, be it ill or well.

Methinks I detect a softening of tone from the last sonnet; 57 was so forceful in its repeated negations (‘Nor dare I…’) that it patently meant the opposite of what it said, while this one expresses more of a bending to fate. First, a gloss:

Q1 God forbid I let my jealousy rule, and come to think I can tell you how to spend your time, or demand an account of the hours when you were absent

Q2 I must be content to suffer those hours when you’re free of me, and not grow resentful of your absences

Q3 You’re so strongly your own person that it’s right that you dispose over your own time; you might be injuring me, but you can pardon yourself for that

C I must be content to wait on your call, not try to control or to blame you

It’s Shakespeare calling himself to account. His precision in identifying the patterns of jealous thought are impressive: the resenting the beloved’s absence, the dwelling on what they might be up to, the desire to quiz them about every second they were gone. We’ve moved from 57’s obviously false claims that he doesn’t do this, to 58’s self-exhortation not to. Call it progress.

And there is a kind of stoic self-renunciation that runs through this sonnet. It begins in the opening lines: ‘That god forbid that made me first your slave [i.e. probably cupid] / I should in thought control your times of pleasure.’ There is something basically infantile — and therefore universal — in the human desire that things and people should be essentially how we wish them to be, and that they would just conform to our wishes without our needing to express them or in any way acting to bring them about. Shakespeare is making a conscious effort to recognise this impulse, and to do his best to check it.

Then there is: ‘And patience tame to sufferance bide each check, / Without accusing you of injury.’ Just as there is a basic desire to have the world conform to our wishes, there is also a deep-rooted need to blame: one can experience a need, when things go against how one would like them, to blame someone for what feels like an injury (rather than taking it as just the slings and arrows of fortune); this can often go further, into the petty revenge-taking of accusation: if I have suffered, you need to recognise it. There is a difference between having suffered something, and there being someone to blame for it, and Shakespeare is doing his best to distinguish these things: he’s suffering from his beloved’s absences, but he’s also doing his best to keep clear that it’s not the beloved’s fault that he suffers so much. (It’s so hard to tell the extent to which this is entirely true: one gets the sense that the young man might be at least partly be to blame for Shakespeare’s emotional turmoil.)

Q3 then hits on what I think is a little-noted aspect of charisma: there is a certain kind of person who, whether or not one likes them, is so strongly themselves that it just feels natural that they’ll be doing their own thing, inconsiderate of the feelings of others, etc. One just naturally makes allowances for them, and it is only on consideration that one realises that actually what they’re saying or doing would be harder to accept from someone else. This kind of person always has one on the back foot.

Now we’re in for another change of theme: we’ll round out the week with a couple of sonnets on the question of time.


Sonnet 59

Good morning, Sonneteers.

The first of two poems about time. This one considers the (possible irrecoverability of the) past, and tomorrow we get death and the future. But first, today:

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguil’d,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burthen of a former child!
O, that record could with a backward look,
Even of five hundred courses of the sun,
Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first in character was done.
That I might see what the old world could say
To this composed wonder of your frame;
Whether we are mended, or whe’r better they,
Or whether revolution be the same.
     O, sure I am, the wits of former days
     To subjects worse have given admiring praise.

This is another one in which Shakespeare takes an idea and toys with it: in this case, whether there is indeed ‘nothing new under the sun’. He seems a bit sceptical, but before we get to that, a gloss:

Q1 If everything that is has been before, how is it that we struggle to find the words to describe what we see before us (i.e. you, you beautiful young man)

Q2 If only I could look in some book and find a description of some past you, since you must have existed before at some time since writing was invented (‘since mind at first in character was done’)

Q3 Then I could see what a previous world thought of you, and answer the question of whether poetry has progressed, decline, or stood still

Yet I feel sure that writers of the past would have given excessive praise to less worthy subjects

The couplet echoes his critique in 21, that poetry should stick close to its subject and not praise it more than it deserves; yet, knowing that poets don’t stick to this requirement, Shakespeare is sure that he can’t rely on what he reads in old books, not being able to compare the praise of the poems to the thing itself.

So, there is the epistemological problem of being able to compare like with like; but I sense that Shakespeare goes beyond this, and seems to doubt that history does in fact repeat as the old saying has it. The whole sonnet opens with an ‘if’, and the gist of Q1 is that, if everything that is has been before, why does Shakespeare struggle so to find precedents or established forms with which to describe the young man?

The implicit point seems to be that Shakespeare’s beloved is utterly unique, and utterly unprecedented. History, therefore, cannot go in cycles, even if it sometimes appears to; for the young man represents an event in history that has never come before. Shakespeare has made use of a few subtle Christ-parallels already, and this seems to be another: in the ancient world, the idea that the world unfolded according to long cycles was not all that unusual; for the Christian view of history, this is false, for there is one genuinely unique event in the history of the world which renders the world before and the world after utterly different to each other, and this is the incarnation of Christ.

It is a commonplace of Christian theology that Christ cannot be comprehended in terms of pre-Christian philosophy; he requires a new conceptual vocabulary (and whether or not that is consistent with ‘natural’ philosophy is a matter of some contention). Similarly, Shakespeare finds that he cannot find an already-existing vocabulary to adequately describe the young man. He might even be going beyond this, in his development of what is essentially a literary form without precedent. There had been sonnet cycles before Shakespeare’s (indeed, they were all the rage in the 1580s and 90s), but his is very unusual. It had precedents: Sir Philip Sidney set the standard for a cycle of love sonnets with Astrophil and Stella (in circulation from the mid-1580s), at 108 sonnets long; Shakespeare’s sequence is 154, although the main narrative comprises 108 sonnets (from the end of the procreation sonnets to the beginning of the Dark Lady sonnets). Samuel Daniel, who wrote a sequence of sonnets to his beloved, followed them with a narrative ‘complaint’ from a female perspective (Delia — 50 sonnets long, FYI — followed by ‘A Complaint of Rosamond’); Shakespeare, too, follows his sequence with ‘A Lover’s Complaint’, in which a young woman laments her wooing by a fickle young man who resembles the young man of the main sequence. But nobody else was writing this many sonnets to a man, and their eroticism is patently obvious; and while frustration and lament were a staple of the genre, I don’t know that there were any that contain as much pain and rage as these do. (I’ll make a point of looking into this — expect more at a later date.) Shakespeare’s Sonnets was — and remains — a very unusual collection of poems (as I’m sure you’re all finding), partly inhabiting the established genres of its time, but constantly subverting them for Shakespeare’s own ends.

So much for the past. Tomorrow, time’s inexorable march into the future.


Sonnet 60

Sonneteers, good morning: it’s the end of another week.

The closing of a week is an apt moment for this sonnet, intent as it is on time’s incessant passing.

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown’d,
Crooked eclipses ’gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:
     And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
     Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.

Yesterday we had the question of history, and whether it repeats; today we have the question of decline, and whether anything survives it. It’s hard not to suspect that the position of this sonnet at 60, in honour of the number of minutes in an hour, is significant. A gloss:

Q1 Just as the waves wash onto the shore, succeeding each other in turn, so do the minutes of our lives pass by; their struggle onwards never relents

Q2 We are born, grow to maturity, reach our peak, then decline

Q3 Time pierce’s youth’s flourishing, digs trenches on the beautiful forehead, and thrives on consuming youth and vigour: Time spares nothing

Yet my hope is that, even after you’re gone, these verses of your praise will survive

It’s yet another sonnet where the mounting tension of the body feels so poorly released by the couplet. The thought that somebody might produce some lasting work of art in your honour is a nice one, but only if you don’t think about it too hard; otherwise it will just remind you that you, and everyone and everything you care about, will be swallowed by the abyss of time — and all that will be left, maybe, is a painting, or a book of poems? As Falstaff says, that’s a trim reckoning. Actually, having mentioned Falstaff, he does seem a mighty fine dissenting voice to cite against Shakespeare’s aspirations here, so I’ll quote him properly. Read, for ‘honour’, ‘the honour of having a book of sonnets dedicated to you’. This is from Henry the Fourth, Part 1; the scene is a battlefield:

PRINCE HENRY: Why, thou owest God a death. (EXIT)

FALSTAFF: ‘Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before his day. What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so ends my catechism.

1 Henry IV (5.1)

Falstaff usefully reminds us, too, that the living only remember the dead on their own terms, which are frequently not those that the dead would have wished for.

Anyway, back to sonnet 60. I don’t know why, but a large body of water seems such a good image of eternity, and certainly it suggests itself often enough. Think, for example, of Genesis 1:2: ‘And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.’ Shakespeare modifies this image, and makes the passing moments of time the waves on the water’s surface, with the suggestion that, as each wave (or moment) reaches us and succeeds the one before us, it has travelled a long way — from all eternity, in fact. I for one find this dizzying.

Or, reading those opening lines another way, perhaps we are the waves, hastening towards the shoreline to crash, churn, and be no more, succeeded by those who come after us and meet the same fate. Read this way, it’s a grim image: a pebbled shore is no paradise: imagine eternity as a day at the English seaside. (I jest!) Q1, read either or both ways, is a strong opening, and gives us an abstract image of the human relation to time.

Then Q2 + Q3 tell, in more concrete terms, the universal history of human life in eight lines: you’ll notice that the first line of Q2 is about birth, and the last of Q3 is about death; Q2 is about birth to peak, Q3 about decline to death. (Actually it’s grimmer than that: only two lines of Q2 are really about life’s ascent.) The figure of Time is somewhat ambivalent, and line 8 expresses this directly in its paraphrase of ‘the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away’. Time’s gifts can include life, youth, beauty, and vigour; but even for those lucky enough to be given these gifts, Time will not let you keep them.

And then there’s that couplet, which seems such thin gruel coming after all that.

Keep well, have lovely weekends, and we’ll continue next week.