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

Sonnet 6

Welcome back, Shakespeareans, for another week of the Sonnets.

Today, Sonnet 6:

Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface
In thee thy summer, ere thou be distill’d:
Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place
With beauty’s treasure, ere it be self-kill’d.
That use is not forbidden usury,
Which happies those that pay the willing loan;
That’s for thyself to breed another thee,
Or ten times happier, be it ten for one;
Ten times thyself were happier than thou art,
If ten of thine ten times refigur’d thee:
Then what could death do, if thou shouldst depart,
Leaving thee living in posterity?
     Be not self-will’d, for thou art much too fair
     To be death’s conquest and make worms thine heir.

You’ll note straight away that Q1 picks up where Sonnet 5 left off, with the contrast between life’s summer and life’s winter, and the exhortation to make like a flower and distil thyself. Sonnets 5 and 6 are widely thought to form a pair. But then the sonnet suddenly takes a turn, and we’re in new terrain. Let’s look at the structure:

Q1: Winter is coming, so you’d better hurry along while you’re still in flower and ‘make sweet some vial’ (good euphemism) to distil your essence

Q2: Not all loans are bad – some loans make people happy. Loans like, for example, having children. That will pay you back 10 to 1

Q3: Imagine if you then had 10 children. That would pay you back 10 times 10! You’d be rich/happy. And what could Death do against that legacy?

C: Or don’t reproduce (be ‘self-willed’ – good euphemism) and the worms will be all the posterity you get

For the life of me I cannot connect Q1 with the rest of the poem. Sure, it sets up the procreation/posterity theme, but then usury is introduced in Q2 and that turns into the dominant metaphor of the poem. Q1’s themes of summer/winter and distillation recede into the rear-view mirror.

Q2 is also puzzling. Are ‘those that pay the willing loan’ the people doing the loaning or the people doing the repaying? Is this picking up on the creation myth from Sonnet 4, in which case Nature is the one doing the lending, the young man is the borrower, and the progeny are the dividend he earns on the loaned capital he has invested? That would make sense of the loan being ‘for thyself to breed another thee’. Alternatively, perhaps the young man is the usurer who is lending his image to his progeny, which would make the progeny the ones who are paying him back in happiness? But what does it mean to say that the good kind of usury makes the usurer happy – surely that’s the point of all usury?

Nonetheless, the bombast of ten times ten is good in the following lines, and Shakespeare seems to delight in his outrageousness as he goes on. If one child will make you ten times happier, he says, why not then have ten children, and be one hundred times happier? And he then can’t resist a wry gag about what good insurance that would be: one would have to be very unlucky to lose all ten heirs!

And, finally, just a note about lines 3-4: Can we pause for a minute to appreciate Shakespeare’s repeated use here of the word ‘treasure’, first as a verb to mean (ahem) ‘the conjugal act’ (talk about conjugating a verb?), and then as a noun to mean ‘semen’? Truly he is our greatest poet.


Sonnet 7

Good morning, Shakespeareans.

We’re on to Sonnet 7 today:

Lo, in the orient when the gracious light
Lifts up his burning head, each under eye
Doth homage to his new-appearing sight,
Serving with looks his sacred majesty;
And having climb’d the steep-up heavenly hill,
Resembling strong youth in his middle age,
Yet mortal looks adore his beauty still,
Attending on his golden pilgrimage;
But when from highmost pitch, with weary car,
Like feeble age, he reeleth from the day,
The eyes, ’fore duteous, now converted are
From his low tract and look another way:
     So thou, thyself out-going in thy noon,
     Unlook’d on diest, unless thou get a son.

I must confess I find this one baffling. The metaphor is clear enough: human life takes the same course as the sun. The poem’s structure runs:

Q1: In the morning, everyone rejoices in the sun

Q2: Everyone admires the sun at midday, when it is strongest

Q3: In the evening, everyone looks away from the sun (… in embarrassment?)

C: You’re in the midday of life now, but unless you reproduce nobody will care about you in old age

Shakespeare’s onto something promising in Q1 and Q2: everyone does indeed delight in the appearance of a baby, as they delight in the dawn; the comparison of someone in the prime of life with the sun shining at full intensity is suggestive – and then it all falls apart at Q3. Who dislikes a sunset? What possessed him to follow through on the metaphor, when (as we’ll see) he’s perfectly happy to show up the inadequacy of metaphor when it suits him? And then there’s the sun/son pun in the couplet…

But perhaps this is a good moment to introduce you to one of my guides: Helen Vendler, whose book The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets I find both enlightening and maddening. Vendler is an excellent critic, but in this book she lets her obsessions run wild and she credits Shakespeare with many more deliberate effects than I would be willing to grant. (For example, in this sonnet, she suggests that the sun’s ‘car’ is anagrammatically scrambled in the words ‘gracious’, ‘sacred’ and ‘tract’.)

Nevertheless, she makes two interesting observations about this sonnet. First, she manages to offer some justification for the sun/son pun, which is otherwise terrible. ‘Sun’ does not appear in the sonnet at all, but is merely suggested, building up in the ear of the listener/reader, until finally the pay-off occurs in the very last word of the poem – and it is not the word ‘sun’ at all!

Second, she notes that each quatrain is itself split in two, with the first two lines being about the sun’s course, and the second two being about the looks cast upon it. Even the couplet falls into two parts in the same way: the first line says ‘you too aren’t far from falling into decline’ and the second follows with ‘there will be no looks unless you reproduce’. She thereby calls attention to the importance of looking in the poem – which I, at least, take to be a repetition of Shakespeare’s theme of concern for the regard of others. This sonnet doesn’t play at all on what we might call intrinsic motivations, which is to say those things that bear on me and my interests and my wellbeing directly. Rather it plays on our need for approval from others: where, he asks, will you get love from, when you’re no longer young and beautiful? And it is not an unreasonable question, if the picture we have gleaned of the youth as a wild bachelor is accurate. If his only source of validation from others is rooted in his youth and vitality, then Shakespeare is not unreasonably worried about what the future holds for him.


Sonnet 8

Good morning, good morning – here’s your daily dose of Shakespeare!

Today, Sonnet 8:

Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?
Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy.
Why lov’st thou that which thou receiv’st not gladly,
Or else receiv’st with pleasure thine annoy?
If the true concord of well-tuned sounds,
By unions married, do offend thine ear,
They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds
In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear.
Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,
Strikes each in each by mutual ordering;
Resembling sire and child and happy mother,
Who, all in one, one pleasing note do sing:
     Whose speechless song, being many, seeming one,
     Sings this to thee: “Thou single wilt prove none.”

There’s a good metaphor here, which one might unpack in a few different ways. But first, the structure:

Q1: Why does music make you sad? You’re sweet, and a joy, and like should gladly receive like

Q2: If something in music is upsetting you, I think I know what it is: music is harmony of many-in-one, yet you persist in being single

Q3: Music works by each string making a harmony with each other; they’re like a family that sings all together

C: And the implicit song sung by every piece of music goes something like this: to be single is to be nothing

There’s something powerful in the image of the single human life being like a note in a greater piece of music. One might read this as a social metaphor, in the manner of social or communitarian philosophers who insist that one can only make sense of a single human life in terms of the society of which it is a part – a single human being is not, in an important sense, whole, because they depend on a vast network of others. But I don’t think this is how Shakespeare intends the metaphor.

A more likely reading in terms of Shakespeare’s intentions is that it’s a metaphor for family life: his point is something to the effect that a single life, like a single note, is not part of a family/harmony that gives it its meaning, and without which it’s meaningless. Music also unfolds temporally, with each note picked up by the succeeding notes: a nice metaphor for the way children continue the lives of their parents.

Yet we needn’t take it quite so narrowly. A single note, played without any accompaniment or succession, strikes the ear as lonely. But is the only way for a note be part of a piece of music for it to be ‘married’ to the other notes, or to ‘sire’ the succeeding ones? Are not the possible relations between notes more varied than that – and ditto for the possible relations between human beings? Thinking along these lines leads one to reflect: what are the different ways in which we live in harmony (and disharmony) with each other?


Sonnet 9

Good morning, Shakespeareans.

Today, more procreation with Sonnet 9:

Is it for fear to wet a widow’s eye
That thou consum’st thyself in single life?
Ah! if thou issueless shalt hap to die.
The world will wail thee, like a makeless wife;
The world will be thy widow, and still weep
That thou no form of thee hast left behind,
When every private widow well may keep
By children’s eyes her husband’s shape in mind.
Look, what an unthrift in the world doth spend
Shifts but his place, for still the world enjoys it;
But beauty’s waste hath in the world an end,
And kept unus’d, the user so destroys it.
     No love toward others in that bosom sits
     That on himself such murderous shame commits.

We see here another development of one of the arguments developed in Sonnet 1: ‘Do it for us!’

Q1: Are you single for fear of leaving behind a bereaved wife? ‘Ah!’ Shakespeare says (does that not have the ring of a gotcha ‘ah ha!’?), ‘if you die childless the whole world will be sad about it anyway!’

Q2: Die single and the whole world will be your widow; and, even worse, widows normally at least have the children of their beloved to keep them company, but the world won’t even have that!

Q3: He who wastes his cash hurts himself, but at least his cash remains in the world; he who wastes his beauty takes it with him when he dies

C: If you die childless, it will be clearly that you love nobody

The question in Q1 risks being decidedly odd, but I think it can be made more plausible than it at first sounds. As W H Auden writes somewhere, there must be suffering if there can be love. So, Shakespeare suggests, perhaps the young man is trying to avoid suffering – his own, and that of his potential beloved – by avoiding the kind of attachment that causes intense pain when it is, inevitably, broken. This isn’t as unreasonable as it may seem, and one sees variations on this argument in, for example, Stoic or Buddhist philosophy.

But, Shakespeare continues (and this is where we start to wonder if something has gone amiss), you’re so beloved of the entire world that you’re in that bind anyway – the whole world will mourn you when you pass. But at least if you leave behind a child, the world (and your widow?) will have someone to remember you by. – Recall how Shakespeare in Sonnet 3 developed the idea that something never really dies so long as it is remembered? And how the ideal aide-memoire is something that bears one’s image? Here we see it again – and there is a lot more of it to come.

This development of the argument is pure flattery, and it’s hard to take it seriously – and if it was effective, his susceptibility to flattery hardly paints the young man in a flattering light. But perhaps this nicely makes one of Shakespeare’s points: the young man may indeed have been the talk of the town in his day, apparently beloved by all, yet time rolled on, and sure enough he’s been forgotten; or, if he is remembered, he’s hardly the world’s beloved.

A note on structure: each of the quatrains in this poem contains two contrasting elements. Q1 contrasts the young man’s supposed belief, that he’s sparing someone some misery, with a (flattering, fantastical) reality – that the world will grieve him; Q2 contrasts what Shakespeare takes to be the normal position of the widow, that of having a child by which to remember the deceased husband/father, with the possible position of the world, which is to grieve without an image to recall the beloved’s form; Q3 contrasts the waster of cash with the waster of beauty. The effect is to tightly coil the sonnet, so that rather than the dynamic developing quatrain by quatrain, each quatrain itself contains some tension that is being worked out. (This is hardly unique to this sonnet, but it struck me particularly.)

More tomorrow, when we’ll see Shakespeare developing the idea he introduces in the couplet.


Sonnet 10

Happy Friday, Shakespeareans.

Today, Sonnet 10:

For shame, deny that thou bear’st love to any,
Who for thyself art so unprovident.
Grant, if thou wilt, thou art belov’d of many,
But that thou none lov’st is most evident;
For thou art so possess’d with murderous hate
That ’gainst thyself thou stick’st not to conspire,
Seeking that beauteous roof to ruinate
Which to repair should be thy chief desire.
O, change thy thought, that I may change my mind!
Shall hate be fairer lodg’d than gentle love?
Be, as thy presence is, gracious and kind,
Or to thyself at least kind-hearted prove:
     Make thee another self, for love of me,
     That beauty still may live in thine or thee.

Harold Bloom says of Hamlet that he dies beloved of everybody – the audience not least of all – but loving nobody. Certainly we’re given every reason to believe that Hamlet is an intensely charismatic hero: there is the loyalty he inspires in Horatio, and the tragic desire in Ophelia; it is reported to us that he’s a particular favourite of the people of Denmark; and the impression we get early on is that we are being presented with a brilliant young man currently sunk in depression. And Hamlet never acts in a way that convinces us that he loves anyone: he pursues revenge for his father, sure, but surely that is more the working out of father-son issues than genuine love or filial piety; his treatment of Ophelia is wretched; he appears to value Horatio as the guardian of his memory above anything else; and his last words to his dying mother are “Wretched queen, adieu!”

I bring this up because I like to read this sonnet as one perhaps commissioned by his mother, Gertrude, to persuade Hamlet to abandon his perpetual studies at Wittenberg, return home, marry Ophelia and settle down. It forms a nice pair with Sonnet 9: the first expanding on the idea of how aggrieved the world will be if he dies without an heir, the second developing the idea that only someone who really hates everyone could willingly cause them such pain. It develops the idea thus:

Q1: Everybody loves you, but if you really loved anyone else you wouldn’t be so selfish

Q2: You really must hate yourself to want your good looks to die with you, rather than passing them on (keeping ‘that beauteous roof’ in good repair)

Q3: Be nice, be generous: reproduce! Then my opinion of you will improve

C: Do it for me, young man, if you won’t do it for yourself

The couplet of this sonnet is significant because it is the first time any personal feelings between Shakespeare and the young man are mentioned. We have, perhaps, a little development in the overall narrative of the Sonnets. To begin with, the exhortations are fairly impersonal, and we have no reason to suppose that the poet and the addressee really know each other – hence the appeal of the idea that Shakespeare was being paid to write them. But here we see the first sign of a developing relationship between the two, and it is this relationship that will turn into the driving force of the request of the sequence.

And with that, have a lovely weekend, and you’ll hear from me next week.