[What follows is a record of the emails that have been sent to our Sonnets group. You can head to the Sonnets main page to sign up for future emails.]
Good morning, good morning, Sonneteers.
We’ve had a brief respite from the full force of Shakespeare’s jealousy, but today it’s back!
Is it thy will thy image should keep open
My heavy eyelids to the weary night?
Dost thou desire my slumbers should be broken,
While shadows like to thee do mock my sight?
Is it thy spirit that thou send’st from thee
So far from home into my deeds to pry,
To find out shames and idle hours in me,
The scope and tenor of thy jealousy?
O, no! thy love, though much, is not so great:
It is my love that keeps mine eye awake;
Mine own true love that doth my rest defeat,
To play the watchman ever for thy sake:
For thee watch I whilst thou dost wake elsewhere,
From me far off, with others all too near.
I think this might be the most direct expression we’ve had yet of the insecurity Shakespeare feels. He frequently complains of his lover’s absence; he frequently bemoans the young man’s other interests; but not, so far, so openly as this. A gloss:
Q1 Do you desire that I should be so sleepless?
Q2 Do you send your spirit so far from where you are, for the sake of tormenting me?
Q3 I think not: your feelings aren’t strong enough to be bothered with the effort. The source of my woes is not your love: it’s mine
C I lay awake thinking of you, so far away, so close to others
It’s a rough one. The argument of the poem nicely exhibits that Italian structure we’ve noted before: the octave (Q1 + Q2) poses those accusatory questions; then there’s turn, and the sestet (Q3 + C) mocks the premise of those questions, and despairs. We’ve had sonnets of sleeplessness before, most notably 27 and 28. This one picks up on 28’s intensity, but amplifies it: this is the first time Shakespeare has so openly acknowledged that the young man probably doesn’t feel that strongly about him.
Q2 is particularly interesting. Q1 poses the general question: is it your spirit that visits me and keeps me restless with thoughts of you? Q2 develops this, pondering the motivations by which the young man’s spirit might visit Shakespeare — could it be jealousy, or a desire to scope out the skeletons in Shakespeare’s closet? Motivating this is the language of the Renaissance Platonists, which Shakespeare is once again echoing, most notably in line 4: ‘While shadows like to thee do mock my sight’. The shadow that visits Shakespeare is the image cast by the young man’s substance; it is not a figment of Shakespeare’s mind but rather has its source in the young man himself. To us it’s odd, yet it remains a compelling as a way of fleshing out the idea that someone’s spirit really does visit you when they’re thinking of you; their mind, turned towards you, makes contact.
Why would they be thinking of you? Well, maybe jealousy, maybe salacious curiosity, maybe it’s a kind of vetting. But Q3 dashes this line of thought. As though he’d really spare one thought for me, poor Shakespeare moans. He’s accepted, for now at least, the grim reality that his obsession is not reciprocated, and he’s recognised that it’s his own fixation that torments him. He can’t help but think of the young man surrounded by an adoring audience, an audience he takes so much more interest in than in Shakespeare, pining away at a distance.
There’s something very bitter in the questions of the octave, which becomes clear in light of how it turns. Shakespeare is aware that it is not at all the young man’s ‘will’, nor is he ‘sending’ anything. Yet Shakespeare’s love remains ‘true’ (line 10). As we’ll see, this develops into one of the Sonnets‘ major interests: how does love remain true, when its object reveals itself as so manifestly inadequate?
Tomorrow, however, the focus turns inward.
Sonneteers, good morning.
This sonnet seems such a departure from the sequence so far that it is almost startling: where on earth has the young man gone? Not very far away at all, but at least on a first reading his is a notable absence.
Sin of self-love possesseth all mine eye
And all my soul and all my every part;
And for this sin there is no remedy,
It is so grounded inward in my heart.
Methinks no face so gracious is as mine,
No shape so true, no truth of such account;
And for myself mine own worth do define,
As I all other in all worths surmount.
But when my glass shows me myself indeed,
Beated and chopp’d with tann’d antiquity,
Mine own self-love quite contrary I read;
Self so self-loving were iniquity.
’Tis thee, myself, that for myself I praise
Painting my age with beauty of thy days.
The artistry of this sonnet is in its misdirection: the reader progresses through Q1-Q3 growing steadily more puzzled, thinking the subject is Shakespeare’s vanity, which would be without precedent in the sequence; then that cryptic couplet suddenly illuminates the whole, and you realise what the conceit is. I’m going to do an unusual gloss for this one, unfolding the path my understanding followed:
Q1 Vanity is one of my major vices, and it is rooted deep in my heart
Q2 I think of my face us uncommonly lovely, ditto my figure as a whole, my truth noteworthy; really I’m just better than everyone
Q3 But when I chance to look at myself in a mirror, I realise just how old and weathered I really look, and my self-love turns to loathing; it’s unjust to love something so unlovely so much
C It’s you I praise, as myself, adopting your good points as my own [— ah ha! it’s the young man! back to Q1!]
Q1 Seeing as you and I are united in love, me loving you is a kind of self-love, one that I just can’t get over
Q2 There really is nobody prettier or better than you
Q3 Looking in the mirror is just a painful reminder that I’m not you
Shakespeare’s played with this idea before, that two united in love become one; the most notable instance was 42, in which, by the logic of substitution, Shakespeare’s mistress, by sleeping with the young man, wasn’t cheating on him at all! But on this occasion he’s gone all in, adopting the conceit wholly, and leaving only an oblique clue in line 13 for us to figure it out: ‘’Tis thee, myself, that for myself I praise’ — a line that risks not making sense, but the logic here, that he’s substituting something for himself in his praise, only works if we read that something (addressed as ‘thee’) as somebody who is not Shakespeare (we get nowhere if we take the referent of ‘thee’ as ‘myself’). From there it hardly takes a lot of sleuthing to work out who it might be.
The bait-and-switch is very satisfying in the way it makes one suddenly read the whole body of the sonnet again in totally different terms; but it remains unsatisfying, in that it turns out that the sonnet is saying nothing we haven’t seen before. We get it, Shakespeare: he’s unparalleled. So for a moment I’m going to pretend the couplet didn’t happen, and just muse on the portrait of narcissism it presents, pretending that that is the true subject of the sonnet.
Q1 is refreshingly honest, and is almost a rendering of healthy self-regard: this is a mind that recognises that there is something special about it, and it doesn’t pretend or cringe at that. I say ‘almost’, because Q2 immediately darkens it, and the speaker suddenly seems rather obnoxious: there’s healthy self-regard, and then there’s this, which is more like unhealthy self-obsession. Somebody thinking that much of themselves never ended well. But then Q3 deflates it again, and that’s the bit I find most striking in its realism: who, feeling on top of the world, hasn’t had their self-importance punctured by an unflattering glance in the mirror, or suddenly seeing or hearing something one has done or said: it all comes crashing down. The body of this sonnet sets out a movement of feeling, and the quatrains are its moments. It’s very effective.
Now we’re in for a run of sonnets on time and decay: brace yourselves!
Good morning, Sonneteers.
Today’s sonnet initiates a mini-sequence on time, decay and death — and what Shakespeare might be able to do about it.
Against my love shall be, as I am now,
With time’s injurious hand crushed and o’erworn;
When hours have drained his blood, and filled his brow
With lines and wrinkles; when his youthful morn
Hath travailed on to age’s steepy night,
And all those beauties whereof now he’s king
Are vanishing, or vanished out of sight,
Stealing away the treasure of his spring;
For such a time do I now fortify
Against confounding age’s cruel knife,
That he shall never cut from memory
My sweet love’s beauty, though my lover’s life.
His beauty shall in these black lines be seen,
And they shall live, and he in them still green.
This set of themes — time, decay, death, immortality — is central to the Sonnets. The motivating anxiety is not fear of one’s own death, which seems oddly absent, but rather the death of a loved one: the thought that his beloved is mortal is never far from Shakespeare’s mind, and his experience there must be pretty close to universal. The famously cryptic dedication to the Sonnets (which I haven’t really discussed yet; I might turn to it in detail at a later date) refers to ‘that eternity promised by our ever-living poet’, and Shakespeare does indeed keep promising eternity to the young man: first, through procreation — notably, this is before he seems to have fallen in love; then, beginning with 15 (and really getting going at 18), as his passion grows, he promises eternity through the medium of verse.
Here’s a gloss for this one:
Q1 Against the time when my youthful beloved becomes old and decrepit, as I am…
Q2 …when his youthful charms have faded…
Q3 …I am making a provision so that, though he lose his life, his beauty shall live on
C In the lines I write about him he will live forever young and beautiful
Note that the octave is preoccupied with decay and death, the sestet with beauty and immortality. Shakespeare links the two parts of the octave even more tightly than is usual for him, employing enjambment in lines 4-5 so that the sense spills from the end of Q1 into the beginning of Q2 (‘when his youthful morn / Hath travailed…’).
The sonnet poses a question that every person who loves another must face: how will I cope with the inevitable change that time brings? Love can be remarkably averse to change, wishing to hold the beloved frozen in time at this moment, loving them as they are right now. And then there are Shakespeare’s particular worries here, the inevitable changes of age, the loss of vitality, the fading of the first flower of youthful beauty. We count a love that cannot survive these changes a shallow affair, and graceful ageing must involve an evolving awareness that time brings gains as well as losses; yet they remain losses everyone must confront.
One of the major ways of coping with time and loss is the power of memory, and it is often noted (and hardly surprising) that as people get older they come to appreciate reminiscence more and more. Memory makes the past never very far away, and when a vivid memory seizes one (the experience is almost always involuntary, even if desired) the past becomes so much closer than any present thing, and the things of the past are themselves closer than they were at the time. I quoted Auden’s poem ‘Alone’ in its entirety when discussing 48, but I will quote a few lines again because they make this point with characteristic sublimity:
Why what, when dreaming, is dear flesh and bone
That really stirs the senses, when awake,
Appears a simulacrum of his own.
What is constituted by our imaginations — and this includes memories and dreams — is so much more vivid and real to us than much of reality, which allows the store of memory to compensate somewhat for time’s losses. And it is in this vein, I think, that Shakespeare’s desire to memorialise his friend in verse makes sense. The bit that gets me, and that I’ve brought up before and no doubt will bring up again, is that the fact Shakespeare makes no specific attempt to tell us what the young man looked like, and thus make an overt attempt to preserve his friend’s good looks, always feels like it undercuts this repeated claim that ‘His beauty shall in these black lines be seen’. But as an aide-mémoire, for the benefit of Shakespeare and that circle of friends who knew the whos and the whats, it will have served its purpose; and in a way never quite spelling it out works paradoxically for posterity. The reader of any work is free to fill in the details in a way pleasing to them (which is what can make casting decisions in film and TV adaptations so disappointing), and can thereby form an image of a desirable young man even if they would be left cold by Shakespeare’s young man himself. It is just that it is hardly his beauty that is thus kept alive. Likewise, memory can keep a vivid image of the beloved alive, but it too fails to be the thing itself.
And this returns us to the anxieties that motivate this sonnet, which Shakespeare will address much more directly tomorrow.
Here we have it: at just past halfway through the Young Man sequence (126 sonnets in all), Shakespeare’s direct confrontation with an anxiety that has been bothering him all along.
When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
The rich-proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.
Unusually, there is no attempt at a spin in the sonnet that might make the reality easier to bear, or that calls us back to Shakespeare’s fixation on the special nature of his beloved; instead, an acknowledgement of how powerful, how sad, this thought is.
In lieu of my regular gloss, which this one really doesn’t need, I’ll just offer a few observations part by part:
Q1 Here the focus is on the way human monuments are razed, both by the slow effects of time and by the faster-acting injuries of ‘mortal rage’.
Q2 Now the natural world: specifically, the way the ocean eats the land. I’m reminded of a chapter in Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, about an English country town (I forget its name) that is half-eaten by the sea.
Q3 The turn: having enumerated things he sees in the octave, in the sestet he turns to how it affects him: namely, he sees death and decay in the human and natural world, and comes to reflect on how it will apply to even the most important thing in the world to him
C I’m often unmoved, if not underwhelmed, by the couplets, but this one is a killer. Is it not a beautiful encapsulation of one of those long nights of the soul, when grief feels so close?
Tomorrow Shakespeare will recover his poise, and try to repel this anxiety. I will leave my longer comments for then.
Good morning, Sonneteers, and happy Friday.
Shakespeare isn’t done with his struggle against yesterday’s annihilating mood:
Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.
The hope he holds out here is slender — a ‘miracle’, he calls it. But where yesterday the mood had swallowed him (and everything), today he’s at least got a hope for what he might do. In a funny way I’m reminded of a story Kierkegaard repeats somewhere (I suspect it’s in the introduction to Philosophical Fragments) about the ancient Cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope: Diogenes’s city was under siege, and everyone was bustling about preparing for the defence. At a loose end, he started rolling his barrel around the streets (famously, he lived in a barrel, having scorned the trappings of civilisation); when asked why he was rolling his barrel around, he said that everyone else looked so busy and he didn’t want to be left out. Shakespeare, confronted by the enormous inexorabilities of Time and Death, is rolling his own barrel: writing sonnets, on a slim hope, lest he otherwise be doing nothing.
Q1 Not even the strongest things under the sun survive Time’s rages, so how could the softness of beauty hope to hold out?
Q2 How indeed could something as soft as breath survive a storm?
Q3 Where could someone hide something from Time’s clutches? Who can hold Time back? Who forbid him his action?
C There is nothing to be done, unless by some miracle these lines preserve the beauty of my beloved
My position on Shakespeare’s project remains unchanged: if his aim was to preserve the memory of his love’s beauty, I don’t think it’s worked; if his aim was to preserve his love’s essence by transforming him into a dramatic character who would be remembered, in a way it has worked — but not as intended, if the intention was to leave to posterity a sympathetic portrait of a man who was good and true. Whether the young man appears unsympathetic because of how he is portrayed, or because of the way our perceptions have changed — this is hard to judge. The Sonnets were greeted more or less by silence when first issued; very little commentary about them survives before the 19th Century. I can’t find it right at this moment, but I recall a reference somewhere to a 17th Century hand having written ‘SIN AND ROT’ (or something equally damning) at the end of an early copy; but there isn’t much else to go on. Given Shakespeare’s genius for inventing dramatic characters, however, I think it’s fair to suppose he knew what he was doing.
The opposition of beauty to the rages of time is nicely done in lines 3-4: ‘How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea / Whose action is no stronger than a flower?’ Beauty, one of the most important goods in the world (according to Shakespeare and much classical philosophy), is nonetheless so subdued in its power and its effects. It can only act on you if you let it, if you slow down and attend to it; like a flower, it could be so easily trampled by an inattentive foot.
There is also good wit in lines 9-10: ‘where, alack, / Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?’ One would normally suppose that a chest is just the place to put your best jewel, but Shakespeare evidently intends a different sense of chest: ‘chest’ as storage, where you put the things you no longer need; or, more gruesomely, I wonder if I hear a hint of ‘coffin’. It’s a pleasing reversal of expectations.
I mentioned Sebald in yesterday’s missive, and LT has written in with the details: the town that was swallowed by the sea is Dunwich, and (for those interested) he discusses it on pages 154-160 of The Rings of Saturn. (Excellent book, by the way.)
Have lovely weekends, stay well, and we’ll continue next week.