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

Sonnet 66

Good morning, Sonneteers.

I hope you’ve had jolly weekends, because today Shakespeare is in a freshly depressing mood:

Tir’d with all these, for restful death I cry,
As, to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplac’d,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgrac’d,
And strength by limping sway disabled,
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill,
And simple truth miscall’d simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:
     Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,
     Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.

It’s grim, but it’s also a fine sonnet. The piling up of those ‘ands’ produces an excellent effect, being both a numbing drumbeat and an elegant rhetorical device. Its final mood, of despair-but-for-one-thing, is also moving. Today I’m going to skip the usual gloss, because this one hardly needs it, and it also refuses to stick to the usual structure of a sonnet in any meaningful way (apart from the distinction between body and couplet).

Is the sentiment of this sonnet that rare? I doubt it, although I also doubt it’s universal. I feel like I can divide most people I’ve met into two types: those who experience life as something they basically just want more of, and even when life is very difficult their innate vitality keeps them going; and those for whom life often feels like a struggle, and the question of whether it is worth going on is often an open question, although they may have an assortment of reasons to stay alive. Death, nonetheless, can seem so restful. Camus’ line that the first problem of philosophy is suicide, is an expression of this sentiment. This sonnet, if it is representative, would also place Shakespeare in the latter camp. He enumerates his sources of despair and frustration, but also identifies a reason to keep going.

And it is not just any reason, but perhaps the strongest reason one can have. It is, in a way, the inverse of what I have called attention to before, the way we internalise those others who are important to us such that they become a part of us, and we thereby develop a kind of need or connection with them. Here, it is the recognition of the other part of that: the thought that one could leave one’s loved ones behind, leave that kind of gap for them, is a powerful motivation to remain.

(Let me call attention to the fact that I am deliberately not reading this one as just an expression of Shakespeare’s abject devotion, telling the young man that he’s the only bright spark in a dark and unrewarding world. Shakespeare has more than deserved to be read in this way, but I don’t think it would be that interesting so I won’t.)

There are some good lines in here. ‘To behold desert a beggar born’ is a nice compact piece of expression, although it would be more friendly to the reader to capitalise ‘Desert’ to make it clear we’re dealing with the personification of deserving-ness, or a person who is deserving. (Oddly, even though plenty of nouns are capitalised in the 1609 edition, that one isn’t.) Line 3, ‘needy nothing trimmed in jollity’, is also good but possibly baffling. On a first reading one is inclined to take its sense as something like ‘needy nobodies given little (‘trimmed’) jollity’, but it probably means instead ‘needy Nothings (i.e. people of no merit) decked out with fine clothes and merriment’ — and this time, at least, the 1609 capitalises helpfully. ‘Folly, doctor-like, controlling skill’ is such a neat way of noting that even brilliant and able people can be led astray by the idiocy of the ideas they serve; their capacities are put at the service of silly or dangerous ends.

Tomorrow, a resumption of the more regular programming.


Sonnet 67

Sonneteers, good morning.

Shakespeare is still running with yesterday’s theme of the corruption of the world, but today in a more recognisable key:

Ah, wherefore with infection should he live
And with his presence grace impiety,
That sin by him advantage should achieve
And lace itself with his society?
Why should false painting imitate his cheek,
And steal dead seeing of his living hue?
Why should poor beauty indirectly seek
Roses of shadow, since his rose is true?
Why should he live, now Nature bankrupt is,
Beggar’d of blood to blush through lively veins?
For she hath no exchequer now but his,
And, proud of many, lives upon his gains.
     O, him she stores, to show what wealth she had
     In days long since, before these last so bad.

The world is unbearably corrupt: but isn’t the young man just so wonderful? Ah, sweet relief, we know where we are.

Q1 Why should he grace such wretchedness with his loveliness, such that he does the unworthy world a favour by associating with it?

Q2 Why should the world be allowed to make themselves up to imitate him?

Q3 Nature, now bankrupt, only has him to be proud of

Nature keeps him alive, as a reminder of how much better thing used to be

There is an interesting turn at the sestet. Reading on from the last sonnet, one could easily have supposed that the question here was whether suicide might not be a viable option for the young man, rather than continuing to live in such a wretched world. But the octave makes clear that this isn’t the question: the question is why such a wonderful exemplar of a human being should exist at all in a world that is so decadent. And the answer is: Nature keeps him around so that it isn’t all bad.

What I find puzzling is the conflation of aesthetic and moral values. The previous sonnet focussed on society’s decadence, and I think that’s what we’re supposed to read here, for example in Q1 where the young man is said to ‘grace impiety’, while ‘sin’ will gain ‘advantage’ from him. But Q2 couches it in the language of physical attractiveness: his ‘living hue’, the ‘false painting’ that would imitate his complexion, ‘roses of shadow’ echoing is ‘true’ rose. This is all par for the course for the Sonnets, of course, and for a broader tradition of linking the good and the beautiful. But I can’t shake the oddity of finding Shakespeare cheerfully trotting out a fairly shallow version of this — call it the unity of the good and the pretty — when in the plays he shows himself so astute; to my mind, it speaks to either the Sonnets‘ being an honest account of the depredations of being besotted, or deliberate artistry in showing a mind passing through such besottedness and coming out the other side.

Line 12 is another instance of obscurity in the Sonnets. If Nature is the subject of ‘proud’, it doesn’t make sense to say that Nature is proud of many things, given that the young man is the only thing left worth being proud of. Perhaps it’s supposed to be read in the past tense, meaning ‘[Nature, who was] proud of many, [now] lives [only] upon his gains’. But that requires a fair amount of interpolation. Editors have tried a few different other options. One is the emend it to ‘proved’, in the sense of ‘[his worth] tested by many’. Another is ”prived’, i.e. ‘deprived’, speaking to nature’s lack of much to be proud of. For my part, I wonder whether ‘proud of many’ might be in the passive voice, as it were, meaning ‘many are proud of him’ or ‘he is the pride of many’. Whatever it is, it’s a cryptic line.

Tomorrow, more on the decadence of the present.


Sonnet 68

Good morning, good morning.

With this sonnet Shakespeare rounds out this sequence on the corruption of the world in which he lives:

Thus is his cheek the map of days outworn,
When beauty liv’d and died as flowers do now,
Before these bastard signs of fair were born,
Or durst inhabit on a living brow;
Before the golden tresses of the dead,
The right of sepulchres, were shorn away,
To live a second life on second head;
Ere beauty’s dead fleece made another gay:
In him those holy antique hours are seen,
Without all ornament itself and true,
Making no summer of another’s green,
Robbing no old to dress his beauty new;
     And him as for a map doth Nature store,
     To show false Art what beauty was of yore.

Or, at least, this is how we might piously take it if we let our reading be guided by the opening two lines and the couplet. If we focus our attention on lines 3-12 (and especially 3-8), it turns out to be a sonnet railing against the evil of wigs. (Don Paterson refers to it laconically as ‘the wig sonnet’.) When I realised that ‘before these bastard signs of fair were born’ was referring to wigs I actually laughed out loud. Oh, Shakespeare: that’s very good.

Q1 His cheek is a map of days long past, when men lived and died as the lilies in the field, and didn’t gild the lily with pestilent wigs (pah!)

Q2 What are wigs but just the hair lopped off a corpse for the delight of the living?

Q3 In him are those olden days to be seen again before this deplorable practice of wigging was invented, falsely beautifying the ugly and bald

Nature uses him for show, so that idiot wiggers can see what real hair looked like

Of course, it’s not just wigs he’s worried about. Returning to a more sober reading of the sonnet, the point is that the present is decadent, everyone alive is ugly and bad, and only the superlative young man stands above it. But why wigs? Why do wigs stand for everything that is bad and decadent? Because he was bald?

It has been noted that Elizabeth I was the most famous wig-wearer of the age, so making wigs the symbol of moral decadence is almost seditious. That suggests it’s either a deliberate criticism of the court, or he really hates wigs. I’m not sure whether this counts as evidence for or against either of these options, but Don Paterson (Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets) notes that Shakespeare has form when it comes to despising wigs. Here’s Bassanio from The Merchant of Venice (III.2):

              …Look on beauty,
And you shall see ’tis purchased by the weight; 
Which therein works a miracle in nature, 
Making them lightest that wear most of it: 
So are those crisped snaky golden locks 
Which make such wanton gambols with the wind,
Upon supposed fairness, often known 
To be the dowry of a second head, 
The skull that bred them in the sepulchre. 
Thus ornament is but the guiled shore 
To a most dangerous sea…

(This play was probably composed in the mid-1590s, and given its striking similarity — particularly that sepulchre line — this might count as evidence for dating this sonnet. And if a date of the mid-90s is accepted, this counts in favour of Southampton — dedicatee of Shakespeare’s narrative poems, which also date from that time — over Pembroke, who would have been in his early teens. But it is a tenuous link.)

All that aside, there are some strong lines in here, and my favourites are the first three. (I’ve already commented on line 3’s comedy.) Line 1 reads: ‘Thus is his cheek the map of days outworn’. This is ambiguous, and while it turns out to mean ‘his cheek is the map of days gone by’, while reading the sonnet through I can’t help but shake its possible meaning ‘thus is his cheek, the map of days, outworn’ — i.e. here’s an account of how the young man will age and die and lose his looks, his ‘cheek’ being the ‘map of days’ that Nature keeps on hand (referred to in line 13: ‘And him as for a map doth Nature store’); and I can’t help but picture the young man’s locks being shorn from his head, before he himself lies dead in a sepulchre. This can’t be the dominant, or perhaps even an intended reading, but it adds resonance.

And then there’s line 2 with its echo of the Sermon on the Mount: ‘When beauty liv’d and died as flowers do now.’ Here’s Matthew 6:28 (in the Geneva Bible version): ‘And why care ye for raiment? Learn how the Lilies of the field do grow: they are not wearied, neither spin.’ The New Testament’s concern is with people worrying about their material well-being when they should be focused on the spiritual; Shakespeare employs the same image for a purpose one could squint at and suppose is broadly similar — criticising peoples’ concern with their personal appearance — but in a context that is so radically opposed as to border on farcical, in which he rails against the decline of beauty, for the sake of praising a young man with whom he’s desperately in love.

Tomorrow, Shakespeare gets just a little bit critical (for once).


Sonnet 69

Sonneteers, good morning.

Today, unusually, Shakespeare ventures a little bit of criticism of his beloved (it’s OK, he walks it back immediately):

Those parts of thee that the world’s eye doth view
Want nothing that the thought of hearts can mend;
All tongues, the voice of souls, give thee that due,
Uttering bare truth, even so as foes commend.
Thy outward thus with outward praise is crown’d;
But those same tongues, that give thee so thine own,
In other accents do this praise confound
By seeing farther than the eye hath shown.
They look into the beauty of thy mind,
And that, in guess, they measure by thy deeds;
Then churls, their thoughts, although their eyes were kind,
To thy fair flower add the rank smell of weeds:
     But why thy odour matcheth not thy show,
     The soil is this, that thou dost common grow.

Catty! ‘Common’ is hardly stern criticism, but in the context of the almost unfailingly hyperbolic flattery of the Sonnets, it’s basically a swearword. A little gloss:

Q1 Those parts of you readily visible to the world are unfailingly praised

Q2 Even your enemies flatter you. But despite all this praise of your good looks, everyone is rather more critical when they look beyond your outward appearance

Q3 They look into your mind, judging by your deeds, and they are not so kind

C And they’re not wrong: on the inside you’re really not so lovely

Who knows what’s prompted this one. ‘Common’ could have a suggestion of class — maybe the young man has been fraternising with the commoners (like Hal in Henry IV, Part 1); or it could suggest that he’s spending his time with people of whom Shakespeare disapproves (recall the clouds obscuring the young man’s sun in 33 and 34); or perhaps it is a criticism not of the young man’s company, but of the baseness of his character (his commonness as opposed to his nobility).

There’s a kind of inversion in Q2-3 of an argument of Shakespeare’s older contemporary, Montaigne, that judgement of someone’s character requires too much speculation. How someone looks is readily apparent; how they think, how they feel, is not: Montaigne contends that it requires an extraordinary act of imagination to enter into the minds of even those who are well known to us, let alone someone who is not. To his mind, the world would be a much better place if we all kept ourselves to ourselves and refrained from judging others so much. Conversely, Shakespeare is effectively saying: all of these people are just looking at your deeds, and making the obvious inferences — and they’re not wrong.

But we’ll see how he walks that back tomorrow.


Sonnet 70

Good morning, Sonneteers, and happy Friday.

Sonnet 70 today — yes, 70, despite my blunder yesterday in not updating the email subject line! (It was 69, not 68 again!) And whatever reproach Shakespeare directed at the young man yesterday is reversed today.

That thou art blam’d shall not be thy defect,
For slander’s mark was ever yet the fair;
The ornament of beauty is suspect,
A crow that flies in heaven’s sweetest air.
So thou be good, slander doth but approve
Thy worth the greater, being woo’d of time;
For canker vice the sweetest buds doth love,
And thou present’st a pure unstained prime.
Thou hast pass’d by the ambush of young days,
Either not assail’d, or victor being charg’d;
Yet this thy praise cannot be so thy praise,
To tie up envy evermore enlarg’d:
     If some suspect of ill mask’d not thy show,
     Then thou alone kingdoms of hearts shouldst owe.

Reversed, but not totally. Line 13 acknowledges some ‘suspect of ill’, so something is up; but Shakespeare is insisting that despite smoke there is definitely, absolutely no fire (what fire?). A gloss:

Q1 It’s not your fault people blame you: beauty is always suspect just for being itself; blame is the crow that flies in an otherwise spotless sky

Q2 I mean really, the fairer the target, the more blame it attracts, and you’re just so pure

Q3 You’ve made it through your younger days without blemish, and even those accusations that have been levelled have been water off a duck’s back — you’re always proved blameless in the end; but I can’t praise you enough to head off all future envy

If some suspicion didn’t hang over you, then you’d be the #1 beloved of everyone

Shakespeare has raised the idea of blame, and I think that pursuing that idea is revelatory of this sonnet and the one that precedes it, but in a way that is hardly complimentary to Shakespeare. Earlier this week, I was reading an essay by Bernard Williams, the late, great British philosopher. (The essay in question is in his collection Making Sense of Humanity, if you’re interested.) He contends that there are really three ways in which blame is effective. In the first case, I care that I am blamed for some action or inaction because I am aware that what I have done/not done has harmed or conflicted with something that I care about. In the second case, I care that I am blamed because, out of basic self-interest, I want to avoid the approbation of others, which might be harmful to me. But in the third and most interesting case, I can care that I am blamed for something because I care about the views of those who are blaming me, and I want to have their respect. I might then avoid doing something I will be blamed (by them) for, not because I particularly care about the thing they care about, but because I care about what they think, and I happen to know they care about this.

Shakespeare’s rapid retreat suggests a sad reversal. In 69, he blamed the young man for something; in 70, he retreats because it is evident that the young man cares nothing for his disrespect — and he now fears that joining in the accusatory crowds will lead the young man to blame him, and he would do anything not to lose that respect. So he quickly turns sycophant.

Can we think a bit more about lines 5-6? ‘So thou be good, slander doth but approve / Thy worth the greater, being woo’d of time’ — The first thing to be said is that we probably need to interpolate into line 5 to turn it from an injunction (‘Be good, you’) to a conditional: ‘So [if] thou be good’ then slander will prove your greater worth by slandering you more (since ‘canker vice the sweetest buds doth love’). But what does it mean to end with ‘being woo’d of time’? (Unusually, even though ‘woo’d of time’ is personifying, the 1609 edition doesn’t capitalise Time to personify it, although that omission may or may not be meaningful.) What does it mean to be wooed of Time? Perhaps it is a comment on the young man’s youth, and the beauty and vitality attached to it — Time is evidently bestowing its favours. But line 9 suggests that some time has passed, and the young man is not so young any more; ‘woo’d of time’ perhaps suggests Time’s seductive leading of him on into old age, decrepitude and death.

A textual issue complicates this further: the 1609 edition has line 6 as ‘Their worth the greater being woo’d of time’. This is usually emended to ‘thy’, but what if that’s wrong? So is it slander that is being wooed, encouraged by time’s passing to suppose that eventually it will be right, and the young man will err (even if he hasn’t so far, as Shakespeare would have it)? I really can’t decide.

Next week, another cheerful turn: Shakespeare contemplates his own death again.