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

Sonnet 71

Good morning, Sonneteers, welcome back.

I’m afraid we’re in for a grim week: this sonnet represents a fresh departure, to be sure, and isn’t steeped in the (same) neuroticism we’ve seen so far — but the question that will occupy Shakespeare from now until Thursday is that of his own death, so brace yourselves.

No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it; for I love you so,
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O, if, I say, you look upon this verse
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse,
But let your love even with my life decay;
     Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
     And mock you with me after I am gone.

Oh dear, oh dear. This is one that mostly stands on its own, without the need for the context of the sequence, except perhaps for the couplet (on which Shakespeare will expand tomorrow). I don’t think this one particularly needs a gloss, but instead I can’t help but note that each element of the sonnet has a strong image:

Q1 A ringing bell

Q2 Writing (or a hand writing)

Q3 Clay

A moan of grief

It’s a depressing series.

The question to my mind is: what sentiment is the sonnet expressing? It allows a few different, and contradictory, voices — which hardly makes it alone in the Sonnets, but this case is particularly acute. Here are a few options:

It could be read seriously. The sentiment is that of a lover, reflecting on his death and the effect it will have on his beloved, and wishing to spare his beloved that grief (Q2). Q1 would support this, especially the first three lines: read in these terms, they say, ‘Give expression to your grief, but not for longer than you need.’

More complexly, it could be read as a performative self-contradiction: on the one hand, Shakespeare wants to spare his beloved pain; on the other, he can’t help but desire to live on in his beloved’s consciousness. This reading is particularly suggested by the oddity and self-reference of Q2: ‘if you read this line, remember not / The hand that writ it’ — why is Shakespeare envisaging a situation in which his beloved is re-reading the poems he has sent him, while simultaneously urging him to forget him? Why would the young man be reading these private poems if he has forgotten their author?

Or it could be read in terms of the couplet’s sentiment: as more self-flagellation on Shakespeare’s part: ‘I’m not worthy!’ Shakespeare is evidently deeply insecure about their relationship, and this hateful thought can’t be far from his mind: that he might be as easily displaced from his beloved’s mind as he has (frequently) been from his company. We will get more on this tomorrow.

But I will leave you today with a pair of poems that occurred to me while reading this one. The first is its obvious companion, Christina Rossetti’s ‘Remember’:

Remember me when I am gone away, 
         Gone far away into the silent land; 
         When you can no more hold me by the hand, 
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay. 
Remember me when no more day by day 
         You tell me of our future that you plann’d: 
         Only remember me; you understand 
It will be late to counsel then or pray. 
Yet if you should forget me for a while 
         And afterwards remember, do not grieve: 
         For if the darkness and corruption leave 
         A vestige of the thoughts that once I had, 
Better by far you should forget and smile 
         Than that you should remember and be sad.

 Is it too crude to say that this poem exhibits more self-esteem than the sonnet does? — The other poem is a longer bow: ‘Who Goes With Fergus’ by W B Yeats:

Who will go drive with Fergus now,
   And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,
      And dance upon the level shore?
Young man, lift up your russet brow,
   And lift your tender eyelids, maid,
      And brood on hopes and fear no more.

And no more turn aside and brood
   Upon love’s bitter mystery;
      For Fergus rules the brazen cars,
And rules the shadows of the wood,
   And the white breast of the dim sea
      And all dishevelled wandering stars.

It was lines 7-8 that came to mind when reading Sonnet 71; reading the rest, I wonder whether an interesting comparison might be drawn — but it is late, and I am tired!


Sonnet 72

Good morning, good morning.

Today Shakespeare unpacks the couplet from yesterday’s sonnet: ‘Lest the wise world should look into your moan, / And mock you with me after I am gone.’

O, lest the world should task you to recite
What merit liv’d in me, that you should love
After my death (dear love) forget me quite,
For you in me can nothing worthy prove;
Unless you would devise some virtuous lie,
To do more for me than mine own desert,
And hang more praise upon deceased I
Than niggard truth would willingly impart;
O, lest your true love may seem false in this,
That you for love speak well of me untrue,
My name be buried where my body is,
And live no more to shame nor me nor you:
     For I am shamed by that which I bring forth,
     And so should you, to love things nothing worth.

The mocking world, amused that the young man should mourn such an unworthy person as Shakespeare, asks the young man to explain Shakespeare’s worthiness: but there’s no honest answer, Shakespeare says, that satisfies the question. And since it’s better not to lie, it would be better not to mourn, and thus be put in the position of having to lie.

Q1 Lest the world ask you what merit I had, it would be better that you forget me after my death, for there’s no good answer you could give

Q2 You might contrive some virtuous lie, but it would be more than I’d deserve

Q3 Your true love would make you false in lying, so better to bury my name with my body (it’s a shameful thing anyway)

C I’m ashamed by what my life has achieved; you, too, should be ashamed for loving someone so worthless

The whole thing is painful to read, and the couplet is the worst part. I’m not sure what the referent of line 13’s ‘that which I bring forth’ should be: is he referring to these sonnets, complaining again that they are inadequate to the feelings he is seeking to express? Is he more generally referring to his creative output, damning his plays and longer poems too? Or is he saying that he’s ashamed, knowing himself unworthy, to be inspiring (‘bringing forth’) the love of someone he thinks so much better, and thereby tarring his beloved with his own unworthiness?

Is it irony? Is it bombast? Is it deficient self-regard? It’s a question that goes beyond just this sonnet, and takes in the whole of Shakespeare. He seems to have had little regard for posterity, making no apparent effort to preserve the body of his work (in direct contrast to someone like his contemporary Ben Jonson, who published an edition of his own collected works in 1616). But is this indifference the insouciance of genius, modest self-effacement, or doubt that his works had any merit?

I hesitate to venture a view about the broader question, but in terms of the voice I hear in the Sonnets (which may or may not be authentically Shakespeare’s own) I don’t hear irony or bombast in this one: I hear deficient self-regard, possibly fishing for reassurance. Some commentators disagree, and irony seems a common way of reading it instead, but this strikes me as a defensive mechanism, driven by a need to see our greatest poet as always one step ahead: if the poet says something you think disappointing, you can always try supposing that he doesn’t mean what he says. Yet even if he’s not being ironic, it doesn’t mean he’s naive; it’s painful to witness, but it is an honest portrait of unworthiness-in-love. I think he knows what he’s doing.

Tomorrow, another famous one, this time on ageing.


Sonnet 73

Good morning, good morning.

This is one of those refreshing sonnets in which all of the usual angst seems to be absent; it is not so warped by the peculiarities of Shakespeare’s relationship with the young man, which animate so many of the other sonnets and which make even those on apparently universal themes more or less idiosyncratic.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang;
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self that seals up all in rest;
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by;
     This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
     To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

It’s wonderfully elegiac, pondering the autumn and sunset of life; and, unusually, the twist of the couplet (where Shakespeare usually introduces his peculiar angle) gives a new and interesting dimension to the poem’s mood. A gloss:

Q1 You see in me the autumn of life, turning to winter, when all the leaves have fallen and the birds are gone

Q2 My time of life is like sunset, and sleep cannot be far away

Q3 My energy and youth have been reduced to ash, and they form the bed on which my embers burn, and will be the bed on which I die

C You see all of this, and it can only strengthen your love — for it reminds you that I won’t be around forever

The whole is finely wrought. Each quatrain employs a different image to signify human death and decay: autumn, when the vitality of summer seems to fade (and, in the northern hemisphere, indicating the approaching end of the year); sunset, heralding the darkening of the world, followed by sleep; and burning embers sitting on a pile of ash, all that is left over from what was (not so long before) a burning fire, and that will soon go cold.

The couplet artfully moves the general theme — age, decline, death — into the context of the theme of the Sonnets, which is to say, love. How does the knowledge that one’s beloved will one day die change the way that we love them? Shakespeare’s answer to this question is that it adds fuel to the fire, increasing the intensity of feeling. A reminder of one’s own mortality, memento mori, was classically supposed to be a counter to hubris, a reminder that no matter how great you think you are, it will all come crashing down in the end. It is supposed to be connected with humility. A reminder of the beloved’s mortality, by Shakespeare’s argument, does not counsel humility and an acceptance that we must all one day die — instead, it fires the heart to kick against fate and love more strongly right now.

There is a contrast here with St Augustine, who in the Confessions discusses the death, in his youth, of his best friend. Augustine was rendered more or less incapacitated with grief for some time. But the lesson he draws is that the structure of human love is ill-suited to mortal life, being an emotion that desires fixity and eternity, and that finds change and loss almost unbearable. For Augustine, this is because love is essentially disordered until it finds its true object, which is the unchanging Christian God; with that object, it can get its subordinate loves into perspective; without that object, it tries to invest mortal things with feelings that cannot cope with their mortality. Romantic love desires the immortality of the beloved as a displacement for the love of God.

Shakespeare refuses the idea that romantic love might have its intensity dampened by being made subordinate to some other kind of love. He has no interest in reconciling us to death; he simply notes the way that a reminder of the beloved’s mortality intensifies our feeling for them. And he’s not wrong — a reminder that anyone one loves will some day die can inspire some of the strongest feelings in the human repertoire.

Lines 3-4 are my favourites here. ‘Boughs which shake against the winter cold’ is an excellent way of summoning an image of a bare tree shaken by the cold winter winds. And ‘bare ruined choirs’ is, I think, among his best: architecturally, a choir is that part of a church where the church choir is seated; its deployment here encourages us to see the bare tree not as a part of the circle of life but as a ruined place of worship from which life (especially signified by the singing birds) has fled.

Tomorrow’s sonnet will pick up where this one leaves off.


Sonnet 74

Sonneteers, good morning.

Shakespeare ends this little sequence on his own mortality with a fresh direction. This is another that seems to pick up immediately on the heels of the last:

But be contented when that fell arrest
Without all bail shall carry me away;
My life hath in this line some interest,
Which for memorial still with thee shall stay.
When thou reviewest this, thou dost review
The very part was consecrate to thee;
The earth can have but earth, which is his due,
My spirit is thine, the better part of me;
So then thou hast but lost the dregs of life,
The prey of worms, my body being dead,
The coward conquest of a wretch’s knife,
Too base of thee to be remembered;
     The worth of that, is that which it contains,
     And that is this, and this with thee remains.

The last few sonnets have traced a curious arc: first an injunction not to mourn Shakespeare, in order to avoid grief, and also lest the young man be mocked (71); then an expansion on why the young man would be mocked, because Shakespeare is unworthy and writes worthless poems (72); then we had yesterday’s meditation on the way mortality affects love (73) — and now, today, a triumphant return to the theme of how poetry can conquer death. Evidently the self-doubt about his production, from sonnet 72, has passed.

Q1 Don’t worry when I’m dead and gone — these poems will live on, carrying my memory

Q2 These poems contain my spirit, which cannot be claimed by the earth

Q3 So only the dregs of life are lost when my body dies, nothing worth remembering

C The worth of a life is what it contains; and what my life contains is these lines (or: my love for you), which will remain after I am gone

Quite a few times we’ve had Shakespeare claim immortality for his young friend via the medium of the Sonnets, and I’ve said a few times I find that a mixed success. But this is a new claim, to be immortalising himself; and that has been a clearer success. There will always be a question about the authenticity of the voice in the Sonnets — whether the speaker is to be identified with Shakespeare, and if so how closely — but if the project announced here is serious, then there’s something perverse in reading the Sonnets as entirely fictionalised, for the project of self-immortalisation can only succeed if these poems are a true reflection of the mind that produced them. (This isn’t to propose a naive reading, which takes the poems as providing unmediated access to Shakespeare’s thoughts and feelings; we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that a sonnet is a highly artificial art form, and its composition is deliberate, where most of the feelings it records are involuntary. It is only to note that this sonnet suggests we read them in Shakespeare’s own voice, and not in the voice of one of his characters.)

That said, it does strike me that the claim to self-immortalisation here is not quite the same as the promise to immortalise the young man. The repeated claim was that the young man would live on in the poems, and this seemed to be in contrast to a memorial that merely recalls the dead to memory (see sonnets 15-18, and my comments on 18 particularly). This one is a bit less clear: Shakespeare refers to the poem as a ‘memorial’, but also identifies it with his spirit. I wonder whether the ambivalence about self-immortalisation has to do with the difference between the first and third person perspectives: one’s understanding of others is third-personal, even when we try to imagine our way into their perspective, and it is thus much easier to think of them as being immortalised as a literary character; one’s understanding of oneself is primarily in terms of one’s own consciousness, and so it is much harder to think of oneself as living on as something that isn’t conscious of itself (although it appears in the consciousness of others).

I don’t know what it is, but I particularly like the metaphor of death as sudden arrest that opens this poem: ‘that fell arrest / Without all bail’ that will carry him away. It rings of the traditional association of death and judgement, but with a faint air Kafka — death is an arrest with no chance of an appeal, a trial that begins abruptly and from which one does not come home. That the sentence begins with an injunction to be contented just adds a pleasingly dissonant note.

Tomorrow: love as food.


Sonnet 75

Sonneteers, happy Friday.

Something a bit different today: the cycles of glut and scarcity in Shakespeare’s romance.

So are you to my thoughts as food to life,
Or as sweet-season’d showers are to the ground;
And for the peace of you I hold such strife
As ’twixt a miser and his wealth is found:
Now proud as an enjoyer, and anon
Doubting the filching age will steal his treasure;
Now counting best to be with you alone,
Then better’d that the world may see my pleasure.
Sometime all full with feasting on your sight,
And by and by clean starved for a look;
Possessing or pursuing no delight,
Save what is had or must from you be took.
     Thus do I pine and surfeit day by day,
     Or gluttoning on all, or all away.

Unusually, this one strikes me as just a bit fun, and I can’t help but see some humour in the image of Shakespeare gorging one day and pining the next. It’s not so simple as that, of course: it’s humorous, but also anxious. A gloss:

Q1 As food is to life, and showers are to the ground, so you are to me; yet for the contentedness I feel when I have you I suffer such anxiety, like a wealthy miser

Q2 For like a wealthy miser, I enjoy you when I have you, yet I’m always worried someone will steal you; sometimes I think it’s better to have you all to yourself, other times I much prefer to show you off

Q3 Sometimes I’m full from feasting on your sight, other times I’m starving for a look; I don’t count anything worth having in life, except what can be had from you

Day by day I either pine from want, or am a glutton from surfeit

That last line is a tricky one, but it’s a bit clearer when you realise that ‘or … or …’ is a construction that means ‘either … or …’ (one of those instances of the conventions of English having moved on since the Renaissance). The primary sense of the line is presumably ‘either gluttoning on all, or all [going] away’, mirroring the line before (pine-surfeit/all-away); but the ambiguity of the last bit does faintly suggest ‘[putting] all away’ (recalling the miser from line 4).

Whether the young man is present or absent is a little unclear. The opening line suggests the relation is to thought, which opens the question of whether this is a repeat of 30 (‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past’), which ended: ‘But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, / All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.’ However, in this one, Shakespeare later describes himself as ‘sometime all full with feasting on your sight’, so I think what we’re dealing with hear is the cycle of replenishment for Shakespeare’s thought: seeing the young man, he can drink his fill, making his thoughts of the young man sweet (as in 30); not seeing him for a while, his thoughts become parched, and pained, and thinking on him becomes sorrow (e.g. 27).

My favourites are lines 3-8, which I’ll reprint to spare you scrolling back up to find them:

And for the peace of you I hold such strife
As ’twixt a miser and his wealth is found:
Now proud as an enjoyer, and anon
Doubting the filching age will steal his treasure;
Now counting best to be with you alone,
Then better’d that the world may see my pleasure.

(‘Doubting’ here means ‘suspecting’ or ‘fearing’. Stephen Booth points us to Hamlet (II.2): ‘Doubt truth to be a liar.’)

The first thing that’s nice here is the image of ‘strife’ between a miser and his wealth (3-4): it makes us readily think of what the metaphor is really about, a lover and his beloved, but is puzzling in its context. Helpfully, Shakespeare proceeds to unpack the riddle, telling us what nature of the strife is (5-6): the miser is anxious that his treasure will be stolen, giving him a love/hate relationship with it. It’s swift and incisive, and the parallel is illuminating of both miserliness and jealousy. The miser has displaced his desire for something that matters (love) into something that doesn’t (money); the jealous, controlling lover has mistaken relation for possession, treating the beloved like something that could be locked in a vault. Shakespeare then expands on this miserliness in love (7-8): the possessive lover is torn between wanting to keep their love to themselves, safe from theft, and wanting to parade them before the world, and bask in the recognition of the wealth they possess.

Have lovely weekends, and we’ll resume next week.