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

Sonnet 76

Sonneteers, welcome back, good morning.

Over the next couple of weeks, Shakespeare is going to spend quite a lot of time thinking about poets and poetry. He kicks it off today with the topics of inspiration and novelty:

Why is my verse so barren of new pride,
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth and where they did proceed?
O know, sweet love, I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument:
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
     For as the sun is daily new and old,
     So is my love still telling what is told.

This one harks back to Sonnet 38 (which is half of 76, probably not a coincidence), in which Shakespeare mused:

How can my Muse want subject to invent,
While thou dost breathe, that pour’st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
For every vulgar paper to rehearse?

Well, that was many sonnets ago, so what does he think now? Any reader of the Sonnets can’t help but be struck by the amount of repetition they contain, ringing slight changes on a handful of themes. In 76, Shakespeare confronts this head on, and challenges the aesthetic desire for novelty with the virtue of constancy in love: ‘Of course I don’t vary what I write,’ he is saying; ‘my source of inspiration is unchanged, and that is my love of you.’ A gloss:

Q1 What doesn’t my verse follow the new trends, and exhibit variety and novelty?

Q2 Why is just about every poem I write basically the same, almost serving as a signature, proclaiming me and the sources of my inspiration?

Q3 Because my topic is unvaried: it is you, and love. All I am doing is finding new forms for old words

C Just as the sun is new each day, yet old, so is my love for you

I haven’t looked into it (if there were world enough, and time…), but my hunch is that Kierkegaard would have been keen on this sonnet, which touches on two of his central ideas: the opposition between the aesthetic and the ethical views of life; and the concept of repetition, or how something that is old becomes new again each day. In the way Shakespeare sets it up, the desire for novelty in art is closely aligned with the desire for novelty in life, for the art one produces depends on the source of one’s inspiration; if one is steady in life, remaining true to one person, one will consistently produce art that exhibits very little change. By implication, novelty in art depends on novelty in life, and an artist who aspires to novelty must of necessity vary his muses.

The trouble with constancy in life is that it can so easily cool the fires of enthusiasm, and lead to boredom and ennui: one loses sight of why it was one committed to something in the first place. The octave of this sonnet (Q1 + Q2) set out the aestheticist challenge: essentially, that constancy is boring. In turn, Q3 sets up a response, culminating with line 12: ‘Spending again what is already spent.’ In literal terms, this is paradoxical, for one cannot spend the same money twice; but it prepares the ground for the image of self-renewal that is to follow in C: the sun, which is very old, and yet each day it is new. Since ancient times, the sun has served as a ready image for something that gives without exhausting itself, overflowing without ever running dry. And this, Shakespeare says, is what his love is like: ever fresh, ever new, ever the same.

There is also the question of cause and effect. If Shakespeare is merely saying that he experiences a self-renewing sense of love for the young man, the consequence of which is a constant source of inspiration for his poems, then he is not going so far as Kierkegaard, who urges constant conscious commitment and re-commitment; but Shakespeare might also be suggesting that the practice of writing all of these sonnets, all about the young man, all more or less the same, is a part of the process of renewal: it keeps his love focused. I only catch a bare hint of this latter in this sonnet (possibly in the last line), but the question of how love can remain constant when it confronts a world subject to change will come to preoccupy him.


Sonnet 77

Good morning, Sonneteers.

I hope you’ve had a stiff drink and are feeling ready to contemplate your own mortality:

Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear,
Thy dial how thy precious minutes waste,
The vacant leaves thy mind’s imprint will bear,
And of this book, this learning mayst thou taste:
The wrinkles which thy glass will truly show
Of mouthed graves will give thee memory;
Thou by thy dial’s shady stealth mayst know
Time’s thievish progress to eternity;
Look, what thy memory cannot contain,
Commit to these waste blanks, and thou shalt find
Those children nursed, delivered from thy brain,
To take a new acquaintance of thy mind.
     These offices, so oft as thou wilt look,
     Shall profit thee, and much enrich thy book.

On first reading, I had thought this was primarily one about time, memory, and the relation between past, present and future selves, as mediated by the act of writing. But the more I look at it, the more I see how overwhelmingly concerned it is with the question of one’s own death, and how one relates to it; and the whole actually forms quite a specific set of instructions:

Q1 Take the following items: a mirror, a sundial, and a blank page. The mirror will show how increasingly decrepit you look over time, and the sundial will show you the passing of each minute; commit to the paper what you learn from the mirror and the dial, which will be the following:

Q2 Those wrinkles will remind you of the grave that opens before you, and the progress of the shadow across the face of a sundial signifies your progress towards eternity

Q3 These are thoughts that the mind struggles to retain, so commit them to paper so that you can profit by them again later

C The more often you do this, the more you will benefit from it

This sonnet has its roots in classical philosophical practices. Ancient Stoics in particular would practice a daily form of spiritual exercise, in which they would reflect on the various things that were disturbing their calm and try to apply stoic wisdom to these things. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is a particularly good example of this practice, for many of his remarks resemble the notes-to-self of a man conducting this kind of exercise. This sonnet urges a form of this, but focusing specifically on one issue: that of one’s own death. There is, in turn, a long philosophical tradition of reflecting on one’s own death, running from Plato’s Socrates, who says, on his deathbed, that philosophy is nothing other than practice for dying and being dead; to Montaigne, in Shakespeare’s day, who has an essay titled ‘That to Philosophise is to Learn How to Die’; and then on to the contemporary world.

What is the point of such meditation? It’s a serious question: on the face of it, reflecting on something that is both inevitable and painful to think about is just a good way of bringing one’s mood down without being able to achieve anything. Different philosophers give different answers, and the answer one gives (or finds satisfying) will depend on how one answers a host of other questions, such as the immortality (or otherwise) of the soul, what happens after death (and how that relates to life), what the ideal structure of a life is (and whether that is a coherent question), and what is significant in life (and what the source of value is).

So how would Shakespeare answer such a question? We don’t have enough detail to be sure, but on the basis of this sonnet we can try to sketch out an answer. Shakespeare thinks, first, that such meditations are hard. If they were not, we would not need to be urged to make time for it, and would not need such props; and, most significantly, we would not need to commit the resulting reflections to paper. What this suggests is that, for Shakespeare, the mind is in fact quite dedicated to avoiding the thought of one’s own death, and not only will avoid thinking about it but will also actively forget those thoughts afterwards.

Shakespeare also clearly thinks of death as a form of loss: the progress of the dial shows us ‘time’s thievish progress to eternity’; something stolen by a thief is lost, even if we do gain eternity. And I find his reference here to eternity fairly bleak: he makes no reference to salvation, heaven, or the life to come; it is hard not to suspect that time’s progress to eternity is in fact an eternity of oblivion, marked only by the incessant tick of the clock.

So what is the profit of meditating on death? Apart from suggesting that it is the path to wisdom, Shakespeare leaves that open. I could speculate, but it also seems a strength of the poem that it poses the question without more than hinting at an answer.

Tomorrow we enter into a mini-sequence of sonnets about a rival poet.


Sonnet 78


In all, there are 154 sonnets, so we have now passed the half-way mark — well done for sticking with it! This is also as good a moment as any to flag that I am about to take two weeks’ leave. So, after this Friday, there will be a brief, midway-point hiatus to these bulletins, which will resume on Monday 24 August.

Now, on with today’s sonnet:

So oft have I invoked thee for my Muse
And found such fair assistance in my verse,
As every alien pen hath got my use,
And under thee their poesy disperse.
Thine eyes, that taught the dumb on high to sing,
And heavy ignorance aloft to fly,
Have added feathers to the learned’s wing,
And given grace a double majesty.
Yet be most proud of that which I compile,
Whose influence is thine and born of thee:
In others’ works thou dost but mend the style,
And arts with thy sweet graces graced be;
     But thou art all my art and dost advance,
     As high as learning, my rude ignorance.

This is the first of what is known as the ‘rival poet’ sequence, in which Shakespeare is occupied with some kind of rival and makes repeated, veiled reference to other poets (or maybe just one in particular). There are many competing theories around the identity of the rival(s), and the leading contenders are Christopher Marlowe (Shakespeare’s chief rival as a dramatist), George Chapman (poet and translator of Homer into English), or some amalgam of the two (perhaps with others mixed in). A gloss of this one:

Q1 I often invoke you for my muse, and get such inspiration for my verse — yet others do the same

Q2 You’re so pretty even the dumb would sing about you, and empower even fools to compose nice verse; you make learning more learned and grace even more graceful

Q3 Yet be proudest of my verse, which owes everything to you; other (and better?) poets use you merely to improve their verse

Despite being a poor and stupid poet, your influence elevates my poetry to the level of art and knowledge

Despite the fresh introduction of a rival, this one rehearses a number of familiar themes: the grace of the young man, Shakespeare’s sense of unworthiness, and his doubts about his poetic talents. It is, once again, hard to know how seriously to take these professions. They could well be honest: unlike most of his poetic rivals, Shakespeare had not attended university, and was roundly mocked for it; so he may have been sensitive about lacking the refinements of higher learning. But, on the other hand, he may have been well aware that his native talents outstripped those of his better-educated rivals, and he may thus have been inclined to mock them in turn.

Let’s suppose that Shakespeare isn’t being merely abject here: while I don’t doubt his sense of unworthiness before the young man, one gets the sense that his relationships with his rivals were fairly jocular. There’s scope for mockery in line 4 in particular, ‘under thee their poesy disperse’: this calls to mind Guy Rundle’s unkind quip about Clive James, that he released poems as others do farts. And the higher station of Shakespeare’s rivals doesn’t really become manifest until the sestet: Q1 merely notes the presence of rivals; Q2 praises the young man for being such a good muse. Yet even Q3, which introduces the rivals’ alleged superiority, is ambivalent about exactly how talented they are supposed to be: they can’t be that good if their style needs ‘mending’. And, while Shakespeare attributes this to his muse rather than to native talent, he does claim that his ‘rude ignorance’ gets ‘as high as learning’.

More rivalry tomorrow.


Sonnet 79

Good morning, Sonneteers,

A bit more rivalry today: Shakespeare does not like the idea that other people have started writing about his beloved muse, not one bit.

Whilst I alone did call upon thy aid
My verse alone had all thy gentle grace;
But now my gracious numbers are decayed,
And my sick Muse doth give another place.
I grant, sweet love, thy lovely argument
Deserves the travail of a worthier pen;
Yet what of thee thy poet doth invent
He robs thee of, and pays it thee again;
He lends thee virtue, and he stole that word
From thy behavior; beauty doth he give,
And found it in thy cheek; he can afford
No praise to thee, but what in thee doth live:
     Then thank him not for that which he doth say,
     Since what he owes thee, thou thyself dost pay.

I confess that the argument here strikes me as totally flying in the face of his earlier efforts, sonnet 21 in particular, which I will discuss below. First, a gloss:

Q1 Once upon a time it was just me calling upon my muse, but now a place has been granted to another

Q2 I grant that you deserve better treatment by a better pen; but what my rival writes about you he merely pinched from your person

Q3 His verse lends you virtue and beauty, but they were yours to begin with

C So don’t thank him for his kind words: they weren’t his to give

Yesterday, Shakespeare urged his beloved to ‘be most proud of that which I compile, / Whose influence is thine and born of thee’, and today he mocks his rival with the charge that ‘what of thee thy poet doth invent / He robs thee of, and pays it thee again’. What is the substantial difference? It defeats me. His central argument here, that his rival’s verse is false because it merely repeats what is already there in its subject, runs entirely counter to the argument he’d mounted in 21, in which he’d argued that his rival poets were false because they praised their subjects in terms that were not fitted to them. Apart from trying to advance his cause by means of whatever accusation lies to hand, I can’t make sense of what he’s doing here.

But there are a few curiosities lurking. First, a ‘sick muse’? The primary reference must be his own poetic powers, not (as it might so readily appear) his Muse, the beloved young man. Yet, especially having just read 78 with its opening line ‘So oft have I invoked thee for my Muse’, that is the initial sense that suggests itself; one only abandons it after it fails to make sense of anything else in the poem, which is otherwise so complimentary of the young man. The ‘sick muse’ is presumably connected with the ‘gracious numbers’ having ‘decayed’ — Shakespeare feels his powers of composition abandoning him, despite the constant inspiration from the young man that he keeps on insisting upon. That is probably the sense, but it is also possible that, if Southampton is the young man in question, it is a reference to Shakespeare’s narrative poems (dedicated to Southampton), now ageing and having been displaced by something newer and fresher by another poet. (Some scholars date the Rival Poet sequence to 1598-1600, a few years after Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.)

Now, I haven’t done a euphemism alert for a while, but Stephen Booth alerts us to some possible innuendo in lines 5-6. ‘Argument’, apparently, is sometimes used by Shakespeare to suggest ‘vagina’, and Booth calls our attention to Romeo and Juliet, II.4, 94-6: ‘For I was come to the whole depth of my tale; and / meant, indeed, to occupy the argument no longer.’ (Mercutio is the speaker, and it comes mere lines after he had said of Romeo ‘for this drivelling love is like a great natural, / that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole’, so I think we can take his point.) Then there is the obvious innuendo in ‘pen’, to which Booth adds that ‘travail’ was a regular euphemism for intercourse. So, in case there was any doubt that this jealousy had a sexual dimension… (I leave to one side the issue of the sex of the beloved.)

More on the rivalry tomorrow.


Sonnet 80

Good morning, Sonneteers.

This will be my last bulletin for a couple of weeks — expect another the next instalment on August 24.

Today, we get a bit nautical:

O, how I faint when I of you do write,
Knowing a better spirit doth use your name,
And in the praise thereof spends all his might,
To make me tongue-tied speaking of your fame.
But since your worth, wide as the ocean is,
The humble as the proudest sail doth bear,
My saucy bark, inferior far to his,
On your broad main doth wilfully appear.
Your shallowest help will hold me up afloat,
Whilst he upon your soundless deep doth ride;
Or, being wracked, I am a worthless boat,
He of tall building, and of goodly pride.
     Then if he thrive and I be cast away,
     The worst was this: my love was my decay.

Ah, the sea, the sea. I find the extended boat/ocean metaphor in this one fun. The structure:

Q1 I get tongue-tied and dizzy when writing of you, because I know that someone better is doing the same

Q2 Your worth is as wide as the ocean, and I am like a little ship sailing about on it, while my rival has a much more impressive vessel

Q3 I’m so little that I have to keep to the shallows, while he sails further out from shore; I’m easily wrecked, whereas his ship is sturdily built

C If he thrives while I am cast away, the worst will be that my love is the cause

Shakespeare has spoken of being tongue-tied before, in sonnet 23, in which he complained of being ‘As an unperfect actor on the stage, / Who with his fear is put besides his part’. Then, it was anxiety and a hammering heart that made him speechless; now, it is the unwelcome sense of self-consciousness he gets from always implicitly comparing his own verse with that of his rival(s). However, as that couplet makes clear, the reason he gets so self-conscious about having rivals is that he just loves the young man so much.

The real fun begins in Q2, in which our nautical metaphor is introduced by way of comparing the young man’s worth to the width of the ocean. Katherine Duncan-Jones notes that Shakespeare’s comparison of the two boats — his own, and his rival’s — may be slyly ironic: the ‘saucy bark’ as against the ‘tall building’ of a boat may be intended to recall the reader to the victories of the smaller English ships against the galleons of the Spanish Armada. He is either confidently implying that he, too, will outwit the bigger, showier vessel(s); or he’s hedging, and suggesting that he still has a chance even if the odds are against him.

The young-man-cum-ocean appears to be just as unpredictable as the real ocean: first ‘soundless’ (the primary sense must be that his depth is beyond ‘sounding’, i.e. measuring, but the word also suggests quiet and calm), then — a line later — wrecking ships, and potentially rendering Shakespeare a ‘cast away’ (again a phrase where the primary sense is ‘throw away’ or ‘cast aside’, but which deepens in meaning in light of the dominant metaphor). The final words are ambiguous: does Shakespeare mean to say that his love (for the young man) is to blame for his potential ruin, or that his love (i.e. the young man) will be to blame? Perhaps both.

With that, adieu! You’ll hear from me again in a fortnight.