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

Sonnet 81

Sonneteers, good morning, and welcome back!

I’ve returned from a restful break, thank you, and now we can get back in the swing of things. This bulletin is a bit later than usual because I didn’t prepare it a head of time — expect them to return to normal tomorrow.

Today, we pick up where we left off, with Sonnet 81:

Or I shall live, your epitaph to make;
Or you survive, when I in earth am rotten;
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die;
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read,
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead.
     You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,
     Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

The first thing one notices about this one is its echo of 18, especially the couplet:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

The theme of 18, the immortalisation of the young man through verse, is picked up again here, to which is added a self-deprecating contrast: the young man will be remembered even after ‘all the breathers of this world are dead’, while Shakespeare expects to be forgotten immediately. A gloss:

Q1 Whether I outlive you, or you outlive me, you will never be forgotten, while every part of me will be lost

Q2 When I die, I’ll be buried in a common grave with the anonymous mass; your name will live forever

Q3 The monument that will carry your memory will be these sonnets, which will be read and spoken by those not yet living

C My pen has the power to keep you in the mouths (and minds) of men forever

There’s something comforting about taking two weeks off from the Sonnets, and then coming back to find that nothing has changed: this one feels like an old boot.

The underlying conceit strikes one, initially, as very odd. Why would the Sonnets immortalise their subject while simultaneously failing to recall their author? There are precedents: the model for immortalisation through verse is Homer, about whom we know nothing at all (including whether or not he existed*). But, to my mind, Plato should be the model for what Shakespeare wants to achieve with the Sonnets: he captured Socrates so compellingly that it is easy to forget that we know nothing of Socrates directly, and that more or less our whole idea of him comes from Plato (with a bit of Xenophon and Aristophanes thrown in for good measure); while Plato doesn’t appear in his own dialogues, he still survives as their author. Shakespeare, too, might have hoped that his Sonnets would preserve the young man as Plato preserved Socrates, but surely he would expect to be remembered as the literary artist who had achieved such a compelling portrait? Presumably it is deliberate self-deprecation, although some of the other sonnets lead one to have doubts about the stability of his self-esteem.

(* This is not to say that nobody wrote the Iliad and Odyssey, only that we are not sure to what extent they are the product of a single author, or to what extent they are accretions over generations of story-tellers, which were eventually fixed into their final form sometime in probably the 5th century BC.)

The ‘common grave’ from line 7 is a good image, at once suggesting a plain old burial site, as distinct from a ‘monument’, as well as suggesting a mass (‘common’) grave, into which the common run of men are dumped and forgotten — as opposed to the fate of the lucky few who escape the anonymous mass of the dead. But where exactly is the young man to lie entombed? Line 8 says he’ll lie ‘entombed in men’s eyes’, but then line 10 seems to suggest that the role of those eyes is to read the verse/monument that will really contain him. But perhaps he does mean both: the young man will lie, as it were, dormant in the verse on the page, brought to life by the eyes of the reader who finds him there, and — if Shakespeare is successful at rendering him as a dramatic character (see my commentary to Sonnet 18) — he will then go on to live in the mind of the reader, as symbolised by their eyes.

Q3 looks toward posterity: eyes, tongues, and breath. (Line 12, which at first seems to mean ‘when all men are dead’, should be read as ‘when all the people who are currently breathing are dead’.) It seems significant that the parts of a person that Shakespeare judges most important are those involved in reading a poem and speaking it aloud!

Glad to be back, and you’ll hear from me again tomorrow (at the usual time!).


Sonnet 82

Good morning, Sonneteers.

This morning marks a return to the issue of this rival poet that has been bothering Shakespeare:

I grant thou wert not married to my Muse,
And therefore mayst without attaint o’erlook
The dedicated words which writers use
Of their fair subject, blessing every book.
Thou art as fair in knowledge as in hue,
Finding thy worth a limit past my praise,
And therefore art enforced to seek anew
Some fresher stamp of the time-bettering days,
And do so love; yet when they have devised
What strained touches rhetoric can lend,
Thou, truly fair, wert truly sympathised
In true plain words, by thy true-telling friend;
     And their gross painting might be better used
     Where cheeks need blood; in thee it is abused.

Yesterday’s sonnet echoed sonnet 18; this one in turn echoes a predecessor, in this case sonnet 21. That sonnet was also concerned with rival poets, although back in those uncomplicated days it was just other poets in general, not other poets competing for the attention of the young man. The critique then was that they employed all sorts of flowery and false language to adorn unworthy subjects with unearned praise; the critique now is that the praise (by the rival poets of the young man) is unnecessary, since he doesn’t need flowery praise so much as ‘true plain words’. (One might also compare 79, which complained that the rival poet praised the young man in flowery words that were merely stolen from the young man’s self.)

A gloss of this one:

Q1 I grant that you’re not wedded to my verse, and are allowed to dabble elsewhere

Q2 Your loveliness exceeds my powers, so it’s no surprise you go looking for a poet who might do you justice

Q3 But really they do you no justice at all: their praise is histrionic; you’re better served by my modest verse, which just aims as truth

C Such over-worked praise would be fitting for an unworthy subject; in your case it’s just abuse

Once again, Shakespeare states a poetics in which truth and honesty are valued over apparent style. What is interesting is the further claim, that honest verse that falls short of its subject is superior to verse that appears to match its subject, but does so by means of something that is not rooted in an honest assessment. Without an example of the kind of poetry Shakespeare is complaining about, it is hard to know precisely what he has in mind, but it strikes me as being something like Hamlet’s advice to the Players (Hamlet, III.2):

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,
as many of your players do, I had as lief the
town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air
too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently;
for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,
the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it
offends me to the soul to hear a robustious
periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to
very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who
for the most part are capable of nothing but
inexplicable dumbshows and noise: I would have such
a fellow whipped for o’erdoing Termagant; it
out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.
Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion
be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the
word to the action; with this special o’erstep not
the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is
from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the
first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the
mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature,
scorn her own image, and the very age and body of
the time his form and pressure.

This is too much to summarise without remainder, but perhaps I can gloss it thus: Don’t ham it up. The bad actor overdoes the lines, trying so hard to put the passion into the words that they smother the passion in the words themselves. Thus, too, the rival poets borrow freely from all the rhetorical tricks of the trade in their praise of the young man, and thereby smother what is truly lovely about him. Rather than showing him, they import qualities from elsewhere. (This is distinct from the criticism of 79, in which Shakespeare complained that they were just borrowing qualities from the man himself.)

We have had plenty of occasion to note that the young man, as Shakespeare has immortalised him, is supremely vain; but this is an outstanding example. If we take the sonnet at its word, the young man, finding his reflection in Shakespeare’s verse inferior to his sense of himself, is going hunting for a poet who has the powers to really show how great he is. The sonnet’s implication is that such a poet doesn’t exist: Shakespeare’s powers can’t capture the young man, so he falls short, but honestly so; others can’t capture him either, but they falsely pretend to. That, at least, is the explicit argument of the poem. However, if the recurring depiction of the young man as a vain feather-brain is deliberate (and not a misfiring, or a result of changed mores between Shakespeare’s time and our own), then there is considerable irony in the explicit content of this sonnet: complaining to his apparent audience (the young man) that he can’t capture how truly lovely the young man is, he’s simultaneously indicating to his real audience (the reader) that it’s the young man’s vanity that he’s struggling to render — its scope is too all-encompassing.


Sonnet 83

Happy Wednesday, Sonneteers.

Seems that Shakespeare blames himself that some other poet is sniffing around:

I never saw that you did painting need,
And therefore to your fair no painting set;
I found, or thought I found, you did exceed
The barren tender of a poet’s debt;
And therefore have I slept in your report,
That you yourself, being extant, well might show
How far a modern quill doth come too short,
Speaking of worth, what worth in you doth grow.
This silence for my sin you did impute,
Which shall be most my glory, being dumb;
For I impair not beauty, being mute,
When others would give life, and bring a tomb.
     There lives more life in one of your fair eyes
     Than both your poets can in praise devise.

He’s not exactly been ‘silent’, but what Shakespeare likely blames himself for is his insistence on the principle that verse is not up to the task of showing the loveliness of his beloved; it is notable how much time he spends telling us how lovely the young man is, talking around it, yet never attempts anything direct as a description. So some other poet has come along and started ‘painting’ the young man instead: Shakespeare feels a rebuke from the young man, possibly just because he senses (or fears) a shift in affections. Nonetheless, he sticks to his principle: we’re merely told, once again, how far the life of one of the young man’s eyes exceeds all the praise of poetry. But what colour are they? He never says.

A gloss:

Q1 I never felt the need to dress you up in fancy verse, seeing that you would always exceed my efforts

Q2 Therefore I didn’t bother, knowing that, being still alive, your presence could speak so much more eloquently

Q3 You took this silence as an insult; but I was just refraining from abusing your beauty with inadequate praise, while others rush in and spoil everything

Just one of your eyes surpasses in loveliness anything that could be written in praise of it; you might think that this other guy is doing you justice, but believe me — you’re so much better

What catches the eye here is line 12: ‘When others would give life, and bring a tomb.’ The question of what gives life, and what life the dead can have in memory, comes up frequently, as we’ve seen; but this is an angle we haven’t encountered yet. What happens when a memorial is botched? The Sonnets encourage us to draw a distinction between two forms of memorialisation: ‘tomb’ and ‘grafting’ (I’ve drawn these terms from sonnets 15-18). A tomb serves to recall the deceased to the memory of those who knew them, and needn’t be a literal tomb — anything that serves to call them to mind will do. On the other hand, a grafting animates them, such that they can become part of the consciousness of someone who never knew them: Shakespeare is thinking of verse, but we could include other literary forms under this heading — perhaps even some visual forms, such as a painting. When Shakespeare describes his rivals’ verse as a tomb, he’s saying that it will fail to give anything of the subject to a reader who didn’t know him. Perhaps it is even worse: for a tomb merely recalls someone to memory, but cannot falsify them; but false verse doesn’t just recall the person it is about — it tries to animate them, but thereby distorts their memory for those who did know them, and fails to give anything of them to someone who didn’t know them.

In sonnet 17, Shakespeare had worried that his own verse was going to merely serve as a tomb:

Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were fill’d with your most high deserts?
Though yet, heaven knows, it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life and shows not half your parts.

While he sometimes has flashes of confidence, he’s remained ambivalent on these issues the whole time: whether the resources of poetry are sufficient to capture something of such singular, surpassing loveliness; whether, if it is possible, Shakespeare himself is up to the task; if he fails, how it is that his beloved will be recalled after his death. These aren’t questions he’s going to resolve anytime soon, I expect.

Lastly, is that a flash of frustration we see in lines 3-4? ‘I found, or thought I found, you did exceed / The barren tender of a poet’s debt’ — which one might paraphrase as I thought you were beyond needing such things.


Sonnet 84

Good morning, Sonneteers.

As with so many of the Sonnets, we could title this one ‘Variation on a Theme’:

Who is it that says most? Which can say more,
Than this rich praise: that you alone are you,
In whose confine immured is the store
Which should example where your equal grew?
Lean penury within that pen doth dwell
That to his subject lends not some small glory;
But he that writes of you, if he can tell
That you are you, so dignifies his story.
Let him but copy what in you is writ,
Not making worse what nature made so clear,
And such a counterpart shall fame his wit,
Making his style admired everywhere.
     You to your beauteous blessings add a curse,
     Being fond on praise, which makes your praises worse.

It’s mostly familiar, but I think this is the best in a little while. It’s a further exposition of Shakespeare’s poetics, that a poet should stick close to his subject matter and not gild the lily; to which he adds, feeling a bit more sure of himself, a mild rebuke to the young man for not seeing the difference between true praise and false. A gloss:

Q1 Who praises you best (me, or him)? Who could praise better than to try to honestly capture you just as you are?

Q2 It’s a poor poet who can’t show his subject in a good light; but you’re not in need of a poet to lend you glory — you just need someone to present you truly

Q3 Let a poet copy merely what is already there in you, and he’ll be admired everywhere for his style

C But, beautiful as you are, you have a flaw: you’re excessively fond of praise

These last few sonnets I can’t help but read as a development of Shakespeare’s argument in 79. There he’d complained that his rival was merely stealing qualities from the young man and presenting them as the rival’s own invention; since then, sensing the implicit hypocrisy of this complaint given his own stated poetics, he’s been trying to work out how his own poems does in fact differ. The argument seems to be this: the rival seeks to wow the young man with his over-egged puddings, which he’s presenting as the product of his skill. But there are two things wrong with this: first, praise that isn’t rooted in an honest appreciation of its subject is false praise, and therefore worthless; second, when he does sometimes hit on the young man’s true qualities, he’s guilty of falsehood because he presents these things as being produced by his skill, when really he’s just robbed them from the young man.

But it isn’t all the rival poet’s fault: for, as Shakespeare says in the couplet, if it weren’t for the fact that the young man is so eager for praise, and thus so susceptible to it, the rival wouldn’t be producing so much of it. He’s making a true, and difficult, point: strip back his own excessive praise of the young man (which is, for once, slightly muted in this one), and he’s pointing to vanity and self-deception, and the related desire for praise. Who wouldn’t prefer a flattering portrait to an honest one?

I can see two points Shakespeare is making with this criticism. The first is a moral one, rebuking the young man for his vanity. (This is probably connected with the memento mori of sonnet 77.) The second point is that honest presentation is central to his project: as we discussed with yesterday’s sonnet, a flattering depiction might please the ego, but it will not achieve for the young man the immortality that Shakespeare desires for him.

And isn’t it the ultimate artistic challenge that Shakespeare sets out? But he that writes of you, if he can tell / That you are you…


Sonnet 85

Sonneteers, good morning, good morning.

This is the second last of the sonnets directly concerning a rival, and Shakespeare is worrying again about his inability to express himself:

My tongue-tied Muse in manners holds her still,
While comments of your praise, richly compiled
Reserve thy character with golden quill,
And precious phrase by all the Muses filed;
I think good thoughts, whilst other write good words,
And, like unletter’d clerk, still cry ‘Amen’
To every hymn that able spirit affords
In polished form of well-refined pen.
Hearing you praised, I say ‘’Tis so, ’tis true’,
And to the most of praise add something more;
But that is in my thought, whose love to you
(Though words come hindmost) holds his rank before;
     Then others for the breath of words respect,
     Me for my dumb thoughts, speaking in effect.

(Line 3, in the original edition, reads ‘reserve their character’, which I can’t make any sense of, so I have adopted a later editor’s emendation to ‘thy’.)

This one is something of a reprise of sonnet 23, in which Shakespeare cast himself as a nervous actor on the stage who kept forgetting his lines; now all he’s capable of doing is nodding along when he hears the praise uttered by others. A gloss of this one:

Q1 Tongue-tied, I keep polite silence, rather than awkwardly stammering all the time, while others write so much in praise of you

Q2 I think good thoughts, and cry ‘Amen’ in agreement with the praise uttered by others

Q3 I nod along, adding (inwardly) to their praise my own thoughts, which I’m unable to utter

Others merely breathe their respect, but I actually show it

Shakespeare, we’ve noted, has not run an entirely consistent line through these Rival Poet sonnets, and this one represents another twist. His complaint before was that the praise uttered by his rival was false — now, probably sensing that the young man doesn’t share his disdain for ‘false’ praise, he changes his tune: ‘But I nod along!’ he says. ‘And I shout hear, hear!’

There is an oft-noted connection between this sonnet (and those on the same theme) and the opening scene of King Lear. Lear invents a contest in which his daughters have to take turns expressing how much they love him, and the winner gets the best portion of the kingdom he is dividing between them. Regan and Goneril, snakes both, offer superlative praise of him. From Goneril he gets:

Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter;
Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;
As much as child e’er loved, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable;
Beyond all manner of so much I love you.

From Regan:

Sir, I am made
Of the self-same metal that my sister is,
And prize me at her worth. In my true heart
I find she names my very deed of love;
Only she comes too short: that I profess
Myself an enemy to all other joys,
Which the most precious square of sense possesses;
And find I am alone felicitate In your dear highness’ love.

Cordelia worries, saying to herself: ‘What shall Cordelia do? / Love, and be silent.’ She reassures herself: ‘I am sure my love’s / More richer than my tongue.’ Then, when her turn comes, all she can offer Lear is:

Nothing, my lord.

Lear, of course, flies into a rage and banishes her. One hears in this sonnet an anxiety not to share Cordelia’s fate.

But the thing to note is that Shakespeare, in Lear, shows himself well aware of how empty it is to say things like ‘I love you more than words can wield that matter’; given his awareness of this, why does he himself participate in it? The Sonnets almost certainly predate Lear, so perhaps the answer is that Lear is commenting on something he learned, perhaps bitterly, in his younger, besotted days, when he would write sonnets expressing (honestly) how inexpressible his love was, and then his rivals (false, in his view) would do the same.