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

Sonnet 91

Good morning, Sonneteers.

After all we’ve just been through, this one might seem oddly placed:

Some glory in their birth, some in their skill,
Some in their wealth, some in their body’s force;
Some in their garments, though new-fangled ill;
Some in their hawks and hounds, some in their horse;
And every humour hath his adjunct pleasure,
Wherein it finds a joy above the rest:
But these particulars are not my measure;
All these I better in one general best.
Thy love is better than high birth to me,
Richer than wealth, prouder than garments’ cost,
Of more delight than hawks or horses be;
And having thee, of all men’s pride I boast:
     Wretched in this alone, that thou mayst take
     All this away and me most wretched make.

The oddity is that it is surprisingly upbeat — through the quatrains, in any case. My suspicion is that it’s actually a kind of prelude, a softening-up, ahead of 92, which follows up on the sentiment of the couplet. A gloss:

Q1 People glory in all kinds of things: high birth, skill, wealth, strength, clothes, hunting, riding

Q2 Every personality has a particular thing it values most highly; but none of these are for me. I have something better than any of the trifling things other people glory in

Q3 Your love is the thing that makes me feel most complete; it’s better than anything anyone else relishes, and makes me want to boast

C I’m wretched in only one way: you could take all this away from me at any moment, and make me a wretch

Q1-3 is the highest we’ve seen Shakespeare soar for a while, which makes it such a long way to fall — and, as we’ll see tomorrow, he falls probably as far as we’ve seen him. The artistry here is in how sincere he sounds as he enumerates all the happinesses his happiness is superior to, and then in the couplet’s twist, when he shows it all as insecure and unstable. The suggestion is that his happiness, being uniquely the best kind, is uniquely vulnerable to reversal; the young man’s love doesn’t just make life grand — its withdrawal would make life pointless (as we’ll see tomorrow).

The first six lines are a marvellous pageant of the variety of human life and satisfaction, and they make a strong claim about human life: there is an enormous range of things that give people a sense of fulfilment — and not every one of them will satisfy everyone. Precisely what it is that gives you that mix of pleasure and satisfaction that makes life feel complete will depend greatly on your particular personality: ‘every humour hath his adjunct pleasure, / Wherein it finds a joy above the rest’. The key to the good life, it seems, is to find the thing that gives you this ‘joy above the rest’.

But the sonnet takes an interesting turn. There is an old question, that of the role of luck in human life; the question could be formulated like this: Is what is ultimately important in my life within my power? There have been various attempts to answer this question with a ‘yes’, most notably the Stoics, who insisted that the most important goods are internal, psychological ones, like peace of mind and equanimity and correct judgement — over which, they thought, we can exercise control if we learn to. Hamlet is expressing a Stoic sentiment when he says that ‘there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’. If the things that are truly good in life are internal to us, and within our power, then whether life turns out well or badly is not strongly dependent on luck: it is up to us.

The picture of human life expressed in today’s sonnet runs counter to this way of thinking: the idea here is rather that there are some things to which each of us is naturally suited, our ‘adjunct pleasures’, and these are the things that are good for us; to be deprived of them is bad for us. From this perspective, Hamlet’s dictum about good and bad is an illusion: we can try to persuade ourselves that good and bad is dependent on our thoughts, but this is delusional, like Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes he insists must be sour, because he can’t have them. And if this is right, then it’s bad news for how luck-dependent our happiness is, for (as Shakespeare worries) even if we are lucky enough to find the thing that makes us happy, we cannot prevent it from being taken away.

Tomorrow we’ll get the sequel; for now I’ll leave you with a short poem by Emily Dickinson:

In this short life that only lasts an hour
How much — how little —
Is within our power


Sonnet 92

Sonneteers, good morning.

Yesterday was the softening-up; now comes the blow. (A warning up-front: this one gets very dark, and raises the question of suicide.)

But do thy worst to steal thyself away,
For term of life thou art assured mine;
And life no longer than thy love will stay,
For it depends upon that love of thine.
Then need I not to fear the worst of wrongs,
When in the least of them my life hath end.
I see a better state to me belongs
Than that which on thy humour doth depend:
Thou canst not vex me with inconstant mind,
Since that my life on thy revolt doth lie.
O, what a happy title do I find,
Happy to have thy love, happy to die!
     But what’s so blessed-fair that fears no blot?
     Thou mayst be false, and yet I know it not.

This is the worst we’ve seen, I think. Previous sonnets have considered Shakespeare’s possible life-in-exile from the young man, and those have been pictures of a hollowed-out life with no real joy in them; one might say that the life they depict is (figuratively) no life at all. But here Shakespeare makes that more direct: the withdrawal of the young man’s love, he says, would cause him to die. A gloss:

Q1 You cannot steal yourself away from me: you’re mine for the term of life. And since your love is mine for life, if you took that love away, that would also be the end of my life

Q2 I don’t need to fear the worst of wrongs, because I will not be around to experience it. I’m better off than you might think I am, being so dependent on your moods…

Q3 …You cannot vex me with your inconstant in your love, for mine is a happy state: I’m happy to live with your life, and happy to die without it. Either way I cannot experience the worst

C What’s so wonderfully perfect that it need not fear any corruption? You might be false, yet I don’t know it.

Note the way Q1 takes a commonplace (lovers vowing themselves to each other for life, ’til death do us part) and gives it a dark twist: rather than death doing the parting, the parting is doing the death.

The whole sonnet, and particularly lies 6-12, adapts an old argument against the fear of death. The argument runs as follows: it is irrational to fear something you won’t experience; death is annihilation, so there is no self to experience it; since you won’t experience death, it is irrational to fear it.* In this sonnet, Shakespeare adapts that argument: by conflating death with the cessation of the young man’s love, he argues that he needn’t fear losing the young man’s love, because he won’t be around to experience it. I can’t help but suspect that it is a very dark, very bitter joke; lines 11-12 are particularly bitter.

(* I’ve cited Philip Larkin’s ‘Aubade‘ before, in which he takes aim at that the traditional form of that argument: ‘…specious stuff that says No rational being / Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing / That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound, / No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, / Nothing to love or link with, / The anaesthetic from which none come round.’)

One cannot escape the question: Is he being serious? In my view, no. I think he’s introducing the prospect of his own death (as a consequence of lost love) for the sake of toying with the argument about the fear of death; and also in order to express the depth and intensity of his feeling. The conceit only makes sense on the absurd premise that his death would occur simultaneously with the withdrawal of the young man’s love, such that he wouldn’t actually experience the betrayal. While one shouldn’t forget that he’s the author of Romeo and Juliet, so no stranger to extremity of feeling, one should remember that he’s also the author of Mercutio’s mockery of Romeo’s lovelorn pining in that same play. He might be feeling like Romeo, but Mercutio forms part of his consciousness, too. This sonnet strikes me as being at one and the same time (bitterly) serious and (ironically) playful. The more I look at it, the more I think it’s one of the better ones in the sequence.

The couplet is a riddle, and one that could be unpacked in a number of ways. The crucial question is: What does the first line refer to? There are three particularly illuminating solutions to the riddle. The young man. Perhaps it’s a question directed to/against the young man, asking: ‘Are you really so perfect that you fear no blot? Perhaps you are false.’ (Line 9 had already accused him of inconstancy.) Their love. Perhaps Shakespeare is posing the question of whether a love could be so perfect it need fear no blot, and notes that the constancy of the other person is always an unknown. Shakespeare’s position. Lastly, and most fittingly for this sonnet, Shakespeare is perhaps suggesting that his own position is the perfect one that need fear no blot: he has the young man’s love; if it turns out that the young man is false, he won’t be around to experience (‘know’) that disappointment, so he need not fear it.

But if we take the last line by itself, another reading comes into view: it poses the question of whether Shakespeare can know if the young man is false — and whether Shakespeare might even have an incentive to delude himself. This is the possibility that tomorrow’s sonnet will pick up on.


Sonnet 93

Good morning, good morning.

Yesterday, you’ll recall, we finished with Shakespeare musing, ‘Thou mayst be false, and yet I know it not.’ Today he unpacks that thought:

So shall I live, supposing thou art true,
Like a deceived husband; so love’s face
May still seem love to me, though alter’d new;
Thy looks with me, thy heart in other place:
For there can live no hatred in thine eye,
Therefore in that I cannot know thy change.
In many’s looks the false heart’s history
Is writ in moods and frowns and wrinkles strange,
But heaven in thy creation did decree
That in thy face sweet love should ever dwell;
Whate’er thy thoughts or thy heart’s workings be,
Thy looks should nothing thence but sweetness tell.
     How like Eve’s apple doth thy beauty grow,
     If thy sweet virtue answer not thy show!

There is very much a worm at the core now, and it is the problem of appearance versus reality. The young man, Shakespeare says, is so constructed that he always looks loving and lovely on the surface, regardless of what’s going on underneath. So, he says, he’s got no option but to go on supposing that his love is true. A gloss:

Q1 I will live like a cuckold: my love’s face will still seem like love to me, though his heart is elsewhere

Q2 Your eye can never look hateful, so I cannot know of any changes in your heart; unlike you, most people’s hearts are visible on their faces

Q3 You were created such that only love and sweetness should show on your face, regardless of your heart’s workings

C If your appearance does not match your virtue, you’re like Eve’s apple: appealing without, rotten within

There are two things going on here. First, there is the question of how well someone’s appearance reflects their reality, and this in turn in two ways. There is the question of whether their beauty reflects their goodness, and there is the question of whether their countenance reflects the workings of their heart. Shakespeare suspects that the young man is shielded in both ways: he is beautiful, but quite possibly false; and he still (it seems) casts loving looks in Shakespeare’s direction, though his heart is probably elsewhere.

Second, there is the question of what Shakespeare has a will to believe. Suspecting his lover of falsehood, he could set out to find the truth of it, or he could confront him directly; instead, he fatalistically/melodramatically says that he will go on ‘supposing thou art true, / Like a deceived husband’. The enjambment in lines 2-3 is very unusual for the Sonnets. Shakespeare is normally careful to make each line a unit of sense; lines 5-6 provide a nice clear example of what I mean: ‘For there can live no hatred in thine eye, / Therefore in that I cannot know thy change.’ Line 6 continues the thought, but line 5 contains a discrete thought even taken by itself. But line 2 spills into line 3, neither making sense by itself, and this can only be significant. It’s as though the force of trying to delude himself is wrenching the straight lines of the sonnet.

What one supposes Shakespeare intended to do with this one greatly affects the reading of it. Is this a private meditation? Or is it intended for the young man’s eyes, in which case is it an intervention to try to prompt the young man to be true? I’ve favoured the former possibility, but we don’t know.


Sonnet 94

Sonneteers, good morning, good morning.

It’s been a wild week so far, and that continues today:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold and to temptation slow;
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
     For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
     Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Sassy! It retains some ambivalence, of course, not coming out and directly accusing the young man of being false, but the basic thrust is pretty clear. A gloss:

Q1 Those who have the power harm others, but refrain from doing it; those who move others to action but keep themselves under control…

Q2 These are the people who are truly blessed: they rule their blessings, while others let their blessings rule them

Q3 The flower is sweet to the summer, though to itself it is nothing special; but if that flower is corrupted, then it is nothing to anybody

C No matter how sweet something seems, what it does can foul it; and fouled sweet things are the worst things of all

There is a lot going on here: Shakespeare is mounting a complicated critique of the relation between outward beauty and inward character, and how they corrupt each other. Q1 is slightly riddling: those who ‘move others’ and ‘have power to hurt’ are those possessed of a beauty that draws others to them. Those who, having beauty, have these powers, are then divided into two sorts: those who ‘do the thing they most do show’ (i.e. those who actively employ their charms) and those who ‘are themselves as stone, / Unmoved, cold and to temptation slow’ (i.e. don’t let their charms shape the way they are).

Q2 sets out the hierarchy: those who, through self-control, don’t abuse their charms are their own masters (‘lords and owners of their faces’) – and deserving of their blessings (‘They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces’); those who actively employ their charms, letting their blessings shape their relationships with others (which is to say, lean on their charms to get their own way), are mere stewards of their blessings, which rule them.

We might paraphrase Shakespeare’s complaint as follows: the beautiful exercise an unconscious power over others, which they can either master (by not playing into it, leading others on, seeking advantage from it, and so on) or they can let it rule them (by giving into the temptation to reap its advantages, relying on their charm to make up for a lack of other qualities, leading others on to get an advantage). As the first line makes clear, he is concerned above all with the consequences for others: ‘They that have power to hurt and will do none…’

Q3 is where it gets really interesting. Summer’s flower, he says, is nothing in itself; it is only in the way it shows for others that it has its beauty; for itself it merely lives, and then dies. The implication is that this is also true of the self: a self that lives only for itself leads an empty existence, and then passes away and leaves nothing; it is the way the self is for others that adds colour and life. The self is, in significant part, social. The beautiful person (in this case, the young man) who leads people on, at first appears to be adding colour and life — but really adds only bitterness, turning sour, and stinking worse than a weed.


Sonnet 95

Good morning, Sonneteers.

Seems that Shakespeare is taking the opportunity to develop yesterday’s argument:

How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame
Which, like a canker in the fragrant rose,
Doth spot the beauty of thy budding name!
O, in what sweets dost thou thy sins inclose!
That tongue that tells the story of thy days,
Making lascivious comments on thy sport,
Cannot dispraise but in a kind of praise;
Naming thy name blesses an ill report.
O, what a mansion have those vices got
Which for their habitation chose out thee,
Where beauty’s veil doth cover every blot
And all things turn to fair that eyes can see!
     Take heed, dear heart, of this large privilege;
     The hardest knife ill us’d doth lose his edge.

He had contended that the young man’s good looks would make his sins that much worse; today, he modifies that argument, noting that — so far, at least — those good looks have given latitude to his sins, but doubting that it will last: ‘the hardest knife ill us’d doth lose his edge’. A gloss:

Q1 You manage to make even your shame seem lovely

Q2 Someone who tells your story can’t help but praise you, even when telling of your failings

Q3 Your vices have a mansion in which to romp unchecked — beauty’s veil covers all your blots

C But take heed of this: you can’t keep it up

The sequence over the last week or so has been critical of the young man for his falsity and wanton ways, and this continues that; it will be followed on Monday with something of a sonnet of acceptance.

The opening of 95 is a startling reversal after the end of 94, which closed: ‘Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.’ Now Shakespeare says the young man makes even shame ‘sweet and lovely’. What’s happened? It must be that he’s been forced to rethink the boldness of yesterday’s argument on the evidence that the young man is still perfectly charming, despite everything; he resolves the contradiction by introducing the element of time, which is the focus of the present sonnet.

Q2 suggests that it isn’t merely the young man’s attractiveness that is giving him cover for his sins; depending on how we take the line ‘Naming thy name blesses an ill report’, it might be that the residual effects of reputation are also giving him a little boost. Of course, one might also read it as suggesting that, for now, the young man has the natural benefit of the fact that whenever anyone mentions his name it recalls his face.

It’s the image in Q3 I like best, though: of a manor in which vices are free to romp and frolic, shielded from prying eyes. The image amusing in itself, and also possibly a sly dig at the rich who can afford to hide their decadent lifestyles in private.