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

Sonnet 96

Sonneteers, welcome back.

This is the last of this little sequence of criticism and reproach:

Some say thy fault is youth, some wantonness;
Some say thy grace is youth and gentle sport;
Both grace and faults are loved of more and less;
Thou mak’st faults graces, that to thee resort:
As on the finger of a throned queen
The basest jewel will be well esteemed,
So are those errors that in thee are seen
To truths translated, and for true things deemed.
How many lambs might the stern wolf betray
If like a lamb he could his looks translate?
How many gazers mightst thou lead away
If thou wouldst use the strength of all thy state?
     But do not so; I love thee in such sort,
     As thou being mine, mine is thy good report.

There are two things going on here. First, he’s still musing on the way the young man seems to get away with a whole host of faults that would be deplored in anyone else; second, it’s almost like a conciliatory rounding out of the sequence. How conciliatory is it? While it repeats the criticisms of the last few sonnets, it ends with Shakespeare reaffirming his love; and certainly it’s less turbulent than some of the last few. Call it ambivalently conciliatory. A gloss:

Q1 Some say wanton youth is your fault; others say sporting youth is your grace — somehow, both your faults and your graces are loved

Q2 Just as a base jewel on the ring of a queen is transformed into something worthy of esteem, so your errors somehow get transformed into good qualities, or at least get mistaken for them

Q3 How many lambs would the wolf eat if he could pretend he were a lamb? How many foolish lovers would you lead astray if you allowed yourself to?

C …?

How do we take that couplet? There are two possible readings, and the one we go with will affect just how conciliatory the sonnet is. I had initially read the couplet to mean: I love you and accept you (‘love thee in such sort’) — you have my esteem (‘good report’) — there’s no need for you to lead others on. Shakespeare is, in other words, trying to direct the young man back towards their mutual love and away from his youthful wantonness.

However, the couplet is recycled, and originally appeared in 36. That was one of the sonnets concerned with unpacking the ways in which Shakespeare and the young man were one, united in love; that sonnet in particular was about the way Shakespeare would willingly scapegoat himself, taking on the young man’s blemishes as his own to leave him pure. Now, sixty sonnets later, we’ve returned to the issue of the young man’s faults, but this time Shakespeare isn’t offering to take those faults on; he’s more interested in the way that seems unnecessary, that somehow the young man’s misadventures in no way diminish his charm. But why recycle the couplet? Katherine Duncan-Jones wonders whether the repetition is meant to invert the couplet’s meaning: now, she says, perhaps Shakespeare is concerned that his own ‘good report’ is so bound up with the young man’s that it can only be a matter of time before his misdeeds reflect poorly on Shakespeare, who has had second thoughts about desiring being the young man’s scapegoat. I’m not persuaded — the point of the body of the sonnet, to my mind, is that the young man has no need for a scapegoat — but I’m not sure how to account for the repetition of those words.

It is a baffling phenomenon Shakespeare describes. The confusion over the young man’s faults and graces is very nicely captured in the opening lines, in which nobody can agree on whether the young man’s youth belongs in the former or the latter camp: ‘Some say thy fault is youth, some wantonness; / Some say thy grace is youth and gentle sport.’ And the whole sonnet raises an excellent question: why are some people able to get away with everything?


Sonnet 97

Good morning, Sonneteers.

This is another of those jarring changes we get every now and then in the course of the Sonnets: today begins a mini-sequence about how much Shakespeare misses his young man during an absence.

How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
What old December’s bareness every where!
And yet this time remov’d was summer’s time;
The teeming autumn, big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burthen of the prime,
Like widowed wombs after their lords’ decease:
Yet this abundant issue seem’d to me
But hope of orphans and unfather’d fruit;
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And, thou away, the very birds are mute;
     Or, if they sing, ’tis with so dull a cheer
     That leaves look pale, dreading the winter’s near.

It’s an odd return, especially after the turmoil of the last couple of weeks. This one reads like it belongs in the 20s or 30s, when life was simpler, and before the upset noted in 40-42. Allow me to speculate: perhaps the period of absence referred to here coincides with the emotional turbulence we have seen since at least the close of the Rival Poet sequence, and possibly even before then. Absence, notoriously, can drive a lover crazy, making them prey to all kinds of doubts and anxieties. Line 3 is perhaps Shakespeare referring to his own ravings, especially in 87-96: ‘What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!’

A gloss:

Q1 Your absence has been like winter, leaving all things dark and cold

Q2 And this is despite the fact that it was, actually, summer

Q3 But summer’s issue was of little interest to me

C Even when the birds sang, it seemed like the muted calling of birds dreading winter

We’ve had sonnets of absence before, and the most notable parallel to this one is probably 43. That one opened with the lines ‘When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see, / For all the day they view things unrespected.’ In the absence of his lover, he is saying, the pleasures of the world are as nothing, and nothing is of any interest. That sonnet then moved on to a contrast with the sleeping state, in which he was visited by the shade of his beloved (which linked it with the other sequence of absence, 27-29); this sonnet instead unpacks the idea of waking listlessness.

It does this through its contrast of summer with winter, most strikingly in the transition from Q1 to Q2: the cold dark winter of the young man’s absence was in reality summer, the months of life and vigour and energy. Yet everywhere Shakespeare looked he saw ‘December’s bareness’; he froze; he felt himself in the dark. This state, he makes clear, was entirely internal for him; it is just that, without the young man to lead him out of himself, he was trapped inside. (I’m reminded of Hazlitt’s comment that the difference between Hamlet and Romeo is that Romeo is in love: Juliet gives him an anchor outside of himself.)

What is slightly odd is the temporal frame of the sonnet. The major contrast is between summer and winter; yet lines 6-14 (most of the sonnet!) are about autumn. I see two ways to read this. The first is a sense of time lost: summer has slipped by, and Shakespeare has experienced it as though it were winter; but now autumn is here, summer is gone, and the real winter is about to begin.

Or, more troublingly, it could express a sense of foreboding. The final lines of the sonnet run: ‘thou away, the very birds are mute; / Or, if they sing, ’tis with so dull a cheer / That leaves look pale, dreading the winter’s near.’ The birds don’t sing when you’re not here, this says; and if they do sing, it is a muted song that dreads the oncoming of something worse. At an explicit level, the sonnet is comparing summer (the young man’s presence) with winter (his absence); but at a symbolic level, it seems to be suggesting that what Shakespeare had been experiencing as winter was, in fact, merely autumn: true winter is yet to come.


Sonnet 98

Sonneteers, good morning.

Today, the second of three sonnets on Shakespeare’s beloved’s absence. Yesterday was on the seasons; today, the seasons and the flowers; tomorrow, the flowers.

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dress’d in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing,
That heavy Saturn laugh’d and leap’d with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue,
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
     Yet seem’d it winter still, and, you away,
     As with your shadow I with these did play.

We’ve had summer, winter and autumn; now, spring, which — you guessed it — is nothing in the beloved’s absence. The images are all appropriately seasonal: birds calling; the sweet smell of flowers; the richness of the colour of those same flowers. Yet ‘seem’d it winter still’. A gloss:

Q1 We’ve been apart during the spring, when April has put on a glorious show that could even make the melancholy Saturn happy

Q2 Yet the birdsong, the scent of flowers, their beauty — none of this could make me tell a happy tale, nor inspire me to gaiety

Q3 The lovely forms of the flowers are merely drawn in imitation of you

It all seemed winter, playing with the things of spring — they are merely your shadows

Shakespeare has dabbled in metaphysics already, particularly in 53, so the use of ‘pattern’ and ‘shadow’ in Q3 and C might have set bells ringing. This is another of the sonnets in which he suggests the beauty of the young man is essentially more basic than other kinds of beauty, that his beauty serves as a stamp from which copies can be made (which he’s been doing since at least 11: ‘[Nature] carv’d thee for her seal, and meant thereby / Thou shouldst print more’). There are two things to be said about this.

First, there’s the audacity of this highly idiosyncratic metaphysics. Everyone believes their own one true love is uniquely special: this is the egotism of the lover. Plato thought that this obsessive form of love could lead people, if they reflected on it in the right away, through and beyond their beloved to the appreciation of Beauty itself, conceived of as an almost mystical revelation of a perfect beauty beyond all the inadequate realisations of it in the world, and from there to an appreciation of the Good and the True. But there have been a handful of people in the history of the world who have then circled back and tried to install their own beloved in this hallowed place; and among them are Dante and Shakespeare. (On Dante, I can heartily commend Harold Bloom’s essay on Dante and Beatrice in The Western Canon.) Some say the history of metaphysics is the history of human projections of their own interests onto the cosmos; I wonder if there’s an interesting history to tell of literature as the projection of an individual’s obsessions into a cosmic order.

The second point is psychological. Ignoring the metaphysics of it, what Shakespeare gives us is an image of the obsessed mind of the lover, who cannot look at anything without relating it to their beloved. The octave continues on the theme of the sonnet before, that without the beloved everything loses its interest; the sestet develops the thought that part of the reason for this is that everything that could possibly be of interest in anything always points back to the beloved, whose absence is a cause for melancholy. It’s an unhappy, depressed condition.

More on this tomorrow.


Sonnet 99

Good morning, good morning.

Rounding out this sequence of three, today’s sonnet is still caught up with flowers:

The forward violet thus did I chide:
Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy sweet that smells,
If not from my love’s breath? The purple pride
Which on thy soft cheek for complexion dwells
In my love’s veins thou hast too grossly dyed.
The lily I condemned for thy hand,
And buds of marjoram had stol’n thy hair;
The roses fearfully on thorns did stand,
One blushing shame, another white despair;
A third, nor red nor white, had stol’n of both,
And to his robbery had annex’d thy breath;
But, for his theft, in pride of all his growth
A vengeful canker eat him up to death.
     More flowers I noted, yet I none could see
     But sweet or colour it had stol’n from thee.

In many ways this is a continuation of yesterday’s, following through on the thought that every nice thing just seems a pale imitation of the young man. He’s even kept his focus on the flowers. A gloss:

Q1 I chide the violet for having stolen its lovely purple from you

Q2 Different flowers have stolen your different qualities, whether the softness of your hand or the way your hair falls — those villains

Q3 A rose had even stolen your sweet breath, but the canker ate him up (as he deserved)

I see more flowers, yet all of them were merely parading your stolen qualities

The first thing that strikes one here is the form: you’ll have noticed that it has one more line than usual, lurking in Q1, which runs ABABA. Why? I don’t know, but the effect is an interesting one. Normally, the sonnet form encourages Shakespeare to compress his thoughts, aligning them into regimented lines; as we’ve noted before, he tends to confine a thought to its line, rarely employing enjambment in any strong way. The result is that he is frequently even more terse and cryptic in his sonnets than he can be in his plays; but here Q1 feels more expansive, more like a speech from one of his characters.

Lines 8-13 introduce a bit of a new thought, though it seems more playful than substantial. Shakespeare applies a concept of justice to his game of seeing all good qualities as stolen from the young man, and notes the punishments that befall these sweet thieves: the roses tormented by their thorns, the red rose blushing, the white rose pale with despair; another rose, having stolen the sweet smell of the young man’s breath, will be devoured by the canker it so clearly deserves.

I’m struck by the contrast with a passage from Proust I just happened to be reading yesterday. Young Marcel, sad to be leaving the house, with its beautiful flowers, where he and the family have been staying, sneaks off and is discovered by his mother weeping in front of the hawthorn: ‘My poor little hawthorns!’ he cries. ‘You never tried to hurt me. You’re not trying to make me leave!’ Proust’s flowers are blameless; Shakespeare very much blames his for not being the young man.


Sonnet 100

Sonneteers: good morning, and happy 100!

Hard to believe we’ve got this far — well done, and thank you, for sticking with it. Fittingly, for this centenary Shakespeare returns to a classic theme: his beloved’s immortalisation:

Where art thou, Muse, that thou forget’st so long
To speak of that which gives thee all thy might?
Spend’st thou thy fury on some worthless song,
Dark’ning thy power to lend base subjects light?
Return, forgetful Muse, and straight redeem
In gentle numbers time so idly spent;
Sing to the ear that doth thy lays esteem
And gives thy pen both skill and argument.
Rise, resty Muse, my love’s sweet face survey,
If Time have any wrinkle graven there;
If any, be a satire to decay,
And make Time’s spoils despised every where.
     Give my love fame faster than Time wastes life;
     So thou prevent’st his scythe and crooked knife.

The opening suggests there has been some interlude. I would like to surmise that, perhaps, Shakespeare has been busy for a while writing a play and so has been distracted from his beloved; now his mind returns, and he chides himself for writing ‘worthless’ plays when he should be spending all his energy writing sonnets for his dear young love: forget Henry IV, forget Macbeth, forget Hamlet: what the world needs, he thinks, is more about his beloved!

A gloss:

Q1 What pointless projects have you been wasting your time on, Muse, forgetting the chief source of your inspiration?

Q2 Return to this worthier subject, and write poems to please him

Q3 Rise and survey my beloved’s face: if Time has left a wrinkle, satirise Time, and make it hateful to everyone

C Give my love fame faster than Time can take his life away — then Time will be defeated

What’s particularly odd about this one is the line about how the young man ‘gives thy pen both skill and argument’. This strikes me as a straightforward piece of self-deception: unless Shakespeare pours the inspiration of the young man into his plays — which, this sonnet implies, he doesn’t — then it’s hardly a controversial judgement to say that he is better when he isn’t thinking about his beloved. When he is thinking about his beloved, he is prone to abstraction, and to telling instead of showing; as a counter-point, consider this random example: is there anything in the Sonnets that compares for wit and invention with Falstaff’s speech in praise of drinking? This is from 2 Henry IV (4.3):

A good sherris sack hath a two-fold operation in it. It ascends me into the brain; dries me there all the foolish and dull and curdy vapours which environ it; makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble fiery and delectable shapes, which, delivered o’er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit. The second property of your excellent sherris is, the warming of the blood; which, before cold and settled, left the liver white and pale, which is the badge of pusillanimity and cowardice; but the sherris warms it and makes it course from the inwards to the parts extreme: it illumineth the face, which as a beacon gives warning to all the rest of this little kingdom, man, to arm; and then the vital commoners and inland petty spirits muster me all to their captain, the heart, who, great and puffed up with this retinue, doth any deed of courage; and this valour comes of sherris. So that skill in the weapon is nothing without sack, for that sets it a-work; and learning a mere hoard of gold kept by a devil, till sack commences it and sets it in act and use. Hereof comes it that Prince Harry is valiant; for the cold blood he did naturally inherit of his father, he hath, like lean, sterile and bare land, manured, husbanded and tilled with excellent endeavour of drinking good and good store of fertile sherris, that he is become very hot and valiant. If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack.

This is not to downplay the Sonnets, which stand on their own — but it is to wonder at the self-assessment of an author who would rank them above his plays! But then again, perhaps we should be reading an air of desperation in this claim: for Shakespeare himself sometimes doubts the effects of his muse on his verse; as we have seen, and will see again soon, he has been known to decry ‘what poverty my Muse brings forth’ (103).

But this in turn feeds into a question about Q3, which promises us a satire on Time: where is this satire? I have no doubt he could write a very amusing one!