Stephen Booth's book of The Sonnets is a landmark in Shakespeare studies, and worth a dive into if you want a serious swim in the sonnet cycle. It's an extraordinarily rich, deep, and imaginative exploration of the poems, reflecting an attention that goes beyond 'close reading' to 'microscopic reading.' It reproduces a page from the 1609 Quarto edition of The Sonnets on one page, with the corresponding plain text reading on the facing page, followed by detailed notes.
Here's a terrific article from a scientific magazine arguing that Booth is a prescient critic, and the first literary critic to recognize the larger role of the unconscious in reading. Booth and the author argue that the near-puns, near multiple meanings, close associations, and hosts of other connections – not usually consciously noted – all factor into the whole brain's appreciation of the language.
http://nautil.us/issue/48/chaos/shakesp ... onsense-rp
A key (albeit geeky) section from the article:
>>An explicit pun is a momentary flash, and then it’s over. More valuable for Booth are the links that spread out from each word based on “its sound, sounds that resemble it, its sense, its potential senses, their homonyms, their cognates, their synonyms, and their antonyms.” Unexploded puns conserve their energy and preserve these links, creating rich, multilayered, imbricating patterns throughout a work.
What’s essential to Booth is that for readers and audiences—for everyone but the professional critic—these patterns usually remain below the threshold of our attention. What he calls the “physics” of the verse are available to general readers, but not obtrusive. In his 1998 book Precious Nonsense, Booth argues that the experiences that Shakespeare’s poetic language evokes with such verve and subtlety are intensifications of everyday language experiences. Shakespeare achieves this by weaving incredibly rich networks from the same kinds of “substantive nonsense and nonimporting patterns” that pop up in slang, jokes, songs, and nursery rhymes. Those dense networks of patterns, Booth posits, are “the principal source of the greatness we find in Shakespeare’s work.” <<
A couple of less abstract passages:
>>>>According to Booth, the greatest tragedy in Macbeth occurs in the audience, in the failure of moral categories that leaves us identifying with the title character despite his repugnant actions. He points out that later scenes repeatedly offer Malcolm to the audience as a potential way out, giving us several chances to switch our moral allegiance.
So why don’t we? The answer, Booth says, is because Shakespeare doesn’t want us to. To begin with, Malcolm’s responses to the unfolding drama never seem quite appropriate. On learning that his father has been murdered, for example, he answers “O, by whom?”—“a response from which,” Booth notes, “no amount of gasping and mimed horror can remove the tone of small talk.”
By padding Malcolm’s later speeches with an abundance of “syntactical stuffing,” Shakespeare ensures that Malcolm comes off as plodding, bloviating, dramatically weak. “Malcolm’s style is grating in its lack of economy,” Booth explains; his “syntax is maddeningly contorted, and his pace tortuous…no quantity of alternative adjectives and nouns can fill up the cistern of Malcolm’s lust to dilate upon particulars.”
Here, if ever, Shakespeare lays out bumpy verbal terrain. Even if we wanted to like Malcolm, the play encourages us not to simply because the way he speaks is so impedimentary. Malcolm slows things down. We never leave Macbeth; linguistically and otherwise, things are much more exciting when he’s around.
“In the theatre, speed is good and slowness is bad,” Booth writes. “In the story of Macbeth as staged by Shakespeare, virtuous characters and virtuous actions move slowly; speed is characteristic of the play’s evil actions and their actors. What an audience approves in one dimension of its experience is at perfect odds with what it approves in another.” This, Booth maintains, is why we keep going to see Macbeth. And for him, the three-hour respite from the constraints of ordinary logical and moral systems is “an effectively miraculous experience.”<<
>>Functional shifts occur when parts of speech are switched unexpectedly. They’re a favorite Shakespearean device, but noun-to-verb conversions are especially common: Edgar’s “He childed as I fathered” in King Lear, for example, or the hero’s lament in Antony and Cleopatra about “The hearts that spanieled me at heels.” According to [Professor Phillip] Davis [of Liverpool], the changes in EEG measurements between Shakespearean functional shifts and various control sentences demonstrate that “while the Shakespearean functional shift was semantically integrated with ease, it triggered a syntactic re-evaluation process likely to raise attention and extra emergent consciousness.” In other words, the brain noticed something odd about the use of a noun as a verb, quickly made sense of it, and was put on high alert for more unusual activity. <<
A couple of recent outstanding non-Shakespearean reading recs to pass on: Stefan Zweig's 80 page novella "Chess," much of which is told with the kind of monomaniacal first-person intensity you might find in one of Poe's madmen, but with the logic and sophistication of a cultured gentleman facing life-threatening stressors. And if you liked “Lincoln In The Bardo,” try the same author's short stories in “Tenth of December,” also genre-busting and powerful.
Vicente Fernandez, the Elvis+Sinatra of Mexico:
Let's take a look at the first eighteen sonnets. The first seventeen are the 'procreation sonnets,' which urge a single young man to be fruitful and multiply so the world will not be deprived of his incomparable beauty in the future. Shakespeare uses a variety of metaphors to illustrate the brevity of life and beauty and the necessity of extending one's life by breeding and creating a family.
Sonnet #18 –– "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" -- is the first of the main body of sonnets, and may well be when the patron changed from the young man's father to the young man himself. In this sonnet, Shakespeare declares that the poem itself guarantees the young man's immortality -- "So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/ So long lives this and this gives life to thee." There is a consistency of appeal and imagery that makes this sonnet seem of a piece with the preceding poems, as well as those that follow. Booth writes, "The imperceptibility of the dividing line between the procreation sonnets and sonnets 18 - 126 is a primary reason for assuming the 1-126 all concern the same relationship."
Booth's edition, to a much greater extent than others, emphasizes multiple and often contradictory interpretations, and is less likely to provide coherent glosses for all difficult lines. For an example of the latter, the final line of the first sonnet -- "To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee" is rendered in my three other editions as "the greedy pig who hogged his own beauty and took it with him to the grave," "the kind of glutton who devours . . . the children one owes the world . . .first by refusing to reproduce and then by dying" (Folger), "destroyed once by self-absorption and once by death" (Oxford). But Booth writes, "Line 14 sounds clear and – since it echoes all the poem's earlier assertions – summary as well; the line feels meaningful, but it neither invites nor can sustain a precise gloss."
This is Booth on the question of multiples meanings, specifically the line "So should the lines of life that life repair" from sonnet 16. Booth writes that editors argued for many years over the meaning of "lines" until William Empson (1930) "in effect pointed out that all the suggested glosses for the phrase are right" – the personal appearance of the young man, that same look appearing in his descendants, time's facial wrinkles, the familial lines of inheritance, lines drawn with a pen, the lines of the poem, and the life-lines of fate and palmistry. Booth writes "An editor of the sonnets who presents only the gloss demanded by the author's clear intent in the ongoing logic of the poem will not be incorrect but incomplete." Booth assumes that the unconscious plays a large role in reading, so although all the meanings may not be evident to the reader, they may be registering and resonating below the surface.
Sonnets 5 and 6 use the image of a flower's essence being captured in a glass vial, so its fragrance can be savored in the winter when the flower itself has died, just as the young man's beauty can be captured in his children when he has passed. "But flowers distill’d, though they with winter meet,/ Lose but their show, their substance still lives sweet."
Sonnet 7 traces the path of the sun through the day, how it is majestic and revered when it is rising, but turned away from as it sets. The proverbial phrase of the time was "The rising, not the setting, sun is worshipped by most men." Curiously, although the sun is theme of the poem, the word "sun" does not appear in it, although the poem closes with its homonym: "So thou, thyself out-going in thy noon,/ Unlook'd on diest, unless thou get a son."
Sonnet 8 uses musical metaphors, the sweet harmonies of combined sounds. It opens with a strange conceit, wondering why the young man takes such pleasure in sad music. The idea of enjoying sad music is commonplace and unexceptional, but the poet makes it sounds as though this is an odd aberration. "Why lovest thou that which thou receivest not gladly . . ." One need only think of Jacques, who could "suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs," or John Dowland, "always Dowland, always doleful."
Sonnet 10 concludes "Make thee another self, for love of me,/ That beauty still may live in thine or thee." This is the first suggestion of a personal relationship between the poet and the subject (given the 1609 Quarto sequence that we commonly use). In 13, he calls him "Love."
Sonnet 11 is suggestive of sex, and one should remember that at that time it was believed that ejacuations shortened ones life.
Sonnet 12 is a beautiful pastoral evocation of life rushing toward death and decay, including the line "That thou among the wastes of time must go," which Oxford calls "a phrase so rich in its evocation of empty destruction that it defies glossing."
Sonnet 15 concludes with another allusion to a personal relationship, followed by a hint that the poems themselves will confer a kind of immortality on the subject: "And all in war with Time for love of you/ As he takes from you, I ingraft you new." But then in 16 he downplays the importance of his poetry, urging the youth to "fortify yourself in your decay/ With means more blessed than my barren rhyme." In 17, he tells the young man that in the future stories of his beauty may seem like fanciful exaggerations, "But were some child of yours alive that time,/ You should live twice, in it and in my rhyme."
And with the glorious Sonnet 18 we enter the main section of the cycle, with the poet guaranteeing immortality to the young man through the power of the poems:
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
Still looking at August 12th for the reading and July 29th for your 4-6 choices for poems.
I finally got that Complete BBC Shakespeare set from e-bay for the lowlow price of $90, box notes in Korean but subtitles in English, came to $2.36 per disc! Excellent Cymbeline, solid cast overall with a charmingly icy Claire Bloom as The Queen and Helen Mirren giving the kind of magnificent performance as Imogen that makes one appreciate why the role has been so prized by actresses over the centuries.
If the prospect of tackling the sonnets sequentially or randomly seems daunting, you might try easing into them with some of the more familiar poems, such as
18 -- Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
29 -- When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
30 -- When to the sessions of sweet silent thought/ I summon up remembrance of things past (last phrase is from King Solomon)
73 -- That time of year thou mayst in me behold/ When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
116 -- Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments.
129 -- The expense of spirit in a waste of shame/ Is lust in action;
130 -- My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
138 -- When my love swears that she is made of truth/ I do believe her, though I know she lies
"One of the startling effects of the best of [the sonnets] – a prime reason they have drawn madly fluttering biographical speculations like moths to a flame – is an almost painful intimacy. They seem to offer access to Shakespeare's most private retreat. But the other figures are carefully shrouded." (Grrenblatt)
The likeliest candidate for the beautiful young man of the sonnets is Henry Wriothsley, the third Earl of Southhampton. "Venus and Adonis" and "Lucrece" are both dedicated to Wriothsley. The polite and deferential dedication of the earlier poem ("I know not how I shall offend") is followed in "Lucrece" by a declaration of "love . . . without end,' mirroring the progression of feelings of the procreation sonnets, which date from the same period. Southhampton was a fabulously rich young man who attended the theater nightly in the company of more than a dozen worshipful attendants (among them was John Florio, whose translation of Montaigne would later be much used by Shakespeare). Wriothsley turned down an arranged marriage at 16, saying he wasn't opposed to the particular girl but to marriage in general. When he was 18 he received a poem dedicated to him, likely commissioned by his family, about Narcissus, and the evils of self-love. If – as it eventually happened – he were to turn 21 without having married, he would lose the staggering sum of 5,000 pounds. Prior to this is when Shakespeare would have been commissioned by the custodial family to write poems to convince him to wed. Coming at a time when the theaters had been shut down by the plague and he was trying to establish himself as a published poet, such a commission would have seemed like godsend to Shakespeare.
This is a remarkable portrait of Southhampton from that time, long thought to be a portrait of a woman until its fairly recent identification.
It sheds light on passages like these from Sonnet 20, in which Shakespeare imagines that nature started out to create a woman, but changed her mind mid-process:
A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion; . . .
And for a woman wert thou first created; . . .
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.
What of the question of Shakespeare's declarations of love for the young man? Booth writes, "William Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual. The sonnets provide no evidence on the matter.” We should make a distinction between homoerotic, which Elizabethans would have found natural and desirable given their belief in the inherent superiority of men to women, and homosexuality, which was strictly forbidden by the churches. So Shakespeare's expressions of love to his subject (who may have become his patron after the procreation sonnets) would not have seemed scandalous to his contemporaries, although it was certainly a departure from the classic sonnets.
We should also be aware of how "love" and "lover" were used at the time, Booth writing, "'lover' is used as an almost exact synonym for 'friend.'" The use of 'lover' at the closing of letters was "as neutral sexually as the salutation 'Dear Sir' is now." Booth writes that 'lover' meant friend in the context of friendship and 'paramour' in the context of a love affair, and "the effective meaning . . . in these sonnets is a dynamic and witty conflation of both meanings, which constantly and unsuccessfully strain to separate from one another."
Were Shakespeare's expressions of love and adoration for Southhampton genuine, or was he simply giving his audience (and perhaps financial benefactor) what he wanted to hear? We'll never be sure, and I think it's entirely possible that Southampton himself may never have been sure.
The essay following the poems in the Folger edition notes that Shakespeare's sonnets differ from other sonnet sequences of the time not only by having a male subject rather than a female, but also in something basic about the voice of the sonneteer. The most common pronoun after the first-person "I" in all other sonnet sequences is the third-person, usually "she"; but in Shakespeare it is the second person, "thee" or "you." So Shakespeare's sonnets are less like the declarations of an individual and more like conversations, "even if they get no direct answer."
However much we delve into the themes and ideas that range over the whole cycle or sections of it, serious students of the sonnets usually preach that each poem is best appreciated on its own, as a self-contained work. I say this now because I'm about to pair and group together a number of sonnets.
In sonnets 15 -17 Shakespeare suggests that his poetry will confer some measure of survival for his subject's beauty, but this poetic survival would be weak compared to his having children to physically carry on his beauty. But with 18 and 19, he begins to promise that his poetry itself will confer immortality on his subject:
"So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee." (18)
"Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young." (19)
It should be noted, however, that Southhampton is at best an educated guess by the cognoscenti, and the only obvious immortality gained through the poems is the author's.
Sonnet 23 -- "As an unperfect actor on the stage
Who with his fear is put besides his part"
Like an actor overcome with stage fright who forgets his lines, the poet's love leaves him tongue-tied, so he must rely on his writing to express his feelings.
Sonnets 27 & 28 – linked sonnets complaining that the poet works hard all day and is kept awake all night with thoughts of his beloved.
"Lo! thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee and for myself no quiet find." (27)
"But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer
And night doth nightly make grief's strength seem stronger." (28)
Sonnet 29 continues the descent of the previous two, but in the third quatrain the poet is rescued by thoughts of his love, and his spirit soars like a lark at daybreak from the ground to heaven:
"When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings."
Note the series of monetary references – fortune, rich, wealth. And note how a couple of the ambiguities in the poem are best interpreted as both/and rather than either/or – "more rich in hope" means richer in hope and having better hopes of getting rich, and "enjoy" means take pleasure in and having ready at hand.
This sonnet and the next, #30, are "linked in a cycle of woe by their opening word" (Oxford) and the continuation of the financial references, with #30 adding some legal terms (sessions, summons, cancelled). The poet thinks of past woes and suffers through them again, mirroring the original context of the phrase from Solomon: “For a double grief came upon them, and a groaning for the remembrance of things past.” But this reliving of old griefs is erased by thoughts of his friend:
"But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end."
#32 is a self-deprecating sonnet saying that future poets may write better verse, so the young man should prize these "for my love, not for their rhyme," and should think "Theirs for their style I'll read, his for his love."
#33 – 35 refer to some unnamed hurt that the beloved has inflicted on the poet. The beloved is the sun, now clouded over. But this sun has agency over the clouds, and does "permit the basest clouds to ride/ With ugly rack on his celestial face," like Prince Hal's vow to "imitate the sun, Who doth permit the base contagious clouds/ To smother up his beauty from the world,/ That when he please again to be himself,/ Being wanted, he may be more wondered at/ By breaking through the foul and ugly mists."
#33 concludes: "Suns of the world may stain when heaven's sun staineth," that is the stars/ suns/ sons of men are permitted to be stained since the actual sun in the heavens can be stained by clouds. "If gold rust what shall iron do?" (Chaucer) In #34, the poet berates the subject for promising a sunny day and sending him out in the storm without his cloak. He says it is not enough that the sun then comes out to dry the rain from his face because it "cures not the disgrace." But when the friend cries, his tears are like pearls that "ransom all ill deeds."
This triplet of poems finishes with a twist in #35, which starts out as a "Get over it!" sonnet, everything has a down side. He begins by telling his buddy not to worry about what he has done because:
"Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud;
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud."
The poet says all men have faults, but then turns it on himself and says his forgiveness of the friend's injuries to him is a fault, and he is corrupting himself by trying to take the part of the one who injured him. He is in a "civil war" (line 12) with himself. A contemporary proverb ran "a fault once excused is twice committed."
Sonnet #36 explores the paradox of being united in their love but separated in their persons in the world. "Let me confess that we two must be twain,/ Although our undivided loves are one." The poet must never be publicly acknowledged by the beloved for fear of disgracing or embarrassing the aristocrat. Lines 5 & 6 are the kinds of lines Booth loves, "meaningless and overcharged with meaning."
"In our two loves there is but one respect,
Though in our lives a separable spite"
Booth's free rendering of the lines is "Our love makes us one person although unfortunately we must live separately," which Booth calls a "paraphrase that does unavoidable violence to the lines, diminishing them in the name of sanity." He notes that none of the meanings of the word "respect" in line 5 makes for a coherent gloss, although the word suggests rank, esteem, concern, etc., all of which are apt. But the phrase 'in respect to' flickers between the lines (not stated but not excluded), as though the poem never completes saying "In respect to our loves we are one, but in respect to our lives we are separate."
Late July for your preferred poems.
Sonnet #29, from The Globe
Hope you're all doing well. For Father's Day, Lily got me a box of fixings for pastrami and corned beef sandwiches from the old deli from the old neighborhood in The Bronx – the best!
Sonnets 40-42 deal with the young man sleeping with the poet's mistress, a theme explored again late in the cycle, in the chronologically earlier Dark Lady sonnets.
In #40, the poet tries to rationalize away the young man's theft of his mistress, but by the end of the third quatrain admits a wound from a lover is more painful than one from an enemy:
"And yet, love knows, it is a greater grief
To bear love's wrong than hate's known injury."
The concluding couplet accepts that the young man is so beautiful and graceful that any wrongs he does will appear in a good light, and hurt the poet, so the best the writer can do is hope that they don't become enemies.
"Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows,
Kill me with spites; yet we must not be foes."
In #41, the poet starts off understandingly, knows that while he and the young man are apart women must constantly be throwing themselves at the beautiful and charming and wealthy beloved, and what mother's son could turn away.
"Gentle thou art and therefore to be won,
Beauteous thou art, therefore to be assailed;
And when a woman woos, what woman's son
Will sourly leave her till she have prevailed?"
But then the poet thinks: Will all your choices, couldn't you have taken a pass on MY mistress?
"Ay me! but yet thou mightest my seat forbear"
Then you wouldn't be guilty of having broken two bonds – hers to me, and yours to me.
In #42, he explores the thought that she only slept with the young man because of his relationship to the poet, and the young man only slept with her because she was the poet's mistress; so these two gangsters of love "both find each other and I lose both twain." Line 9 reads: "If I lose thee, my loss is my love's gain," which is typically taken to mean if he loses the young man it is the gain of his mistress; but Boothe notes that 'my love's gain' makes sense with any of the three of them identified as 'my love.' The poet harkens back to sonnet #39 for the idea (or rationalization) that he and his beloved friend are one, so by her loving him she is actually loving the poet, too. And even as he says this, he knows it is self-flattery and mocks it:
"But here's the joy; my friend and I are one;
Sweet flattery! then she loves but me alone."
None of the three sonnets come to an emotional resolution of this betrayal. The poet's position in life means he must accept the wrong inflicted on him, since the one who wronged him was a likely patron, a dear friend or lover, and – most of all -- a social superior of great wealth and power. Remember, Shakespeare was the only major playwright of the time to avoid getting locked up for what he wrote; he must have had a keen understanding of where the uncrossable lines were drawn.
By Sonnet 43 The Mistress is gone, but the poet and the young man are still far apart. The poet complains that all day his eyes must
" . . . view things unrespected,"
"All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee"
The poem is filled with oxymorons, contradictions and other intricate wordplay, itemized by Booth: ANTITHESIS: wink see (line 1), shadow form (5, 6), etc.; ANTISTASIS: shadow shadows (5), form form (6), etc.; EPIZEUXIS: bright, are bright (4), see til I see (13); ANTIMETABOLE: darkly bright are bright in dark (4), "as well as rhetorically uncategorized word plays."
44 & 45 are linked poems on the theme of the four elements. (And you thought there were 118!?) As any tarot reader will tell you, the elements are earth, water, air and fire, and have been so since the ancients Greeks, endorsed by Aristotle.
The poet wishes he were mad of thought, but thought is of the lighter elements, fire and air, and he is made of slow earth and water. If he were thought, he could close the distance between him and his beloved in a moment, but the world's earth and water keep the earth and water that is him from flying to his beloved.
"If the dull substance of my flesh were thought,
Injurious distance should not stop my way . . .
For nimble thought can jump both sea and land
As soon as think the place where he would be. . .
But that so much of earth and water wrought
I must attend time's leisure with my moan,
Receiving nought by elements so slow
But heavy tears, badges of either's woe."
45 continues with the four elements theme, ascribing the two lighter elements to the beloved:
"The other two, slight air and purging fire,
Are both with thee, wherever I abide;
The first my thought, the other my desire"
And when the lighter elements are all with the other,
"My life, being made of four, with two alone
Sinks down to death, oppress'd with melancholy"
The belief at the time being that melancholy was caused by an imbalance among the four elements within the individual. So the poet waits to hear of good news (fire and air) from the beloved, and is gladdened when he hears it but then sends back wishes (fire and air) in return and is again gloomy:
" . . . assured
Of thy fair health, recounting it to me:
This told, I joy; but then no longer glad,
I send them back again and straight grow sad."
Quick and geeky stylistic diversion. All the poems but three are in the form of the Shakespearean sonnet -- fourteen lines consisting of three quatrains followed by a couplet, the rhyme scheme being: abab cdcd efef gg
The lines are in iambic pentameter, meaning that the lines are composed of five two-syllable feet with the accent on the second syllable, like the opening line of 43: "When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,"
These are the exceptions:
99 – has an extra line in the first quatrain, 15 line poem
126 – 6 couplets, 12 lines
145 – in tetrameter instead of pentameter, 8 syllables a line instead of 10
That 38-CD BBC Shakespeare set obviously couldn't have come at a better time. I raved about Helen Mirren's Imogene in my last e-mail, so now I will rave about her in As You Like It. This is among the most frequently filmed plays, and this modest BBC version is the best of the lot! A truly great Shakespeare film. Mirren as Rosalind is a key, the first Rosalind to actually bring off the sex-disguise business with any degree of credibility. I'm not big on costumes, but I loved what they did with them in this play. It was filmed at a Scottish castle whose grounds served as the Forest of Arden. I found it refreshingly devoid of the gimmickry of exotic settings and famous film actors. It was acted brilliantly and with an obvious affection for the material by the entire cast, and it put a smile on my face from start to finish. As good as it gets!
The BBC's Midsummer Night's Dream unfortunately doesn't rise to the level of a memorable performance. It looks a little drab, has little magic and little laughter in it. I liked that it, like the AYL, was free of the gimmickry and guest stars that often plague The Dream's film productions, and the understated presentation allowed for a greater emphasis on the poetry of the lines, which I appreciated. Some of the visual are striking and look as though they had their origins in paintings. But, overall, a lackluster Dream.
This is Pete Seeger at Obama's inauguration:
Hope you're all doing well, coping with the sheltering and sweltering.
Sonnet 46 stages a dispute between the eye and the heart over who has best claim on the beloved's love. The poem assumes the reader is familiar with the Renaissance distinction between the true love of the heart and the superficial love of the eye.
“Is Rosaline, whom thou didst love so dear,
So soon forsaken? young men's love then lies
Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.” (R&J, II, iii)
The eye and heart plead their cases, and 46 is filled with legalese – bar, plead, plea, defendant, quest, impaneled, title, verdict, due and right. The jury is composed of all the poet's thoughts, and they decide that that the beloved's image belongs to the eyes but his love belongs to the heart.
In 47, the eye and heart have made peace with each other and take turns hosting the other in appreciation of the beloved.
In Sonnet 48 the poet writes of taking great care to protect his material treasures, locking them away from thieves. But his love, which is worth so much more than any of his possessions, can't be locked up and is free to come and go as it pleases. And a beautiful treasure like his beloved will inevitably become the object of desire and thieves. “Rich preys make true men thieves.” (Venus and Adonis) “Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold.” As You Like It “The prey entices the thief.” (proverbial)
Sonnet 49, like 35, finds the poet arguing against his own interest. Preparing for the day his beloved will leave him,
“Against that time when thou shalt strangely pass
And scarcely greet me with that sun thine eye”
the poet will be able to provide no reason why he should be loved, why he shouldn't be left, “Since why to love I should allege no cause.”
Line 11 reads: “And this my hand against myself uprear,” with three relevant meanings – to testify against oneself, to defend by force the other's rights, and the poem itself in 'this my hand.'
Sonnets 50 and 51 deal with being at a distance from the beloved. Sonnet 52 comes to an appreciation of the distances, like a rich man who who looks at his treasures only rarely, to more keenly appreciate them, or like feasts spread out over the course of the year, or jewels spread across a crown.
“If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work . . .” 1HIV
Absence from the beloved makes his love more precious.
Sonnet 53 draws on the Neoplatonism of the time. Plato taught that the embodied world is a shadow of the ideal world, that a beautiful object is an inferior imitation of the perfect, disembodied beauty. Shakespeare's hyperbole in the sonnet supposes that the beloved is the source of the world's beauty and grace, Adonis and Helen are inferior counterfeits of his beauty, even Spring and harvest time are shadows of the beloved's beauty and generosity. And the final couplet praises the beloved for a 'constant heart,' in contrast to the others. The Oxford edition notes although both Adonis and Helen were indeed beautiful, neither was promising as a lover – Adonis preferred hunting to romancing Venus and Helen triggered the Trojan War.
Rzewski – The People United Will Never Be Defeated (variations on a Chilean song):
Sonnet 54 celebrates the beloved's possessing not just beauty, but also truth. The rose is fairer because of its “sweet odor.” The canker-blooms have as rich a color as the rose but “their only virtue is their show, ” so they live unwanted and unrespected. But roses die loved and prized, and “Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odors made.” And, as the perfume preserves the essence of the dead rose, so the poet will preserve the beloved's essence in the poems, “my verse distills your truth.”
55 opens with a continuation of the idea of the couplet of 54, that the beloved will live forever in the poet's work: “Nor marble nor the gilded monuments/ Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme.” While time and war will destroy statues and memories, this poem will keep you alive until Judgment Day. Horace and Ovid have similar themes in passages that would have been familiar to Shakespeare's readers.
Horace, Ode 3.30:
“I have created a monument more lasting than bronze
and loftier than the royal structure of the pyramids,
that which neither devouring rain, nor the unrestrained North Wind
may be able to destroy nor the immeasurable
succession of years and the flight of time.”
Ovid, XV, 871-9:
“And now the work is done, that Jupiter’s anger, fire or sword cannot erase, nor the gnawing tooth of time. Let that day, that only has power over my body, end, when it will, my uncertain span of years: yet the best part of me will be borne, immortal, beyond the distant stars. Wherever Rome’s influence extends, over the lands it has civilised, I will be spoken, on people’s lips: and, famous through all the ages, if there is truth in poet’s prophecies, –vivam - I shall live.”
line 4 has the startling (and acoustically beautiful) phrase “ . . . unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time,” which sounds as if “sluttish time” was being smeared on the stone, like grease, rather than the stone being sluttishly smeared by the agency of time, or over the course of time. (All three meaning are in play, of course.)
56 seems to personify Love in the opening lines,
“Sweet love, renew thy force; be it not said
Thy edge should blunter be than appetite”
Love must remain keener than lust, “
“. . . do not kill/ The spirit of love with a perpetual dullness.”
The last quatrain and couplet return to the theme that separation should keep their love eager for their reunion.
57 & 58 explore the courtly love convention of the lover as the slave of the beloved, waiting upon his beck and call, with nothing of his own to do until summoned by his love, all done without bitterness at the absence of the beloved, rather with gladness that the beloved is bringing happiness to those he is with now. The poet will endure any disappointment from the lover, who is free to enjoy his pleasures as he will.
“I am to wait, though waiting so be hell;
Not blame your pleasure, be it ill or well.”
As the servant waits upon his master, the poet waits upon his love.
“If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before . . .”
“ . . . there is no new thing under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1, 9
If this is true, why should the poet labor to describe his beloved's beauty? He should look “in some antique book” to see how “the old world” described “the wonder of you.” In the final couplet, the poet thinks his beautiful beloved must be superior to the ones described in the old books, but puts an ironic spin on it:
“O, sure I am, the wits of former days
To subjects worse have given admiring praise.”
The Oxford edition suggests the insinuation that “they were even worse than you” and Booth gives “You could have done worse.”
Regarding the overall theme of 59, that there is nothing new under the sun, Booth writes that there have been three mutually contradictory views of time which have co-existed in “the minds of most people through the whole course of western civilization,” these being the idea of progress through time, of cyclical and repeating time, and of an older Golden Age from which we have fallen.
60 As there are sixty minutes in an hour, Sonnet 60 deals with the passing of hours of time, the inevitability of time aging and destroying everything. As in Ovid, “Things ebb and flow: and every shape is made to pass away.” The concluding couplet offers a kind of muted hope that the poetry will survive time:
“And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.”
61 The poet wonders if the beloved is invading his thoughts to keep him awake at night and in order to spy on him. But he realizes:
“It is my love that keeps mine eye awake;
Mine own true love that doth my rest defeat,
To play the watchman ever for thy sake”
Booth writes “This sonnet is a perverse play on the proverb 'One friend watches for another.'”
63 One day the beautiful beloved will be as ravaged by time as the poet is now, so the poet labors so
“His beauty shall in these black lines be seen,
And they shall live, and he in them still green.”
64 Again on the powers of time, and resignation to the eventual final parting from the beloved the poet will someday have to make,
“That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.”
I've watched two more plays from the BBC boxes, both solid productions although not fabulous and exceptional as Helen Mirren's Cymbeline and As You Like It were.
Othello was . . . (Is enjoyable is ever the right word for Othello?) let's say engrossing, once I got over the shock of seeing Anthony Hopkins with Man Tan in the title role. He was understated in the opening, vulnerable in the middle scenes, and a little over the top at the end, but always commanded attention and acted masterfully. The surprising revelation in the film was Bob Hoskins as Iago, who was terrific in the role in a unique and totally successful interpretation. Hoskins was always the shortest person on the set and frequently spoke in a whisper, so he seemed to be flirting with invisibility; he was charming and engaging even as he figured out his villainies before us in the soliloquies. A solid production.
The Tempest was quite good, more like a stage play than any of the juiced up films of the play I've seen. It's not a knockout, like the Jarman film, but it's a solid reading of the complete text, well acted, and features some wonderful dancing by the spirits in the pageants. Definitely worth seeing.
I'll be asking for your short-lists of sonnets you'd like to read on July 22, reading on August 12.
One week to get your 'short list' of sonnets to me, in the order of how much you'd like to read them. We should all be able to read three or perhaps four sonnets during our Zoom reading. I will select our names at random, the first pick gets their top pick, next gets their top available pick, etc. Then I'll draw a second order for the next round, and so forth.
The next series of poems after this one will start off dealing with “the rival poet.” Shakespeare's sonnet cycle is so personal and involving that trying to figure out who's who in the sonnets is irresistible, the intimacy of the poems practically cry out for that. But at this point, halfway through this rereading of the cycle, I'm struck by the almost analytical explorations of love's nuances, which is leading me to a new appreciation for the view that all the sonnets should be viewed as a fiction, and you should view its people as you would characters in a play. As with everything else about the sonnets, these opposing views are a both/and rather than an either/or.
Sonnet 65 – Another sonnet on “sad mortality,” wondering how “shall beauty hold a plea,/ Whose action is no stronger than a flower?” The poet asks who can hold against Time's “swift foot,” and concludes “O, none, unless this miracle have might,/ That in black ink my love may still shine bright.”
Sonnets 66-68 are linked, sharing a gloomy view of a world fallen from its Golden Age into a corrupt and morally bankrupt time.
66 is one of the most famous poems in the cycle, opening: “Tired with all these, for restful death I cry.” The next eleven lines itemize what the poet hates about his modern world, finishing with “Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,/ Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.”
“Tired with all these . . . “ introduces the list in line one, and wraps it up in line thirteen.
Line 9 – “Art made tongue-tied by authority” refers both to contemporary censorship and to the weight given to the classic texts.
67 – Continuing the idea from the previous sonnet that the world has degenerated, the poet laments the fact that someone as wonderful as the lover had to be born into such miserable times and “with infection should he live.” The poet asks “Why should he live, now Nature bankrupt is?” and answers that Nature keeps him alive “to show what wealth she had/ In days long since, before these last so bad.”
68 – Opening with the word “Thus,” this poem continues the previous two sonnets' view of a world fallen from grace. The lover is the face of natural beauty in a world that paints cosmetics on faces and puts wigs on heads to disguise the effects of aging. But the lover's beauty is natural and legitimate, “To show false art what beauty was of yore.”
Lines 1 and 13 refer to the lover's beauty as a “map” to the true beauty of Nature's past.
Sonnet 59 presented Time as cyclical, eternal return; these three sonnets gave us the Fall From The Golden Age world view.
69 – Everyone who looks on the beloved can only praise his beauty, even his enemies. But those who look further into him are troubled because they suspect he is less beautiful on the inside. The poet knows this is not true, but thinks the young man invites such suspicions by spending time with low lifes.
70 – Expands on the previous sonnet's theme of public critics, taking a somewhat opposing view, that the beloved's beauty itself provokes criticism, “slander's mark was ever the fair.”
With the expected term of life being three-score and ten, sonnet 71 begins a series of four poems on the theme of the poet's death.
71 – Takes the “I wanna be your dog” theme to its inevitable end, with the poet advising the lover to ignore the poet's death when it happens, so the world will not laugh at him for being associated with the poet.
72 – Again, the lover is urged to forget the poet once he is dead. If anybody asks him to say something good about the poet, he would have to lie to come up with anything, and thereby ruin his own reputation. The poet is ashamed of his work, so the lover would be shamed to love anything as valueless as the poet and his writings.
73 – Opens with a beautiful description of the poet in Autumn:
“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”
The lover can see death approaching the poet, “ . . . which makes thy love more strong,/ To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”
line 8: “Death's second self” is conventional for sleep.
74 – Tells the lover not to grieve for him when he dies because death will only take the physical part of him, while the best of him, his spirit, will live on in the poems and his heart.
77 – There are several references to books and blank pages in this sonnet, which lead many scholars to agree with George Steevens' inference (1780) that the poem accompanied the gift of a book to be written in. It may have been a bound book with blank pages or a table-book (Hamlet, I, v). Table-books were pocket-sized books with waxed pages designed to be written on with a stylus while the writer was on the move; the pages would be erased later, after the notes or drawings were transferred to a more permanent medium. The poet urges the lover to look in the mirror and watch clocks, and write down his thoughts in the book. Those written thoughts are like children that he can later nourish and help grow, to his benefit.
Here's the BBC's shelter-in-place Swan Lake, wonderful dancers performing in the privacy of their own bathtubs:
This series opens with the rival poet sonnets, which run from 78 to 86, with the interruption of 81.
Sonnet 78 – the beloved's beauty enhances the poetry of other poets,
"Have added feathers to the learned's wing
And given grace a double majesty."
But this poet has no poetry but that which is inspired by you:
"But thou art all my art . . ."
This doubling of “art” is antanaclasis, a homonymic pun, the repetition of a word in different sense.
The other poets have their art ornamented by the beloved's beauty, but this poet has no poetry at all without the beloved. Booth glosses the line as "the beloved's being and the speaker's art are one and the same."
79 – Sonnet 53 envisions the beloved as the Platonic source of all beauty, Adonis and Helen were lesser imitations of him; in this sonnet, whatever graces the rival poet shows in his work derive from the beloved. Whatever virtue can be found in his work was taken from the subject in the first place. Booth points out the internal rhyme in the opening two lines: "alone did call" and "alone had all."
80 – Booth writes: "This sonnet uses many words used elsewhere in sexual senses . . .; none of them is activated here, but their concentration gives the poem vague sexual overtones." The poet and his rival are ships on the great ocean that is the beloved. Shakespeare's boat is a "saucy bark, inferior far to his," and because it has a small draught it can exist in the shallows of the lover's favor; the rival's "tall" ship "upon your soundless deep doth ride . . ."
81 is nine squared, a single sonnet break from the rival poet series, the last of 'the climacteric sonnets' (along with 43, 63, and 77, believed to be numerologically significant ages). The poet looks ahead to the day when both he and the lover are dead, he will be forgotten but the lover will live on the verse of the poet. The mannered humility of the previous rival poet sonnets are gone, now the poet promises the lover immortality in his verses. We may find ourselves actively identifying with the poet's readers of the future:
" . . . 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."
82 & 83 – On the theme of the artistry that the rival poet brings to his descriptions of the beloved, but because the subject's beauty is perfect, the elaborate praises have the effect of killing it. Shakespeare describes the beloved plainly, because his beauty needs no elaboration. The second of these poems seems to suggest that the lover mistook the poet's lack of extravagant praise as a slight, but the poet knows his restraint issues from the futility of using rhetoric to enhance the lover's true virtues.
84 – Continues the theme of the previous sonnets in noting the futility of writing flowery poetry about that which is beyond comparison. And the praise the other poets lavish on the youth, and the praise the youth bestows on the other poet(s), cheapen the praises of both of them, and only encourages more false praise from the other poet.
The first four lines are pregnant with suggestions but "ambiguous, complex, opaque and elusive all at the same time." ( from a good site for the sonnets: (http://www.shakespeares-sonnets.com/sonnet/84 )
Booth suggests that the puzzling lines are a "stylistic palimpsest."
85 – The rival poet poet writes so beautifully (words and perhaps calligraphy, too), that Shakespeare can only stand by tongue-tied:
"I think good thoughts, whilst others write good words,
And like unlettered clerk still cry 'Amen'"
This recalls Richard II: "God save The King! Will no man say 'Amen'?/
Am I then both priest and clerk? Well then, Amen."
The rival speaks with his grand words, the poet shows his devotion wordlessly.
86 – The last of the rival poet series, and Shakespeare tells the youth he is not blocked from writing by the rival's skill, or by the spirits of past great writers that visit the rival at night and inspire him to write better than the reach of human talent. None of that caused him to lose heart; but when the youth looked with favor on the rival's poem, "Then lacked I matter, that enfeebled mine." Oxford, like the playShakespeare notes I mentioned earlier, like Chapman as the rival poet, in part because Chapman claimed to have been inspired by Homer when he translated his works; Booth likes Chapman as the leading candidate "because he wrote both pompously and well."
87 – Written as though the bond between the poet and the lover has already been broken, the poet was never worthy of him, and the whole affair was like a dream from which he has now awakened. The sonnet opens:
"Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know'st thy estimate,"
The Oxford edition notes "a sardonic edge here ('and don't you just know it')"
88 – 89 -90 Three linked sonnets expanding on the theme of 87 (and 49), looking forward to the day when the youth will reject the poet, and the poet will take the lover's part, expanding upon all the poet's faults and assuming all the faults are his own, again taking the other's part against himself. 89 itemizes ways in which he will help the youth make him look bad.
"For thee, against my self I'll vow debate,
For I must ne'er love him whom thou dost hate."
In 89 we have: "Speak of my lameness, and I straight will halt," usually taken to mean, Announce a fault of mine and I will demonstrate it to make you look good, although a minority of scholars see evidence of Shakespeare's own infirmity in the line, and – more interestingly – Booth sees it as referring to the writing of poetry, " . . . metrically clumsy verses are called lame or said to halt . . . metric units are called feet."
The closing couplet of 89 is: "For thee, against my self I'll vow debate,
For I must ne'er love him whom thou dost hate."
And 90 opens by expanding on those lines:
"Then hate me when thou wilt; if ever, now"
And begs the youth that when the time comes for him to be dumped, he should do it right away, not at the end of a string of minor rejections.
"If thou wilt leave me, do not leave me last,
When other petty griefs have done their spite,"
91-92-93 Three linked sonnets on the theme of the love of the beloved being a greater treasure than anything else, and how that makes the poet vulnerable to having nothing if the beloved turns from him. In 92 the poet says he will die as soon as the beloved turns his affections away from him, so he can't be troubled by the youth's inconstancy, he'll die as soon as he is slighted. But then he wonders if he lover might be false to him without his knowing. Booth notes that 92 contains many words and themes found in Two Gentlemen of Verona. "Thou mayst be false, and yet I know it not." This could apply to the past, present or future – the speaker does not know if he already has, is currently being, or will in the future be betrayed.
93 supposes that youth is false, and the poet must live "Like a deceived husband," because the youth's face will only show love, even if his heart is false; like Eve's apple, beautiful but evil.
Booth calls 93 "a stylistic mirror of the speaker's indecision," constructed so the reader is constantly swinging between positive and negative responses. The poem opens "They that have power to hurt, and will do none . . .
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;
They rightly do inherit heaven's graces."
Past interpretations tended to see this as praising a detached and cool personality, capable of moving others while remaining unmoved himself; but more recent scholarship has tended to see it in the context of the surrounding sonnets, as speaking of a split between the outward beauty of the youth and his fickleness.
"Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds." = the poem's final line, proverbial, also appears word for word in the anonymous play "The Reign of King Edward the Third" (1596).
95 – 96 – The poet warns the youth of the dangers to his reputation. The youth is so splendid that even reports of his bad behavior (sexual infidelities are suggested) are given a positive spin just by being associated with him, "beauty's veil doth cover every blot." The poet warns the beloved that misuse of his privilege will ruin him: "The hardest knife ill-used doth lose his edge." Lust is suggested earlier in the poem, so the final line has sexual suggestions, like this exchange in Hamlet:
You are keen, my lord, you are keen.
It would cost you a groaning to take off mine edge.
96 expands on the idea that the youth's beauty transforms his wantonness to charm. The poet wonders how much success a wolf would have if he could look like a sheep (a wolf in sheep's clothing), as the lover looks like a beautiful and virtuous young man and could corrupt others with his power. The sonnet's final couplet is identical to 36, although with a somewhat different meaning.
"But do not so, I love thee in such sort,
As thou being mine, mine is thy good report."
In 36, the emphasis is on the beloved not losing his virtue, in 96 the emphasis is on not deceiving other lovers – in both cases, the poet is so closely identified with the beloved it reflects on him, too.
I have nine of our eleven readers' selections – still waiting on a couple.
We're still looking at Wednesday, August 12, 6:00, for our Zoomed sonnets reading. I've received preferred selections from ten of you, one would like me to assign them sonnets, and one is still unaccounted for. I should have the reading order ready by Monday.
"The combination of apparent simplicity and demonstrable difficulty is perhaps the commonest trait of the sonnets." Booth, notes to 107
Sonnets 97-98-99 return to the theme of separation from the lover. It is not clear here if the separation is physical or an estrangement. In 97, the poet says the time away from the youth is like winter, although it had actually been during the summer and a fruitful fall. The poet recalls that he was away from the lover in the spring, but never marveled at the new blooms since all their beauty and fragrance was just a shadow of the youth's. 99 is the only fifteen line sonnet in the cycle, expanding on the floral themes of 98, itemizing the flowers and what they have stolen from the beloved.
"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 Folger edition notes that the poem is so similar to this sonnet by Henry Constable https://www.bartleby.com/358/541.html
that it has been suggested that one is a reworking of the other (no one is quite sure which came first) or perhaps both were submissions to the same contest.
100-101-102-103 all deal with the poet not writing about the lover, from whom he draws all inspiration. He regrets wasting his verse on 'base subjects' and appeals to his muse to speak to him of the beloved. The poet will survey his lover's face for any signs of aging, and if he finds any he will make men ridicule and despise the works of Time, and he resolves to outrun Time:
"Give my love fame faster than Time wastes life;
So thou prevent'st his scythe and crooked knife."
101 has the poet berating himself for failing to continue to write about the lover.
"Because he needs no praise, wilt thou be dumb?"
And the poet cannot excuse his silence, because it up to him to
"make him much outlive a gilded tomb,
And to be praised of ages yet to be."
102 argues that although he publicly broadcasts his love less than others, he loves more, and those who promote their love turn it into a commodity. Sometimes the poet keeps silent so as not to bore the lover, "sweets grown common lose their dear delight."
103 opens "Alack, what poverty my Muse brings forth," and wonders what he could possibly add to the perfection that is the lover, any attempt to embellish the youth only mars him. ("Striving to better, oft we mar what's well." Lear)
The Oxford edition notes that studies suggest that sonnets 104 – 126 were composed later than the other sonnets to the young man, based on comparing usage of 'early rare words' and 'late rare words.' (Sonnets 127 – 154 are almost all 'dark lady' sonnets, although he never once calls her a lady.)
104 – Reflects on the three years that have passed since he first met the youth, who has not seemed to have aged although the poet knows he must have. His aging moves as imperceptibly as the dial hand on a sundial, which appears to stand still although we know it moves. Future generations should know that beauty's apex had passed before they were born.
Booth notes the epizeuxis (repetition of a sound with no intervening sound) at the end of the second line: "For as you were when first your eye I eyed," and supposes it seemed more graceful in Shakespeare's time.
105 – Booth calls this sonnet a "playful lesson in perversity."
"Let not my love be call'd idolatry" is the ironic opening of an adoring sonnet, claiming it is not pagan idolatry but suggesting a Christian adoration that idolizes the youth. The poet argues that his devotion is to a single person, so it is not idolatry. The sonnet repeats the trinity of virtues the youth embodies – "Fair, kind and true" – and claims that although those virtues can be found in others, the youth is the first to embody all of them.
In Elizabeth's time, idolatry was most commonly used to describe Catholic worship of saints, the Virgin Mary, relics, etc. Booth notes that although idolatry suggested polytheism, it does not follow as the poet suggests that all monotheisms (even those with embedded trinities) are orthodox.
106 – The poet reads classic poems praising the beauty and virtue of knights and maids, and knows they were just prefiguring the coming of the beloved. They lacked the model of perfection that he was; today's writers have him to look upon, but lack the skill to describe him.
107 – This sonnet is considered by many to be the most difficult in the cycle. It has also been the subject of intense scrutiny over the centuries since it seems to refer to contemporary events. Although there are no shortage of candidates, there has never been anything approaching a consensus on the subjects. Booth laments the fact that most scholars no longer question whether or not the events of the sonnet have correspondences in the history of the times, they move directly to the questions of what the references are and their dates. "There is a theory for almost every year from 1588 – 1609." The central event is an eclipse of the moon, which could be an allusion to the defeat of the Spanish Armada or any of a number of events related to Queen Elizabeth. The "sad augers" that have been disproved are possibly the predictions of disaster following the death of the queen and the coronation of James. At the end of the poem is a second event, the beloved youth seems to have been released from imprisonment, with at least two obvious candidates – the release of the Earl of Southampton (our leading candidate for The Youth) from The Tower in 1603 or the Earl of Pembroke from Fleet Street Prison in 1601. A rabbit hole of unconfirmable hypotheses.
108 – The poet asks what can he say new about the beloved. He answers that although the has nothing new to add,
" . . . like prayers divine,
I must, each day say o'er the very same"
so that the eternal love is renewed and made to seem as fresh as when love was new.
109 argues that although the poet may have strayed during their absences, he was never "false of heart," and the lover's breast
"is my home of love: if I have ranged,
Like him that travels I return again,"
The poet notes that, like a good traveler, he returns at just the right time. Booth finds this "Falstaff-like gall" in equating the travels of a journeyer with the promiscuous adventures of a untrue lover, the grossness of the argument enhanced by the capricious introduction of the virtue of punctuality into the discussion. The poet concludes his strained argument by declaring he would never leave the highest good, the beloved, for the worthless, which would be everything else.
110 – The poet confesses his many infidelities to the lover, but says they have rejuvenated him and made him realize how inferior everybody else is compared to the beloved. So the poet is through with other lovers, and will now devote himself entirely to the lover. Curious doubling of words in the last line:
"thy pure and most most loving breast."
The "most most" is usually and aptly read as 'very very,' but Booth points out that the phrase can also be taken to mean that the lover is the "'most many-loving,' 'most promiscuous.'"
111 – 112 The poet blames Fortune for his lot in life, probably referring to his life as a stage actor, and regrets that it reflects badly on the lover. Acting in the theater was considered a low calling, exposing oneself in public and to the common elements of society, and it was a employment that has left its "brand" upon him as plainly as "the dyer's hand." The references to the eisel (vinegar) cures may suggest a different grievance with fortune, perhaps a venereal disease. 112 opens by declaring that the poet's "vulgar scandal" is erased if the beloved looks favorably, with "love and pity," since his opinion is the only one that matters.
"Your love and pity doth the impression fill
Which vulgar scandal stamp'd upon my brow;
For what care I who calls me well or ill,
So you o'er-green my bad, my good allow?"
"o'er-green" is the poet's coinage.
Booth's notes on the sonnets contain four extended passages that apply to many sonnets embedded in the text, the first of which concludes his notes for 112. This concerns cruxes, which are literary passages that are so difficult or corrupted for one reason or another that the lines are impossible to determine or interpret, and this poem's lines 7, 8 and 14 all fall into that category. After exploring a variety of reasons why lines may become corrupted, Booth suggests that the three lines in question from 112 are markers left by Shakespeare in an unfinished or abandoned poem. As mentioned, Booth is big on "verbal side effects," word and thematic associations that may not be picked up consciously; he thinks the odd lines contain the words Shakespeare wanted to use, but that he couldn't successfully tie them into the overall theme of the poem.
113 – 114 "Since I left you, mine eye is in my mind" opens 113, and the poet's eyesight is so blinded by thoughts of the beloved that he sees him in all things.
" . . . replete with you,
My most true mind thus makes mine eye untrue."
114 wonders if these untruths of eyesight are not, in fact, a greater truth by alchemically transforming all shapes into the beloved. Maybe the eyesight is serving up to the poet what he likes best. But no, the poet knows the truth is that the eye is deceiving him. The closing lines imagine the poet's eyesight to be the chef, preparing a vision for the mind, and the official taster, prepared the see if the vision is poisoned. If it is, then a sin of the senses (eyesight) is a lesser sin than a sin of the mind.
115 The poet admits that the lines he wrote in past years were lies, when he said he could not love the youth more. At the time, the poet feared the damage to love that time could bring. But he failed to realize that "Love is a babe" (Cupid) and time could also "give full growth to that which still doth grow."
116 "Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds"
"This is the most universally admired of Shakespeare's sonnets," says Booth, in the opening to the second of the lengthy essays embedded in his notes, this one "On the special grandeur of the best sonnets." Booth writes that the more you think about the sonnet, the less there seems to be to it, and that one can demonstrate it is merely bombast – and yet one need only "reread the poem to be again moved by it and convinced of its greatness."
The lines of the poem are "immediately clear," but much of their power comes from being "both simple and straightforward and simultaneously so complexly wondrous . . ."
Note that the overall theme of the permanence of love is undercut by the admissions that 'rosy lips and cheeks' will fall victim to Time's sickle, and love itself has "brief hours and weeks."
For Booth, the poem is valued not for its assertions of absolute love, but for its own power, so "certain o'er incertainty" (115). The poem's "triviality, irrelevancy, and baseness of the sexual innuendo" all contribute to the poem seeming "general, all-inclusive, absolute, grandly simplistic . . . both absolute and absolutely true."
Here's Patrick Stewart reading the sonnet:
Sonnets 117 – 118 – 119 – 120 Although the tone of 117 is very different from 116 ("Let me not to the marriage of true minds . . ."), they share many words in common, including the rhyming words of the final couplets of both sonnets. 117 invites the lover to fault the poet for his infidelities, and the poet's defense is that he was testing the beloved's constancy.
118 speaks of preventing "maladies unseen" by the then fashionable medical practice of purging: "We sicken to shun sickness when we purge . . ." And the poet's infidelities are like these medicinal purges. But the poet has learned he "brought medicine to a healthful state."
Alchemy and Medicine were related studies in those times:
119 regrets the poet's transgressions, but finds
"That better is by evil still made better;
And ruin'd love, when it is built anew,
Grows fairer than at first, more strong, far greater."
120 regrets the poet's wanderings but remembers how much he was hurt in the past by the infidelities of the lover. They have both hurt each other, understand the pain they have caused the other, and must forgive each other:
"But that your trespass now becomes a fee;
Mine ransoms yours, and yours must ransom me."
121 The poet says he would rather be vile than be thought of as vile. Even legitimate pleasures are diminished if others perceive them as vile. And who are these vile people to spy on me and judge me? Unless they believe all men are evil and thrive through their evil.
122 Back in sonnet 77, the poet gave the youth "tables" to be written in. This sonnet speaks of tables (a blank book or a tablet with erasable pages) that the lover gave to the poet. The poet no longer has the book, and tries to explain away why he hasn't kept it, saying that his memory hold so much more than he could have written in the tables, "To trust those tables that receive thee more," memory is a better way to remember his face. Also, keeping a written record would suggest the poet was forgetful.
The poem is ambiguous as to whether or not the lover had already written in the book before giving it to the poet.
Booth notes the contradiction between this poem's emphasis on the superiority of memory compared with the claims of durability and even immortality for the written word contained in so many other sonnets.
123 Revisits the idea that there is nothing new under the sun, adding to it the notion that Time tries to trick us into thinking novelties are being created. "Our dates are brief," but the poet vows to remain true despite Time's scythe.
124 Booth labels 124 "the most extreme example of Shakespeare's constructive vagueness." The obvious gloss is that the poet's love is not born of circumstances, and it is not affected by circumstances, it is eternal and beyond the politics and accidents of the world, "subject to Time's love or to Time's hate." But this is a dense poem not well served by a simple gloss, and Booth writes that even the best glosses on the poem's particulars "do very little to explain how it achieves its grandeur."
125 finds the poet defending himself against charges by a "suborn'd informer"
that his love for the youth is somehow tainted.
126 is the farewell poem to the beloved youth, the only 12 line poem in the cycle, six rhymed couplets, the final two empty lines marked with parentheses in the 1609 Quarto (most likely the typesetter's marks, expecting the couplet to be supplied later). The lover is called a "lovely boy," a phrase Shakespeare uses only once elsewhere, to describe Titania's Indian boy that Oberon covets. Nature has kept the boy young, although his lovers around him all grow older. But the poet warns him that although Nature may delay his aging and death, they are inevitable. "Thou owest God a death," says Prince Hal.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote in 1882 "There should be an essential reform in the printing of Shakespeare's sonnets. After sonnet CXXV should occur the words End of Part I. The couplet piece, numbered CXXVI, should be called Epilogue to Part I. Then, before CXXVII, should be printed Part II. After CLII should be put End of Part II - and the last two sonnets should be called Epilogue to Part II."
With 127 we begin the Dark Lady of the Sonnets section, last in the quarto but the earliest to be written. 127 shares many words and themes with Berowne's speeches about Rosaline in LLL, IV, iii, 228 – 70. The poet writes than in the past black was not considered beautiful, but now that cosmetics can make any woman fair, black is becoming the new beauty fashion. In the influential 19th Century edition edited by former world chess champion Howard Staunton, the repetition of "eyes" in 9 & 10 is eliminated by substituting "brows" for the first "eye," a reasonable substitution since black brows are mentioned in LLL and elsewhere in the plays. Our editions will vary.
128 sees the poet dazzled by the virginal (like a small harpsichord) playing of his dark mistress, and wishes to be the instrument so her fingers can run all over him.
"I envy those jacks that nimble leap
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand"
Jacks are part of the virginal's mechanism to pluck the strings; also a fellow, a chap, a knave – the poet's rivals for her affections.
Desiring to be the mistress's instrument or something else she lovingly handles was a common conceit of the time. Ben Jonson has his Fastidious Brisk envy his lover's viola de gamba, other writers wish to be their mistresses' lapdog, glove, or a glass of wine passing through her and eliminated as urine
"Or that sweet wine which down her throat doth trickle,
To kiss her lips, and lie next at her heart,
Run through her veins, and pass by Pleasure's part!"
128 finishes with this not so subtly sexual couplet:
"Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,
Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss."
129 moves from the barely subtle sexual to the overt:
"The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action . . ."
Anticipation of sex makes men "savage, extreme, rude, cruel," and yet
"Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight"
The Folger edition prefaces the poem with: "This sonnet describes what Booth calls 'the life cycle of lust'—a moment of bliss preceded by madness and followed by despair."
The couplet closes with the idea that everyone knows this but nobody avoids it.
130 "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun"
His mistress is the opposite of all the conventions of beauty, and yet is as beautiful as any overpraised woman.
131 Some say the mistress is not beautiful enough to tyrannize a lover, and Petrarchian lovers were traditionally tyrannous – pitiless and controlling. But the mistress knows how beautiful she is, and how to use that to control men.
"In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds"
The "slander" of the last line is line 6:
"Thy face hath not the power to make love groan"
132 The poet loves the mistress's black eyes, which seem to be pitying him, and he urges her heart to join her eyes in feeling pity for him.
133 – 134 As in 40-42, the poet's friend is now the poet's rival for the love of the mistress. In the earlier sonnets, the friend has stolen the mistress's affections; in these, the friend is hooked on the mistress harder than the poet, and the poet offers his heart up as ransom to release his friend from her tyranny. Many critics believe all these poems refer to the same mistress and friend and were written at the same time, the poems written for the youth and those written for the woman separated for the quarto edition. 134 expands on the use of financial contracts to describe the situation: forfeit, surety-like, bond, statute, usurer, sue, debtor . . . The poet's friend only got involved with the mistress to help him, he wrote a bond for the poet, and now the mistress has exacted usurer's fees on the friend and completely owns both him and the poet.
"Sonnets 135 and 136 are festivals of verbal ingenuity in which much of the fun derives from the grotesque lengths the speaker goes to for a maximum number and concentration of puns on will." (Booth) The word "will" occurs twenty times in the two sonnets. The poet is pleading for a place among the mistress's many lovers, so many his addition will barely be noticed:
"Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy 'Will,'
And 'Will' to boot, and 'Will' in overplus . . .
Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious,
Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?
. . . thou, being rich in 'Will,' add to thy 'Will'
One will of mine, to make thy large 'Will' more . . ."
136 continues the sport, adding 'full+fill' to the game with 'will.'
"Thus far for love my love-suit, sweet, fulfil.
'Will' will fulfil the treasure of thy love,
Ay, fill it full with wills, and my will one. . .
Make but my name thy love, and love that still,
And then thou lovest me, for my name is 'Will.'"
The poet seems to be responding to some rejection or distancing of him by the mistress.
137 The poet berates his eye and heart for leading him to love a woman who is neither beautiful nor faithful.
" . . . in the bay where all men ride . . .
. . . the wide world's common place . . .
In things right true my heart and eyes have erred,
And to this false plague are they now transferr'd."
138 "When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies"
She tells untruths, and she lies with men.
He pretends he is naive enough to believe her lies so she will think he's a younger man, although she knows he's not.
"O, love's best habit is in seeming trust," which is to say the pretense of mutual fidelity is the best dress for love.
The poem finishes with another play on the two primary meanings of "lie":
"Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flatter'd be."
139 finds the poet unforgiving of the mistress, pleading with her not to flirt with others while he is there. The poet then changes his mind, and asks the mistress to kill him directly with her look.
140 has the poet urging the mistress to tell him she loves him even though she doesn't or he will go mad, and if he goes mad he may write about her and tell the world of her wickedness. And the world is now so debased, he will be believed:
"Now this ill-wresting world is grown so bad,
Mad slanderers by mad ears believed be"
In 141, the poet says he does not love the mistress with his eyes, which can see all her faults, or with his ears, or any of his "fives wits nor my five senses," none of which can "Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee."
In 142 the poet accuses the mistress of withholding herself from him not out of chaste modesty but because she's too busy with all her other lovers. He advises her to show pity for him, because it may serve her well when the day comes when she is in need of pity.
In 142 9-10, the poet chases the mistress who chases another lover. In 143 this image is redrawn as a housewife who is distracted from caring for her baby by a runaway chicken. She chases after the chicken while the baby cries out for her and chases her. The poet is the baby, who begs the mistress to
" . . . turn back to me,
And play the mother's part, kiss me, be kind."
144 has the poet talking of good and bad angels, one gives comfort and the other despair, the fair-haired boy and the evil woman. The mistress is trying to woo the boy away from the poet, and turn him into a devil.
145 is, according to Booth, "the slightest of sonnets." It alone is in tetrameter, all rhyming couplets, and is probably the earliest of all the poems. There is an apparent pun on Anne Hathaway:
"'I hate' from hate away she threw,
And saved my life, saying 'not you.'”
Booth hears the pun "Anne saved my life" in the last line.
The Folger edition questions whether her name was Hathaway – the marriage certificate has her once as Hathwey and once as Whateley.
146 is a meditation on the soul and body, questioning why the poet spends so much time tending to the hungers of the body, and advises him to "Buy terms divine . . . Within be fed, without be rich no more."
147-148-149-150 all deal with the vileness of his dark mistress
Given the vitriol leveled at the mistress, one wonders who the poem were meant for. The mistress, the youth, the public . . . all make one uneasy. The author was a man who could create characters like Rosalind and Imogene and yet also leave his wife his second-best bed; who knows what he was actually like with women?
147 – The poet's love for his mistress is like a disease. He has ignored the advice of his reason, so now his reason has left him, he is desperate, he is a madman.
"Past cure I am, now reason is past care . . .
For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night."
148 has the poet turning again to berate his lying eyes, eyes that tell him his mistress is beautiful although his own judgment and the rest of the world says she is not.
" . . . how can Love's eye be true,
That is so vex'd with watching and with tears?
. . .
O cunning Love! with tears thou keep'st me blind,
Lest eyes well-seeing thy foul faults should find."
149 The dark lady is called "cruel" in the opening line. The word is used eight times in the cycle, once to advise the youth not be cruel to himself, but never calling the youth cruel. Five of the eight usages are applied to the mistress.
The poet again appeals to his lover for kindness and attention, pleading that he has proven himself to her, that he has turned on himself to please her.
"Who hateth thee that I do call my friend?
On whom frown'st thou that I do fawn upon?"
The closing couplet is strong, but something of a non-sequitur. The poet is blind to her faults, but she likes lovers who can see her for what she is.
"But, love, hate on, for now I know thy mind;
Those that can see thou lovest, and I am blind."
Note the "love, hate" oxymoron embedded in the next to last line, "love" being a vocative here.
150 has the poet wondering where the mistress got her power from, the power to snare him, to make him think her beautiful, to make him love her more with every new reason to hate her. The fact that he is so under her power shows that he was meant for her, she should embrace him as her true follower.
"If thy unworthiness raised love in me,
More worthy I to be beloved of thee"
151 is a poem saturated with sexual innuendo.
" . . . thou betraying me, I do betray
My nobler part to my gross body’s treason.
My soul doth tell my body that he may
Triumph in love; flesh stays no farther reason"
The poet is proud of the mistress, content to be her "poor drudge," and
"for whose dear love I rise and fall."
Seymour-Smith describes the theme of poem as "involuntary lust" and writes of the last line, " . . . the point is, it is not a metaphor."
152 finds the poet accusing the mistress of breaking her marriage vows by sleeping with him, but admits that he has broken twenty oaths. And some of the lies he tells himself and others which he had previously blamed on the mistress, he now blames on himself.
The closing poems of the cycle, 153 -154, are based on a poem from Greek mythology, Cupid falls asleep and leaves his love-torch with the Nymphs. They try to cool it off by plunging it into a fountain, which heats up the fountain and creates a healing bath. The poet bathes there, but is not cured, saying his only cure is to bathe in his mistress's eyes.
Hot baths and hot springs were prized as cures for venereal disease.
154 retells the tale of Cupid and the Nymphs, concluding with:
" . . . from Love’s fire took heat perpetual,
Growing a bath and healthful remedy
For men diseased; but I, my mistress’ thrall,
Came there for cure, and this by that I prove:
Love’s fire heats water; water cools not love."
This echoes The Song of Songs:
"Much water cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it . . ."
Program for our reading to follow soon,