Poetry is not what I would call my forte. I have hundreds and hundreds of books on all kinds of topics, but out of all the quotations in my Commonplace Book, only approximately 60 poems make an appearance — and several are repeated.
I’m much pickier with poetry than I am with books: I like what I like, and I don’t tend to branch out very far. Call me small-minded, but I think there’s enough of the stuff I do like to keep me busy.
William Shakespeare’s sonnets (152 of them previously unpublished) were arranged together in a book and published in 1609. And as with the man himself, there’s all kinds of mystery surrounding the sonnets.
[We’ll be reading some of the poems here. If you’re prone to getting lost in the language, remember the rules: read slowly, aloud, and if all else fails, read the last two indented lines of each sonnet–they’ll give you a bare-bones idea of the poem.]
The poems are usually broken into three distinctive sections:
(1) The Fair Youth (sonnets 1-126) – The rumor goes that the family of a young nobleman was distressed: the gentleman and heir was refusing to marry. In those days, this was a big deal: no marriage meant to (legitimate) offspring, which meant that the family name couldn’t be passed on, and then the entire family tree falls into disrepair, and shame and woe follow you forever, yada yada etc. So the family paid Shakespeare to write poetry to the young man, endeavoring to convince him that getting married and passing on his genes was the right thing to do. Hence we get stuff like this:
“When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gaz’d on now,
Will be a tatter’d weed of small worth held.
Then being ask’d where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say, within thine own deep-sunken eyes
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv’d they beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine.
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.” – #2
(2) The Rival Poet (sonnets 78-86) – These are sort of mushed in with the Fair Youth section, but are written very differently. Some historians have suggested that these sonnets were written with Christopher Marlowe (Shakespeare’s greatest rival) in mind, while others insist something like, “Come on, guys, it’s just poetry.” What do you think?
“Or shall I live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten;
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though, I, once gone, to all the world must die.
The earth can yield me but a common grave
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse
When all the breathers of this world are dead.
You still shall live — such virtue hath my pen —
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.” – #81
I find this one particularly devious. At first Shakespeare appears to be giving all the credit to this “Rival Poet,” but the closer you look, the more you realize that Shakespeare is dissing him simultaneously. Lines like, “Your monument shall be my gentle verse,” as well as the aside “such virtue hath my pen” are cleverly hidden jabs at the Rival. Nifty, huh?
(3) The Dark Lady (sonnets 127-152) – The author’s (although not necessarily Shakespeare’s) mistress, called “dark” because of her dark hair and “dun” (meaning brown) skin. The Lady’s skin color, as well as the description of her hair in sonnet 130 (“black wires…on her head”) has lent credence to the theory that the mistress may have been of African descent. But of course no one seems to agree on anything when it comes to Shakespeare; some historians believe that the mistress’ physical description of “dark” was meant to signify a drawing away from the pure love embodied by the Fair Youth sonnets. And indeed, this section of poetry is much darker.
“Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjur’d, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof and prov’d, a very woe;
Before, a joy propos’d; behind, a dream.
All this the world knows well, yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.” -#129
This covers sonnets 1-152. But where are the rest, you say? An excellent question. I have three books that contain Shakespearean sonnets (and one contains quotes from several of his plays).
The Sonnets: Poems of Love does not contain sonnets 153 or 154; neither does Shakespeare in Love: The Love Poetry of William Shakespeare. What about William Shakespeare: Selected Poems? No such luck–although to be fair, lots of the sonnets were not included in this selection (though the selection process for it seems rather arbitrary to me–perhaps it is the most popular sonnets?).
Which is totally lame, because these sonnets are two of my favorites. 153 tells the story of Cupid falling asleep. He leaves his arrow unguarded, and someone steals it, dousing it in a nearby pond. The pond heats up and becomes a sort of bath where men go to cure their lovesickness. The speaker tells of how he, “sick withal,” went to find relief, but was disappointed. The final two lines read thus: “But found no cure, the bath for my help lies/Where Cupid got new fire; my mistress’ eyes.”
Sonnet 154 is a retelling of the same story. Both are excellent examples of Shakespeare.
As an actor, you do a lot with Shakespeare. You read him; you dissect his writing style; you act out his plays and sonnets; you read about his life; you discuss all the absurd theories about him (he was gay, but his mistress was an African-American woman, and she ran off with the Fair Youth…?). I took an entire class that was forebodingly titled “Shakespeare.” We read most of his plays, and read/analyzed all 154 sonnets. No wonder I’m so tweaked.
But the best Shakespearean assignment I ever had was for an acting class. We had to pick one sonnet and prepare it for performance as if it were a monologue (we couldn’t use 153 or 154…apparently they’re the pariahs of sonnets). After flicking through them, I finally chose sonnet #116:
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! It is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” – #116
This is probably the best known of the sonnets, but I can’t always be shocking you with new stuff.
I know that sometimes this stuff seems like (and this is a technical term) gobbildy-gook. And that’s totally understandable, given the way that we speak these days. And although people in the seventeenth century didn’t wander around speaking in iambic pentameter, Shakespeare’s writings were not considered puzzling back then. So just for funzies, let’s deconstruct this sonnet.
First we have to read through the sonnet at least once, seeing what we can glean from it. Don’t worry if it’s not much — it’s not going anywhere, and we’ve got plenty of time.
Next, find definitions for words you don’t know. The only word I didn’t know upon first reading the poem was “bark.” Turns out it’s a kind of sailing vessel from that time period — which makes sense, considering all the allusions to tempests and stars.
A really helpful thing for me to do when trying to understand sonnets (or any poetry, really) is to go line by line, reading and “translating” it into more common vernacular. We won’t do this with the whole poem (because you have to do some work yourself) but I’ll give you a couple examples.
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments.” — Don’t let me put stumbling blocks in the way of a marriage between two people who are like-minded.
“It is the star to every wandering bark,/Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.” — Love is the goal to every wandering person; that love’s worth is unknowable, although its physicality (lovesickness, pining, wooing, blushing, sighing, crying, etc.) can be measured.
Just keep going through, line by line. Revel in the symbolism, allusions, and general awesomeness. Then go do the same with the other 153 sonnets!
Keep in mind that the interpretation of poetry is very subjective: the way I “translate” may be totally different than the way you do. And generally, no interpretation is ever “wrong” — as long as you can support it with evidence.
It follows right in line with my love of…well, love: its inevitability and permanence. I’m fond of saying that I’ve just read too many novels, but I can’t shake the feeling that if we as people are capable of writing about such love, then perhaps some of us—a lucky few—are capable of experiencing just a shadow of that which we’ve described.
*Have you ever seen a school of apostrophe? They can sink a poem in fourteen lines or less!
Not many people have set the sonnets to music. In 2006, however, the incomparable Sting released Songs from the Labyrinth, a recording of numerous songs (and personal letters) written by John Dowland (1563-1626), a contemporary of Shakespeare and one of the greatest composers in Elizabethan England. It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s beautiful, and gives you a good idea of the musical sounds of the time period.
What’s your favorite poem (doesn’t have to be a sonnet)? Let me know in the comments!