Why These Poems?
I’ve only written about Shakespeare’s plays thus far. I was initially planning to go through all the plays and then hit the poetry at the end of my project. But, well…plans change. In early November, I attempted to get through Titus Andronicus. And y’all – I couldn’t. I watched half of the film; I started the play. And in the midst of all the hysteria and fervor of the US election and its fallout, the gore and despair of Titus was taking its toll on me. The events of the world and the content of my reading were too much to handle simultaneously. The election was called a few weeks back, and the country, my state, my little town are all in for big changes (some good, some I approach with a sense of extreme foreboding). It’s a weird, scary time, and I just didn’t want to be reading about rape and meat pies made of grown men in the midst of it all.
I started a new reading while on a mini-vacation with some old girlfriends. I rarely take time away from my family. And I wanted to travel light. So my Folger paperback copy of the sonnets got to accompany me. It was a lovely break from the plays. I decided to read them as a singular work (realizing full well that may not have been how they were intended to be read), and I’m writing about them as such. It seemed a bit easier than 154 individual mini-posts for each sonnet (even my nerdy self doesn’t want to read that). Besides, it makes for a juicy narrative! These sonnets have now been my companions throughout the end of autumn, which seems oddly fitting. Nights are getting longer as the poems get darker. And it helped me work through a problem that's been nagging me for weeks.
So What Happens?
There are a total 154 sonnets, and they fall into a few definitive themes that flow from one into the other. Some of the sonnets are most certainly in the correct sequence, as the metaphors from one continue right into the next. So let’s break it down from the beginning!
Sonnets 1-17: Time to Make Some Babies
The first 17 sonnets are essentially a narrator pleading with a really beautiful (high-ranking) young man to procreate. We don’t know much about this narrator other than the fact that he’s an acknowledged poet. But let’s face it – he sounds like an incredibly artful older mother pleading for some grandbabies. Truly, Hallmark should market a line of cards centered on these sonnets that would-be grannies could buy for their single sons and daughters. The narrator pulls out all the stops, employing every single tactic available to try to convince this guy to have kids: guilt, pleading, flattery, fear. He invokes metaphors of flowers (perfume lingers, even when flowers die!), string music (it plays more harmoniously when a family of strings play a chord together!), and time (he’s a nasty dude just out to steal your looks – cheat him by having a kid who looks like you!). The poet even starts to admit that his poetry may help preserve the guy’s memory…but no one would believe the poet’s description of his beauty without a physical copy to prove what he looked like.
Sonnets 18-39: Never Mind That, Turns Out I Adore You Even If We Can’t Be Together
The sonnets at this point start firmly focusing on the young man’s beauty (e.g. the infamous “shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”). By sonnet 20 the poet makes a pretty abrupt shift – all of a sudden the subject of these sonnets is referred to as “my love.” The poet’s no longer addressing the subject as a remote person, but as his own beloved. And the issue of having kids has fallen utterly by the wayside. All throughout the 20s, the poet is bursting with unspoken love and later dwells on how he and his beloved can’t acknowledge one another. In the 30s, we see a recurring acknowledgement that the beloved is a higher station than the poet, and as a result they are unable to be together. We read that they are physically not together either, and the poet desperately misses the absent beloved. There’s also a creepy bit about all the poet’s past loves lost (dead??) are all psychologically projected onto the beloved.
Sonnets 40-68: I’m So Conflicted! But I Still Love You!
Sonnets 40-42 center on an unspecified betrayal – the beloved has wronged the poet, and the whole mess involved the poet’s woman. Strong hints of a sexual affair here, but nothing concrete. But that doesn’t shake the poet’s devotion, even though he knows it should. In fact, he continues to believe himself unworthy of his beloved (nothing ever mentioned again about the woman). The 50s find the poet again separated from his beloved, and absence is making his heart fonder. There’s a lot of slave/master metaphor going on at this point, and lots of (semi-snide? upset?) feelings about being always made to wait upon the beloved. This is NOT a healthy relationship (obsession from the poet? indifference from the beloved?). There’s also some blurry confusion of poet/beloved as he thinks they are one (sonnet 62). In this group of poems, the poet starts focusing on death even more – the fleeting nature of life and beauty, but the eternal aspects of love and poetry as forms of memorial.
Sonnets 69- 89: Rivals! And Some Things Seldom Change
The poet informs the beloved that while the masses all commend his beauty, they gossip about his behavior. But the poet brushes their murmurings aside, insisting that people gossip most about beautiful people. The poet insists that if he dies, he would rather his beloved forget him entirely than mourn his absence (his love being so strong, he would never want beloved to feel pain over him). He eventually wonders why his poetry and themes never change…and determines it’s because he’s continually centered on his beloved. Apparently, there may be other poets trying to write about the beloved. The poet admits that he’s inferior to this rival, but he insists the other poet’s words simply reflect the grace and beauty of the beloved rather than being of any real art or merit themselves.
Sonnets 90-106: Vice, (More) Beauty, Writer’s Block
Sonnet 90 kicks off with a sense of foreboding. If the beloved has any sort of bad news for the poet, then it best be granted quickly – the idea of ripping off a bandaid, 300 years before such a thing existed. Ah, but never mind…the poet would much rather live in ignorance if the beloved is false to their love. The beloved is so fair, his face blinds others to his wrong-doing or vices. Also, absence is still really tough and makes spring/summer seem like winter (we even get a rare 15 lines on this in sonnet 90!). Absence also applies to the poet’s muse…he has a series of sonnets trying to goad his muse into making him want to write again, as he’s apologetically been silent to the beloved for some time. But he gets going again, coming back to the old well-work subject of his beloved’s beauty, which he (playfully) borders on idolizing. And (yet again) the poet emphasizes that anyone trying to describe the beloved’s beauty is barely doing him justice.
Sonnets 107- 126: My Feelings Are REAL, Y’all (Also, Sorry for Cheating)
Now the poems start to feel more urgent. The poet ruminates a bit more on the nature of true love, which is absolutely what he feels for his beloved. Love always has a way of seeming fresh or new, even when the same words and sentiments are long repeated and the lovers’ age. Sonnet 109 brings the first confession that the poet has strayed from the relationship as well – but he assures his beloved that he will always return as their love is the strongest and truest (infidelity doesn’t seem to be a major concern for this duo). There’s a lot of pledged renewal of affection and fidelity (at least of the heart). Forgiveness is granted somewhere in here. Their love is now renewed so much that the poet feels all his earlier claims of love are false. But even after that, there’s a group of sonnets where the poet brow-beats himself for (continued?) infidelity (the beloved is sweetness personified, and all the poet’s dalliances were with gross nobodies, which somehow is meant to excuse his behavior). Besides, there is cold comfort in the fact that the beloved was also untrue to the poet before his own dalliances. Also, he may have given away a writing gift from the beloved (oops). But in the end, the poet circles back to comment on the beloved’s beauty and to warn that time will eventually age him.
Sonnets 127 - 154: The Dark Lady Cometh
We have a new subject of infatuation! The poet shifts gears here to focus on a woman who is not the day’s typical standard of beauty, but he dotes upon her. She is dark, her eyes are mournful. He ruminates on the maddening (destructive) power of lust. He says her deeds are black, and bids her eyes be such (to dress in mourning for her cruelty to him). The Dark Lady viciously seduces the beloved, and the poet laments that neither can be free of her – here, we also see that the beloved is held in greater esteem as the poet excuses his infidelity due to the Dark Lady’s cunning. The poet is still caught by her as well; he begs to be allowed back into her bed (lots of fun sexual “will” puns in sonnets 135-6), if not for fidelity. The poet struggles with his heart/body wanting the mistress, and his mind knowing that she wrongs him constantly. He is caught in a passion towards her that borders on hate. She scorns him as she makes love to others. He returns to think on his two loves, the beloved and the dark lady (literally comparing them to the good and bad angels that fight for the soul of the poet). His love for the woman is a sickness without cure. Thus ensues several poems worth of back-and-forth on blame: the poet blames the woman’s wiles for tricking him into his obsession, and he blames himself for continuing to be ruled by his passions. Two sonnets cap the whole sequence, telling of Cupid’s torch turning a fountain into a hot bath – love is unquenchable and insatiable.
Check This Out:
Like all Shakespeare’s works, I treat this as fiction and not as any indication of autobiography on his end. Of course authors/playwrights/poets leave true bits of themselves in their works, but I think it’s true folly to extrapolate life events from these (stolen? altered? rearranged? certainly printed without permission) poems. There’s a lot of interesting history and supposition to be mined here, to which I’ll just leave a link to the Wikipedia page on the works as a jumping-off point.
The glorious Rufus Wainwright released an album this year based on nine of the sonnets. It’s a mixture of readings by various celebrities (Carrie Fisher! William Shatner!), some operatic interpretations, and modern songs. Give it a listen here!
You should really check out the hilarious Pop Sonnets
Amazing online store Buzz Bookstore launched a project early this year to have volunteer enthusiasts record videos of each sonnet being read. 154 people covering 154 poems. Hearing these read aloud can really enhance the experience and drive home meaning, although some are admittedly more entertaining and heart-felt than others. The full playlist is here and you can find yours truly on performing sonnet 55 there or here.
Thoughts and Themes:
The sonnets tell a story of obsession, betrayal, lust, and friendship. They contemplate the nature of love and question what trials true affection can withstand. All the players here are imperfect. They all make mistakes and hurt one another, sometimes willfully – pun intended, a la sonnet 135. Over the course of this reading, I was struck most by the poet’s obsession (which he mostly proclaims is constancy). For better or worse, he is enthralled by his two subjects. He’s addicted to them each for very different reasons, but the level of mania in his infatuation is similar. The poet paints vivid pictures of losing sleep, not being able to focus on work, of all his thoughts being consumed by these two people.
The Dark Lady poems are certainly more salacious than the earlier ones, and they’re more interesting in terms of the thrill of conflict. The Dark Lady stuff is relatively straightforward: he is passionate about an admittedly toxic person who toys with him. Many of us have been through something similar, to varying degrees, mostly in our adolescence or early adulthood (my version of that is here). It’s the kind of passion that leads to completely illogical decisions, like adultery in a marriage or getting back together with your horrendous ex. The kind of thing that makes you roll your eyes when a friend goes through it, but is all-consuming when it’s your own situation. Sorta standard run-of-the-mill stuff, albeit juicy and fun to read.
I find myself contemplating his relationship with the beloved much more often. This is a truly complex relationship, even as the poet insists his feelings are very direct. There are times when the poet (as the older party) seems almost paternal toward his beloved (e.g. being protective of beloved’s reputation and the gossip about him). There are plenty of hints about a sexual relationship here, but the poet put much more emphasis on the true spiritual connection and affinity between these two men. They know each other, they are able to forgive each other. This is friendship and love to the highest degree, according to the poet. And what’s more, the relationship inspires the poet’s thoughts on life’s great questions: death, legacy, the importance of art, and the true nature of love.
In trying to figure out how I personally connect with this tale, I asked my husband for his thoughts on what my obsessions are. His first answer was that I’m weirdly stuck on having the kids do certain tasks in a specific manner (to which I indignantly replied, “only because I have to clean it up when it’s not done the right way!”). His second answer was simply the name of one of my close friends. The person over whom I have lost sleep, not been able to focus on work, who has consumed my thoughts. He was dead on. That response made me sigh and head straight to my laptop to start writing.
I started 2016 in a state of all-consuming worry for my friend. Not wanting to get into another person’s private life here, suffice it to say that this person was going through a hard spell and heavily relied on me for a long period of time. There were times when this was easy and times it felt like a burden. But it never occurred to me to be anything other than a supportive friend. I checked in, I offered help, I served up distractions, I alternated between real no-bullshit talk and a listening ear. Around the middle of the year, things started to improve for my friend. And I was so happy to see sincere smiles again. Our interactions became spread fewer and further apart as my friend needed me less and I wanted to allow this person space to figure things out solo. Come autumn, it slowly dawned on me that we weren’t going through the standard ebb and flow of friendships, or even that we were drifting apart. My friend was methodically cutting ties with me.
This is a person who has not left my thoughts, in one form or another, for more than a couple of days at a time in ages. I’ve continued to ruminate on this person and on the course (end???) of our friendship – mostly to wonder where I went wrong, where I failed. It took a few weeks to realize that whatever is going on, it probably has little to do with me. Which was simultaneously a painful and comforting thought. In looking back over the past few years of over a decade of friendship, I only really begin to see that my friend has been the sun around which I orbited, much like the beloved has extreme pull over the poet. During the course of these sonnets, I’ve wondered what exactly the beloved thinks of the poet – is he a trusted and comforting source of love, or a schmuck who is there to feed the beloved’s ego?
It’s been maybe three months since I last directly contacted my friend, certainly longer still since my friend initiated anything. I still have no idea why this has happened. Relationships of any kind are not always 50/50. There are, of course, going to be times where one person takes more than he or she gives. But in good relationships, the roles eventually reverse. It all ultimately evens out as two people rely on one another and offer support or a laugh or an ear. My friendship had long been lopsided. Relationships can’t thrive when everything is always about one person in the duo or when one party just fails to engage at all. That is, however, the perfect set-up for obsession.
The poet has the blessing of being more secure in his mutual affection than I do right now. I realize that he and the beloved have been through a lot – separation, infidelity, other poets vying for attention. You don’t throw away a “marriage of true minds” (sonnet 116) if you’re lucky enough to find it. You try again, you forgive, you attempt to move on. I recently sent my friend a holiday card with a simple message: that I miss my friend. The friend who, like the beloved does for the poet, has always made me think of the big questions of life. No matter the outcome, I am a better person for knowing and caring about my friend. This is a person who has shown me great kinship and love in the past, and for that I will always be grateful. I hope we can continue on from here, and for now I’m here waiting, quill in hand. Should we reconnect, I really hope it can be on more even terms, because I’m so tired of obsessing.
“But if the while, I think on thee, dear friend / All losses are restored and sorrows end.” (sonnet 30)
Since PBS FINALLY is showing it in the States this month…up next – 2 super-sized posts centered on The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses as I take on all 3 Henry VI plays!