The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Shakespeare’s sonnets: very curious

Posted on: June 29, 2007

After stumbling upon Classic Novels in 5 minutes, I decided to give it a whirl with the Shakespeare’s Sonnets. A bit of poetry first thing in the morning sounded wonderful. The first thing that caught my eye in the e-mail was all of the horrible ads above and below, which I hadn’t been expecting, but I’m over that now. Stranger is the recurrent theme of the first few sonnets.

Because I don’t have a critical edition — the university library copies of the Arden editions are out, the public library doesn’t have the Ardens — I’m reading these in a vacuum. No footnotes, no introduction so I can know how the sonnets were compiled, textual issues etc. and I’ve never studied the sonnets in school. I did not think this would prove a problem, and it’s not really one now, it’s just that I’ve picked up on a theme, having read the first four, that I find perplexing.

Why is Shakespeare so hung up on inducing some young pretty to get pregnant or, it seems more likely, a young buck to impregnate someone else. It’s a strange mixture of cosmetic ad — renew thy beauty! get fresh repair! — and American evangelical reverend — you gotta reproduce or you’re thumbing your nose at the Lord. Except that this time the “Lord” is Shakespeare and he wants to ensure that he and the rest of the world have beauties to ogle until the end days.

At first I found it amusing. All the sonnets I’ve read so far use organic, agricultural metaphors in different ways. It was amusing the way Shakespeare would first flatter, make his case, and give subtle jabs here at there at how old age will ruin his lover’s (?) looks. He’s quite sweet in the first.

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel:
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament,
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And tender churl mak’st waste in niggarding:
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

It’s so silly a conceit that one cannot take him seriously. His choice of rhymes makes it funnier. He can never give a compliment and not pair it with something more pointedly negative. He rhymes “increase” with “decease”, “bright eyes” with “lies”, “gaudy spring” with “niggarding”. When he gets a touch admonishing though it’s fine to do the “self-substantial fuel” with the “cruel”. So he creates obligations out of thin air, telling the subject that it’s his duty to populate the world with offspring that might be fair, the world demands it. If he refuses it’s because he’s too selfish, self-absorbed, nay cruel not to the world, but to himself. Anyway his looks aren’t going to last forever, he’s only a “fresh ornament” for now. This also implies that his looks are all the young gent has going for him, he has nothing else to be a churl about his ripening beauty.

It reminded me of metaphysical poetry, the boring but most obvious example being Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress. Fun sonnet, great rhythm, made me laugh, can’t wait for the next, only to see Shakespeare replaying the same song to a somewhat different melody. It’s winter now, or it soon will be for the ageing youth, when his pretty rose bud will become a lonely tattered weed — or not so lonely if he had kids!

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a tattered weed of small worth held:
Then being asked, 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 deserved thy 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.

Can’t you see the wrinkled trenches in his brow? The worn out memories dwelling in his “deep sunken eyes” eating away at him as he reminisces on days gone by when he was fresh, ready and worth something to someone? Shakespeare claims that children would make his addressee’s old days brighter but who is he kidding here? He’s even dropped the references to other people, making it clear that Shakespeare’s being the selfish one.

All right, two sonnets on the same thing, that’s cool, he’ll come up with something else. Not.

Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest,
Now is the time that face should form another,
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose uneared womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb,
Of his self-love to stop posterity?
Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime,
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.
But if thou live remembered not to be,
Die single and thine image dies with thee.

Now it’s just getting creepy. I like the alliteration of the “f” in the first few lines that, when you say them out loud, bring to mind more clearly fresh, spring-like aspects of beauty wished to invoke. The shift of the mirror image from glass to a child’s face as the reflection of the parents was clever. But I find all the begging for babies is beginning to eclipse everything else. Did he really go for that tillage of the “uneared womb” metaphor? That “self-love” bit isn’t referring to what I think it is, isn’t it? Let’s have the youth get his portrait painted and his image will live forever. Next, William!

Unthrifty loveliness why dost thou spend,
Upon thy self thy beauty’s legacy?
Nature’s bequest gives nothing but doth lend,
And being frank she lends to those are free:
Then beauteous niggard why dost thou abuse,
The bounteous largess given thee to give?
Profitless usurer why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums yet canst not live?
For having traffic with thy self alone,
Thou of thy self thy sweet self dost deceive,
Then how when nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee,
Which used lives th’ executor to be.

I see. Now he’s a greedy ol’ money lender. It’s a pity they didn’t have sperm bank in those days, I’d like to have seen how Shakespeare would have played with that. The limits of e-mail delivery are deeply felt: I cannot skip the reproduction obsession. I must trod on through crumbling tombs of childless egotists and rotting weeds and wait. And wait. And wait.

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12 Responses to "Shakespeare’s sonnets: very curious"

…..wow…..shakespeare always takes the words right out of my mouh. i posted a few of his works on my blog, you should check it out.

I stopped by to check out your page after reading your excellent comment on that charming blog about fantasy readers.

I love that sonnet. I tend to think The Bard was just poking the hornet’s nest of his contemporaries’ moral values with a very large stick to see what came flying out at him.

Lance I did, thanks for commenting.

Avery thanks for stopping by. That was quite the post wasn’t it? It was so obviously inflammatory that I could not muster much ire.

I’m almost sure that your take is right. Clearly Shakespeare doesn’t care about the moral laws governing reproduction. It’s just that four of them on the exact same theme, from the same perspective was a bit much for me. And soooo what I was not expecting.

Very good entry! And blog.

Must add my second blog http://moderato.wordpress.com/
that might be of interest for you!

Without analyzing these sonnets myself, could it be that all his talk about getting pregnant and the loss of physical beauty with aging might just be his way of saying commit to love when you have the chance? I think children have typically represented hope. In these sonnets, might it be that he’s trying to say that loving when one is given the opportunity could produce something beautiful and of value, whereas putting it off stops the lineage in its tracks? If so, I don’t mind the pregnancy lines (though some readers no doubt would disagree of his view of children in this way). If physical beauty is used in much the same way, I’m not so keen on it. Though it could be that I’m viewing it from a cynical 21st-century eye accustomed to airbrushing and plastic surgery.

Again I really haven’t paid much attention to them, just throwing out a guess. Sorry if I’m not making sense!

You’re making sense Mutford, and I would find it more persuasive, perhaps, if in the sonnets beauty did not equal value. Lines like “Where all the treasure of thy lusty days” and “Proving his beauty by succession thine” don’t make me think of hope…and if that’s what children meant back then I’d think that Shakespeare was poking fun at it, by making them out to be nothing but the product of vanity, the parent’s self-obsession embodied in having lots of what might be beautiful children so that he can remember when he used to look hot. (The irony of course being that Shakespeare tries to make it out to be a virtue, an act of charity that, if spurned, actually causes harm, “unbless some mother”.)

Which would make it all even funnier but, well, I’d still like to read of something else now. I thought that with the 5th sonnet we were moving on but BAM, the 6th came and brought me back ’round to more baby talk. Sigh.

But you have pushed me to think about it more in the context of the times, to consider what having children meant back then. Thanks. (And all this without “paying much attention” ;).)

balkan thank you and thanks for commenting. I’ll be sure to read your site.

I have read AS Byatt before, and I love her! I’ve read Possession (love), The Biographer’s Tale (enjoyed), Little Black Book of Stories (love), and the Matisse stories (love). I’m glad that she’s one of your favourite authors as well!

Oh that’s funny I’ve read two of her novels and short stories collections but the only one we have in common is Possession. I’ve also read Virgin in the Garden, Elemental: Stories of Fire and Ice and The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye most recently.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets is one of the reasons some scholars have wondered if he was gay. Others have proposed that perhaps he wrote the sonnets to an English aristocrat Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, who was a great patron of the theatre and who, despite his eligibility and status, refused to marry and sire an heir. I read that in Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World a while back. Greenblatt also had this to say about homosexuality in the age of Shakespeare:

“Elizabethans acknowledged the existence of same-sex desire; in was in a certain sense easier for them to justify than heterosexual desire. That men were inherently superior to women was widely preached; why then wouldn’t men naturally be drawn to love other men? Sodomy was strickly prohibited by religious teaching and the law, but that prohibition aside, it was perfectly understandable that men would love and desire men.”

I’d recommend Will in the World as great follow-up reading. After I read it, suddenly so much of Shakespeare, the man and his art, made sense.

When I took a Shakespeare class in grad school we only barely touched the Sonnets and I’ve regretted not going back and reading more on my own. Lovely post, by the way.

Peyton yes, the homo-eroticism didn’t phase me at all, oddly enough. Wouldn’t it be neat if Shakespeare turned out to be bi? (If they can ever decide who he is.) Conservatives would implode in confusion.

verbivore yes, that’s part of why I decided to do this daily subscription thing. It’s working out quite well! And thank you. 🙂

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