Shakespeare’s sonnets: very curious
Posted June 29, 2007on:
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.