The Darling Buds of May

Four hundred years ago today, on the 20th May 1609, William Shakespeare published a collection of 154 Sonnets which arguably represent just as high a  level of literary achievement as his plays.  At any rate they’ve survived in popularity just as well and also furnished a huge number of memorable phrases including, appropriately enough for the time of year, the title of this post. This was, in fact, the only edition of the Sonnets published in Shakespeare’s lifetime and the circumstances of its publication remain uncertain.

Most of the poems concern Shakespeare’s love for a young man,  “Mr WH, the Onlie Begetter of the Sonnets”. However, there is a also group of sonnets addressed to his mistress, an anonymous “dark lady”,  which are far much more sexual in content than those addressed to the “Fair Youth”. The usual interpretation of this is that Shakespeare’s love for the boy was purely Platonic rather than sexual in nature.  Anyway, it was certainly a physical attraction.  Verse after verse speaks of the young man’s beauty. The first group of sonnets even encourage him to get married and have children so his beauty can continue and not die with his death. Sonnet 20 laments that the youth is not a woman, suggesting that this ruled out any sexual contact.  These early poems seem to suggest a slightly distant relationship between the two as if they didn’t really know each other well. However, as the collection goes on the poems become more and more intimate and it’s hard for me to accept that there wasn’t some sort of involvement between the two.  Although homosexual relationships were not officially tolerated in 17th Century England, they were not all that rare especially in the theatrical circles in which Shakespeare worked.

We’ll probably never know who Mr WH was – not Smith presumably – or indeed what was the real nature of his relationship to Shakespeare but we still have the poems. I do think it’s worth remembering, though, that these deep and moving expressions of romantic love were not written from a man to a woman, but from one man to another.  Here is perhaps the most famous one of all, Sonnet 18

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 ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


9 Responses to “The Darling Buds of May”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Before we consider who Mr WH was, it might be helpful to be certain who Shakespeare was. Until recently we had the choice of a provincial of moderate learning, yet who knew the finest detail of British and European court etiquette and history; or, for dissenting non-‘Stratfordians’, only highly literate aristocrats whose dates did not fit, such as Francis Bacon. In the present century a new proposal has been made of Sir Henry Neville, whose case I find compelling. Somebody else’s blog is not the place to push your own pet theory, but anyone interested can find the rudiments of the case on the internet (and the book Truth Will Out). Sonnet 107, which is often taken to refer to the death of Elizabeth I, shows that the writer is not at all sorry, and Neville had been imprisoned in the Tower of London under Elizabeth. His family (re)founded Magdalene College, Cambridge and today still chooses its Master.

  2. telescoper Says:


    I agree with you. The sonnets play an important role in the argument about who Shakespeare actually was but it’s still an unresolved issue.

    It’s not even obvious that Mr WH wasn’t actually Mr W. Sh, i.e. Shakespeare himself and the poems written by someone else entirely, perhaps to a young man who worked in Shakespeare’s company. It’s certainly not obvious that William Shakespeare of Stratford ever consented to the publication of these Sonnets and they may have been a kind of pirate edition. The sonnets are also quite uneven in quality and could have been written by different people, although most of them sound to me like the work of the same man. They do deploy the same iambic rhythm of the plays, but I don’t think that is too difficult to imitate.

    My favoured theory is that the Shakespeare of the plays was actually many people with Will himself as a sort of chairman. The plays all existed for a long time before being published and probably evolved according the input of many individuals during that time.

    As for the sonnets it’s interesting that they were generally not very highly regarded until comparitively recent times. The sonnet form was generally supposed to be nearing the end of its useful life by 1609 and Milton was deemed to be its highest exponent anyway. The shakespearean sonnet is, however, a very accessible and flexible way of writing poetry – three quatrains and a doublet – but of course it’s very limited by the standards of modern poetry.

    But what really counts is the poetry itself. I have a CD of the complete set of Shakespeare’s sonnets read by John Gielgud who had a wonderful voice for the job. It’s absolutely beautiful to listen to over and over again.


  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter: nice to know you too are not convinced that Shakespeare was Shakespeare, but I am convinced that one man is primarily responsible. How many geniuses can there be? Goethe was originally attracted to the view that Homer was a collective, but came to believe upon deeper immersion that there had to be one overarching genius involved. And we are much closer to Shakespeare than we are to Homer…

  4. telescoper Says:

    Let’s agree that Shakespeare’s plays were probably not written by Shakespeare, but by someone else with the same name.

  5. Thomas D Says:

    Can there have been more than one writer with such a very individual and complex use of language, and in particular imagery?
    Anyone can imitate ‘Shakespearian’ rhythms or diction to some extent, but there is a Shakespearian way of thinking-in-verse that is probably quite unique among Elizabethans.

    “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,
    Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.”

    How many metaphors are there in these four lines, and how complex are their interrelations? How many in any famous speech of the plays? Is there any other identifiable writer who comes close to this irrational piling-up of ideas and images that is understood practically through the unconscious mind, since its literal meaning – if it even has one – is so intricate as to defy reason?

  6. telescoper Says:

    I’m not denying that one sees the hallmarks of genius throughout the plays and sonnets, and I agree that the final synthesis was probably one man. I maintain, though, that it’s perfectly possible for this process to have involved a distillation of many inputs. I’d also maintain that there is a possibility that the writer of sonnet 73 (which you quote) is the same man that wrote sonnet 151 which includes

    “My soul doth tell my body that he may
    Triumph in love; flesh stays no father reason;
    But, rising at thy name, doth point out thee
    As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride,
    He is contented thy poor drudge to be,
    To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.
    No want of conscience hold it that I call
    Her ‘love’ for whose dear love I rise and fall.”

    whose meaning by no means defies reason…

  7. May I recommend Shakespeare by Bill Bryson; I read it on holiday and really enjoyed it.

    It shows us that we know rather more about Shakespeare the man than we often seem to think. I think its highly plasuible that the writer of Shakespeare’s works was in fact Shakespeare.

  8. Anton Garrett Says:

    Kav: There are powerful arguments either way, so it’s worth reading partisans on both sides to see the best criticisms of the other. In the jargon of the dispute, those who think that William Shakespeare wrote the plays are known as ‘Stratfordians’. Try the book “Truth Will Out” by James and Rubinstein for a summary of the anti-Stratfordian case and advocacy of a man to whom the criticisms of Bacon, Earl of Oxford etc do not apply. He was an aristocrat with the necessary in-depth knowledge of court protocol, his dates fit (including events in his life), he was distantly related to Shakespeare so probably knew him, a descendant of the plantagenets who painted his ancestors in an unusually good light in the historical plays, and given their content he had political motive to use a proxy. His surname appears on the top of the “Northumberland Manuscript,”at the bottom of which Shakespeare’s signature is repeatedly practised. A friend of this man wrote a poem in the 9 months between his death and William Shakespeare’s, suggesting that Shakespeare was already dead and mentioning the “white and orange tawny on his back at Windsor”; those are the colours of the man’s family coat of arms.

    As the product of a provincial grammar school myself I would like to believe that William S wrote the plays, but I tend to think not.


  9. […] by a man to a woman, but to another man. A similar reaction is sometimes provoked by certain of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. It came as a shock to quite a few people, in fact, because Edwin Morgan kept to himself for a very […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: