Archive for Shakespeare Sonnets

When’s a Sonnet not a Sonnet? When it’s No. 126..

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on September 22, 2013 by telescoper

Every now and then I like to post one of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Of the entire collection of 154 this one, No. 126, is undoubtedly the strangest. It marks the end of the series of poems addressed to an unknown young man and is thought to have been given to the fair youth on his 27th birthday, marking the end of a relationship that lasted nine years. The following sonnets are addressed to another unknown person, but of the opposite Experts generally regard it as a kind of envoi, which is normally a short stanza at the end of a long poem, but in this case it is a poem in itself occurring at the end of a sequence. What’s strange about it is that it isn’t actually a sonnet at all. It consists of twelve lines rather than the usual fourteen, but the missing two lines are presented in most editions as two pairs of parentheses as shown below. Moreover, the rhyme scheme (consisting of six couplets) doesn’t fit with the pattern of the rest of the Sonnets, so even if he had filled in the two blanks at the end it would still have been an oddity.

So what was the reason for this curious verse? Perhaps Shakespeare deleted the final couplet because he felt the lines were somehow inappropriate? Perhaps he meant the fair youth to finish it himself, or issue an invitation to others to do likewise? Perhaps the poem is simply unfinished? Perhaps the poet wanted to demonstrate that the relationship with his beloved ended prematurely.

More likely than any of these interpretations, in my opinion, is that furnished by looking at the typical structure of a Shakespearean Sonnet. The last two lines usually express the poet’s consolation in the face of what has come before. Here there is none. It’s over. Read it in this light and I think it becomes even more moving to anyone who has experienced any kind of love and has had to face the fact that it is finally over.

O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
Dost hold Time’s fickle glass, his sickle, hour;
Who hast by waning grown, and therein show’st
Thy lovers withering, as thy sweet self grow’st.
If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,
As thou goest onwards, still will pluck thee back,
She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill
May time disgrace and wretched minutes kill.
Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure!
She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure:
Her audit (though delayed) answered must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.
(        )
(        )

The Darling Buds of May

Posted in Poetry with tags , on May 20, 2009 by telescoper

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.


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