Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sonnet 13

Randall, Amber, Jacob --

Happy new year!  I'm refreshed and excited to jump back into the second season of sonnets.  Sorry I'm a week late in kicking things off.  My school started up last week--Othello in Pre-AP and sonnets, then Henry IV, Part I in Regular English.  (Today a student told me that "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought" is legit. I agreed.)  This is the first time I've taught Shakespeare since the summer institute, and I'm really excited to try out some new techniques.  My friend and co-teacher Jon Watson may be joining the blog.  He's a really thoughtful guy, and we've spent a number of hours discussing Shakespeare.  I'm particularly excited about the prospect of his joining because his primary background is in theater, as an actor and a teacher.

Anyway, here goes!  In sonnet 13, we get some now-very-familiar exhortations to get married, with the accompanying language of seasons and of economics.

O that you were yourself, but love you are
No longer yours then you yourself here live.
Against this coming end you should prepare,
And your sweet semblance to some other give.
So should that beauty which you hold in lease
Find no determination--then you were
Yourself again after your self's decease,
When your sweet issue your sweet form should bear.
Who lets so fair a house fall to decay,
Which husbandry in honor might uphold
Against the stormy gusts of winter's day
And barren rage of death's eternal cold?
    O none but unthrifts, dear my love you know,
    You had a father, let your son say so

The first thing I noticed when I read this sonnet is that it's hard to parse the opening lines--I felt like I suddenly lost my footing and slipped into the poem.  This disorientation, along with the repeated fixation on the poem's object, makes the experience reminiscent of falling in love.  And, like an irrational infatuation, the feeling changes once we step back, reconsider the experience, and demand that it resolve itself into significance.  The opening lines change for me into a sobering reminder of mortality, temporality, and neglected duty.

I feel this confusion again several lines later, at "When your sweet issue your sweet form should bear."  I initially mistake "sweet issue" for the subject, expecting it to do something.  But it turns out "sweet issue" is the direct object:  the "sweet form" should bear the "sweet issue."  I can't help but think these misreadings (which are so much enriched by loose early modern punctuation) are intentional.  Is the poem pointing to a similar misunderstanding in our relationships with each other?

I'm actually rather enjoying the ongoing conceit comparing the seasons of the year to the seasons of life--husbandry just works so well here.  Although perhaps things do unravel when we allow for the eternity of death.  Yes, you ought to keep up your house so that it protects you against the winter, but can any amount of husbandry or upkeep prepare us for "eternal cold"?

One strand of our ongoing conversation questions the nature of beauty, and perhaps implicitly the nature of love which is built upon beauty.  I'd be interested to think about how those ideas work in this poem.  Is this the first time that the speaker refers to the young man as "my love"?

One last note--As I read these sonnets, I often start to get distinctly reminded of a particular Shakespeare play.  In this sonnet, for example, I'm reminded quite a bit of Othello, in which Iago's words frequently question the nature of identity ("I am not what I am").  Previously, I was getting really strong Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and As You Like It vibes.  Does this happen to any of you?  Of course, it might be because I just started teaching Othello...

I hope you're doing well.  Who wants to host sonnet 14?


Tuesday, November 23, 2010


(for best effect read aloud in a forest at dusk)

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silvered o'er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer's green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

Are any of you at precisely this point in fall where you are? This sonnet could not have come at a better time for me. The leaves are just on the brink of nudity. Personally, I'm excited to see what comes next, but the narrator is a bit more conservative. He takes trees showing full frontal as a sign of the apocalypse.

Fall doesn't have to be apocalyptic. If everything went as it should in summer, the shift to fall is largely unconscious. But here, something that was supposed to happen failed to happen. Beauty failed to replant itself. Now all the signs of fall become signs of the immanent end.

I love this poem for exactly the reason I hate LA. I like experiencing the passage of time. In LA, leaves don't fall, diets don't change, people don't age. In such a place, it's extremely easy to worship the present. But the narrator does experience the passage of time, and this leads him to question the reality of the temporal. Once you start doubting the temporal, you are forced to start questioning the nature of the eternal.

I've been thinking a lot about our culture's refusal to face death recently. Here's a great essay on the subject I just read:

Has anyone else ever used a scythe? If you haven't, I HIGHLY recommend it. It feels so unbelievably good.

How much better would this sonnet be if we just chopped out the "save breed" part? I've come to really hate the way he makes everything about having kids.

Did this poem remind anyone else of Amos 8:
"This is what the Sovereign LORD showed me: a basket of ripe fruit. “What do you see, Amos?” he asked. “A basket of ripe fruit,” I answered. Then the LORD said to me, “The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer. “In that day,” declares the Sovereign LORD, “the songs in the temple will turn to wailing. Many, many bodies—flung everywhere! Silence!”

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sonnet 11

I'll start by admitting that it's been difficult for me to approach these poems with the same enthusiasm since Randall's post about Sonnet 6: "But all of a sudden Shakespeare is like that guy in the bar, deep into his fourth bottle of sack who doesn’t know when to stop, either his drinking or his argument: Ten kids, dude! You should have ten kids, then it matters not if you die, like, a thousand deaths, ‘cause there’ll be a whole army of you to live on!" And while it was particularly creepy to ask (no, insist) that this guy have ten kids, I'm starting to see that the entire project, the constant persistence, and especially the hints at violence in the last two poems (murd'rous shame, murd'rous hate, etc.) and the awkward plea that the man "do it for me," drive these sonnets into a creepy realm. Don't worry, Randall, you didn't ruin the poems for me. But you've all have certainly complicated my understanding of Shakespeare's project with the sonnets. Which brings me to my first set of questions: is it fair for me to see these sonnets as a "project"? Is anyone else seeing these sonnets (as a whole, if not necessarily a "project") in a different light (than me? than where you started?).

And now on to Sonnet 11:

As fast as thou shalt wane so fast thou grow'st --
In one of thine, from that which thou departest,
And that fresh blood which youngly thou bestow'st
Thou mayst call thine, when thou from youth convertest.
Herein lives wisdom, beauty, and increase;
Without this, folly, age, and cold decay.
If all were minded so, the times should cease
And threescore year would make the world away.
Let those whom nature hath not made for store,
Harsh, featureless, and rude, barrenly perish.
Look whom she best endowed, she gave the more;
Which bounteous gift thou shouldst in bounty cherish.
She carved thee for her seal, and meant thereby
Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die.

(If any of you have Stephen Booth's Shakespeare's Sonnets, take a look at the first line of the original printed version. With all the s's and f's in this line, it's pretty to see on the page.)

In general, Shakespeare gives the guy two choices: wisdom, beauty, increase OR folly, old age, decay (reminiscent of Sonnet 6 "make worms thine heir"). It's a common sentiment that's already been established in the previous sonnets, so what is new in this poem? Well, I'd argue that the answer is "not much." The nature character shows up again, this time as the distributor of beauty, power, and life. I'd say that her appearance restores the calm after two emotionally changed sonnets, and returns the poet to an earlier argument: it's only natural for you to procreate because clearly you have been given an excess of beauty and intelligence, which only naturally means you were "meant" to pass it on. As Randall noted in his last post, we obviously don't know the order in which these sonnets were written, but this return to nature and the echo of nature's loan of life and beauty from Sonnet 4 makes me wonder about the order in which these two poems were written.

What am I missing here? Can anyone see anything new that this poem is doing that hasn't been done in previous sonnets?

Sunday, November 14, 2010



Thanks for your analysis--you aptly crystallized the emotional flow I felt in this poem, and pointed toward some kind of parallel spiritual process.  I feel myself going through the senses of meaning Dante intended for the Divine Comedy:  the literal, the allegorical, the moral, the anagogical. 

I'd like to explore a bit further the way meaning unfolds in this poem.  Booth's commentary argues for leaving the first line unpunctuated to preserve three separate senses:  "(1) shame on you!  you should deny; (2) to avoid shame you should deny; (3) from a sense of shame you should deny."  Booth claims each of the three hits at a slightly different moment.  I think the same thing happens more generally with the first lines of the sonnet.  We first take the initial line in isloation:  Admit that you don't love anybody.  Then, surmounting the enjambment, I take the first two lines together:  Admit that you don't love anybody who doesn't care about you.  Admittedly, this may be a distinctly modern reading, as it relies on not realizing that 'art' is a second-person conjugation, and cannot be a third-person conjugation.  After failing by regarding lines in isolation, and then falling via the other extreme, of regarding the lines as a single unit, I reach a third, balanced sense:  Admit that you don't love anybody, you who don't even love yourself.  As I have argued before, I believe these misreadings are intentional.  To write such misreadings into a poem requires an extraordinary capacity for understanding language not just the way you understand it, but also the way others will understand it in idiosyncratically different ways.  One must at once be oneself and not oneself.

These questions of interpretation lead to questions of identity, which I'll explore a bit more if I find some time tomorrow.  In short, I see four ways this poem questions identity:  First, by insisting on integrity, stability, and consistency in who we are and who we claim to be.  Second, in asking about our relationship to our future selves.  Third, by asking how much we are individuals, and how much we are part of larger selves.  Fourth, by exploring extensions of self, into offspring and into other minds.  

Sorry about my premature post a couple of weeks ago.  I hope I didn't disturb anyone's enjoyment of your week off.  Finally, Randall, F. Scott Fitzgerald once got kicked out of your school.  He's buried across the street from the high school I attended.  CRAZY!!!


Friday, November 12, 2010

Sonnet 10 - Anger Spent

Sonnet 10 picks up where Sonnet 9 left off, with, as Chris noted, an “emotional intensity.” The poet returns to both “shame” and murder, curt admonition and accusation hurled in argumentative escalation as if he’s begun to realize his pleas fall on deaf ears.

For shame, deny that thou bear'st love to any
Who for thyself art so unprovident.
Grant if thou wilt, thou art beloved of many,
But that thou none lov’st is most evident;
For thou art so possessed with murd’rous hate,
That 'gainst thyself thou stick'st not to conspire,
Seeking that beauteous roof to ruinate,
Which to repair should be thy chief desire.
O, change thy thought, that I may change my mind.
Shall hate be fairer lodged than gentle love?
Be as thy presence is, gracious and kind,
Or to thyself at least kind-hearted prove.
Make thee another self for love of me,
That beauty still may live in thine or thee.

I know we don’t know the order in which Shakespeare actually wrote these sonnets. But it’s hard to ignore the current arrangement’s natural logic. We find that the poet’s gentle admonishment shifted to more ornate persuasion and then arrived here with strident condemnation. ‘For shame! You are guilty of murder. You breed hate, a deadly sin, within you.’

And worse, the poet accuses his target of conspiring against himself. Conspiracy, to Elizabethans, is serious and dreadful business, not the stuff of crackpot politicos and hyperimaginative novelists that we have. Here, the crimes stack up, and they become more terrifyingly real, even as images, than the more tenuous crime of failing to have issue and leaving a copy of oneself.

I’ll leave the second quatrain to Jacob’s capable mind, for certainly the body/roof analogy calls to mind Corinthians: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” I’ll ask merely this: have we moved from crimes against mankind (murder, hate, conspiracy) to crimes against God? Talk about escalation!

Our third quatrain and final couplet, though, take us someplace very interesting. All of a sudden, the argument shifts. The yelling stops. And our poet pleads: “do it for me.” His angry statements turn to a question: “Shall hate be fairer lodged than gentle love?” Is this rhetorical? Does the verb reconnect us to God’s temple? Reading line 10, I feel like the poet’s anger is spent. The demands turn to pleas. In fact it kind of feels like it spent itself in line 14 of Sonnet 9. The we get, in Sonnet 10, its echoes, followed by the gentle weeping of the “why won’t you do this for me” argument.

We can take “Make thee another self for love of me” a number of ways. What is, after all, the relationship between the poet and this selfish bachelor? Is this a plea for love as well as a plea for the poem’s object to get busy?

And if the emotional intensity of the argument is breaking down here, so too is the consistency of his refrained argument. Notice that Shakespeare seems to slip up (you may certainly argue that he does no such thing) when, after nine sonnets of saying that the only way to perpetuate one’s beauty is by having children, he suggests that children will allow beauty to live on “in thee.” What?



Thursday, October 28, 2010

Sonnet 9

Hi folks,

Sorry this is coming two days late.  One day is my fault, but I blame the other day on Faulkner's Sanctuary.    I finished it on Tuesday and found life so bleak that I could do nothing for the rest of the evening.

Anyway, we have some new imagery, and some fun alliteration, this week:

Is it for fear to wet a widow's eye
That thou consum'st thyself in single life?
Ah, if thou issueless shalt hap to die,
The world will wail thee like a makeless wife;
The world will be thy widow and still weep,
That thou no form of thee hast left behind,
When every private widow well may keep,
By children's eyes, her husband's shape in mind.
Look what an unthrift in the world doth spend
Shifts but his place, for still the world enjoys it;
But beauty's waste hath in the world an end,
And kept unused, the user so destroys it.
    No love toward others in that bosom sits
    That on himself such murd'rous shame commits.

I needed some help from glosses to make sense of this poem, and I'm still not sure I follow the logic of world-as-wife.  If you die without a child, the world, like a wife, will mourn your passing.  In fact, if you die unmarried, it will be worse than that--a "private wife" at least has her children to ease the pain.  The world will have lost its spouse, and cheated of its comfort in children too.

I think the sonnet gets more interesting in the third quatrain.  What's the logic at work here?  A prodigal spender, who is married to the world, really doesn't lose anything, because he is just transferring wealth from himself to the world.  Another kind of waster--the beautiful who won't reproduce--deprives everyone.  The kind of waste that's preferred is heavy engagement with the world.  This idea of being married to the world strikes me as particularly modern and urban, even anticipating Baudelaire's flaneur--the dandy who has the leisure to stroll and engage with the city.  What's strange is that this line of argument does not favor marriage.  In order to marry, the youth would have to give up one wife (the world) for another.  The relationship with the world, which this poem seems to value, is incompatible with married life.  Thoughts?

Finally, I'm interested in the moment of emotional intensity at the very end--the man unwilling to marry is called "murd'rous."  It seems to me Shakespeare is quite interested in murder, and in suicide in particular.  In my limited reading, I am drawn to Hamlet and to Macbeth.  What can be done with these connections?


Saturday, October 23, 2010

Play on

Was anyone else reminded of Orsino's opening lines of Twelfth Night when they read this sonnet?

If music be the food of love, play on.
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die.
That strain again! It had a dying fall.
O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odor. Enough; no more.
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, naught enter there,
Of what validity and pitch soe'er,
But falls into abatement and low price
Even in a minute. So full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.

I'd like to pick up on something Chris mentioned about the perception of music and see how it works in both Orsino's lines and in the sonnet. The sonnet seems to suggest that music IS the food of love, but we just hear it all wrong when we listen for the individual parts and ignore the harmony of many. In fact, the sonnet points out that we're really bad at hearing music since we find pleasure in the sadness it brings. Once we are trained to hear the "true concord of well-tuned sounds" and welcome the harmony of "many, seeming one" will the music truly live up to its full potential. The sonnet pushes the subject toward love.

Orsino would seem to be on board with all of this up until about line 7 of his speech when he declares "Enough; no more." What's changed? Why the sudden demand to stop the music? Well, because he realizes that it sounded different this time, not as sweet as before. It's after hearing the strain for the second time that Orsino declares that the spirit of love has "fallen into abatement and low price." So love is cheap? What exactly is this comparison that he (and the sonnet) seem to be drawing between love and music? Is music an easy way to reach love, as the sonnet seems to suggest? Or, as Orsino suggests, is it "high fantastical"?