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?


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