SonnetsQuarto001356

This sonnet is especially evocative for me because it appears that an actual event or circumstance inspired it: the Poet gives the Young Man a blank book. For someone like me, who’s writing a novel about Shakespeare, the notion that the sonnets might reflect actual events in the Bard’s life becomes irresistible:

77

Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear,
Thy dial how thy precious minutes waste;
The vacant leaves thy mind’s imprint will bear,
And of this book this learning mayst thou taste.
The wrinkles which thy glass will truly show
Of mouthed graves will give thee memory;
Thou by thy dial’s shady stealth mayst know
Time’s thievish progress to eternity.
Look, what thy memory can not contain
Commit to these waste blanks, and thou shalt find
Those children nursed, deliver’d from thy brain,
To take a new acquaintance of thy mind.
These offices, so oft as thou wilt look,
Shall profit thee and much enrich thy book.

Shakespearean scholarship is undecided about the biographical veracity of the Sonnets. But this one and one other (a Dark Lady sonnet where she’s playing music on a virginal) both seem to include specific details from actual events. Do the other major events of the sonnets–the Poet’s love for a Young Man and a Dark Lady; circumstances of physical parting; specific instances of betrayal–reflect chapters in Will’s life? 

I like to believe so. Though this debate has gone on for years, and a complete parsing out of all the arguments for and against would fill entire book, two main points convince me:

First, the Sonnets were published in 1609 without Shakespeare’s permission. Yet much of Shakespeare’s contemporary fame came from his profession as a Poet and not a playwright, including his publication of Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece and ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle.’ So why not publish the Sonnets he had been writing for years? Simple: their highly personal nature–in cases, so personal as to be dangerous (homosexual acts in Elizabethan England were punishable by imprisonment). 

Second, because autobiographical inspiration is the way of Artistry. This is more of a right brain kind of argument, but history is full of hundreds of instances where great writers drew from their own experiences to create their stories. No, of course Shakespeare never ruled an ancient Roman Empire like in Julius Caesar; no, of course he didn’t avenge his father’s death like Hamlet did. But Will lived and recognized and empathized with all the great emotions, trials and hopes of the human condition (and expressed them brilliantly). And in the case of his very private sonnets, those troubles and aspirations bubble to surface in curiously detailed and repetitive ways. 

The image comes from an actual First Edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, 1609.

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