sonnet 14

Astrologers enjoyed good business in Elizabethan times. We can never know if Shakespeare ever employed one or even believed in their powers of divination, but he certainly knew of them and knew something of the prognosticator’s art.

14

Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;
And yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons’ quality;
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well,
By oft predict that I in heaven find:
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert;
Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.

In this sonnet the Poet compares the Young Man’s eyes to stars, and claims, like an astrologer, to be able to read in them the future: ‘But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive’. This sonnet comes so close to being a more traditional Elizabethan sonnet: a vivid metaphor, evocative of all of creation–thunder, wind and rain, the fates of princes, the constancy of stars–all kinds of romantic mush. It’s all here. But rather then simply comparing the Young Man to the beauty of heaven, or to the mysterious arts of astrology, the sonnet has a specific agenda: to urge the Young Man to procreate, lest his beauty be lost: ‘If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert’….to…’Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.’

In these early sonnets, the Poet was still trying to convince the Young Man to marry and sire children. There’s circumstantial evidence that Lord Burghley, guardian to the Earl of Southampton and Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, commissioned Shakespeare to write sonnets to the Earl, urging him to marry. If that’s true, Burghley’s best intentions eventually changed The Poet and the Young Man into something more romantic and more provocative.  This vivid and romantic sonnets certainly shows signs of that growing change.

The image is of John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s astrologer.

One thought on “Sunday Sonnet – 06 December 2015

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