Sunday Sonnet – 31 May 2015

lovely Will

The Spring morning breaks bright and beautiful here in Southern Wisconsin, and so it seems a perfect time to enjoy Shakespeare’s Sonnet 33, which features a complex metaphor about the shining sun–but that sun’s not always what it seems: 


Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine
With all triumphant splendor on my brow;
But out, alack! he was but one hour mine;
The region cloud hath mask’d him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.

Despite the poem’s bright opening, this verse is mournful. Apparently the Young Man had rejected the Poet. This sonnet, and the ones following, seem to relate to a specific episode of genuine grief, casting an autobiographical aspect to the Sonnets. These episodes don’t hold the structural majesty of a Hamlet or an Othello, but seem to muddy through a betrayal, hurt feelings, and ambivalent (but beautifully poetic) metaphoric imagery. 

Anyhow, what a splendid, lovely image: the rising sun beautifies the mountains and meadows, brightens the streams, only to be blotted out by a cloud, so that the sun must sneak away into sunset.   Likewise, the Young Man, a shining beauty, has let something blot his beauty–betraying himself and the Poet.   

The image is of William Shakespeare, the recently rediscovered ‘Cobbe Family’ portrait. Scholars suppose this anonymous portrait of the Bard was commissioned later in his life–after Will had achieved fame–yet was painted as a representation of how Will might’ve looked in his younger years, when he was first storming the London stage.

Hump Day Shakespearean Quote – Christmas Eve 2014


Shakespeare and the mention of Christmas don’t much intersect for two main reasons. One, back in Elizabethan times, Christmas wasn’t the big commercial deal it is today. And two, the Bard was very, very careful about religion in his plays and poetry: Elizabethan England was a police state, and one of the supreme crimes–after treason–were crimes of faith. Even with the even-minded Elizabeth, who tried to bring everyone together, the extreme believers on either end would have none of it.   The Papists and Puritans hated one another, and Shakespeare wisely gave Christianity a wide berth. 

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is the time.

Hamlet, Act I Scene i 

That’s it. Shakespeare’s only explicit reference to Christmas, and he doesn’t even say the word. It’s from Hamlet, and here Shakespeare only uses the idea of Christmas to set up the idea that evil is one its way. A holy day, when even ghosts are not allowed to haunt and witches aren’t allowed to spin charms. Ah, but a vengeful ghost is coming, and with him we’ll bring down tragedy and woe upon the entire castle of Elsinore.   

Merry Christmas, one and all, and enjoy this holiday, with the hopes that tonight and tomorrow might, indeed, ward off evil and spirits for just a while.

Postscript: And no, the play Twelfth Night doesn’t refer to Christmas either. It was the last night of the big Christmas season, traditionally reserved for performances, to which the title refers.

The image is from the ‘Cobbe Portrait’ of Shakespeare. There’s strong evidence that is the only portrait ever commissioned of the Bard during his lifetime. Artist unknown, but this Jacobean painting was discovered with a painting of another Elizabethan, Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton. Who was he? Why, most Shakespeare’s Young Man of the Sonnets.

Cobbe Portrait of William Shakespeare


This gorgeously lush painting of an Elizabethan gentleman is believed by many to be the only authentic painting of William Shakespeare. As with most historical detritus concerning The Bard, it’s subject to controversy, and isn’t 100% authenticated. But there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence to suggest that this is a painting of a sitting William Shakespeare as he looked later in life, after having achieved his fame as a playwright and successful business owner.


A few facts and suppositions:

  • Called ‘The Cobbe Portrait’ because the original (newly rediscovered in 2006) was confirmed by the Cobbe family as being owned by their ancestor, Charles Cobbe, Church of Ireland, Archbishop of Dublin, 1686 to 1765.
  • The portrait descended through the family along with a painting of Shakespeare’s patron, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southamption (and possibly the ‘Young Man’ of the Sonnets).


  • The Latin inscription ‘Principum Amicitias!’ means ‘Alliances of Princes”, which could certainly describe Shakespeare, whose Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later, the King’s Men) played for both Queen Elizabeth and King James.
  • Scientific testing places the portrait’s creation sometime after 1595, and the collar on the gentleman is the style of the early 1600’s.