Sunday Sonnet – 10 January 2016

feathers elizabeth

Even a genius like Shakespeare can’t always hit a home run. But even his run-of-the mill sonnets exhibit all the best qualities of great verse, and if he had not written some of his scintillating treasures, we’d probably still be forcing high school students to read ones like 81. Sonnet 81 is included with ‘Rival Poet’ sequence, though the rival really doesn’t show up here. What is mentioned is the immortality of verse, and how only Art can make us humans mortal.

81

Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten;
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read,
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
You still shall live–such virtue hath my pen–
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

The really cool part of this sonnet is when the Poet tells his Young Man that the Poet’s verse is so darn good, that it’ll not immortalize the Poet, but immortalize the Young Man:

…I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse…

Ironically, today we know who Shakespeare is, but there are only theories as to whom the Young Man might’ve been.

The best part of this sonnet, I think, doesn’t get the attention it deserves, and that’s the final couplet. By the end of the Sonnet, the Poet has already made clear how great he thinks his verse is, and how that verse will immortalize his Young Man beyond the grave. Then final image, tying the act of composing with a mortal man’s dying breath. You see, a common practice in Elizabethan England was to use a feather held to the lips of the dying, to see if breath still fluttered, or if they had finally died.

You still shall live–such virtue hath my pen–
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

This famous 1575 image of Queen Elizabeth, artist unknown, is just one example of the importance of feathers in Elizabethan life: fashion, quills for pens (pens being a personal favorite of Shakespeare’s), fans (fans being a personal favorite of Elizabeth’s), and for testing the breath of the dying.

 

Sunday Sonnet – 08 November 2015

sonnet 65

Only Poetry can defeat the ravages of Time. Shakespeare fervently asserts this in Sonnet 65, as he does so often in so much of his work.   Do you doubt him? You shouldn’t. The remains of the Elizabethan era, over four centuries gone, has left us only vestiges of its glory: London burned, obliterating most of its physical relics; every breathing soul dust in the Earth; its spoken language elusive–we’ll never know for certain how Elizabethan English really sounded; and we can only guess at what the stink of daily must’ve been. But the Poet’s love for his Young Man? Why, this sonnet is as brilliant and perfectly preserved as the day Shakespeare fixed its last iamb:

65

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

The intensity of the Poet’s emotions come through–through four hundred years. Simple black ink is able to capture and hold the despair Shakespeare felt against destroyer Time–how it ravages both love and life.

I wonder what Shakespeare might think if he knew that folks, four centuries later, were still reading his works. Would he be surprised?

The image comes from a photo of Kenilworth Castle, in ruins of course. This castle was owned by Robert Dudley, the great love of Queen Elizabeth, whom she was never able to marry.

Sunday Sonnet – 18 October 2015

king-james-I

Like so many of Shakespeare’s sonnets written to his beloved Young Man, number 107 asserts the poem will outlast both Poet and Young Man. But this verse is different. Beyond the beauty of its language, this Sonnets seems to give us clues as to when it might’ve been written. For despite the celestial and timeless nature of its language, we’re able to connect it with history.

107

Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.
The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured
And the sad augurs mock their own presage;
Incertainties now crown themselves assured
And peace proclaims olives of endless age.
Now with the drops of this most balmy time
My love looks fresh, and death to me subscribes,
Since, spite of him, I’ll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o’er dull and speechless tribes:
And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent.

Some lines in this sonnet likely reference great events in Shakespeare’s time:

The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured:

  • Lunar eclipses in 1595 and 1605
  • Elizabeth I survives a serious illness in 1599
  • Elizabeth I dies in 1603

Incertainties now crown themselves assured

And peace proclaims olives of endless age:

  • After Elizabeth’s 45 year reign, a new monarch, James I, ascends the English throne in 1603
  • That new King signs a peace treaty with Spain in 1604 (whom Elizabeth had warred with for decades)

Shakespeare was notoriously cagey when referencing contemporary events; it’s how he escaped censorship in Elizabethan England, which was for all intents and purposes a police state. Here he seems to intentionally show his hand a bit, eloquently incorporating great events of the day into his paean of Romantic love for the Young Man, another thing he most certainly had to be circumspect about.

Shakespeare must’ve truly believed in the power of poetry, for once again he asserts that this verse to his Young Man would outlast all ‘tyrants’ crests and tombs.’

The image is of King James I, Elizabeth’s successor. James was generally not considered a tyrant, but this verse outlasted him too.   

Midweek Shakespearean Quote – 16 September 2015

Bishops_Bible_Elizabeth_I_1569

Revenge is a dish best served cold.   No–I’m not going to claim this delicious little aphorism comes from Shakespeare. Historians and linguists can’t agree. However, the idea behind such a kind of revenge does come from Shakespeare, namely in Hamlet’s great soliloquy from Act III of the play.

Hamlet espies his murderous step father Claudius praying–Hamlet’s uncle King who murdered his father, stole his father’s crown and then bedded his sister-in-law, Hamlet’s mother. Hamlet is so, so tempted to murder the bastard right where he kneels and prays. But then Hamlet thinks better of it:

Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;

And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;

And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:

A villain kills my father; and for that,

I, his sole son, do this same villain send

To heaven.

O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.

He took my father grossly, full of bread;

With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;

And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?

But in our circumstance and course of thought,

‘Tis heavy with him. And am I then revenged,

To take him in the purging of his soul,

When he is fit and season’d for his passage?

No!

Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:

When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,

Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;

At game, a-swearing, or about some act

That has no relish of salvation in’t;

Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,

And that his soul may be as damn’d and black

As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays:

This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.

Hamlet, Act III, Scene iii

The logic that stays Hamlet’s sword here is unusual in the Shakespeare canon: it’s a direct reference to Christian ethics and beliefs, and typically any topics or reference of a religiously Christian nature Shakespeare wisely avoided. Queen Elizabeth’s Protestant reformation wasn’t that far removed from the days of Queen Bloody Mary, who executed thousands of Protestants. Which meant smart playwrights steered clear. But for this scene, Hamlet’s beliefs serve the plot so well Shakespeare used it.

Hamlet realizes that if he kills Claudius while Claudius is praying, it will send the murderous King to heaven, since he’ll die while asking forgiveness of his sins. Hamlet reasons that if he’s going to send this bastard to hell, he needs to kill him while he’s committing sins: ‘When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed, At game, a-swearing…”

It’s a crazy kind of logic. But when it’s couched within the luscious and lyrical language of this soliloquy, and issues from Hamlet’s mad lips, the audience buys it. It appears the Bard was as good at selling Christian myths as the Elizabethan preachers of the day.

The image comes from the cover of a Holy Bible printed in 1569, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth.  

Sunday Sonnet – 09 August 2015

tudor rose

One of the many mysteries of Shakespeare’s personal life is how did he acquire all the vast areas of expertise needed to write about so many characters and so many avocations? For example, his knowledge of horticulture, herbalism and botany are evident in many of his plays (think of A Midsummer Night’s Dream). We really don’t know for sure where Shakespeare learned all this–though there a bunch of ‘missing years’ from his youth.

In Sonnet 54, Shakespeare utilizes this knowledge of botany to create a complicated metaphor, where he likens the beauty in his Young Man to a rose’s beauty, which is both outer and inner. Elizabethans extracted perfume from roses. However, canker-blooms were also visually beautiful, but unlike roses, contained no lovely scent. And so here comes a life lesson: When looking for beauty in others, don’t just look for the outer beauty:

54

O, how much more doth beauty beauteous seem
By that sweet ornament which truth doth give!
The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour which doth in it live.
The canker-blooms have full as deep a dye
As the perfumed tincture of the roses,
Hang on such thorns and play as wantonly
When summer’s breath their masked buds discloses:
But, for their virtue only is their show,
They live unwoo’d and unrespected fade,
Die to themselves. Sweet roses do not so;
Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made:
And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth,
When that shall fade, my verse distills your truth.

As complicated and delicate as this construction is, Shakespeare’s rose metaphor extends beyond a mere characterization of his Young Man’s beauty: Shakespeare means to liken his rose to the Art of poetry too. The inner-sweetness of the rose can only be enjoyed because perfumers distill it; likewise does the Poet distill his Young Man’s beauty into the lines of this sonnet. Already, it’s lasted for over four hundred years.

The image is of the Tudor Rose, one of Queen Elizabeth’s royal symbols, for she was of the House of Tudor.

Sunday Sonnet – 24 May 2015

Elizabeth_I_(Armada_Portrait)

Shakespeare’s 154 Sonnets are famous and enduring for many reasons: their beauty; their poetic genius of lyricism and form; their originality and refusal to bend to conventions, whether Elizabethan or modern; the fact that some of them express love for a man, and other express love for an arguably unlovable woman. But what also makes these great are their varied metaphors. One of the most unlikely set are Sonnets 123 and 124, which use the world of politics and state to make their case. 124 is full of politics. 

124

If my dear love were but the child of state,
It might for Fortune’s bastard be unfather’d’
As subject to Time’s love or to Time’s hate,
Weeds among weeds, or flowers with flowers gather’d.
No, it was builded far from accident;
It suffers not in smiling pomp, nor falls
Under the blow of thralled discontent,
Whereto the inviting time our fashion calls:
It fears not policy, that heretic,
Which works on leases of short-number’d hours,
But all alone stands hugely politic,
That it nor grows with heat nor drowns with showers.
To this I witness call the fools of time,
Which die for goodness, who have lived for crime. 

Few of us today are experts in Elizabethan history and politics. Reading this poem simply for its argument–that love is greater than all human-created conventions or ideals–is evident enough. But scholars and historians have, for centuries, tried to parse out all of the specific political references. In the hands of a lesser poet, such references might cripple the work, forever rendering it anachronistic. But with Shakespeare, these references also work in a general sense. Some examples: 

‘were but the child of state’: if you were something created only for profit or power (meaning, but you, dear love, are not)

‘for Fortune’s bastard be unfather’d’: the political world of Europe was littered with bastards of royal birth (meaning, but your love is true born)

‘it suffers not in smiling pomp’; the falseness of Courtly and political life (meaning, but your love shows true)

‘But all alone stands hugely politic’: politics dictate what’s important at the moment (meaning, but your love stands beyond the rage or worry of the moment) 

This sonnet is full of many more examples. 

So even today, any person woefully ignorant of Elizabethan goings-on can listen to or read Shakespeare’s great sonnets and come away with a sense of wonder, enlightenment and the sonnet’s central message: that love conquers time and anything man can build.

The image is of the prevailing head of state for most of Shakespeare’s life, Queen Elizabeth. The artist is uncertain, but what is certain is that this painting was commissioned by the state as political propaganda after Elizabeth’s defeat of the Armanda.