Sunday Sonnet – 21 August 2016

Sonnet 14

For the first dozen or so of Shakespeare’s amazing sonnet sequence of 154 poems, the Poet’s been trying to get the Young Man to marry a woman and reproduce to preserve his beauty. But now, by Sonnet 14, things start changing. Slowly but surely, the Poet is falling in love with the Young Man. In the Elizabethan era, this is wild and dangerous stuff!

It starts when the Poet likens the beautiful Young Man’s eyes to stars–a common poetic image nowadays. Not unlike the dreamy infatuation between young lovers we see everywhere. But what’s so cool here is that on its surface, the Poet seems to be talking about the Young Man’s eyes, he’s really revealing himself: Line 9 starts to spells it out: ‘But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive.’ Reason or good sense be damned, the Poet derives real truth and beauty from the eyes of the person he’s become infatuated with.  We’ve all seen that before, haven’t we? And most of us have lived it.


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.


Sunday Sonnet – 7 August 2016

Sonnet 8

Two of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets use music as their central metaphor: the one I’m about to read, and one of the later Dark Lady sonnets, which I promise to read some other day.

This one uses the idea of a single note of music and how, when combined into a chord makes even more beautiful music. The Poet is trying to a convince the Young Man, who’s a bachelor–a single note–to marry and make a family–a chord. The argument sounds ridiculous, but the logical steps of the argument build a perfect metaphor, the beauty of the verse with its musical rhythm are a progression not unlike a song, and Shakespeare’s evident knowledge and love of music, are plainly evident. Was there no end to Shakespeare’s many areas of expertise?

I have no sense of rhythm, and so my reading butchers that aspect of this verse: but I love this sonnet for its creative analogy and the questions it asks. What kind of music filled Shakespeare’s life? Historians have some ideas, but we’ll never know for certain.  


Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?

Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy:

Why lov’st thou that which thou receiv’st not gladly,

Or else receiv’st with pleasure thine annoy?

If the true concord of well-tuned sounds,

By unions married, do offend thine ear,

They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds

In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear.

Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,

Strikes each in each by mutual ordering;

Resembling sire and child and happy mother,

Who, all in one, one pleasing note do sing:

   Whose speechless song being many, seeming one,

   Sings this to thee: ‘Thou single wilt prove none.’


Sunday Sonnet – ‘Winter is Coming’


Sonnet 5 photo

Shakespeare’s Sonnet Number 5 is from early in the sequence of verses written to the Young Man.  The Poet is still trying to convince the Young Man to marry and reproduce, thereby preserving his beauty.  Here the Bard compares that beauty to the most lovely things of summer, flowers.  But flowers are transient. Winter destroys all blossoms, in the same way Time destroys youthful beauty.  Sometimes though, one aspect of a flower’s beauty can be saved. The Elizabethan didn’t have cameras to capture images, and so in Shakespeare’s time the only way to preserve any essence of a blossom was to distill it into perfume.



Those hours, that with gentle work did frame

The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell,

Will play the tyrants to the very same

And that unfair which fairly doth excel;

For never-resting time leads summer on

To hideous winter, and confounds him there;

Sap checked with frost, and lusty leaves quite gone,

Beauty o’er-snowed and bareness every where:

Then were not summer’s distillation left,

A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,

Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,

Nor it, nor no remembrance what it was:

   But flowers distilled, though they with winter meet,

   Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.


Sunday Sonnet – 24 July 2016

Sonnet 116 - 1

Sonnet 116 epitomizes why Shakespeare is my religion. Other books inspirit us to love, but what is love? This amazing Sonnet, perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest, describes the constancy, depth and beauty of love, and how true love may extend its arc over the length of a entire life. This one I dedicate to Mary, whose birthday is this weekend.  


Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

–William Shakespeare



Sunday Sonnet – 17 July 2016

My particular madness is the belief that Shakespeare’s sonnets are pertinent to our 21st century lives.  The other night I watched an actor read 40 of these sonnets, accompanied by two lutes and a recorder.  That actor gave me an idea.  Why can’t I do this?  I’m no trained Shakespearean actor and I don’t have a lute.  But I do believe Shakespeare wrote for all us, and wouldn’t mind a fool like me sharing what I love most.  Aloud. 

Let’s start with one of the early ‘Young Man’ Sonnets, Number 3.  As a young man, I was drawn to this one because of its sexual farming metaphor, and in particular to its great pun on husbandry. As an older man, I recognize the wisdom of its warning.   


Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest

Now is the time that face should form another;

Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,

Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.

For where is she so fair whose uneared womb

Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?

Or who is he so fond will be the tomb

Of his self-love, to stop posterity?

Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee

Calls back the lovely April of her prime;

So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,

Despite of wrinkles, this thy golden time.

   But if thou live, remembered not to be,

   Die single and thine image dies with thee.

Sunday Sonnet – 13 March 2015


Flattery will get you nowhere: that’s the gist of Sonnet 82.


I grant thou wert not married to my Muse
And therefore mayst without attaint o’erlook
The dedicated words which writers use
Of their fair subject, blessing every book
Thou art as fair in knowledge as in hue,
Finding thy worth a limit past my praise,
And therefore art enforced to seek anew
Some fresher stamp of the time-bettering days
And do so, love; yet when they have devised
What strained touches rhetoric can lend,
Thou truly fair wert truly sympathized
In true plain words by thy true-telling friend;
And their gross painting might be better used
Where cheeks need blood; in thee it is abused.

In the ‘rival poet sequence’, numbers 78 – 82, Shakespeare’s sonnet-writer (or perhaps Shakespeare himself) finds that a rival Poet is wooing the Young Man away from him. It opens with the realization that the Young Man might never have been married to Shakespeare’s verse: ‘thou wert not married to my Muse’. Like any artsy-fartsy old timer today complaining about how anything new is not as good as the old, Shakespeare spends the middle of the Sonnet describing how the rival poet’s verses are currently in vogue, quite flowery and flattering:

‘Some fresher stamp of the time-bettering days’ and ‘yet when they have devised / What strained touches rhetoric can lend.’

As you might expect, Shakespeare claims his verses are better. They may not be as showy, he admits, but they hold more truth: ‘In true plain words by thy true-telling friend’

In 16th century England as well as today, we’re often subjected to the newest, best thing. Is it always the best?

We’ll never know if there was, in fact, a rival poet, or who that poet was (the scholars and historians all have their theories). Suffice to say, the rival’s verse hasn’t survived, nor his identity. But over four centuries later, we still have Shakespeare and his sonnets.

But there’s a more important lesson here. I believe Shakespeare’s works, all the plays and poetry together, beyond storytelling or simple entertainment, are the greatest guide we have to what it means to be and act as humans. One of the lessons here is more than old versus new. It’s flattery. We’ll always have flatterers–so don’t succumb to them. Years after these Sonnets were written, an older, wiser and perhaps more succinct Mr. Shakespeare addresses flattery in one pithy quote in his late play, Timon of Athens, where the misanthropic character Apemantus says “he that loves to be flattered is worthy o’ the flatterer.”  

The image is from an anonymous 19th century artist, showing the gadfly Apemantus confronting Timon of Athens with some desperately needed truisms.


Sunday Sonnet – 06 March 2016

sonnet 151

A case can be made that Queen Elizabeth I ushered England into the Renaissance. That said, despite the Elizabethan explosion of Art, Science and Thought, it was an incredibly repressive society. And it was sexually repressive–to the point where it was dangerous to be too risqué. Shakespeare, though, knew just how far he could push it.


Love is too young to know what conscience is;
Yet who knows not conscience is born of love?
Then, gentle cheater, urge not my amiss,
Lest guilty of my faults thy sweet self prove:
For, thou betraying me, I do betray
My nobler part to my gross body’s treason;
My soul doth tell my body that he may
Triumph in love; flesh stays no father reason;
But, rising at thy name, doth point out thee
As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride,
He is contented thy poor drudge to be,
To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.
No want of conscience hold it that I call
Her ‘love’ for whose dear love I rise and fall.

This verse is all about how the Poet’s spiritual inclinations succumb to his bodily lust for the Dark Lady. Where it gets risqué–especially for Elizabethan society–is in its second half, where the Poet is reduced to nothing but a phallus, rising and lowering to the Dark Lady’s bidding. You see, it wasn’t permissible in the Elizabethan world of poetry to express sexual desire. But here Shakespeare takes it on. Re-read the start of the second half, it’s really quite explicit:

But, rising at thy name, doth point out thee
As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride,
He is contented thy poor drudge to be,
To stand in thy affairs…

With Sonnet 151, is Shakespeare perhaps also addressing the conventions of the day? In the opening lines Shakespeare seems to be referring to Cupid, who’s too naïve to really understand the way of the world. I think this Sonnet might be taking aim at the Petrarchan ideal of Romantic Love as idolized in most love poetry of the day: grow up, kids, the way of the world is a lot different than what you’re writing about. This is what it’s like: Soul and lust and pleasure and guilt, all mixed up together.

Shakespeare’s plays were full of lovers, usually unhappy and always complicated. Today’s images is of the great Allan Rickman and Helen Mirren as Antony and Cleopatra from a live performance: certainly sexual, most definitely troubled.


Sunday Sonnet – 28 February 2016

Sonnet 146

If ever there were a Shakespearean sonnet appropriate for a Sunday, it’s probably this one.


Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
[…] these rebel powers that thee array;
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? is this thy body’s end?
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.

Shakespeare to a large degree avoided Christian references in his plays and poetry, which was probably wise in Elizabethan England: The war between the Protestant and Catholic faiths had seesawed back and for since Henry VIII, and plenty of people had ended up dead, usually in very unpleasant ways. And so this Dark Lady Sonnet (there’s no explicit mention of her here, but the sins here are carnal ones) is a bit unusual in that the Poet is starting to worry about the eternal disposition of his soul.

This argument between one’s eternal soul and the aging of the temporal body, in this poem imaged as a fading mansion, concludes that it’s time to stop trying to prop up that failing body:

Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?

The whole thrust of this poem is pretty straightforward: Neglect your worldly body so that you might enrich your soul. Which leads you to one of Shakespeare’s most lovely couplets:

So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.

But what makes this sonnet famous (at least in literary circles) isn’t Shakespeare’s rare dalliance into matters piously religious, but those missing words in the second line: In the original Folio, that blank space is filled with ‘My sinful earth.’ Yes–that’s right, the phrase ‘My sinful earth’ is repeated, at the end of line 1 and at the start of line 2.

This is, if you know anything about meter and about Shakespeare’s unerring genius for economy and beauty of language, IS IMPOSSIBLE. The Bard wouldn’t have a) messed up his meter in line 2 with those three words and b) wouldn’t have repeated himself so stupidly. The pervading argument goes that some idiot printer made an error.

So what are those lost words? That’s where all the fun begins. Critics, scholars, poets and gadflies have been arguing for centuries what the Bard must’ve intended. Short of a séance or traveling back in time, we’ll never know. But here are some suggestions, none of which really work beautifully if you take into account meter, cadence, imagery and theme:

Trapp’d these rebel powers that thee array;








Which do you like? All this sound and fury, caused by an idiot, which in the end probably signifies nothing.

The image of an old woodcut is of an Elizabethan era printing press. They had movable type, but it was still laborious and prone to error.

Sunday Sonnet – 31 January 2016


Early hints of the Dark Lady! This sonnet falls into the latter section of verses written to the Poet’s beloved Young Man. The poem’s full of chaos and a raft of competing images. But in the mix, if you look for it, you can find hints of a Dark Lady….


What potions have I drunk of Siren tears,
Distill’d from limbecks foul as hell within,
Applying fears to hopes and hopes to fears,
Still losing when I saw myself to win!
What wretched errors hath my heart committed,
Whilst it hath thought itself so blessed never!
How have mine eyes out of their spheres been fitted
In the distraction of this madding fever!
O benefit of ill! now I find true
That better is by evil still made better;
And ruin’d love, when it is built anew,
Grows fairer than at first, more strong, far greater.
So I return rebuked to my content
And gain by ill thrice more than I have spent.

This sonnet more or less continues an argument started in the previous sonnet: that is, the Poet has philandered with a woman, and now he’s sorry and begs forgiveness from the Young Man. With whom did he philander? There are hints it’s the Dark Lady:

‘Siren tears, distill’d from limbecks foul as hell within.’ Sirens are female (and this is rare instance in the Young Man sonnets where Shakespeare makes an explicit reference to gender) and a limbeck is a vessel used in distillation. An argument can be made that the Poet is likening the limbeck’s shape to the vessel of a vagina. Looking forward to the Dark Lady sonnets, there are references to her being as dark as hell as well as her foulness (from which the Poet eventually contracts venereal disease).

Specifically, Sonnet 144 of the Dark Lady poems brings together two lovers: an unnamed Angel and the Dark Lady (see bottom of this post). The images withing these two sonnets connect them, as well as the juxtaposition of ‘so blessed’ and ‘better angel’ against ‘siren tears…as foul as hell’ and ‘to hell my female evil.’

It’s misogynistic, ugly, yet compelling, confusing, exciting, provocative. I can forgive Shakespeare, he was Elizabethan, a product of his age. Yet, as an Elizabethan, he was quite daring for even writing these. There are very plausible reasons why Shakespeare never sought publication of these sonnets: their suggestive if not outrageous narratives of homoerotic and multiracial love affairs were so outside Elizabethan norms, it would’ve been risky for the financially successful Mister Shakespeare to publish them. (Instead, someone else stole them and published them. They were a hit.)  

Here’s Sonnet 144 from the Dark Lady sequence. Read them both, and see what you think.


Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still:
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman colour’d ill.
To win me soon to hell, my female evil
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
And whether that my angel be turn’d fiend
Suspect I may, but not directly tell;
But being both from me, both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another’s hell:
Yet this shall I ne’er know, but live in doubt,
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.

The image is of Isac Friedlander’s 1931 wood engraving entitled ‘Sonnet 144 Two Loves.’ Perhaps it can apply to both Sonnets 144 and 119.

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.


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.