Sunday Sonnet – 14 June 2015

Sonnet 1

Sonnet 1, the first verse of one of the most astonishing collections of poems ever published in Western Literature by one Poet, opens with the form and function of the rigidly controlled format of the ‘Elizabethan Sonnet’: fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, a dovetailing rhyme scheme, with the content’s central argument controlled by three quatrains and couplet. And yet, the content: it was revolutionary:


From fairest creatures we desire increase, 
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die, 
But as the riper should by time decease, 
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies, 
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament 
And only herald to the gaudy spring, 
Within thine own bud buriest thy content 
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding. 
    Pity the world, or else this glutton be, 
    To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

Was this sonnet a romantic verse penned by a male Elizabethan Poet to a beautiful and chaste mistress? Hardly. It’s penned by an older Poet to a younger man (though the identity of the recipient’s gender isn’t revealed till later sonnets, this business goes on for 126 sonnets!). Does it regale in the recipient’s beauty? Yes. However… Does the Poet beg for his recipient’s love? No! Rather, he begs the Young Man to breed, so this his beauty might be carried on. Very odd. Later, as more sonnets go on, a kind of narrative begins to reveal itself. For about the first 17 sonnets the Poet entreats the Young Man to preserve his beauty through marriage and procreation. But that begins to evolve into something else–into something that was illegal and very dangerous in Elizabethan England.

Despite the unusual and risqué subtext of this verse, its imagery and language are as sumptuous and profound as anything written in Elizabethan England (or, of course, even today):

‘Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel.’   My favorite line.

Does anyone write as beautifully in today’s world?

The image comes from a scan of the first publication of the Sonnets in 1609, taken, published and released without Shakespeare’s permission.

Sunday Sonnet – Winter Solstice 2014

Sonnet 2

With today’s Solstice, I think of this sonnet, where the ravages of age will be counted in the number of winters the battered face of the Poet’s lovely Young Man might endure. 

Sonnet II

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,

And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,

Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,

Will be a totter’d weed of small worth held:

Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,

Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;

To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,

Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.

How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,

If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine

Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’

Proving his beauty by succession thine!

   This were to be new made when thou art old,

   And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

This second poem of Shakespeare’s long sequence of sonnets establish many of themes that would be revisited–and touch upon many truths that we still have trouble facing today: beauty never lasts; your cloak of youth will fade; there is a reason why we have children.  

What’s truly astonishing about all this, is that this sonnet–and most of the early Young Man sonnets–Shakespeare very likely wrote under commission. In other words, he might have been paid to write them on just this topic.  

Lord Burghley was Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Treasurer, and Burghley had a young ward he was in charge of–none other than the Earl of Southampton, very probably Shakespeare’s ‘Young Man’.   Southampton did not want to marry (The reasons for this are numerous and speculative, but one is that Southampton had no interest in women). What’s odd is that the first 17 sonnets all urge the Young Man to procreate. Never before had the Romantic form of the Sonnet been used for such an odd endeavor: that is a male Poet urging another male–a beautiful and lovely male–to procreate. But Shakespeare makes it work. I mean–how else to convince a vain, spoiled and possibly gay Earl to marry up and reproduce? Flatter him. 

Alas, after Sonnet 17, things turn for the Poet (that is, Will Shakespeare), and he finds himself falling in love with this vain, beautiful creature.   But for today, let’s revel in Number 2, and its lovely, varied imagery. And remember: braving these cold winters will only dig deep the trenches in our fields of beauty. 

The image is from the northern woods of Wisconsin, of a dear old place I’ll very likely never be able to visit again.