Sunday Sonnet – 12 March 2017

Sonnet 30 photo

I’m back from a long break, back to visiting these old friends, Shakespeare’s sonnets.  Perhaps it’s only appropriate we resume where we left off in the Sonnet sequence so many months ago, with this exquisite poem of remembrance and remorse, Sonnet 30. 

Number 30 is one of Shakespeare’s most beautiful, an elegiac mourning over lost friends, deeds left undone and love lost.  And yet, after enumerating all these regrets and losses, the Poet admits that when he thinks of the Young Man, he forgets his grief.  Though this verse is over 400 years old, it can still speak to us today.  How often have many of us nursed our regrets and griefs, only then to find joy in those friends and loved ones we still have with us? 

Part of the beauty of this Sonnet is in its skillful use of alliteration.  Listen for it as I read it. 


When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.


Sunday Sonnet – 13 November 2016


Shakespeare’s 26th Sonnet, written to the Fair Youth, is not numbered as one of his greatest, but I like it.  Its central metaphor of a vassal professing homage to his Lord is very medieval and feels very much part of the times—Elizabethan times, that is.  Social class was everything. This sonnet can also seem very traditional in poetic terms: the master-servant theme was common in Petrarchan love poetry.  Beyond that, though, this sonnet is pretty radical for Elizabethan poetry, like most of Shakespeare’s sonnets are.  It’s a male Poet writing to a male young man, after all. 

The other reason I like this sonnet is that it seems to offer a tantalizing clue about Shakespeare the man.  Who the devil was the Will the playwright, the player, the businessman, husband and father?  What was his day-to-day life like?  We barely know.  That hasn’t kept scholars, historians and students from wondering—and arguing.  One thread to pull at is the supposition that the sonnets are somehow autobiographical.  Even though I adhere to this theory—probably because I’m trying to write a book about The Bard’s life—a few Shakespearean scholars I really respect don’t necessarily buy into this. 

This sonnet seems to suggest the two lovers are physically separated:  ‘To thee I send this written embassage’ and ‘Till then not show my head…’   Hints of actual life events? 

Regardless, things are not going well between the two lovers, and the Poet is ‘wanting words to show’ how much he still loves the Young Man.  He professes his wit is poor, but of course we know that isn’t true.  Four centuries later we’re still poring over his verse.    


Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage
Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit,
To thee I send this written embassage,
To witness duty, not to show my wit:
Duty so great, which wit so poor as mine
May make seem bare, in wanting words to show it,
But that I hope some good conceit of thine
In thy soul’s thought, all naked, will bestow it;
Till whatsoever star that guides my moving
Points on me graciously with fair aspect
And puts apparel on my tatter’d loving,
To show me worthy of thy sweet respect:
Then may I dare to boast how I do love thee;
Till then not show my head where thou mayst prove me.


Sunday Sonnet – 23 October 2016


In our modern era we love movies, books and sports games that deliver us stunning reversals at the very end. Well, Shakespeare was practicing this over 400 years ago, and his Sonnet 24 is a superb example of that.

Number 24 contains one of the most fully complete metaphors of all of the sonnets: the Poet’s love for the Young Man’s beauty has consumed him, so much so that the Poet becomes a veritable painting, filled in with that beautiful image. The Poet’s gaze–his gazing at the Young Man–is the painter. The Poet’s body is the frame of that painting. The Poet’s bosom itself houses the exquisite image of the Young Man.

The sonnet is lovely to read. And up until its last line, this verse seems to hew to the traditional Romantic poetry of Shakespeare’s time: mindless (but delicious) adulation of the subject, something most of the rest of Shakespeare’s sonnets either deride or mock.   But Shakespeare doesn’t disappoint. The final couplet sets it up, and the final phrase of the sonnet delivers it: ‘know not the heart.’ The painting in the Poet’s bosom reflects only a surface illusion; all this adulation has done nothing to capture the Young Man’s heart. It’s all really just a sham.


Mine eye hath play’d the painter and hath stell’d
Thy beauty’s form in table of my heart;
My body is the frame wherein ’tis held,
And perspective it is the painter’s art.
For through the painter must you see his skill,
To find where your true image pictured lies;
Which in my bosom’s shop is hanging still,
That hath his windows glazed with thine eyes.
Now see what good turns eyes for eyes have done:
Mine eyes have drawn thy shape, and thine for me
Are windows to my breast, where-through the sun
Delights to peep, to gaze therein on thee;
Yet eyes this cunning want to grace their art;
They draw but what they see, know not the heart.

Sunday Sonnet – 16 October 2016


Sonnet 23 is rarely counted among Shakespeare’s greatest, but I’m terribly fond of it for a couple reasons.

Its opening lines allude to Shakespeare’s own profession as an actor, which is tantalizing since we know so little about Shakespeare’s life. I also like this sonnet because it speaks to the power of the written word, and how that is more enduring than the power of the spoken word. If you think about it, that pretty much summarizes Shakespeare’s two artistic worlds: his theatre craft, the art of the spoken word, and his published verse, the power of the written word. Of course both of these get muddled: After Shakespeare’s death, his friends published his plays, preserving the Bard’s legacy in writing. And poetry? Many believe all verse is meant to be read aloud.

For the purposes of this sonnet, the Poet argues that the Young Man can find the truest expression of the Poet’s love in his written verse, and not in speech. Isn’t that true for many of us even today, in our modern world? Written words to a lover carry so much more weight. It’s one thing to throw off a clever quip, too often spat out with too much emotion; so much more clear and enduring it you can commit that emotion to pen and paper.


As an unperfect actor on the stage
Who with his fear is put besides his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart.
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharged with burden of mine own love’s might.
O, let my books be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love and look for recompense
More than that tongue that more hath more express’d.
O, learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

Sunday Sonnet – 09 October 2016


Glorious, bawdy, androgynous and controversial, Sonnet # 20 is one of my favorites. The Poet is writing to the Young Man, and in this poem we get some hints of the Young Man’s physical attributes and the kind of sexuality he might’ve exuded: he evokes many qualities of a woman: ‘A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted / Hast thou’, ‘A woman’s gentle heart’ and ‘an eye more bright than theirs.’

As usual with Shakespeare’s sonnets, there’s a lot going on here. The Poet might be comparing his Young Man’s qualities to a woman’s, but at the same time he’s trashing women in general: ‘not acquainted / With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion’, and the Young Man’s eyes are brighter than woman’s, and ‘less false in rolling.’

Misogynistic? Yes, but this was the Elizabethan period. I’m not making the case that Shakespeare was a misogynist: many of his male characters were, but by the end of his career The Bard gave us some astonishing female characters. But for the purposes of this sonnet, it’s there and it’s hard to argue against.

Then there’s the bawdy part, and it’s not overt like some stuff in his later sonnets. It’s sly. Nature has made the Young Man very much like a woman, except for that small detail of ‘one thing.’ And in case you don’t get what that one thing is, Shakespeare can’t resist slipping in a delicious pun in the final couplet ‘But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure.’

Reading this sonnet, it’s also wise to remember that Shakespeare loved to change up gender roles; his plays have many instances of the sexes getting mixed up. Here, of course, it’s not an intentional disguise that’s mixing up the sexes, it’s Nature herself.

So what’s the Poet to do with this mix up? He pretty much doesn’t know–for the moment he’s satisfied to take the Young Man’s love, letting women take the ‘one thing’ the Poet has no use for.

The intricacies don’t stop there. An examination of the poem’s iambic pentameter show that in this sonnet, Shakespeare gave what’s known in poetic circles as feminine endings to his lines: that is, an extra syllable at the end. ‘Painted’ and ‘acquainted’, so on and so forth.  

Finally, there’s the historical and critical controversy over Sonnet #20. Does it suggest Shakespeare might’ve been gay? Are the Sonnets numbered in an intentional sequence and thus tell a story–making #20 key? If so, is that story autobiographical? Who knows? Just go and enjoy this masterpiece!


A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all ‘hues’ in his controlling,
Much steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.

Sunday Sonnet – 02 October 2016


As the sequence of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets dives into its second section–the love poems to the Young Man–in number 19 we get a taste of Shakespeare’s sense of ‘Time.’ It’s nice to be right (in my own life I’m occasionally right) but here Shakespeare was right now only when he wrote this sonnet, but he’s still right four hundred years later: the only thing that can combat the destruction of Time is the power of Art.

This sonnet is not considered to be among his greatest, but I think it’s fantastic for its vivid animal imagery describing time’s devouring power. It starts with:

            And Earth devour her own sweet brood;  

            Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws…

In addition to being a sonnet that’s a lot of fun to read aloud, if you remember my little tutorial from a week ago, Sonnet 19 breaks one of the rules of the Shakespearean sonnet. The ‘turn’ in the argument begins one line early; not at the start of the third quatrain, but in the last line of the second quatrain:

             But I forbid thee one most heinous crime.  

I don’t know if this should be considered a ‘flaw’ in this sonnet or not. Certainly Shakespeare was aware of it; perhaps for the sake of balance and argument, he chose to place the turn in his argument one line early. Or I perhaps it was too hard to fix. That I kind of doubt–he was the master of this form. I’ve tried writing Shakespearean sonnets, and it’s incredibly difficult to construct anything that makes sense, reads well, doesn’t mix metaphors, follows the proscribed meter and rhyme, follows the sonnet form, and is good enough to still be read four hundred years later.

Flaw or not, Time devours everything but Art.


Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws,
And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood;
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleet’st,
And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets;
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:
O, carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty’s pattern to succeeding men.
Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.


Sunday Sonnet – 18 September 2016


Shakespeare’s Sonnet # 18, written over 400 years ago, is a miracle. Often quoted, it is regarded by many to be the quintessential love sonnet. Summer and the cycles of seasons are the grand metaphor here, with the Poet comparing his love to the beauty of a summer’s day. But, like a summer’s day, that beauty passes. The argument of this sonnet is sublimely simple: fear not, for your beauty, and my love for you, will be preserved in the lines of this verse.

Oftentimes this sonnet is read at weddings. What folks often forget or don’t even realize is that the Poet wrote this sonnet to another man. Extraordinary for something from the Elizabethan era. In the cycle of 154 Sonnets, this is the first turning point–where the Poet first admits he loves the Young Man. What a way to proclaim it!

What’s truly lovely about this sonnet, I think, is that it’s perfect for any wedding, heterosexual or otherwise, and for any era; wonderfully suited to any couple in love, regardless of their makeup, and a timeless expression of life, death and Art, evoking one of the most beautiful of human qualities–rapture for another human.


Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

Much thanks to my dear old mom, who let me record this in her back forty, on a late summer day.

Sunday Sonnet – 11 September 2016


What can defeat death? Medicine? Religious faith? Neither of these seem to do the trick for Shakespeare. No, for the Bard, only Art defeats death.

Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence of 154 verses, if read as a whole, reveal a kind of narrative thread. If you follow that thread, number 17 marks the end of the first part. The poet is just about fed up with trying to convince the beautiful Young Man to preserve his beauty by producing a beautiful child, and instead for the first time suggests that maybe the poet’s own poetic Art might be the only thing to overcome the power of death.

The suggestion is hesitant at first, for the Poet seems to disparage the veracity of his poetic art–‘The Poet lies’. But by the end of this sonnet he seems more certain of Art’s power: ‘You should live twice; in it and in my rhyme.’

There’s some truly beautiful language in this sonnet, and I always find it a challenge to read aloud.


Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were fill’d with your most high deserts?
Though yet, heaven knows, it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life and shows not half your parts.
If I could write the beauty of your eyes
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say ‘This poet lies:
Such heavenly touches ne’er touch’d earthly faces.’
So should my papers yellow’d with their age
Be scorn’d like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be term’d a poet’s rage
And stretched metre of an antique song:
But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice; in it and in my rhyme.

Sunday Sonnet – 28 August 2016

Sonnet 15

I love Sonnet 15. It marks a turn in Shakespeare’s great sequence of 154 sonnets. The poet turns from trying to convince the Young Man that he needs to father a child in order to preserve his beauty. You see, there’s another way to preserve the Young Man’s beauty: the Poet’s power of verse! On this point the Poet was most certainly correct.  Over four hundred years later we’re still reading these words, but have no idea if the Young Man’s line survived or not. There’s even doubt about who the Young Man was.

Note the lovely imagery throughout, and the exquisite multilayered play on words in the last line.


When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and cheque’d even by the self-same sky,
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory;
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful Time debateth with Decay,
To change your day of youth to sullied night;
And all in war with Time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.


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.