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 – Valentine’s Day 2016


Happy Valentine’s Day from William Shakespeare! This love sonnet is one of his greatest, not only eloquent and beautiful, but it speaks so wisely to the quality and temperament of true love.


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.

What is love? A marriage of true minds. It never alters. The vagaries of life–tempests–will not shake it. It guides us, like a star guiding a vessel (a ‘bark’ is a boat). It’s timeless, not subject to hours and weeks. True love stays with us until the ends of our lives–the edge of doom. And the Poet attests that all this is true, or ‘I never writ’ and no man ever loved.

The image is of one of Shakespeare’s most successful romantic pairings–and certainly a pairing of true minds: Beatrice and Benedict from Much Ado About Nothing. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof from Joss Whedon’s 2012 film version.

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 – 17 January 2016


In composing his sonnets, Shakespeare remained wisely circumspect about any specific references to his own life (lots of dangerous stuff goes in the sonnets)–to the point of not even publishing the verses himself. But in Sonnet 111, he gives a hint of a reference to his own life as an actor and why, perhaps he chose that profession:


O, for my sake do you with Fortune chide,
The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
That did not better for my life provide
Than public means which public manners breeds.
Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,
And almost thence my nature is subdued
To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand:
Pity me then and wish I were renew’d;
Whilst, like a willing patient, I will drink
Potions of eisel ‘gainst my strong infection
No bitterness that I will bitter think,
Nor double penance, to correct correction.
Pity me then, dear friend, and I assure ye
Even that your pity is enough to cure me.

The Young Man apparently blames bad luck–‘Fortune’–for forcing the Poet into such an ignoble profession as ‘public means.’ What does this mean? Some critics and scholars, though not all, believe it’s a reference to Will’s profession as an actor–and that he went into a life of acting to avoid a lot of other awful possibilities for employment in the Elizabethan world. However, though lucrative, acting was not considered a reputable profession in Elizabethan England: women weren’t allowed to act, actors were considered vagrants unless they were licensed under the patronage of a noble (hence Shakespeare’s ‘Lord Chamberlain’s Men’), and the Puritans considered all stagecraft to be the work of the Devil.

Members of the theatre crowd were notorious. ‘Public means’ breeds ‘public manners’, a reference to the ill behavior and bad reputation of theatre rascals, a reputation that’s tainted the Poet: ‘Thence comes it that my name receives a brand.’ If you dig into Shakespeare’s life, you’ll know that after he gained some wealth (by becoming part owner in the actual theatre company he wrote for), he labored mightily to acquire a Coat of Arms for the Shakespeare name, thereby gaining the respect and social station that comes only of being a ‘Gentleman’.

So yes, I know, not everyone agrees that the Sonnets were autobiographical, but there’s some compelling biographical hints in Sonnet 111. Certainly the Young Man would look down on the Poet’s social station as an actor if the Young Man was indeed the 3rd Earl of Southampton, a nobleman. There’s ample circumstantial evidence that the Earl was the Young Man.

The sonnet takes an interesting turn with ‘Potions of eisel ‘gainst my strong infection’ (eisel is vinegar). One of the common dangers of ‘public manners’ was the pox, otherwise known as venereal disease. Venereal disease is revisited in later sonnets with the Dark Lady, and in those there’s little left to the imagination (see numbers 153 & 154). Did Shakespeare at some point in his life contract syphilis?   There’s evidence outside of this sonnet that he did, and if that’s the case, then Sonnet 111 teases us with a couple of compelling glimpses into what might’ve been events in the Bard’s life.

The image comes from a section of Wenceslas Hollar’s 1642 drawing of London, here showing Shakespeare’s rebuilt Globe Theatre.  

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.


Sunday Sonnet – 03 January 2016


Trysts, betrayals, heterosexual and bisexual romancing, profound expressions of undying love summarily cast aside and–love triangles! Shakespeare’s sonnets have it all. Sonnets 79 through 86 tell of a rival Poet vying for the love of the Young Man.


O, how I faint when I of you do write,
Knowing a better spirit doth use your name,
And in the praise thereof spends all his might,
To make me tongue-tied, speaking of your fame!
But since your worth, wide as the ocean is,
The humble as the proudest sail doth bear,
My saucy bark inferior far to his
On your broad main doth wilfully appear.
Your shallowest help will hold me up afloat,
Whilst he upon your soundless deep doth ride;
Or being wreck’d, I am a worthless boat,
He of tall building and of goodly pride:
Then if he thrive and I be cast away,
The worst was this; my love was my decay.

When the Poet realizes that a rival has entered the scene, he right away admits the rival is a better poet, but in so admitting that, displays his own formidable skill at poetry and creating metaphor. In this, it’s nautical:  

  • ‘since your worth, wide as the ocean is’ – your worth is wide as the ocean
  • ‘the humble as the proudest sail doth bear’ – you bear both humble and proud suitors
  • ‘my saucy bark inferior to his’ – my brazen love is less than the rival poet’s (a ‘bark’ is a boat)
  • ‘your broad main’ – your circle
  • ‘your shallowest help will hold me up afloat’ – your slightest attention to me keeps me hoping
  • ‘upon your soundless deep doth ride’ – the rival poet enjoys your deep affection
  • ‘or being wreck’d, I am a worthless boat’ – if I lose your favor, it’s because I’m worthless
  • ‘I be cast away’ – I’ll be marooned

This rivalry goes on for eight whole sonnets, where the Poet protests too much at how the rival’s poetry leaves the Poet ‘tongue-tied’. Yet, though inferior he supposedly may be, the Poet continues showing off, writing circles around anything that would be written for the next 400 years. It’s all a kind of game, I think. Perhaps there were actual events that led to this rival poet sequence–an actual competitor for the Young Man’s affection that Will Shakespeare himself was involved with. If so, then Shakespeare’s response was to write his way out of it.    

But isn’t that how Shakespeare solved everything? He wrote his way out of it. He wrote his way to success, in his plays and other verse. Wrote his way contemporary literary acclaim, wrote his way into Queen Elizabeth’ Court, to wealth and, finally, immortality.

The painting, circa 1700, by an unknown artist, is of the Spanish Armada being defeated by Elizabeth’s superior navy–you know, the Spanish Armada of goodly pride inferior to the saucy barks the British built.