177. (William Shakespeare)

A second in a series of what seem a “redundant discoveries of obvious value,” this post can claim nothing novel about Shakespeare’s sonnets, but will instead serve as a memorandum of the summer’s gradual realization of just how they tower. They had always, in my encounters with critics and devotees, either excuses for ingenious but tiresome exercises in dextrous ambiguity hunting expeditions, or else as the province of those whose investment in the renaissance sonnet tradition made them fascinating as a bold variation on existing possibilities. Empson, though he aways smells out ambiguities, pointed the way, by aligning the sonnets with Henry IV part 1 and with Measure for Measure, the latter of which, when I read it again in July, I had not read thoroughly since high school. He pointed, that is, to the civic context in which the language of the sonnets exists, towards which it gravitates, even when they are putatively invested in fantasies and desires. That in itself is not new in the English tradition; Wyatt’s poems are infused with courtly compromises and intrigue; but the difference is that Shakespeare’s sonnets are about the virtues and ideals themselves which are inseparable from love and court power alike, so that they are about honor, honesty, shame, flattery, and the economy of loyalty that politics demands, and yet do not have to take as their situation anything but love and devotion up the social hierarchy. The language of honest, honor, social and political shame, and loyalty (truth and the rest), as well as the well-being of the state and society, for which the initial addressee is held to be responsible, can be admitted into the sonnets all while seeming to chart the course of eros. Once I realized that “love,” “desire,” “sex,” are, not quite red herrings, but a means of ordering the other, political and civic, discourse of the poems. I had not seen that the metaphors of power and patronage were not in the service of love, but the other way around; failing to see that, I did not recognize what the sonnets were bringing to light.

In some sonnets, the entire absence of language supporting my claim is obvious. Take 27:


Weary with toil, I haste me to me bed,

The dear repose for limbs with travail tired;

But then begins a journey in my head

To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:

For then my thoughts, from far where I amide,

Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,

And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,

Looking on darkness which the blind do see;

Save that my soul’s imaginary sight

Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,

Which like a jewel hung in ghastly night

Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new:

Lo, thus by day my limbs, by night my mind,

For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.


It would be perverse to devote the sonnet in order to make the words refer to something other than what is naturally in their connotative scope. But I think that the crucial context is that of otium (as opposed to negotium), the Roman ideal of withdrawal from worldly affairs, which here is impossible; there is moreover a sense of natural splendor of sovereign and noble presence, which does not result from theatrical displays, but which would inspire it from the poet; finally, there is the awful recognition that power to which one is loyal demands an exertion that is akin to that of religious worship, a pilgrimage of the imagination, always returning; it testifies to what is powerful. Granted, it might be said that I am in fact decoding, since nowhere does it talk about power, sovereignty, or nobility, all of which are known from context of the sonnets as a whole–but neither does this one sonnet talk about love. Why must beauty here not be the beauty of a Henry emerging like the sun from behind his cloud? He is in thrall to a beauty that is powerful and to a power that is beautiful both.

The immediate context exacerbates rather than dampens my preferred reading. Here is 28:


How can I then return in happy plight

That am debarred the benefit of rest?

When day’s oppression is not eased by night,

But day by night and night by day oppressed,

And each, though enemies to either’s reign,

Do in consent shake hands to torture me,

The one by toil, the other to complain

How far I toil, still farther off from thee.

I tell the day to please him, thou art bright,

And dost him grace, when clouds do blot the heaven;

So flatter I the swart-complexioned night,

When sparking stars twice not thou gilds’t the even;

But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer,

And night doth nightly make grief’s length seem stronger.


To feel the civic and political context does not require the reader to deny the very obvious erotic narrative, but to recognize that the speeches that are being made in the erotic narrative, about torture, anxiety over competing factions both of which favor the noble patron, and both of which require the poet’s silver-tongued flattery, are very much speeches that could be displaced into a scene of heightened political calculation and reflection; the metaphors transfer easily. That is what Empson saw when he read the sonnets against one play centrally about justice and sovereignty and another about honor, honesty, and sovereignty.

Other sonnets would challenge my claim in other ways, but meeting the challenge–and finding that it can be met–invigorates the claim, making the sonnets seem all the more remarkable. Here is a sonnet on memory, forgetting, eternal fame, 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 breath 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.


Quite obviously, the praise is civic in so far as the virtue of the man is civic and the virtue of the poet’s pen serves it.  The poem is about life that lives in words, and words that contain a virtue that can disseminate a man’s influence beyond a life. The sonnet is an example of one that, whatever dazzling possibilities of meaning within its fourteen lines, cannot, to me, realize much interest beyond the context of the sonnets as a whole, and those in its vicinity at the least. The exorbitant praise, which all boils down to virtue, is countered, checked and challenged, by the following sonnet:


I grant though 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.


The “virtue” in the earlier sonnets is, on the face of it, on the side of “true plain words” here, but those words themselves are being shamelessly hawked in the repetition of cognates, “truly…truly…true…true-telling,” and they are enfeebled in the insistence. Whether or not they are justified is beside the point; at least, the poet is anxious over the status of his own claims on behalf of the gentleman. In both 82, the poet is worrying over the fate of praise in a civic life rife with flattery, aware that his might become mere flattery; but praise and assessment of genuine virtue and value matter; “true plain words” are worth worrying over. In light of 82’s anxieties over the currency and fate of praise, we might hear in 81 a desire for the gentleman to die, with the thought that the artistic preservation could outdo the real thing; that he is not liable to remain the stony paradigm of virtue, cold and removed, that he will, like Angelo be tested and found wanting, that an early monument in verse would provide an ideal for the ages that a continued life might fail to bring about; there seems anyway to be nothing about desire in these poems. Maybe they were too suited to the demonstration I wanted to make.

Put more simply, I’d say that the sonnets become vastly more interesting when the categories of social, cultural, and economic capital are recognized as objects of their scrutiny and sources of their substances; and that their concern with truth, memory, forgetting is a concern for a society and state, which can fail to preserve what is worth remembering.

As a series, the sonnets are most exciting when the poet is relegate to the margins, when in the Dark Lady sonnets he is forced to rely on his individualistic and roguish “Will” (the pun becomes desperate in 135); she is a low-life usurer, an alternative power center to the court, and one that requires the poet to be on his guard. These late sonnets interrogate the values essential to civic life when they are placed under the pressure of social dislocation and dispossession; they do not care well.

It would be wrong to say that the Sonnets form a narrative, but they follow a shift in the poet’s relationship to a center of power, so that he ends up, in the Dark Lady sonnets, on the periphery, in a cellar rather than a noble’s hall, disowned, fending for itself by a set of rules suitable to an outcast or rogue, with prospect of a stable truth or “trouthe.”

Sonnet 134, with its tropes of usury and bondage is too easy for my point; but all of the late sonnets, concerned as they are with corruption, mistaken judgment, disloyalty, dishonesty, and exploitation do. 140 is especially astonishing in its audacity:


Be wise as thou art cruel, do not press

My tongue-tied patience with too much disdain,

Lest sorrow lend me words, and words express

The manner of my pity-wanting pain.

If I might teach thee wit, better it were so,

Though not to love, yet love to tell me so,

As testy sick me, when their deaths be near,

No news but health from their physicians know:

For if I should despair, I should go mad,

And in my madness might speak ill of thee;

Now this ill-wresting world is grown so bad,

Mad slanders by mad ears believed be.

That I may not be so, or thou belied,

Bear thine eyes straight, though thy proud heart go wide.


The coordinates of love and desire always have the potential to include within themselves all of the forces that constitute and challenge the bonds of a society; even Tolstoy, who writes about love with a faith in its inherent purity and goodness that outdoes all others, does not try to remove from it these forces, but instead asks how (if) it can transcend them, keep them from corrupting it. And yet it was easy for me, despite the common  wisdom that love is always about more than love, to fail to see how much mistrust of the world, anxiety about civic society and the state, and about the possibility of accurate estimation of value of what is worthwhile to it, and wariness towards necessary and ubiquitous promises and oaths, Shakespeare gets into the sonnets.

It probably testifies to their greatness that they never fail to be, also, about love and desire, about more intimate and private relationships–that they never seem to be masking civic and social concerns in the form of a private parable, but that the private is as significant to the poet as the public. It would need to be: for their point is not that the public concerns are the essential matters in which he is or would be invested, but that the private in which he is most invested, which is genuinely (in the fiction of their world) real and pressing, cannot be understood except in terms of public life. I imagine that is old news to most. Ah, well.


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