This is a post on Shakespeare’s sonnets, read narrowly through Empson’s analysis in Some Versions of Pastoral. A friend of mine has told me I ought not to lie prostrate quite so often before the critics I admire–that I need not submit always to their judgment. But that same friend also once told me that he found the third chapter of Empson’s Pastoral exceedingly confusing and frustrating. I have long found it the same, but then reading it the other day, banging my head against its labyrinthine walls of thought one more time, for good measure, I suddenly found the way spacious and fairly straightforward. I hope that by essentially translating Empson’s chapter for myself here, I will retain my sense of its openness and immediacy. What follows really can be seen as a translation. Rather than referring to Empson, I’ll lay out the argument he makes, as best I can, without his purposeful disorientation and brash speed; where I embellish, I will assume it is not beyond the range of Empson’s thought.
Shakespeare’s Sonnets 93, 94, and 95 can be read as a triptych, with Sonnet 94 the most complex of the three, or at least with a distinct complexity. Here are the Sonnets:
So shall I live, supposing thou art true,
Like a deceived husband; so love’s face
May still seem love to me, though alter’d new;
Thy looks with me, thy heart in other place:
For there can live no hatred in thine eye,
Therefore in that I cannot know thy change.
In many’s looks the false heart’s history
Is writ in moods and frowns and wrinkles strange,
But Heaven in thy creation did decree
That in thy face sweet love should ever dwell;
Whate’er thy thoughts or thy heart’s workings be,
Thy looks should nothing thence but sweetness tell.
How like Eve’s apple doth thy beauty grow,
If thy sweet virtue answer not thy show!
They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed out-braves his dignity;
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame
Which, like a canker in the fragrant rose,
Doth spot the beauty of thy budding name!
O, in what sweets dost thou thy sins enclose!
That tongue that tells the story of thy days,
Making lascivious comments on thy sport,
Cannot dispraise but in a kind of praise;
Naming thy name blesses an ill report.
O, what a mansion have those vices got
Which for their habitation chose out thee,
Where beauty’s veil doth cover every blot,
And all things turn to fair that eyes can see!
Take heed, dear heart, of this large privilege;
The hardest knife ill-used doth lose his edge.
The continuity between 93 and 94 comes in the final couplet of the former, where Eve’s apple implies a blossom–the first of the flowers that will figure in 94–and the continuity between 94 and 95 owes to the rose at the start of the latter it may be that the knife in the final couplet is a pruning knife, for grafting a new breed of roses), which again carries over the flower imagery. That flowers are the hinge, but the subject matter is more profoundly continuous among the three, with all three taking up the hypocrisy of the patron, the mix of admiration, love, fear, contempt, and repulsion, perhaps with sublimated hatred too, towards one whose beauty and seeming-virtue seems all at once impervious to the world’s sullying touch; monstrously susceptible to worldly corruption on account of its very purity; capable of carrying out, again owing to the quality of its intense detachment and isolation, corrupt acts without suffering blame or blemish. He is both stronger and weaker on account of the cold moral intensity that sets him apart; he is the same type as Angelo in Measure for Measure.
Shakespeare’s ambivalence towards such an individual is evident in all three sonnets, and the attitude towards him progresses, in response to the unstated drama of the sonnet sequence. But the ambivalence is keenest, as if Shakespeare is in the midst of making up his own mind, most aware of the possibilities for virtuous and vicious action and abstention that are always active and suspended in the patron’s person–this suspension of possibilities no doubt a part of his charismatic grip on Shakespeare–in Sonnet 94.
Most readers are probably inclined to read the sonnet as hammering away along a single line of parallels: patron, lords and owners, summer’s flower, lily. But we need not accept that they are all equivalent. In fact, each of the sections of the poems states a general a truth about a general type, dancing around the patron, with evasive suggestiveness and caution. He is like all of these in his tranquil beauty, control, and detachment, but it is not clear exactly how he is like any of them, or how much any of them are intended to be like one another. If we start down the road of finding only some equivalent to only some of the rest, we are left with over 4000 possibilities. All are simultaneous true, all like, and all unlike, and their misalignment with one another, and with the patron, testifies both to the delicacy of the poet’s situation and the complexity inherent in the patron’s seemingly simple remove from the world; it cannot be spoken to, or of, with any more simplicity.
In the first two lines, it may be that “they,” people of this sort, show the power to hurt, or show the disinclination to hurt; in the next two, it may be that their stoniness is a virtue of fortitude against temptation, or it may be a hardness towards those they move to passion. In the next quatrain, the word ‘rightly’ suggests a difference between the sort of person “they” are and the sort that does what they could do, but do not; but the first two lines leave uncertain what exactly that might be. Then we are given the distinction between “stewards” and “owners,” which again creates a clear opposition, except that it is unclear whether the “their” of “their excellence” refers to “they” or to the “stewards”: others merely steward the excellence that “they” possess and lord over; or others are mere stewards to their own excellence.
Then the jump to the sestet. The summer’s flower might be like the person in its beauty, its remove, its impermanence; but it is also sensual as he is not. It might be a rose or a violet, the former public, doing good to an entire garden, the latter removed in its sanctity. It might “to itself only live and die” in so far as it does nothing for the world beyond itself, is content to waste its powers rather than sully them, and so an example; or it might seem in its own eyes only to live and die, even though it bears a larger influence than it could know, and so a more elusive example of how to live in and with the world, without succumbing to it. The verb “meet” suggests a social encounter, sexual perhaps; or perhaps forming an unsavory social tie, the sort prompting Shakespeare’s jealousy; but it could also be a verb for something the flower suffers, by chance, passively, without blame. Lilies are likely a summer flower, but they are not necessarily the summer’s flower already mentioned; why not name them before? Why name them here, and then the rose in the next poem? One reason to invoke lilies is their Biblical association, “lilies of the field,” who in their simplicity are greater than Solomon, and who toil not, nor spin, removed from worldly burdens and interests; but these too, even these, are susceptible, even as their commonness sets them apart the lordly grace of the patron. At the same time, the lily is decadent, richly perfumed and suggestive of aristocratic luxury. This flower, like all flowers, contains, without tension, the oppositions that threaten the patron. The flowers are simple and reconciled within their isolation as the patron cannot be. He cannot be as good as they, but he can be corrupted as they can.
The poem consists then, of a series of exemplars; it is a wisdom piece, but its didacticism operates at such a level of generality, describing entire ranges of possible experience, containing many particular experiences that it does not represent, that none can be thought to apply exactly to any one case, and each suggests something slightly different, pertinent and impertinent. With each stroke of wisdom comes another stroke of feeling, and the poem offers advice with a sneer of superiority, a brave willingness to speak truth to power, a melancholy desire to preserve and protect what is of genuinely remarkable beauty, a wincing confession of the vulnerability at the heart of the ideal, and an anxiety that what seems pure in its detachment is in fact already corrupt, a flower in appearance but not essence.
Shakespeare encounters not just his patron, but a distinct Renaissance type, in whom he perceives, or through whom he perceives, that patron: the Machiavellian schemer. But the stock scheming figure, hypocritical, cunning, ruthless and cold, being set against the virtuous beauty of the patron, compounds into something new and deep: a hypocrisy that might be cruel or that might be a necessary defense against the world (Henry V); an idealized purity that costs dearly whomever would submit to the isolation it demands, and turns back upon itself in revenge against the world (Angelo). It is not a poem about a single man, or from the perspective of the poet alone; it expresses the mixture of feelings of an entire culture about a figure who comes to contain that culture’s competing notions of virtue and vice, and what they demand. The poem discovers the drama latent in such a character, which Shakespeare would draw out in subsequent plays.