Recently I was teaching a poem by Yeats that has always reminded me of a stretched sonnet. ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’ has an octave of 20 lines and a sestet of 12 lines, but as Yeats was not interested in the sonnet form (he wrote only one sonnet), the comparison is probably subjective. The poem begins:
The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.
Eight lines later, Yeats gives a reprise of the opening:
Many a time I think to seek
One or the other out and speak
Of that old Georgian mansion, mix
Pictures of the mind, recall
‘That table and the talk of youth,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.
Immediately after this, at the beginning of the elongated second section of the poem, Yeats writes:
Dear Shadows, now you know it all,
All the folly of a fight
With a common wrong or right.
That line ‘Dear shadows, now you know it all,’ I have always found almost unbearably emotional, and standing in front of a class of undergraduates I again wondered why this was. Very early the next morning I woke with the answer: the line reproduces in a slightly different pattern the o sounds in windows/open/south in the second line. The two young women are shadows now, but in saying so Yeats brings back his earlier line which blazed its light behind their silky young bodies. Then in the very last line of the poem – ‘Bid me strike a match and blow’ – he softens its angry, cornered, very Protestant destructiveness by concluding the poem with a final o sound that takes us back to the heaven of that opening quatrain. It’s like watching someone turn from blowing vigorously into a fire in order to breathe gently against a dandelion clock. Realising the subtlety of Yeats’s music, I began to imagine a critical account of his or any poet’s work which would jettison all earnest explication of the text – meaning, paraphrasable content, social and historical situation – and concentrate entirely on sound, cadence, metre, rhyme, form. A critical study that would be true to Yeats’s dictum ‘Words alone are certain good.’ And then I began to wonder where I could find such a book.
Helen Vendler’s long study of the art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, is that purely aesthetic study of poetic language in action, and it begins appropriately with this statement: ‘I assume that a poem is not an essay, and that its paraphrasable prepositional content is merely the jumping-off place for its real work … I do not regard as literary criticism any set of remarks about a poem which would be equally true of its paraphrasable content.’ Taking issue with a recent editor of the Sonnets, John Kerrigan, she points to his lack of interest in the linguistic variation in sonnet 129, and says he takes ‘a single-minded expository view of the poem, as though it were a self-consistent sermon’. For Vendler, the verbal imagination’s true intent is ‘always to make a chain of interesting signifiers, with the ‘message’ tucked in as best the poet can’. And she says that because many readers prefer to think of the Sonnets as ‘discursive prepositional statements’, rather than as ‘situationally motivated speech acts’, we remain condemned to a ‘static view of any given sonnet’. Gently criticising Stephen Booth’s account of the contrary pulls in sonnet 146, she that grants that his discussion is ‘interesting’, but finds it too preoccupied ‘with meaning alone’. The editorial and critical accounts published over the last thirty years do not pay enough attention to the Sonnets as poems. Putting the intellectual and expository to one side, Vendler says that she is more concerned with the aesthetic experience we’encounter ‘temporally’ as we read the sonnet. We encounter that experience in a particularly structured way, because, as she marvellously shows, each sonnet has what she terms a ‘couplet tie’ – the words that appear in the body of the sonnet (lines 1-12) which are repeated in the couplet (13-14). By ‘words’, she means ‘a word and its variants’: for example, lives, live and outlive count as one word. Often Shakespeare uses a more complex form of repetition than the couplet tie. In sonnet 7, the first quatrain (Q1) contains the word looks, Q2 the word looks again. Q3 the word look and the couplet the word unlooked-on. She calls the root word – in this case, look – a ‘key word’, and registers it at the end of her commentary on each sonnet. The couplet tie which she also prints at the end of each commentary, of course contains the key word. So far so necessarily technical, but let us see how it applies in practice in her discussion of sonnet 15 which, as with every sonnet, she prints both in the original Quarto form and in her own modernised version:
When I confider euery thing that growes
Hold in oerfection but a little moment.
That this huge ftage prefenteth nought but fhowes
Whereon the Stars in fecret influence comment.
When I perceiue that men as plants increafe,
Cheared and checkt euen by the felfe-fame skie:
Vaunt in their youthfull fap, at height decreafe,
And were their braue ftate out of memory.
Then the conceit of this inconftant ftay,
Sets you moft rich in youth before my fight,
Where waftfull time debateth with decay
To change your day of youth to fullied night,
And all in war with Time for loue of you.
As he takes from you, I ingraft you new.
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,
Cheerd and checked even by the selfsame 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 ingraft you new.
The last five lines, she points out, are ‘sung under the sign of the sullying scythe’ and they remain a hymn to the human ‘love-syllable you’, which is the ‘conceit of impermanence’:
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 ingraft YOU new.
The couplet rhyme, mimetically and phonetically additive to resemble ‘ingrafting’, is ‘YOU’/‘YOU new’. Looking at the Quarto text, she remarks that she has no doubt that ‘night’, a noun that could be characterised by many possible adjectives, is ‘sullied’ because the young are youthfull and time is wastefull. And she further notes that in the Quarto spelling, the old-style s of sull- even resembles the f of –full. So this sonnet is bound together by one of those ‘alliterative, assonantal and anagrammatic semantic strings’ in which Shakespeare delights: ‘On the stage influenced by stars is our mortal state making inconstantstay; wastedebatesdecay to create change of a day. – By bringing out the acoustic texture of the sonnet, Vendler makes it sensuously alive, and I would only suggest that part of the linguistic fun of the opening three lines is the way in which Shakespeare duplicates the o in grows, in Holds and moment before allowing the pejorative sense of shows to burst the round sign’s fragile perfection like a bubble. This crossing out of the sound is caught up ten lines later in ‘most rich in youth’ where it works to subvert the obvious sense of the phrase by placing it under a type of sonic erasure. This is an effect I only noticed because of Vendler’s stringent close readings of each sonnet. She concludes her account of sonnet 15 by pointing out: ‘KEY WORD: YOU (It could be argued that this word is not present in Ql, but I suggest it is phonetically hiding in ‘HUge’, chosen precisely for its anticipation of YOU.)’
As is evident from the layout, this is a critical book which adopts the form of a handbook or reader’s guide, and in her Introduction Vendler says that her Commentary is not intended to be read straight through: rather, it is 4 intended as a work of ‘writerly scrutiny’ which those interested in the Sonnets, or students of the lyric, or ‘poets hungry for resource’, may want to browse in. She has included a recording of some of the Sonnets read aloud, because the three other readings available are done by actors (who???) who, typically I would say, speak the lines with constant mis-emphases and ignore the inner antitheses and parallels. The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is therefore not a conventional critical book and though I read it straight through at a steady rate of a hundred pages a day, it is better dipped into, but dipped into by overlapping stages. Reading it is like being offered a huge plate of oysters, or doing a Spot-the-Ball competition, or playing obsessively with a Rubik’s Cube that always comes out right after the effort of following a tight technical argument accompanied often by a detailed diagram. Because it does not offer an argument that develops chapter on chapter, any account of it must explicate the initial approach and then consider a number of moments out of a multitude where the critic directs her formidable mind to the game these sonnets play. It is Vendler’s supreme critical virtue that she can write from inside a poem, as if she is in the workshop witnessing its making. Her manner of setting the Quarto next to the modernised text makes the experience of reading the sonnets a 5 new and radical one: we read each poem twice and then we realise that actually Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets, each of which has been rewritten by subsequent editors. Perhaps the closest analogue to this sense of never quite stepping into the same river twice is reading the first editions of John Clare’s volumes and then reading the same poems in the unpunctuated original manuscript versions Eric Robinson and his fellow editors print in the big Oxford edition of Clare.
A good example is sonnet 19:
Deuouring time blunt thou the Lyons pawes,
And make the earth deuoure her owne fweet brood,
Plucke the keene teeth from the ficrce Tygers yawes,
And burne the long liu’d Phænix in her blood,
Make glad and forry feafons as thou fleet’ft,
And do what ere thou wilt fwift-footed time
To the wide world and all her fading fweets:
But I forbid thee one moft hainous crime,
O carue not with thy howers my loues faire brow,
Nor draw noe lines there with thine antique pen,
Him in thy courfe vntainted doe allow,
For beauties patterne to fucceding men.
Yet doe thy worft ould Time difpight thy wrong.,
My loue fhall in my verfe euer liue young.
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,
0 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.
Reading the Quarto text with its furred type, I catch an accent which I once heard many years ago reproduced in a television documentary where John Barton coached members of the RSC in the ‘correct’ pronunciation of Shakespearean English: the accent sounded like a mixture of the Ambridge, Birmingham and Ulster accents. In 19, we hear not ‘phoenix’ but Phaenix, not ‘heinous’ but hainous, not ‘old’ but ould. Elsewhere there are other sounds still current in Ulster – cowld for ‘cold’, hower for ‘hour’ – and words such as brave for ‘fine, good, bold, nonchalant’, or miching for ‘playing truant’. Hearing that deep guttural accent – an accent made deeper by the collied print of the Quarto text – I register the fourth line like this: ‘And barn the lane-liv’d Phayinix in har bludd.’
Reading the modernised equivalent beside it – ‘And burn the long-lived Phoenix in her blood’ – is rather like emerging onto a trim lawn where tea and cucumber sandwiches are being served. The Quarto text sounds like Stephen Rea, the modernised one like Gielgud or Prince Charles. The same or very similar modernised texts in Katherine Duncan-Jones’s scholarly and accessible new edition seem perfectly presentable on their own, but in Vendler are often destabilised by their immediate adjacency to the Quarto texts. Duncan-Jones prints ‘And burn the long-lived Phoenix in her blood;’ and includes some of the Quarto spellings (not Phaenix, though) below her text. I agree with her punctuation of the line, but feel very strongly that Arden’s general editorial policy ought to have been broadened to include the Quarto texts (an index of first lines would be a help too).
In her commentary on this sonnet, Vendler suggests that the ‘murderous vitality’ of the opening quatrain issues from the Shakespeare 4, Pr of the tragedies, while the rest of the poem with its mentions of ‘swift-footed Time’ and ‘fading sweets’ fits more equably in the elegiac mode. This type of comment is an essential part of what I can only call the dramatic experience of reading Vendler: a few pages earlier she takes sonnet 18’s famous opening line – ‘Shall I compare thee to a Summers day?’ – and in a lovely run of exact adjectives worthy of Hazlitt remarks that it is ‘gentle, light, innocuous, dulcet’. Commenting on sonnet 19, she notes that the imaginative effort is spent on ‘the great hard words’, with their frequent trochaic or spondaic emphasis: blunt, pans, brood, pluck, keen, teeth, tiger’s jaws, burn, blood. And she then points out that ‘Devouring Time … the earth devour … with thy hours’ tolls the progression that turns devouring Time to swift-footed Time and then to old Time. The effect of this patterning is to jettison ‘all values’ except beauty’s pattern, young in verse. Prompted by this highly sensitive analysis, I would add that in the last line the letter v is triumphantly asserted so that we get the idea of vitality expressed in an almost tactile fashion. Here, the modernised line –‘My love shall in my verse ever live young’ – makes this almost sculpted effect visually more apparent.
It is a strong theme in Vendler’s Commentary that Shakespeare delights in anagrams, graphic or phonetic puns, and in hat she calls ‘graphic overlaps’: stars, astrology, constant and art. In sonnet 7, for example, the central image of the sun’s Car generates ‘anagramatically scrambled’ cars elsewhere in gracious, sacred and tract. The ageing of the sun in the poem seems to generate homage, age, golden pilgrimage. The poem also suppresses the word sun until the closing word of the last line – ‘Unlooked on diest unless thou get a son’ – leaps off the page with complete inevitability. The sun/son theme runs throughout the sequence, nowhere more pervasively than in sonnet 33:
Fvll many a glorious morning haue I feene,
Flatter the mountaine tops with foueraine eie,
Kiffing with golden facc the meddowes greene;
Guilding pale ftreames with heauenly alcumy:
Anon permit the bafeft cloudes to ride,
With ougly rack on his celeftiall face,
And from the for-’orne world his vifage hide
Stealing vn eene to weft with this difgrace:
Euen fo my Sunne one early morne did fhine,
With all triumphant fplendor on my brow,
But out alack, he was but one houre mine,
The region cloude hath mask’d him from me now.
Yet him for this, my loue no whit difdaineth,
Suns of the world may ftaine, whe heauens fun ftainteh.
Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the f6rlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine
With all triumphant splendour on my brow;
But out alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath masked him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth,
Suns of the world may stain, when heaven’s sun staineth.
Katherine Duncan-Jones’s notes are as always helpful: glossing the word ride, she says in a rather Yeatsian manner that the clouds are ‘upstart cavaliers, beggars on horseback; as they cross the sun’s face they may also figure lines or wrinkles: cf. Fr. se rider, to become wrinkled’. She also notes that rack which is ‘a mass of clouds driven before the wind in the upper air’, is cognate with ‘wrack’ or ‘wreck’, suggesting an obstruction that is at once ‘ruinous and fragile’. And she notes the internal rhyme with alack in line 11. Elsewhere, she points out various numerological moments (the total of the ‘dark lady’ sonnets is 28, which reflects male disgust with the lunar, menstrual, cycle alluded to in their number, and I would guess that the number 33 is chosen as a trinal number which picks up the reference to ‘heaven’s sun’ – i.e. Christ. Vendler demonstrates how this sonnet displays a ‘progressive acceleration’ of its narrative from eight to four lines to one line, and she includes a diagram to demonstrate this shrinking formal movement:
Yet him for this my love no disdaineth:
Although Vendler’s diagrams aren’t always helpful, this one does expose the technical playfulness of the form. Unlike Duncan-Jones, she tends not to make detailed links with Shakespeare’s plays, but I believe it is necessary to set two passages from Richard II and Henry IV Part I next to this sonnet – which, as Vendler says, is the first to remark on ‘a true flaw’ in the friend.
In Act III of Richard II, Bolingbroke and his party confront Richard at Flint Castle in Wales:
See, see, King Richard doth himself appear,
As doth the blushing discontented sun
From out the fiery portal of the East,
When he perceives the envious clouds are bent
To dim his glory, and to stain the track
Of his bright passage to the Occident.
The Duke of York replies:
looks he like a king: behold his eye,
bright as is the eagle’s, lightens forth
Controlling majesty. Alack, alack for woe,
That any harm should stain so fair a show.
The link between these speeches and sonnet 33 seems clear: track and alack, alack point to the rack/alack internal rhyme, partly because ‘track’ contains ‘rack’. This would mean that in the sonnet Shakespeare – the Jacobean Shakespeare, Duncan-Jones convincingly argues –is both remembering lines he wrote perhaps ten years earlier in the reign of Elizabeth, and also recalling performances by the actors who spoke his lines. He seems to be drawing on nature for his conceit, but equally he is drawing on the created nature of his own art. The young man is a flawed, brilliant royal actor, and he is also an actor playing that actor. A performance of the play was subsidised by the Essex conspirators on the eve of their rebellion in 1601. Essex, like Richard, had returned from a military campaign in Ireland, though from the conspirators’ point of view what counted was the justified deposition of an annointed monarch. The other, I think important, and as I realise from Kerrigan’s superb notes, often remarked, connection with the history plays is the way that cool, sly verb permit picks up Prince Hal’s speech after he has been left alone by Falstaff and Poins:
I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world.
The young man in the Sonnets is by implication as ruthless, manipulative and detached as Hal, and Shakespeare’s complicated feelings for him are given a deliberately formulaic shape in the last couplet’s apparently forgiving statement. But if we apply the sun/son pun and read ‘heaven’s sun’ as Christ then an abyss of contradictions is opened up, because Christ is stainless. Therefore sons of the, world can never ‘stain’, a word that appears three times in Richard II, and three in Henry IV Part 1. This is to argue the necessity of analysing the intertextuality of the Sonnets, but it is Vendler’s ambition to concentrate on the complex dazzle of their linguistic surfaces. One of my favourite moments is her discussion of sonnet 29.
When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed, Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate,
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
The defective key word is state (missing in Q2, which describes ‘the state of others, not his own’), and the couplet tie is state (2,10,14) and sing (-s) [-sing] (9,11,12). It’s in her analysis of this last word or sound that Vendler’s method produces a remarkable coup: she shows that in ‘the most joyous play’ of the poem, what she terms the ‘disgruntled present participles’ – wishing, desiring, with their ‘wrong’ arrangement of letters – suddenly give way to new present participles where the letters are arranged ‘right’. That is, despising and arising appear and lead to sing. What we hear is sing, sing, sing: the poem ‘fairly carols’. And she concludes her commentary by showing that even
the first line of the couplet (in brings – ‘rings!’) makes the air resound; but at the end, in the scorned kings, the word sing lies scrambled again, as it did in wishing and desiring. As he integrates the world of kings with the world of nature, locates his superlative friend, and, as a lark, finds a listening heaven, the poet rediscovers an integrated mental state.
This analysis is wonderfully alive to the quick of the poem, to those subliminal tricks which sounds and signs play on the reader, and it shows Shakespeare’s art triumphing over his despair at the ‘art’ and ‘scope’ of writers he was in competition with. This approach ought to be as common in literary criticism as the analysis of imagery and linguistic ambiguity, but what we are witnessing is a writerly responsiveness to sound and the sheer texture of words.
One example of Vendler’s tactile sense of language is her account of the way in which the word badges in the closing couplet of sonnet 44 – ‘Receiving nought by elements so slow/But heavy tears, badges of either’s woe’ – picks up the dj sound in injurious and jump, which appear earlier in the poem. Reading that last couplet, I was struck by how heavy badges sounded, and began to perceive how the acoustic adhesiveness certain words acquire resembles a form of memory. The b sounds in the couplet pick up earlier sounds (there are –two previous uses of but) and pass them on to badges. so does another dj sound in large, and so do the several ah sounds. The result is that badges becomes like a particle of especially dense matter, as if concentrating in itself the weoght of the whole poem. Vendler states that there is no couplet tie, and it therefore follows that there can be no key word or words, but a case could be made for looking at the sonnet like this:
If the dull substance of my flesh were thought,
Injurious distance should not stop my way,
For then despite of space I would be brought,
From limits far remote, where thou dost stay.
No matter then although my foot did stand
Upon the farthest earth removed from thee,
For nimble thought can jump both sea and land
As soon as think the place where he would be.
But ah, thought kills me that I am not thought,
to leap large lengths of miles when thou art gone,
But that, so much of earth and water wrought,
I must attend time’s leisure with my moan,
Receiving naught by elements so slow
But heavy tears, badges of either’s woe.
The b, a, d, dj and uz sounds that make up badges are spread over the preceding quatrains, so that the word acts like the vanishing-point in a perspectival drawing. This explains, I believe, the scaly weight of the word badges (I’m tempted to see a kind of venereal pun here – ‘bad juice’ – but that may be over ambitious.
There is a similar effect in the phrase from sonnet 40, ‘lascivious grace’, which Vendler calls one of those ‘striking phrases’. with which the sonnets are sprinkled: phrases which have ‘a greater aesthetic effect than we can account for at first. It occurs in the final couplet –‘Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows,/Kill me with spites yet we must not be foes’ – and it ‘skirts blasphemy’ because the moral import of the words ill and well which immediately follow it brings ‘religious grace into earshot’. The fallen state of the ‘infatuated speaker’ is shown by the way he has made the positive word grace the noun which ‘conveys essence’, while the condemnatory word lascivious remains only a modifying adjective. Where the phrase ‘graceful lasciviousness’ would show a speaker properly defining the relation between ‘graceful show and lascivious substance’, ‘lascivious grace’ presents a speaker ‘helplessly enthralled by beauty’. The phrase is conspicuous because it contains the only sophisticated polysyllable in a couplet of monosyllables, but we need also to answer the question Vendler poses: why does lascivious fall on the ear like something expected? Here, we need to look at the phrase in context:
Take all my loves, my love, yea take them all;
What hast thou then more than thou hadst before?
No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call,
All mine was thine, before thou hadst this more.
Then if for my love thou my love receivest,
I cannot blame thee, for my love thou usest;
But yet be blamed, if thou this self deceivest
By wilful taste of what thy self refusest.
I do forgive thy robb’ry, gentle thief,
Although thou steal thee all my poverty;
And yet love knows it is a greater grief
To bear love’s wrong than hate’s known injury.
Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows,
Kill me with spites yet we must not be foes.
What happens is that lascivious echoes the ‘trisyllables of evildoing’ that make up the amphibrachic rhyme words receivest and deceivest of the second quatrain (an amphibrac is a trisyllabic foot: x / x). Thus the us sounds in refusest and deceivest and the see-ves in the latter anticipate the siv-us sounds in lascivious. As Vendler remarks, it is by such ‘confirmatory coffin nails’ that correspondences are hammered home. But as she points out, grace has some hooks of its own, not only in its initial consonants and vowels which remind us of the greatergrief that grace has caused, but also its possession of the same ‘satanic hiss’ that exists in receivest, usest, deceivest, refusest and, inevitably, lascivious. For Vendler, the phrase ‘lascivious grace’ is the ‘helpless unifying summary’ of all the divisions which precede it.
What is so exciting about this approach to poetry is its manner of locking onto the way in which sound, as opposed to image, patterns work. And, of course, there is often a playful wit shaping these effects, – as in the ‘erotic’use of p sounds in sonnet 98 which reach their ‘phallic apogee’ in sonnet 51:
My soul doth tell my body that he may
Triumph in love; flesh stays no farther reason,
But rising at thy name doth point out thee
As his triumphant prize; proud of this pride,
He is contented thy poor drudge to be,
To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.
Noting that the ‘unstoppability of orgasm’ is imitated here, Vendler suggests that detumescence is represented not only by the semantic decline’ from proud to poor, but also from tr-iu-mph to dr-u-dge, words whose initial double consonants, triple final letters and common u in the middle make them ‘some sort of graphic cousins’. Again and again, I want to haul out examples of this supreme critical imagination at work, but it should be apparent that criticism of the Sonnets, and by extension, critical accounts of poetry, will never be the same again. This is an epic, innovatory study which ought to mark a new beginning for criticism.
In reading the Sonnets right through for the first time in many years, I became fascinated and puzzled by Shakespeare’s obsessive use of the adjective sweet. a word which is only effective if it is used very sparingly. It’s used frequently in both Richard II and the two parts of Henry IV, and Katherine Duncan-Jones notes a particular interesting conjunction of sonnet and historical drama in 108, which begins:
What’s in the brain that ink may character
Which hath not figured to thee my true spirit?
What’s new to speak, what new to register,
That may express my love, or thy dear merit?
Nothing, sweet boy …
This, the editor notes, is the only time the youth is so addressed, though the epithet sweet has often been applied to him in other forms: ‘thy sweet self’ (1), ‘thy sweet self’4), ‘sweet semblance’ (13), ‘sweetest bud’ (35), ‘Thine own sweet argument’ (38). Noting that the phrase ‘sweet boy’ caused some earlier editors embarrassment (one altered it to ‘sweet love’, another to ‘sweet joy’), she points out that in the last scene of Henry IV, Part 2, the phrase occurs again when Falstaff addresses the newly-crowned Henry V:
FALSTAFF: God save thee, my sweet boy!
KING: My Lord Chief Justice, speak to that vain man.
CHIEF JUSTICE: Have you your wits? Know you what ’tis you speak?
FALSTAFF: My king! My Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!
KING: I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
In sonnet 108, immediately after the phrase ‘sweet boy’, Shakespeare says: ‘but yet, like prayers divine,/I must each day say o’er the very same,/Counting no old thing old.’ Like the rhymes on alack in sonnet 33 and in its source in Richard II, the passage of dialogue from Henry IV, Part 2 strengthens the associative link between Shakespeare and Falstaff, the young man and the newly crowned king. Shakespeare is dramatising the abject nature of his love as foolish, ridiculous, self-pitying, Falstaffian, while the object of that love is totally ruthless, completely confident, his absolute superior in every way. The sun has broken free of its base contagious clouds. Shakespeare tends to kick the word sweet around like an adjectival football, rather in the way we sometimes say someone is a very ‘nice’ person and mean that they have shallow, calculating, good manners. Duncan-Jones also glosses the phrase ‘compound sweet’ in sonnet 125 in a particularly interesting way:
Were’t ought to me I bore the canopy,
With my extern the outward honouring,
Or laid great bases for eternity,
Which proves more short than waste or ruining?
Have I not seen dwellers on form and favour
Lose all, and more, by paying too much rent,
For compound sweet forgoing simple savour,
Pitiful thrivers, in their gazing spent?
No, let me be obsequious in thy heart,
And take thou my oblation, poor but free,
Which is not mixed with seconds, knows no art,
But mutual render, only me for thee.
Hence, thou suborned informer, a true soul
When most impeached, stands least in thy control.
Shakespeare is contrasting the constancy of private love with the complex dangers of court favour, and Duncan-Jones suggests that the image of ‘compound sweet’ could most naturally be applied to Elizabeth’s favourite, the Earl of Essex, who had been rewarded in 1590 with the ‘farm of sweet wines’ – the right to charge tax on all imported sweet wines. As well as suggesting a sweet aristocratic food, or medicine, the phrase ‘compound sweet’ may ‘beguiling or attractive financial agreement’, what we now term a ‘sweetener’. The adjective therefore carries associations with political power, favouritism, corruption and danger – it is an apparently lyric term which has been given a negative public spin. It’s here that I must express a reservation about a statement Vendler makes in her Introduction:
How are the Sonnets being written about nowadays? And why should I add another book to those already available? I want to do so because I admire the Sonnets, and wish to defend the high value I put on them, since they are being written about these days with considerable jaundice. The spheres from which most of the current criticisms are generated are social and psychological ones. Contemporary emphasis on the participation of literature in a social matrix balks at acknowledging how lyric, though it may refer to the social, remains the genre that directs its mimesis toward the performance of the mind in solitary speech. Because lyric is intended to be voiceable by anyone reading it, in its normative form it deliberately strips away most social specification (age, regional location, sex, class, even race). A social reading is better directed at a novel or a play: the abstraction desired by the writer of, and the willing reader of, normative lyric frustrates the mind that wants social fictions or biographical revelations.
This needs to be said in order to clear the ground for Vendler’s brilliantly focused way of reading the Sonnets. but these lyrics do not seek to shake off the dirt of the public world – often they wish they could, but the ugly dangerousness in the youth’s personality and in some of his actions cannot be avoided and is in any case part of his attraction. I should add that I do not agree with Vendler’s rejection of Andrew Motion’s historicist view of Keats’s poems, in her review of his biography of Keats (LRB, 16 October 1997), and believe that ‘To Autumn’ is on one level a great political poem which elegises those who were massacred at Peterloo.
Among the many appealing features of Duncan-Jones’s edition are the sudden epiphanic connections she makes with, what we know of Shakespeare’s life. Commenting on the line in sonnet 62 where Shakespeare looks in his mirror and is shown ‘me myself indeed,/Beated and chopped with tanned antiquity’, she notes that in Hamlet the Gravedigger says that tanners skins become toughened with their trade. Drawing on an earlier scholar, E.K. Chambers, she suggests that since Shakespeare’s father was a ‘whittawer’, who prepared leather for gloves, he may well have believed that his own skin had been affected by this process. On the opening of sonnet 71 – ‘No longer mourn for me when I am dead/Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell/Give warning to the world that I am fled’ – she notes that it would have been in the power of the dead speaker’s heirs to commission a prolonged tolling of the bell, as Shakespeare appears to have done for the burial of his actor brother Edmund in St Saviour’s, Southwark on 31 December 1607, paying 20 shillings for ‘a forenoone knell of the great bell’.
Such details help to anchor the lyrics empirically and, as Thomas Hardy endlessly shows, such random, discrete facts are essential to our need to imagine experience. Annotating Shakespeare’s meditation in sonnet 68 on ageing and the means used to disguise it, Duncan-Jones notes that wigs and false hair must often have been in his thoughts, both because he himself was a ‘bald actor’, and also because in 1604 he lodged in Silver Street, the centre of the wig trade. Falstaff, the Prince tells him, has a ‘pitiful bald crown’, so Shakespeare may also be thinking of this moment, which occurs at the beginning of the scene within a scene where Hal and Falstaff enact Hal’s imminent meeting with his father (II.iv), and Falstaff pleads with Hal not to banish ‘sweet jack Falstaff’. Banish plump Jack, he says, and banish all the world. The future king playing his own father replies: ‘1 do, I will.’ When we’re hurt or anxious in love or friendship, we tend to dramatise our feelings, to invent characters for them, and Shakespeare in love returns frequently to the friendship – the unequal exploitative matiness – between fat jack and cold Hal. Their relationship involves role –playing, and because actors took on their parts, the allusiveness in the Sonnets is a multi-layered mix of fictionality and authentic emotion. Where does one end and the other begin?
One of the most authentic moments occurs in 94, a sonnet which Empson computed to have 4096 ‘possible movements of thought’ (he was also a mathematician so he must be right). The poem could be addressed to the Machiavellian Prince Hal:
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 liusband 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 outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
As Duncan-Jones notes, expense plays on refraining from the emission of semen, a subject that occurs in other sonnets, and which here is a metaphor for a particular kind of highly controlled and controlling personality. The way sweet chimes with weed, deeds, weeds means that that adjective is tainted or stained in that final lethal couplet which speaks with a chill definitive contempt. Duncan-Jones points out that the last line occurs in what she terms an ‘anonymous play’, The Reign of King Edward the Third, which was first published in 1596. Some scholars have argued that this play was actually written by Shakespeare, and in 1996 Eric Sams published an edition in which he argues – convincingly, I think – that it is by Shakespeare.
In the second act of Edward III, the Earl of Warwick, totally against his will, but at the King’s request, attempts to persuade his daughter, the Countess of Salisbury, to become the King’s mistress and ‘secret love’. She refuses and Warwick replies:
A spacious field of reasons could I urge
between his glory, daughter, and thy shame
that poison shows worst in a golden cup
dark night seems darker by the lightning flash
lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds
and every glory that inclines to sin
the shame is treble by the opposite.
Duncan-Jones leaves the question of Shakespeare’s authorship of Edward III open, but I think that in sonnet 94 he is again recalling his own lines –lines which imagine evil and corruption in a king. He is redressing an unequal balance of power in his relationship with the young man by recalling this passage in a manner that sounds decisively damning, except that Edward, the ‘lascivious King’, as the Countess calls him, repents of his desire in a speech to the Countess which begins: ‘Even by that power I swear that gives me now/the power to be ashamed, of myself.’ That repeated noun power is another associative link with sonnet 94, and points to the theme of personal and social power which runs through the sonnets. The words base and basest pick up the ‘base clouds’ in sonnet 34 and the ‘base court’ the sun of Richard 11 descends into, as well as the ‘base contagious clouds’ which Hal, sun-like, permits to smother his beauty from the world. Something intense, dangerous, complex and, from Shakespeare’s point of view, awful and disgusting is going on, and in her account of the squeamish, overwhelmingly male accounts of the Sonnets, Duncan-Jones wryly quotes John Kerrigan, who in his edition speaks of ‘the sonnets to the youth’ as arising out of ‘comradely affection in the literature of friendship’. Kerrigan goes on to dismiss what he terms ‘innumerable crackpot theories’ about the poet’s life and love-life – fantasies’, he says, in which the Sonnets have played a large part. It is Duncan-Jones’s intention as scholar and critic to challenge the issue of sexuality which Kerrigan and other editors have consistently side-stepped, and to show how there are references in the poems to menstrual bleeding, semen, cunts, erections, detumescence, female flesh as a sexual commodity, syphilis and orgasms. She also points to the ‘strongly mysogynistic bias’ which is hinted at early ge on in the sequence, and which becomes dominant in the Dark Lady section. This is an edition which uniquely makes the Sonnets issue from the body’s moods as well as from the mind’s. This of course is a Cartesian distinction which I do not mean to uphold: rather, it is the ontological merging of spirit and body which she affirms in her approach, and she does so in the teeth of the preceding male editors.
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