Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Sonnet

Barbara Everett

If we speak of ‘Shakespeare’s Sonnets’, we mean a collection with this name first published in 1609, when Shakespeare was 45 and most of his plays had been staged; he died only seven years later. The 1609 text is the only authentic source for all the editions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets published since. So much is problematic about this first edition that it is best to start off with simplicities. The book contains 154 poems, all except two made up of 14 lines; with the exception of one poem, each of these lines has ten syllables and five iambic feet. With the exception of two, each of the poems has three quatrains, each containing two rhymes, followed by a rhyming couplet. There are only two major sonnet forms in English, and this is one of them, the Shakespearean. The other, the Petrarchan, is more coherent aesthetically, having only two rhymes in the octave (the first eight lines) and two more in the sestet (the last six), but it is much harder to write in English than in Italian, because English has fewer rhymes. With its series of stanzas, the Shakespearean form will always seem more a speaking than a singing poem, more reflective, meant for thinking or arguing in. But Shakespeare is no less ‘poetic’ than Petrarch. The Sonnets vary a lot, in quality as in substance. At their best they have an extraordinarily rich, dense and delicate verbal texture: they form an inimitable network of ideas, images, echoes and ambiguities, a world that is real yet always in process of change and evolution.

By 1609 the Elizabethan rage for sonnet-writing had been over for ten or twenty years – one of the oddities of this collection that needs to be borne in mind. There are a lot of 16th-century sonnets. But, if we except Sir Thomas Wyatt’s magnificent though sometimes stumbling work, many of these are paper poems, manifestations of a particular moment in Tudor court culture. Some of this sonnet-writing, Sidney’s in particular, is highly accomplished; some is haunting, such as Drayton’s (very late) ‘Since there’s no help, come, let us kiss and part.’ But Drayton learned this humanity from Shakespeare. None of his predecessors speaks as Shakespeare does, like a voice in the next room – even like a voice in the reader’s mind. The Elizabethan sonnet can seem intolerably artificial; Shakespeare’s invent a rhetoric and a music that is entirely new. Their voice is not (as you might expect) the voice of an actor. Professionals sometimes like to read the Sonnets in public, but it never quite works. Actors helplessly act – whereas the Sonnets have a certain autonomy and self-containment that is also expressive and outgoing. These are poems at once so inward as to be enigmas for editors, yet so entirely realised as to be available to any reader who wants to experience them.

Since they are so various, covering many moods and many situations, there is no representative Sonnet. But number 57 gives some sense of what the Shakespearean stance is like:

Being your slave, what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend,
Nor services to do, till you require.
Nor dare I chide the world-without-end hour
Whilst I, my sovereign, watch the clock for you,
Nor think the bitterness of absence sour
When you have bid your servant once adieu.
Nor dare I question with my jealous thought
Where you may be, nor your affairs suppose,
But like a sad slave sit and think of naught
Save where you are how happy you make those.
So true a fool is love, that in your will,
Though you do anything, he thinks no ill.

Shakespeare wrote at moments more richly and deeply than this. But Sonnet 57 is the voice of the man, the man who achieved both great comedies and great tragedies. The poem is not actorish, it is quiet and private, but – with its formidably intricate rhetoric – it is entirely in the round: it is full of feeling but has a poise and control at once humane and removed. It’s doubtful whether any love poetry of the last four hundred years sees more than Shakespeare’s, or sees more levelly. When read, 57 will sometimes seem comic, sometimes tragic; it will sometimes sound abject, sometimes angry, sometimes bitter, sometimes ironic, sometimes amused, sometimes tender, sometimes dry. But always it has an extraordinarily objective attentiveness, that says: ‘What is this, and what am I?’ Shakespeare establishes an area where everything is clear and nothing is literal. The poem is unlikely, for instance, to be directed to ‘my sovereign’, Queen Elizabeth I, or to a contemporary slave-runner, though the words say ‘Being your slave’. The Sonnets launch us far and fast into the kingdom of metaphor, where life is real but not a statistic. To give one instance: the lines express the kind of detached entanglement that suggests one gender bewilderedly confronted by another – and 57, like a good many of the first hundred-odd sonnets, certainly does sound like, and is often read as, a poem spoken by a male in love with a female. As it happens, the first 126 Sonnets are formally now described as addressing a ‘Fair Young Man’, perhaps aristocratic by birth: and some of them do indeed use male connotations for their subject, just as the last 28 poems plainly allude to a female. But the fact is that Sonnet 57 achieves its strenuous precision by telling us nothing descriptively about the object of the passion. It merely uses the old Petrarchan love language – courtly and indeed political, the language of service heightened to slavery – so as with a new intensity to define modern experience, undated and unlocalised.

These poems are both anonymous and individual. They are both easy and difficult. They are easy in the sense of their largeness, directness and human centrality. Any good modern anthology of love poetry will hold half a dozen of them, which have grown so familiar over the years as to seem indeed ‘easy’: 18, for instance, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’; or 71, ‘No longer mourn for me when I am dead’; or 106, ‘When in the chronicle of wasted time’; or 116, ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’; or 129, ‘Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame’. These must all be among the (at least) ‘49 outstanding poems’ which W.H. Auden finds among the Sonnets in his helpful introduction to the Signet edition. And it must be this kind of central, classic writing that made C.S. Lewis, in his Oxford history of non-dramatic 16th-century literature, speak of the Sonnets as not just the world’s best love poems, but in some sense its only love poems.

By ‘only’, Lewis was possibly thinking in terms of completeness, of breadth and focus: this is work that looks most intensely and truthfully at all of what another poet (Larkin) calls ‘that much mentioned brilliance, love’. It is this concentration that makes some Sonnets ‘easy’. But at the same time, intensity can bring great difficulty. A part of the reason is that Elizabethan writers lacked whatever benefit in analysis can be derived from modern psychology and sociology, and the whole development of the newspaper and (above all) the novel: they had to fall back on theological doctrine and literary wit-thinking, on imagery and puns and conceits to do their diagnostic work for them. But sometimes these poems are difficult because even human beings whom we know well can be hard to follow when they express obscure and unexamined feeling. Both these causes, circumstantial and intrinsic, make Sonnet 112 (for instance), ‘Your love and pity doth th’ impression fill’, one of the most difficult poems ever written. Editors cannot agree on what is actually meant by either its seventh line, ‘None else to me, nor I to none alive’, or its 14th, ‘That all the world besides me thinks y’are dead’, and there are scholarly battles of emendation – although it’s not impossible for an ordinary reader to grasp what these lines are saying. For at least a century and a half after they were first published, the Sonnets had a very bad press, and it seems probable that the 1609 edition did not sell well. During all this pre-modern period, it was surely this quality of difficulty that produced hostility, with even expert professional writers joining in: Wordsworth pettishly grumbled at the Sonnets as ‘abominably harsh, obscure and worthless’, and Hazlitt described them as ‘cold’ and ‘artificial’. And even now there are intelligent readers who feel that the Sonnets sacrifice emotional profundity to ‘conceited’ wit-thinking, incessant games of rhetoric. They are not everyone’s favourite poetry.

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[*] A possibility put forward first by Barbara Everett in the LRB of 18 December 1986.

[†] Shakespeare, ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ and John Davies of Hereford (Cambridge, 342 pp., £50, January 2007, 978 0 521 85912 7).