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.

What saved the Sonnets in the 20th century was Modernism’s rediscovery of ‘difficult’ poetry, mainly as practised by Donne and other Metaphysicals. This happened despite the fact that Shakespeare’s obscurities are often very different from those of the Metaphysicals, and he may actually be trying to find a way of articulating subtle and inward states of mind without their obvious philosophising; he approaches the metaphysical mode more closely in his exquisite and perhaps slightly ironic elegy ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’. Contemporary with literary Modernism came the rise of academic English studies, which encouraged the brave sense that the written word could and even should be difficult.

The Sonnets’ warmth of tone and centrality of feeling can make a sympathetic reader feel that an autobiography is included with each 14 memorable lines. But the fact is that, after a century of study, the problems of the Sonnets are legendary. Questions of authority, of dating, of simple meaning are still unsettled. Over recent decades there has been a wealth of good editions, very different from each other, culminating in two formidably sophisticated pieces of work: John Kerrigan’s New Penguin edition (1986) and Colin Burrow’s Oxford one (2002). Their long, informative and illuminating introductions might be expected to have solved all possible problems. But the difficulties of the Sonnets are of a kind that enmeshes even scholars as practised as these.

The question of the authorship of ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ is a case in point. Kerrigan’s edition was firmly based on the thesis that the Sonnets are indissociable from the long narrative poem that follows them in the first edition; and Burrow’s edition goes some way to agreeing with him. Textual problems like this can’t be ignored, unfortunately. Our only authoritative text of the Sonnets is the 1609 edition. We don’t know for certain whether Shakespeare published it himself or whether it was in some way pirated, published (as much Elizabethan work was before the Copyright Act) without its writer’s consent or profit. Some form of piracy is suggested by certain features of this first edition: the curious title, ‘Shakespeare’s Sonnets’, which displays a publisher’s rather than an author’s hand, and the peculiarly problematic dedication ‘To the Onlie Begetter …’, signed with the publisher’s initials, T.T. for Thomas Thorpe. Partly because it is otherwise hard to see how the publisher obtained the poems, only a few of which seem to have been passed around before publication, even then being promptly pirated, I have for many years been convinced of a kind of ‘benign’ piracy, operated by family and/or friends: specifically, on the part of Anne Shakespeare herself, acting through her brother William Hathaway – who would then be, as transmitter of the manuscript, the ‘Mr W.H.’ thanked by the publisher.[*]

But the inclusion of ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ at the end of the 1609 collection has helped generate a different approach to the book. Until about twenty years ago, most readers and students of Shakespeare would probably have said that this poem might or might not be by Shakespeare, was probably not, and if authentic was mediocre and in many ways uncharacteristic of him. But more recently a new case has been made for ‘A Lover’s Complaint’. Kerrigan argues (and other scholars have argued before and after him) that the presentation of the 1609 collection was authorial and purposive – that it came from, and indicates, the hand and mind of Shakespeare throughout. Moreover, that the poet was here working to and conforming with an Elizabethan norm, originally derived from the publication by Samuel Daniel in 1592 of Delia, in which a rhetorical and conventional sonnet sequence is followed by a short ode and then a long narrative poem.

It is natural for a scholar to need or want to believe that the text he or she is working on is both authentic and (ideally) high in quality. But ordinary readers have never been much impressed by ‘A Lover’s Complaint’, and few go along with the new movement of Sonnets studies. And during the last few years this readerly hesitation has been supplemented by the able scholarship of Brian Vickers, first in the pages of the TLS and then in a book published last year.[†] Vickers has a double aim: to argue that ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ is simply too bad to be Shakespearean but competent enough to be the work of John Davies of Hereford, a minor poet whose admiration led him to assimilate his style to Shakespeare’s. Whether the case for John Davies is finally accepted, there can be little doubt that Vickers’s clear and forceful study will gradually have the effect of undermining the sense of ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ as importantly Shakespearean.

There are two interlinked issues here, scholarly and critical. Until there is absolute proof that the poem is, or is not, Shakespeare’s, the case has to be left open, with the poem in a kind of limbo, and academics can feel themselves guiltless of having deprived a dead writer of however strange an extension to his literary character. That ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ is strange is a literary fact that computer analysis cannot alter: if we attribute it to Shakespeare, we make him responsible for what he committed nowhere else, writing that is aesthetically pretentious and emotionally vulgar. But there is another and stronger reason for being happy to locate ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ in limbo. With the forceful re-examination of the authorship question, the whole recent assertive image of the Sonnets as somehow profoundly and conventionally Elizabethan has begun to fall apart.

This is, in my opinion, nothing but a good thing. But it means that we must go back to seeing the 1609 collection as in some sense or to some degree piratical, and probably not fully indicating an authorial design. The ‘Elizabethanising’ reading of the Sonnets is a wish to throw light on darkness, but a scholarly falling back on convention may simplify at too high a price, imposing a shape rather than finding a meaning. And this imposed shape may damage or obscure the truth of what we have, whose actual character will contain a certain uncertainty – an uncertainty that could explain Shakespeare’s own unwish to publish, or at least the marked delay in publishing. These poems speak as they do, and mean as much as they do to us, because Shakespeare did not keep the rules, was more than merely contemporary. One of the Sonnets’ central subjects, returned to reiteratively early and late, is the defeat of the mere social moment and its transmutation into an eternal landscape. Love and art together give life, perpetuate, when nothing else can: as 81 says, ‘You still shall live (such virtue hath my pen)/ Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.’

I have just used the words ‘early and late’. These poems give the sense of being written over a relatively long period. Some, whatever their positioning here, are obviously immature in both feeling and expression; some have an extreme and even weary maturity. It really isn’t possible that the wonderful and even tragic 124 and 125 (‘If my dear love were but the child of state’, and ‘Were’t aught to me I bore the canopy’) were written, let us say, before the weak 145 (‘Those lips that love’s own hand did make’) – which may be Shakespeare’s earliest poem, addressed, or so it has been suggested, by the 18-year-old poet to his future wife, Anne Hathaway.

But we don’t know when the Sonnets were written, or in what order. The text’s departures from what appears to be chronological sequence may be authorial design or piratical confusion. Burrow’s introduction gives an estimate that many scholars would roughly agree with: he locates the first 60 Sonnets to 1595-96 (adding ‘possibly revised thereafter’), numbers 61-103 to 1594-95, numbers 104-126 to 1598-1604, these all comprising what have become known as the ‘Fair Young Man’ Sonnets; the ‘Dark Lady’ Sonnets, from 127-54, he gives to 1591-95. Beyond such scholarly and critical estimates, helped out by analysis of word usage, there are a very few supporting facts from contemporary reference. In 1598, Francis Meres made in Palladis Tamia his famous allusion to Shakespeare’s ‘sugred Sonnets among his private friends’ (‘sugred’ meaning exquisitely written, rhetorically clever), which makes them sound more like other Elizabethan sonnets; and it seems only rational to assume that these manuscripts passed around among intimates included at least some of the poems we know. During the following year, 1599, versions of what were presumably two of them, 138 and 144 – ‘When my love swears that she is made of truth’, and ‘Two loves I have, of comfort and despair’ – appeared in pirated form in The Passionate Pilgrim.

Neither of these dates, 1598 and 1599, helps to make much sense of the remarkably late date of the 1609 Quarto. The whole Elizabethan vogue for sonneteering was of the earlier 1590s: it was essentially triggered by the pirated printing in 1591 of Sidney’s sequence Astrophil and Stella. The closing of the theatres because of plague during 1593-94 afforded Shakespeare a useful occasion for writing poems: his enormously successful comic verse narrative Venus and Adonis appeared in 1593, his similar but tragic The Rape of Lucrece in 1594, and a number of his sonnets may have been composed then. Why they remained unpublished for upwards of 15 years, until well after the fashion had passed, is a question not easy to answer. There seems at least a possibility that Shakespeare may have felt real doubt as to whether the poems were at all comprehensible – a doubt that deepened as the literary fashion fell into the past. The Sonnets might well have proved, in the 1590s, too demanding or too individual. And indeed Sonnets 112 and 121, ‘Your love and pity doth th’ impression fill’ and (especially) ‘’Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed’, give angry and sardonic expression to the sense of being damned by vicious misunderstanders (‘No, I am that I am, and they that level/At my abuses reckon up their own’).

The Sonnets differ from all earlier sequences in that they have what appears by glimpses – confused and fragmentary implications – to be a story, whether fictive or autobiographical. It is not a good idea to sit down and read through these 154 poems as one would a novel, even a Modernist or postmodernist fiction. Not much would be gained, the narrative-seeking mind would be bewildered, and individual poems would probably even be spoiled. And yet the very sense of time passing, of change of self and an ageing or maturity, makes us think of these poems, perhaps deludedly, as a sequence, words in time. As in a private journal (and these Sonnets do speak of journals, given and received as gifts), the poems allude to time lived through. Thus, from 104 (‘To me, fair friend, you never can be old’), comes this extraordinary writing:

Three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned,
Since first I saw you fresh

These effects are almost cinematic, the product of a modern awareness of the feeling of life, the way external change alters or fails to alter the internal mind. These are achievements far outside more recognisable Elizabethan rhetorics in the Sonnet – courtly and formal, jewelled and static. It won’t do to speak of the Shakespeare of the Sonnets as a realist, or a naturalist: he is neither. Nor is he a novelist, nor even a dramatist. Beginning from Elizabethan conventions of writing and social existence, he brings to bear intense if incomplete intuitions of experience prefiguring much later art to record and perpetuate a new statement of love – love as life in all its uncertainty, and as the quest for human value. Because so much in the Sonnets is exploratory, the work has probably been set, after the event and by the poet or others, into orders and groupings that make them approximate to what a contemporary reader might have expected to find. But the originality remains incurable.

Some of the attempted adjustments or authorial ‘improvements’ involve narrative effects. Almost anyone who has heard of the Sonnets will believe that they are addressed to two persons, one male and one female: the Fair Young Man and the Dark Lady. They aren’t, and these fictions don’t feature in these often self-addressed and reflective poems. Sonnet 144, ‘Two loves I have, of comfort and despair’, certainly describes two kinds of love, one like an angelic ‘man right fair’ and the other like a devilish ‘woman coloured ill’; but these are at least as much passions as people, understood by being personified by a born dramatist. And this is a process that characterises the Sonnets throughout. A struggle for self-knowledge snatches at outward fictions, momentary dramas, conceits and images, to make sense of itself to itself.

The procedure involves incessant ambiguities (like the words ‘Two loves I have’), complexities and even failures, unresolved battles between symbols and lived phenomena – and the same could be said of the condition of love itself. The Sonnets can be perceived as trying out fictions and metaphors. The first 17 search for human value in love by the very Elizabethan method of preaching marriage and family, by seeming to wish to persuade a magnificent young male aristocrat to marry and beget an heir. The story changes in 18 to 126, which involve the development of a deepening relationship – intense though not sexual – with this or another such young male, a bond marked by estrangement and reconciliation, alienation on moral grounds, jealousy in love, the rivalry of another poet, and the perpetual sense of time passing. Late in the printed sequence, at 127 – though seemingly early on chronologically – there emerges a more or less dissolute dark woman with whom the speaker’s relationship is enchanted, tormented and sexual: she wins the young aristocrat for her own lover, thus making the poet doubly jealous. Opinions differ as to the status and meaning of these figures. It is difficult for any friendly reader of these poems not to act like Harold Ross, sometime editor of the New Yorker, who would scribble ‘WHO HE?’ in the margins of any copy that struck him as insufficiently explaining its references. But to translate these poems into historical gossip is to miss the whole original meaning they are struggling for, the analysis of mind and body in love, Fair Young Man and Dark Lady. In general, I tend myself to find any editorial or critical discussions involving the earls of Pembroke or Southampton as the Fair Young Man or of Mary this or Emilia that as hidden behind the Dark Lady not merely unhelpful but unbelievable. The set-up is socially inconceivable and poetically implausible.

But the Sonnets are not exercises: they are dense with truth and experience. If a reader contests the sheerly factual or autobiographical interpretation, earls, Dark Ladies and all, it is not merely from a local lack of conviction. It is because any historical reading destroys what the poet was working to achieve. The Sonnets seek to move through and beyond the whole utilitarianism of the Tudor ethos, the concept of goodness as use, as profit, which unites the Elizabethan farmyard to the guild and the court: to find an innate metaphysic in human love itself. This can be said less philosophically and more formally. In his history plays, Shakespeare turns chronicle into history, then history into drama, and then – in the superb Henry IV plays – historical drama into something almost like myth: free-standing, undocumented and legendary works of art. Two hundred years before the novel emerged in Europe, and psychology became a dominant language of experience, Shakespeare brought about (in comedies and tragedies, in The Merchant of Venice, in Hamlet, in Macbeth and The Winter’s Tale) what Harold Bloom has called ‘the invention of the human’. The Sonnets reveal just such a revolutionary procedure in poetry. Undramatic as these poems are, and difficult and inconclusive in their patchy illusions of narrative, Shakespeare is caught up in a comparable invention in them. Just as the tragedies are both real and inward, so the Sonnets search for the as yet unexplored voice of the inward self in love, while also serving love’s sense that a living human being and its world beyond the self are incomparably real.

In this enterprise Shakespeare had little to help him but the conventions of the Elizabethan sonnet: and the fact, perhaps sometimes deeply regretted by him, that he did not belong to the world that made sense of them. Considering the first 17 of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, C.S. Lewis asked impatiently: ‘What man in the whole world, except a father or a potential father-in-law, cares whether any other man gets married?’ – a joke that should not be laughed off. Shakespeare is here surely trapped, by a talent that reaches far beyond the moment, in the difficulties of an Elizabethan mode, class-bound, utilitarian, polemical, but as yet the only language or fiction he possesses in which to debate what place, and what value love has in life: the great must marry, in order to breed.

European Petrarchism was a code which by the 16th century had, through its political functions, become as ferociously limited, as purely social, as its first inventor had been gifted and influential. The sonnet of this period is a courtly form, first appearing in English in Chaucer’s translation, in the 1370s, of a Petrarchan sonnet in Troilus and Cressida. That great act of translation, that desire to heighten English feeling by teaching the culture courtly love, was resumed in the earlier 16th century by Wyatt and Surrey. The second of these (who gave Shakespeare the formal structure of his sonnets) was an earl, the first a courtier. The best and most seminal of the sonnets of the late 16th century are by Sidney, the flower of Elizabeth’s court, and his arrogant and sophisticated court wit established the form as a social medium. The best-known line from Astrophil and Stella, ‘Fool, said my Muse to me, look in thy heart and write’, is a paradox: it is courtly breeding and the manners of a Muse that will teach us how to know ourselves.

Such poems acclaim love as the secret of courts, the private feeling hidden at the heart of man’s only true role, his public life. Sidney’s sonnets became known by being pirated, because aristocrats did not publish such intimate work, let alone write for the theatres. The first of Shakespeare’s sonnets to be known were the ‘sugred sonnets among his private friends’: they would have been seen as a claim to belong to a higher sphere than the public theatre. A number of them seem to carry an awareness of Sidney’s sonnets, and a comparison proves interesting. For example, the court poet had written triumphantly and with a knightly flourish, ‘Having this day my horse, my hand, my lance’; the different ‘hand’ of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 50, ‘How heavy do I journey on the way’, has the speaker trudging away from his beloved on a cheap horse, his own misery voiced by the groans of the pathetic beast spurred on to make it go unwillingly faster – they are just a pair of hacks. Sidney’s poem is possibly, within its conventions, better, or at least more finished than Shakespeare’s Sonnet 50. But finished is the word: Sidney’s is sterile. Shakespeare is struggling to turn the properties of a medievalising court world into something alive now, for all its oddity. Sonnet 50 is barely successful, certainly not among the best: but it shakes and breaks Petrarchism into something that has to do with life.

Sidney portrays with charm and assurance a busy, importantly gossiping court, the world of power and ambition – ‘I cumbered with good manners, answer do,/But know not how, for still I thinke of you’ – and his sonnets survive by the ‘good manners’ that cumber them. Shakespeare has no such world, though at moments he may have longed for such standing and security: the Sonnets are never precisely at home anywhere, and their writer, born in a small provincial market town, worked all his life in a London theatre. Such stability as these poems achieve depends on a voice, and the partial animation of an always peripheral fiction: more precisely, on the depth of interior feeling with which that fiction of relationship takes on life, is proved true. But that ‘truth’ is as hard to analyse as it is original. Led to read the story as autobiography, we search in vain for dependable data. Unlike other sonneteers, Shakespeare nowhere names his beloved, except just conceivably in the early and punning 145, which may name Hathaway (‘“I hate” from hate away she threw’). Comparably, the poet evokes the passing of time brilliantly, and yet gives not a single hint of a date in the whole sequence.

Wyatt, Spenser and Sidney are all distinguished literary figures; but most of the lesser sonneteers at work during the great vogue of the form in the 1590s are comparatively lifeless. The life that floods into Shakespeare’s sonnets is the effect of a natural, characteristic and enormous energy of mind in the writer, an ability to connect everything with everything – the creativity that Ben Jonson praised and grimaced over. Departing from the more rigid Petrarchan form, the new structure of quatrains and couplet is both reflective and (necessarily) figurative, serving the whole interpretative imaging of experience. Sonnet 15 begins, with a new free and soaring flight, ‘When I consider everything that grows’, and ends ‘I engraft you new’, as if the poet were a gardening God Almighty, a maker of men in rhyme. The sonnets are beginning to be intense love poems; by ‘love’ they mean the tired horse trudging on and groaning at the goad, actors forgetting their lines, death-bells ringing in the churches of the City, stone lions and sea waves, poisons and medicines, ruined chapels and winter trees, music being played by a loved and hated woman, obsession and infidelity and tenderness and time always passing. And because the medium and only centre is the experiencing self, they relate love also to the hand writing and the eye reading. The mature Sonnets begin at 18, ‘Shall I compare thee … ?’, which ends with a couplet in which love and art, reading and writing and life itself interfuse:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

The gift that distinguishes Shakespeare’s love sonnets is an ability to hold in an extreme balance the inner and the outer, vision and the real. The strain within that balance can be felt in some of the Sonnets’ finest and strangest lines: as when Sonnet 53 questions the reality of what may be a dream-figure in

What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?

This is more than a Platonically glittering game or flattery; as is 106, which pursues a love-image from the past into the present and back again, like a tender ghost:

I see their antique pen would have expressed
Even such a beauty as you master now.

The frequent element of play in the Sonnets holds philosophical and metaphysical questions in tension, just as ambiguities, riddles and wit-games may communicate the strongest feelings. Equally, the almost tragically charged 124 and 125, ‘If my dear love …’ and ‘Were’t aught to me …’, appear to dare the use of theological and ecclesiastical imagery for wholly secular purposes. The couplet in 124 has ‘the fools of Time,/Which die for goodness’, in which most editors read an allusion to the burning of religious martyrs. Yet the poet has so phrased the sufferings and exaltations (half ironically observed) of ‘my dear love’ that the result is an enigma, an understood self-contradiction that cannot be confidently elucidated by scholars.

The same kind of battle to annotate historically affects the magnificent 107:

Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world, dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.
The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,
And the sad augurs mock their own presage,
Incertainties now crown themselves assured,
And peace proclaims olives of endless age.
Now with the drops of this most balmy time
My love looks fresh, and death to me subscribes,
Since, spite of him, I’ll live in this poor rhyme
While he insults o’er dull and speechless tribes.
And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent.

No good editor has done his or her duty (it seems) who has not struggled with such queries as whether the ‘mortal moon’ alludes to Queen Elizabeth or the Armada, or which politician of the period was a ‘sad augur’, or whether the ‘balmy time’ refers to the coronation of James I. But the very best editors know that these are in themselves the wrong questions. ‘My love looks fresh’ because ‘my love’ is neither a person nor a feeling, neither a he nor a she, nor even a passion of loyalty. The acute realities of the poem are marvellous myths, symbols, word-structures where lover and loved meet.

Sonnet 107 is safe because unparaphraseable, a monument because a ‘poor rhyme’. In Hamlet, Shakespeare made the court-based revenge play something quite other than what it started from; in the Sonnets he took his Elizabethan medium out of its time – and, indeed, insofar as he is still read, out of Time. A modest Rodgers and Hart love lyric can say just as firmly as a more or less Neoplatonic transcendentalist doctrine, ‘But I can’t remember where or when’ – and it is the power of the Sonnets to bring together these two very different forms of human experience. To remove the sonnet from the social, the historically dateable and nameable, without depending on a communal language of shared belief, is an extraordinary task for a writer. Unsurprisingly, the Sonnets that seem latest also seem most solitary. They reach a point more simply and humanely articulated by the elderly Countess in All’s Well That Ends Well, who, discovering that Helena loves her son, says with deep kindness: ‘Now I see/The mystery of your loneliness.’ Love in the best of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is a ‘mystery’ and ‘lonely’, not without harmony and contentment, but at some distance from the social utilities of an Elizabethan mode.

[*] 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).