Shakespeare's Sonnets.

Today is the 402nd anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare (as well as being St. George's Day of course) and what better way to mark the occasion than to read his Sonnets, which I did this morning. 

The Sonnets were first published in 1609 and consist of 154 sonnets or poems, each of them fourteen lines in iambic pentameter with the exception of Sonnets 99, 126, and 145. Here's sonnet 1:
From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed'st thy light's flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel:
Thou that art now the world's fresh ornament,
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And, tender churl, mak'st waste in niggarding:
   Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
   To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee.
In this Shakespeare covers some of life's timeless themes: procreation, mortality (or rather immortality), the passage of time, and the need to be remembered. In these first sonnets (Sonnets 1 - 126), Shakespeare addresses a young man and in doing so explores these themes further as well as love, be it romantic or platonic. One of the most famous ones of all is the romantic Sonnet 18:
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
   So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
In contrast, Sonnet 130, equally as romantic, does not conjure up such beautiful imagery - 
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
   And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
   As any she belied with false compare. 
These sonnets, Sonnets 127 - 154, are sometimes referred to as the 'Dark Lady' section in which the romantic or platonic love becomes more concerned with the erotic, lusty, even bawdy nature of love. They are appropriately darker in tone and deal with disappointment and frustration, far removed from the beautiful sonnets dedicated to the faithful and virginal, seen not just in the earlier sonnets of Shakespeare but in other Elizabethan poets. 

Love and lust are not the only themes, however, as the first sonnet describes. The idea of beauty is essential to the sonnets, the transience of it, and its relationship with truth. One of my favourites, Sonnet 35, however, is on mistakes -
No more be grieved atthat which thou hast done:
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud:
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authorizing thy trespass with compare,
Myself corrupting, salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are;
For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense,
Thy adverse party is thy advocate,
And 'gainst myself a lawful plea commence:
Such civil war is in my love and hate,
   That I an accessary needs must be,
   To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.
The mistake that was made is unclear, but it would seem possible that it follows on from Sonnets 33 and 34: the poet was rejected by the 'fair youth' (the sonnets continue from one another, however much they appear to stand alone). Here's the preceding sonnet, Sonnet 34:
Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,
And make me travel forth without my cloak,
To let base clouds o'ertake me in my way,
Hiding thy bravery in their rotten smoke?
'Tis not enough that through the cloud thou break,
To dry the rain on my storm-beaten face,
For no man well of such a salve can speak,
That heals the wound, and cures not the disgrace:
Nor can thy shame give physic to my grief;
Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss:
The offender's sorrow lends but weak relief
To him that bears the strong offence's cross.
   Ah! but those tears are pearl which thy love sheds,
   And they are rich and ransom all ill deeds.
All of these are very beautiful indeed, and this includes some of Shakespeare's finest works. It's incredibly difficult to say something coherent about them and they do need a bit more study on my part to truly appreciate them. Nevertheless I loved reading them and will without a doubt return to them again one day. By reading and writing about the Sonnets I've also now finished re-reading and blogging about Shakespeare's complete works, which is exciting and appropriate on this day! Sonnets are a firm favourite of course, along with Shakespeare's histories. And, no doubt, I'll be re-reading them one day too!

To finish, here's the illustrations to the 1899 edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets by Henry Ospovat:


  1. truly a major accomplishment... i've read all of S as well, but haven't written a word about any of it... maybe when i get old... oh, i forgot... too late... for some reason i often think of Rupert Brooke when i read S's sonnets; can't explain it, tho...

    1. I do too! It's because when we were learning about iambic pentameter in school the teacher used the first line of The Soldier to explain what it meant: "If I should die, think only this of me". She said it so many times that line is imprinted in my brain :)


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