Sunday, January 2, 2011

Discussion: The Sonnets

When W.H. Auden gave his famous lectures on Shakespeare, he said of the sonnets that no other work of literature had ever baffled scholars as much. I think most scholars would agree on that -- but not on anything else concerning the sonnets.

For example: When were the sonnets written? Did Shakespeare approve their publication? Does the order of the sonnets matter? Are the poems autobiographical? Is this evidence that Shakespeare was bisexual? Who were the fair youth and the dark lady? Does the autobiographical stuff even matter?

This is my first time reading the sonnets all the way through, and I'm definitely not prepared to answer any of those questions. I will say this: It is very hard not to read the sonnets as autobiographical. Shakespeare usually put his words in the mouths of his characters, but the sonnets seem to remove the intermediary ... unless the narrator is yet another of Shakespeare's characters. That's possible, but the sonnets feel intimate and personal in a way that the plays do not.

Most people know sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day") and sonnet 116 ("Let me not to the marriage of true minds"), which, incidentally, was sung at my wedding to the tune of "Danny Boy." But my favorite has always been sonnet 130:

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.

The editor of my edition of the sonnets calls this cruel and misogynistic, but to me it seems honest and playful.

On this read-through, I also discovered a new favorite, sonnet 28:

How can I then return in happy plight
That am debarred the benefit of rest?
When day's oppression is not eased by night,
But day by night and night by day oppressed,
And each, though enemies to either's reign,
Do in consent shake hands to torture me,
The one by toil, the other to complain
How far I toil, still farther off from thee.
I tell the day to please him, thou art bright,
And dost him grace, when clouds do blot the heaven;
so flatter I the swart-complexioned night,
When sparkling stars twire not thou gild'st the even;
But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer,
And night doth nightly make my grief's length seem stronger.

Because the sonnets feel so intimate and personal, it seems only right that each reader should have his own favorite -- one sonnet that touches him in a personal way. Which sonnet is "yours"? What sonnet did you discover, or re-discover, during this reading?

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