A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Well, almost. On impulse, a little while ago I signed up to a website that emails me a Shakespeare sonnet. It has been a fascinating experience – three times a week, always on a working day, so not often when I have the leisure to stop and read it with attention, a sonnet lands in my inbox, starting with Sonnet I, and carrying on, for about a year, to Sonnet CLIV. Then it starts again at Sonnet I. I’ve received every sonnet twice now, and on the third round, at the time of writing, I’ve recently opened and read Sonnet XXVI.
I’ve been trying to find a non-cliche-ed way of putting this, but have given up. I have not been a great reader of poetry. I’m not someone who learnt lots of it when young. The thought of reading poetry brings back memories of struggling to wrestle the meaning out of the poems of Gongora, Lorca, Valery and Apollinaire as a student – furrowed brow and midnight oil. (Anne – I might in earlier times have been one of those people backing away in terror …). But the experience of living with Shakespeare’s Sonnets has changed me, teaching me to love their depth and playfulness and the pleasure of exploring the the way a poet can display the power of words to the utmost. It has taught me to look for new pleasures in reading poetry, and I can concur with Jackie’s view of a poem as a tiny receptacle for something of immense beauty.
I can’t say that I knew nothing at all about Shakespeare’s Sonnets – I knew something. Sonnets XVIII (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day) and CXVI (Let me not to the marriage of true minds ) are in the air we breathe, for example. As someone who goes to a lot of weddings (I’m a church choir member and bellringer, I hasten to add – not someone with lots of marriageable friends and relations) I get to hear about the Marriage of True Minds several times a year, and it is ingenious and beautiful enough to survive repetition. The sonnets are full of quotes, like Hamlet and the Bible, too, so lines like ‘My mistress eyes are nothing like the sun’ (CXXX), or ‘When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’ (XXIX) were very familiar, even if the poems were less so.
I vaguely knew about the enigma of the publication and dedication to Mr WH of the sonnets, I vaguely knew that most of them were written to a man, who could have been William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, or could have been Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, but might have been neither; and about a third of them to a woman, and it has struck me as the sonnets unfolded that his relationship with the man was much easier and less marked by disgust and shame than that with the Dark Lady. But I’d never studied them, never paid attention to them, never taken an interest in them.
Some days, I cannot find room in my busy schedule to read a Shakespeare sonnet, so, knowing that in a year’s time it will come round again, I delete it. Sometimes, though, I’m brought up short by a wholly unfamiliar sonnet, and taking the time to read and unravel it is a still point of pleasure in a working day. I love those that take an image or an idea, and weave it through an intention or a sentiment in a startlingly original and ingenious way.
So I’d like to talk about one particular sonnet, that recently caused me to stop and read, and think, and take pleasure in its conceit.
Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;
And yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons’ quality;
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well,
By oft predict that I in heaven find:
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert;
Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.
This is one of the (to me) rather strange sequence of sonnets that take a particular ‘carpe diem’ theme, urging the object of the poems to procreate and leave a child to carry on his beauty and other wonderful qualities – and to hasten to do so before it is too late. (I’m rather tickled by the theory that this indicates that these sonnets might have been commissioned by the mother of the mysterious Mr WH, urging him to get on and do his duty.)
The poem’s conceit is revealed in the first line in the word ‘stars’. The line that arrested me is ‘And yet methinks I have astronomy’ – today we would use the word ‘astrology’, as the imagery starts with prognostication. This set me thinking about the mindset of the sonnet’s original readers: for them, the stars move mysteriously but predictably across the dome of the sky. It is undisputed by the writer and his readers, the belief that powers of divination exist in the stars – this is not controversial. So, already, this sonnet has thrown open a window into the mind of the Tudor reader.
I love the way in which the poet takes the theme of discerning knowledge from the stars, and examines it from all angles. The poet examines and rejects the gift to divine the future from the stars in the sky. But in the stars he sees in the eyes of the person he’s addressing, he can confidently derive knowledge – rather as a serious student of the skies such as a navigator does, of the truth and beauty that will fade in the person (a bit harsh regarding Truth, I feel), but that can live on if he begets an heir. But, in common with the other poems in this sequence, the last two lines are pessimistic, almost a threat, that the subject’s days of embodying truth and beauty are fleeting.
The whole poem is such an ingenious piece of imagination. More and more I find myself attracted to writing that plays with words, and so many of Shakespeare’s sonnets are acrobatic. I’ve hardly got words to describe the delight I take in the intellectual and emotional somersaults that Shakespeare can perform. Since I lit upon this sonnet and chose it for this piece, I’ve been presented with sonnets that perform similar transformations on the idea of an actor (Sonnet XXIII ‘As an unperfect actor on the stage, Who with his fear is put beside his part’, or a painter (Sonnet XXIV ‘Mine eye hath play’d the painter and hath steel’d, Thy beauty’s form in table of my heart;’), or a liege lord (Sonnet XXVI ‘Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage | Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit,’). But I chose this one, because it made me think of the stars and the universe, and the beautiful conjunction Shakespeare makes of the infinite heavens with the reality of his relationship with this beautiful man in the here and now, by making me stop in my tracks and read it.
Hilary gets her weekly Sonnet fix by email from HERE. If she were in the market (and she thinks she is now) for an edition of the Sonnets, she would go for
William Shakespeare: The Sonnets. Arden Shakespeare, 2010
ISBN 9781408017975 448pp
The image of the Dedication from the first edition of the Sonnets is taken from Wikimedia Commons, and is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.