Shakespeare's Sonnets Essay - Introduction to The Sonnets

William Shakespeare

Introduction to The Sonnets

Anthony Hecht, Georgetown University

It may be that the single most important fact about Shakespeare's Sonnets—at least statistically—is that they regularly outsell everything else he wrote. The plays are taught in schools and universities, and a large annual sale is thereby guaranteed for Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. But the Sonnets are still more widely read. There are several diverse factions among their readership, many of which are not scholarly. Some people are eager for a glimpse into what they suppose is Shakespeare's private life; they hope for scandal. There are those who treat the Sonnets as biographical fiction; they yearn to decode the poems and reveal a narrative of exciting, intimate relationships. And there are readers whose overriding preoccupation with sexual politics makes them determined that no one shall view the Sonnets in any way that differs from their own.

In all likelihood, however, the largest group within this readership is made up of young lovers, for whom these sonnets compose a compact and attractive vade mecum. The poems speak directly to their condition, being rich and emotionally complex, and they describe states of perfect happiness, but also submission, selfabnegation, jealousy, fear, desperation, and self-hatred.

It is possible to argue that there exists no work of comparable brevity and excellence that digests such intimate emotional experience. What is more, the Sonnets are written with an astonishing self-consciousness, a deep sense that love opens enormous vistas of novel reflection, not all of it flattering. Loving another human being, we find that our motives are no longer disinterested; everything we do or feel is no longer purely a personal matter, but is strangely compromised by our relationship with this other person; our hopes and fears are not only generated by another, but by how we wish to be thought of and how we have come to feel about ourselves. Initially, when we fall in love, this does not appear as any sort of danger, or indeed as anything to be deplored. Our own happiness seems enormously enlarged by being both shared with and caused by another. That is only the beginning of what, for a thoughtful person, becomes an increasingly complicated state of mind, with almost infinite permutations, most of them unforeseeable. How do we react, for example, when the person we love commits a transgression that really wounds us? If the relationship is not immediately halted, it is necessary to palliate the fault, first and foremost to ourselves, and then to the beloved. The simple first step is to fall back upon reassuring proverbial wisdom ('To err is human' or 'No one is perfect'), and, while acknowledging our pain, to temper our feelings with the suspicion that, in our idolatry of the beloved, we may have imagined an impossible perfection which it would be ludicrous to expect anyone to live up to, and which may itself have put an insupportable burden on the person we love. We begin to blame ourselves for what may have been unrealistic expectations. And if we are deeply enamoured, we wish to spare the beloved any additional anguish of guilt that would be entailed by our explicit blame. Yet this kind of generous thinking can end in the danger of our viewing ourselves as supine and servile, and lead to an active form of self-hatred. So to guard against that danger and against any tendency to blame the beloved, we may find ourselves determined to assert our unconditional love—which is, after all, as we desperately tell ourselves, what love ought to be—and to rebuke any third party who might criticise the beloved, a rebuke designed as much to confirm our own commitment as to silence the critic. I have known both heterosexual and homosexual instances of this kind of devotion which, to an outsider, is likely to seem perverse, obstinate, and full of misery. Consider, for example, the following:

No more be grieved at that 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,
Authorising thy trespass with compare,
Myself corrupting salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than their 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 àccessary needs must be
To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.

(Sonnet 35)

The first line presupposes a penitent attitude on the part of the beloved. Whatever the offence that is referred to as 'thy sensual fault', it is clearly something that would cause a deeper sense of guilt than could be cleared away with a simple apology. What was done is serious enough for the speaker to think of himself as offering absolution—an absolution based on the universal imperfection of all sublunary, terrestrial things that figure in the catalogue of the following three lines. It should be noted that the moon and sun, beyond the orbit of imperfection, are not themselves contaminated, but are viewed through imperfections nearer at hand. These imperfections are traditionally explained as a consequence of the fall from grace in the Garden of Eden and of man's first disobedience. (Milton himself was to write of that paradise, 'Flow'rs of all hue, and without thorn the rose'.2) This fallen world is thus a kind of paradox, where 'loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud'. What is being said here is complex. 'Loathsome canker' is strong language, potentially wounding to the beloved: will it seem vengeful? The speaker may hope that its tone of indictment will be sufficiently mitigated by the description 'sweetest bud'. The fifth line is more tactful, and finds fault first of all with the speaker himself for so much as venturing to excuse the beloved, and for doing so by means of metaphorical examples. There is good reason for him to apologise. The instances that he cites from nature are consequences of our fallen state and are now unalterable. To describe the faults of the beloved in the same terms is to risk saying something like: 'There's no point in your apologising, because you can't help doing what you do'—which makes the beloved a primitive or perverse creature and completely invalidates the sincerity of the grief mentioned in the first line. The speaker goes on, in the seventh and eighth lines, to balance any offence he may have given by proclaiming himself the worse sinner of the two, both for making too much of the trespass in the first place, and then for taking upon himself the role of the priest offering absolution, as if he himself were without taint.

The ninth line is pivotal and richly suggestive. William Empson has described it as containing at least three possible lines of thought: (1) 'I bring in reason, arguments to justify [your sensual fault]'; (2) 'I bring in feelings about it, feel it more important than it really was (and therefore excuse it more than it needs)'; (3) 'l bring extra sensuality to it; I enjoy thinking about it and making arguments to defend it, so that my sensuality sympathizes with yours.'3 It can also bear this further meaning: 'To the sensuality of your fault I bring in (to my regret) my own sensuality, which may well, alas, have been the initial cause of your arousal, though now it is not directed at me—in other words, I am myself the unwitting author of your new-found promiscuity.'

Lines 10 and 11 are a very ingenious paradox:

Thy adverse party is thy advocate—
And 'gainst myself a lawful plea commence.

They may be a way of lessening slightly the gravity of the moral predicament in which both parties are now deeply enmeshed. But in addition, the paradox turns the whole focus of complaint and indictment against the speaker himself, leaving the beloved out of the picture to such a degree that with the twelfth line the love and hate are not merely balanced; we are entitled to feel that the hatred is as much self-directed as it is directed at the sensual fault of the beloved, and the love is that which is not only directed towards the beloved but generates the requisite (and, to the speaker, degrading) absolution. This 'civil war' is, in Marlowe's words, an 'intestine broil',4 and it is highly complex. (1) Love and hate are at war. (2) The speaker is at war with himself, as well as with the beloved. (3) He is furthermore at war with the impulses of war and the impulses of hate. This warfare may end in total disaster. It seems almost, in fact, on its way to that very end in the concluding couplet, which, among other things, seems to say that the very distraction of the speaker may be driving his beloved from him; or that his generous willingness to forgive transgressions has encouraged the beloved to feel that no harm has been done; and either alternative would be a highly undesirable state of affairs. These two possibilities are mutually exclusive, and this leaves the speaker in an agonising and insoluble predicament. What is finally so effective about this poem is its stunning dramatic power. It hovers among alternatives, all of them anguishing, delicate in its manoeuvring, tense in its anxiety not to place too much blame on the beloved, but unable to conceal the torment from which the poem sprang. The 'sweet' and 'sour' of the last line echo the mixed imperfections that began the poem, in which the loath-some canker must find out and infect the sweetest bud.5 The bitterness here is not wholly veiled by the cosmic explanation that everything is corrupt. The human drama is based on the terrible truth that thinking about and imagining infidelity is at least as poisonous as any proof of it, and as sickening to the contemplator. Othello and The Winter's Tale are extended illustrations of this, if any confirmation were needed. Moreover, the speaker's drama in Sonnet 35 is enhanced by the fact that we are allowed—indeed, virtually invited—to feel that he is discovering the complexity of his situation as the poem develops. The first line is grammatically and syntactically independent. It can be conceived as spoken in the uncomplicated spirit of charity, sympathy, and good will. The illustrative examples of imperfection in the lines that immediately follow are fairly conventional, and might initially seem to confirm the permissiveness and generosity of the first line, did they not almost unwittingly introduce the appalling note of universal corruption. And from there on we move into increasing darkness and unending corridors of guilt.

It seems to me impossible not to find deeply moving and compelling the complicated and tormenting emotions latent in this poem, though it may be added that such riches are, or might be, implicit in any love poetry that is searching enough. In England in the 1590s there was a vogue of sonnet-writing in which poets admonished themselves, in the words of Philip Sidney, to look in their hearts and write.6 Such introspection and honesty are not easy in any age, and it is the general consensus that, of all the sonneteers, Shakespeare was beyond question the most penetrating. He was also the one who seemed most perfectly to adapt the form itself to his analytic or diagnostic and deeply dramatic purposes.

It may be as well at this point to say something about the sonnet as a literary form; this is not so simple a matter as commentators have supposed. In the 1870s Walter Pater argued that some parts of the early play Love's Labour's Lost resembled the Sonnets: 'This connexion of Love 's Labours Lost with Shakespere's poems is further enforced by the actual insertion in it of three sonnets and a faultless song.'7 The song, of course, is the one that ends the play: 'When daisies pied and violets blue'. But as to the three sonnets, only two of them count as such by our modern and conventional definition; the third is a poem in tetrameter couplets twenty lines long. So it should be said here that there are at least two distinct definitions of the sonnet. One of them is not formally precise; it is given by the Oxford English Dictionary as simply 'A short poem or piece of verse'—in early use especially, one 'of a lyrical and amatory character'. Though OED calls this loose definition rare and indeed obsolete, it was current in English between 1563 and 1820, and it is worth remembering that Donne's Songs and Sonets (1633) contained not a single poem composed in the conventional fourteen-line form. Giroux nevertheless continues to refer to Love's Labour's Lost as 'the sonnet play'. He would have done much better to have cited Romeo and Juliet, which employs far more sonnets, as well as sonnet fragments.8 Indeed, Shakespeare seems in that play to have counted upon his audience's familiarity with some aspects of the sonnet form, and with that form's association with amatory verse.

Under the formal modern definition, the sonnet is a fourteen-line poem, usually written in pentameter verse, though Sidney, for example, sometimes used hexameters, and there have been other variations. The fourteen-line sonnet can be divided into two sorts, the Italian or Petrarchan on the one hand, and the Shakespearean on the other. The Italian poet Petrarch (1304-74) did not invent the Petrarchan form; it was used earlier by Dante (1265-1321) and his circle, but Petrarch's use of this form of sonnet to celebrate his beloved Laura made it widely known, and it was much imitated, notably in France by Ronsard (1524-85) and Du Bellay (c. 1522-60). The Petrarchan sonnet is composed of an octave—an initial passage of eight lines, rhyming ABBAABBA—followed by a sestet—six lines requiring only that each line have a rhyming mate. In addition to the separation of octave from sestet by rhyme-scheme, there is almost invariably a subtle but dramatic shift, a change of tone or point of view, introduced by the sestet and bringing to the poem a sort of 're-vision' or revelation. The severe restriction placed on the rhyming words in the octave—only two rhyme sounds for eight lines—is not difficult to overcome in Italian, which has an abundance of rhyming words; despite the fact that it is very much more difficult to deal with in English, the Petrarchan sonnet has become the preferred form, used by Milton, Wordsworth, and many more recent poets.

The Shakespearean sonnet, too, is named after its most famous practitioner, but as a form it was already firmly established, and was used by Shakespeare's predecessors and contemporaries, including Spenser, Surrey, Sidney, Giles Fletcher, Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton, Thomas Lodge, Richard Lynche, William Smith, and Bartholomew Griffin. It consists of three quatrains rhyming ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, and concluding with a rhymed couplet, GG. This form is particularly easy to 'catch by ear' and identify when spoken aloud. The final six lines of a sonnet, even though written in Shakespearean form, can become its sestet, and Shakespeare often seemed to think of his sonnets in terms of the Italian division, including the dramatic or rhetorical relationship of octave to sestet. This is clearly the case in Sonnet 35, discussed above, and Shakespeare enjoyed the rather luxurious advantage of being able to write his sonnets in the spirit of either the form named after him or the Petrarchan fashion,9 as can be shown by comparing Sonnet 73 and Sonnet 18:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

(Sonnet 73)

This sonnet is a perfect example of the Shakespearean form. Three quatrains, each with its own governing figure of decline, serve as incremental parts of a discourse; each parallels and reinforces the others with beauty and delicacy of detail, and describes the inexorable truth of the natural world's mutability. William Empson's imaginative account of the fourth line is famous:

there is no pun, double syntax, or dubiety of feeling, in
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang,

but the comparison holds for many reasons; because ruined monastery choirs are places in which to sing, because they involve sitting in a row, because they are made of wood, are carved into knots and so forth, because they used to be surrounded by a sheltering building crystallised out of the likeness of a forest, and coloured with stained glass and painting like flowers and leaves, because they are now abandoned by all but the grey walls coloured like the skies of winter, because the cold and Narcissistic charm suggested by choir-boys suits well with Shakespeare's feeling for the object of the Sonnets, and for various sociological and historical reasons (the protestant destruction of monasteries; fear of puritanism), which it would be hard now to trace out in their proportions; these reasons, and many more relating the simile to its place in the Sonnet, must all combine to give the line its beauty, and there is a sort of ambiguity in not knowing which of them to hold most clearly in mind.10

But these boughs are either themselves (by metaphoric transmutation) the bare ruined choirs, which shake against the 'cold', used as a noun; or else 'cold' is an adjective modifying bare ruined choirs themselves. This is not merely grammatical quibbling. Empson places a certain weight on the physical presence of a ruined church, cathedral, or monastery, and derives from these stones a good deal of religious controversy and historical ferment, to say nothing of the putative narcissism of the beloved—an imputation expounded at greater length in 'They that have power', an essay on Sonnet 94 in Some Versions of Pastoral11.

The decline of the year, of the day, of the fire, involving the repetition of autumnal, russet and golden colours, even in the fire, is also graduated in brevity, gaining force thereby. The second quatrain is emotionally more ambiguous than the first, since death is explicitly mentioned, but its terrors are tempered by the soothing comparison with sleep, and more especially a sleep that 'seals up all in rest'. This note of tranquillity is close to Macbeth's 'Come, seeling night, / Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day' (3.2.46-7).12 The four lines progress from twilight to dark, and we are permitted to regard that conclusion as either a consummation devoutly to be wished or else as the end of all the pleasures, beauties and joys of this mortal world. But the final quatrain is dramatically and emotionally the most dense and meaningful. The fire, once brilliant, has dimmed; its ashes now serve to extinguish the very flame that, when those ashes were wood, they fed. What is implied, of course, is that the vigour and liberties of our youth are precisely what serve to bring us, by the excess of that youthful folly and energy, to our demise. We are thus self-executed. This is not altogether remote from the notion (to be found in Donne's 'Farewell to Love') that every sexual experience abbreviates our lives by one day. This sense that youth, injudiciously or wantonly expended, brings about its own forfeiture, is restated in other terms in Sonnet 94, where Shakespeare writes of those who 'rightly do inherit heaven's graces / And husband nature's riches from expense'. These are people who maintain their youth and beauty seemingly for ever because they are by temperament 'Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow'.

And then we come to the deeply unnerving couplet. A number of critics have observed that 'To love that well' means either to treasure your own youth, or to love the poem's speaker, whose old age and imagined death have been the subject of this poem. Either alternative presents problems of emotional complexity. If the beloved is being instructed to husband his own youth and beauty, there is the double pathos of his being instructed by the decay of the poet before him, and of the poet's making himself into a seemingly disinterested object lesson. In addition, this act of husbandry is cruelly doomed, since youth is something 'thou must leave ere long'. If, on the other hand, the beloved is being praised for the nobility of loving someone whom he is destined soon to lose, the poignancy is greatly increased, and the continued love, especially in the face of a ravaged lover, is quietly heroic. Something of the deep risk of all mortal attachments is expressed, and we once again realise that to avoid such attachments may be the safer and more prudent course, but it is not to live life to its fullest, whereas to love means to expose oneself to every possible kind of grief. On being told his newly married wife is dead, Pericles exclaims:

O you gods!
Why do you make us love your goodly gifts
And snatch them straight away?

(Per. 3.1.22-4)

Something of Ben Jonson's anguished cry upon the death of his first son—'O, could I lose all father, now'—haunts the ending of the poem.

Sonnet 18 offers a direct contrast to Sonnet 73 in form and structure.

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 wand'rest 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.

(Sonnet 18)

This sonnet is decisively Petrarchan, notwithstanding its Shakespearean rhyme-scheme. To begin with, it is rhetorically divided into octave and sestet, the change between the two parts balanced on the fulcrum of the word 'But' at the beginning of the ninth line. The poem is widely and deservedly admired. Great riches of implication are packed into the interrogatory first line, which is a single sentence. A summer's day is itself full of meanings both lovely and ominous. It represents the season of growth, fertility, flowers, juvenescence, love, when days are not only luxurious in themselves but at their longest of all the seasons of the year. But that fact itself reminds us of a single day's brevity, no matter how long it lasts by count of daylight hours. We are already made conscious of the portents of decline and imperfection that are inevitably to follow. And how may it be said that some human being is 'like' a summer's day? This person is declared to be superior to any of them, since even the best of them have their faults. There is, I think, a danger, in reading the octave, of forgetting that the descriptive terms drawn from the world of nature are in fact metaphors for human imperfection and mutability. The third line, for example, is filled with the most delicate and tender solicitude for the fragility of beauty—and not just the beauty of buds. We are disposed to think of Hamlet's description of his father as 'so loving to my mother / That he might not beteem the winds of heaven / Visit her face too roughly' (Ham. 1.2.140-2). Even the most seemingly benign forces of nature, the 'eye of heaven', can induce drought and parch the skin; in Sonnet 62 Shakespeare describes himself as 'Beated and chopped with tanned antiquity'. The octave concludes with a vital distinction between 'chance' and 'nature's changing course'. Of these two forces, the latter is predictable, the former not; both are perilous. The sequential progress of the seasons is inexorable, and that it should present itself as a law of nature in the last line of the octave was implicit in the first line. But chance is another matter. In medieval times it was personified, notably by Boethius and Dante, as the pagan goddess Fortuna. Her vagaries and fickleness were proverbial, but a belief in her power provided a wonderful solution to an otherwise vexing theological problem. How could a beneficent and omnipotent God visit calamity or misfortune upon the meek, the pious, and the innocent? Speculation along these lines invited all the perils of heresy and atheism. But Fortuna, with her authority strictly confined to mundane and earthly matters, could be as capricious as she liked, and thereby exculpate God from any charge of negligence or malignity. This solution can, however, be viewed in many ways, not all of them comforting. The licensed rule of chance, undiscriminating as death itself, was reassuring to those in unfavourable circumstances, as a guarantee that if things get bad enough they could only take a turn for the better. Kent reassures himself in this way—not altogether justifiably—when he is put in the stocks: 'Fortune, good night; smile once more; turn thy wheel' (Lear 2.2.173). That turning of the wheel of chance also assured men that no temporal greatness was durable, and that the mighty would surely fall. If this was a consolation to the powerless, it was a serious admonition to the powerful, urging clemency and charity upon them in that season when they were in a position to confer such favours. But when chance turns to havoc, as it does in Donne's The First Anniversarie, very little in the way of consolation or admonition is offered:

'Tis all in pieces, all cohaerence gone;
All just supply, and all Relation:
Prince, Subject, Father, Sonne, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinkes he hath got
To be a Phoenix, and that there can bee
None of that kinde, of which he is, but hee.13

King Lear abounds in this sort of apocalyptic chaos of vanity and disorder, and it is this chaos that is quietly implied in Sonnet 18 by the word 'chance'.

Then comes the brilliantly defiant sestet, in which the poet promises to immortalise his beloved in deathless verse. It needs immediately to be said that this is not personal vanity, nor even a shrewd intuition on Shakespeare's part, but a poetic convention that can be traced back to classical antiquity. It can be found in Homer and Virgil, and J. B. Leishman noted that 'passages on the immortalizing power of poetry are very frequent in Pindar's Odes'.14 This tradition was so strong among the Pléiade—the group of poets who acclimatised the sonnet form in France—that Ronsard in one of his sonnets threatened to withhold immortality from one particular unnamed lady unless she acceded to his decidedly carnal desire. The convention is to be found in Spenser's 'Epithalamion':

Song made in lieu of many ornaments,
With which my love should duly have bene dect . . .
Be unto her a goodly ornament,
And for short time an endlesse moniment15

and in Shakespeare's own Sonnet 55:

Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this pow'rful rhyme.

If Shakespeare is undoubtedly invoking an ancient convention in asserting the poet's capacity to confer immortality, it is not the only convention he employs in his sonnets. We commonly assume that, whatever else love may be, it is at the very least a spontaneous and undeniable impulse, but it was not always thought to be so, and in the Renaissance, views about it were much more complicated. One modern critic has declared flatly: 'L'amour? une invention du douziéme siécle.'16 What could seem more pedantically offensive to our habits of feeling and thought? But the fact is that in classical literature, love is almost invariably regarded as an aberration, a dangerous taking leave of one's senses, most likely to lead to catastrophe and generally to be deplored. Many of the greatest Greek tragedies—Oedipus Rex, Medea, Hippolytus, The Bacchae—treat love as a tragic madness; so does Virgil in the episode of Dido in the Aeneid. The whole calamity of the Trojan war was brought about by a surrender to this insane impulse, which is treated in the Iliad as altogether unworthy and trifling in comparison with grave matters of war and heroism. The hero Odysseus, in the Odyssey, rejects all manner of solicitations from Calypso, Circe, and the Sirens; all these kinds of love are dangerous and to be avoided. Romantic love was historically a late development, and first manifested itself in Provence during the age of medieval feudalism, to which it bears a kind of metaphoric resemblance.

In the poetry developed by the troubadours and poets of Languedoc, the poet-lover always humbles himself in a submissive relationship to his beloved, a posture that duplicates the relation of a vassal towards his feudal lord. Indeed, as C. S. Lewis has pointed out, the lover addresses his beloved as midons, 'which etymologically represents not "my lady" but "my lord" '. Lewis notes that 'The lover is always abject. Obedience to his lady's lightest wish, however whimsical, and silent acquiescence in her rebukes, however unjust, are the only virtues he dares to claim.'17 He goes on to assert that 'an unmistakable continuity connects the Provençal love song with the love poetry of the later Middle Ages, and thence, through Petrarch and manyothers, with that of the present day'.18 Anyone reading Shakespeare's Sonnet 57—'Being your slave, what should I do but tend / Upon the hours and times of your desire?'—would do well to remember the strength and antiquity of this tradition. It is a tradition virtually insisted upon in the final couplet of that sonnet:

So true a fool is love that in your will
(Though you do any thing) he thinks no ill.

This is more than merely abject; 'true' in these lines means not only genuinely and certifiably a fool but also 'faithful'. The implication is that fidelity not merely exposes one to folly but requires it.

These matters of tradition and convention lead us directly to the insoluble question of just what in the Sonnets may be said to be (as Wordsworth claimed they were)19 a key with which Shakespeare unlocked his heart, and what may instead be attributed to a traditional posture belonging to the kind of fourteen-line love poem that he inherited. Are we to regard these poems as anything other than the surviving pages of an intimate diary, transcribing the poet's exact and authentic feelings on every topic he addresses? There are always readers who seek, not art, but something documentary and unassailably factual; when these two categories seem mysteriously intermingled, they will always prize the second over the first. Susan Sontag has said that

Between two fantasy alternatives, that Holbein the Younger had lived long enough to have painted Shakespeare or that a prototype of the camera had been invented early enough to have photographed him, most Bardolators would choose the photograph. This is not just because it would presumably show what Shakespeare really looked like, for even if the hypothetical photograph were faded, barely legible, a brownish shadow, we should probably still prefer it to another glorious Holbein. Having a photograph of Shakespeare would be like having a nail from the True Cross.20

Those who cherish the Sonnets for their documentary value are inclined to dismiss as irrelevant, if not actually wrong, T. S. Eliot's pronouncement in 'Tradition and the Individual Talent':

the poet has, not a 'personality' to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways. Impressions and experiences which are important for the man may take no place in the poetry, and those which become important in the poetry may play quite a negligible part in the man, the personality . . . One error, in fact, of eccentricity in poetry is to seek for new human emotions to express; and in this search for novelty in the wrong place it discovers the perverse. The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all. And emotions which he has never experienced will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him. [My italics]21

Those who reject this view in so far as it applies to the Sonnets most often declare that Eliot's formula is based on the nervous self-protection of an unusually fastidious and evasive man. But such an explanation fails to take into account the fact that Eliot has done very little more than reformulate some observations of Coleridge in Biographia Literaria (XV, 2), so this view is not quite so idiosyncratic as has sometimes been asserted. Indeed, though the Sonnets were not published until much later, already in 1598 Francis Meres, in Palladis Tamia: Wit's Treasury, referred to the circulation of Shakespeare's 'sugred Sonnets among his private friends',22 and it is reasonable to suppose that the poet would only have countenanced this kind of intimate distribution of his work if he felt it to be within the bounds of good taste. This is a question to which I shall return.

A word or two should perhaps be said here about metre and diction as they apply to these poems. Iambic pentameter—'When I do count the clock that tells the time'—is the most familiar metrical pattern in English verse. It is employed by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales, by Shakespeare and Marlowe in their plays, by Milton, by Wordsworth, by the Victorians Tennyson and Browning, by Frost, Stevens, and the poets of today. It is the metre of most of the sonnets in English from Sir Thomas Wyatt to Richard Wilbur. Each line is composed of five feet, and each foot is composed, generally speaking, of two syllables, with the strong accent on the second of these, as in the naturally iambic words 'today' or 'because'. Any moderate acquaintance with the body of English poetry will so habituate a reader to this metre that it will become something that can be recognised involuntarily, as a dancer will recognise the rhythms of a waltz, a foxtrot, or a tango, each with its identifiable idiom and pattern. In the same way, a reader of poetry will in due course become habituated to the sound and weight of a line of five iambic feet, though knowing that any given line will probably deviate in some regard from complete regularity. Such deviations are licensed by convention, and conventions change with the passing of time. Deviations of stress are useful and attractive for a number of reasons. They supply the rhythmical variety that is essential in a long poem or a five-act play. They make possible a flexibility of syntax and a directness of colloquial speech that a strictly regular metre would distort. They serve as a kind of counterpoint or syncopation, if the 'ideal' pattern of the regular iambic line is kept in mind, varying from that ideal in the way a jazz musician will improvise riffs on an established harmony and measure, or the way Elizabethan composers wrote what were called 'Divisions upon a Ground'. As readers, we welcome the introduction of non-iambic feet into a poem nominally iambic in character because we can hear in such poems the authentic sound of a human voice speaking in an idiom we can regard as reasonably 'natural'. There are many degrees and styles of such naturalness, and these too vary from period to period. But metrical flexibility allows a poet to avoid inverted word order and other peculiarities, and permits the words of a poem to speak with a true sense of emotional urgency, whether of anger, rapture, grief, or devotion.

It must be said that Shakespeare's Sonnets are in general metrically regular, especially by comparison with the great liberties he took with metre in the later plays. He often uses feminine endings (an extra, unaccented eleventh syllable at the end of a line), and twelve of the fourteen lines of Sonnet 87 ('Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing') end in this way, most of these endings being composed of the participial -ing.

Clearly, matters of metre are intimately connected with questions of diction, and the diction of Shakespeare's Sonnets is worth noticing for its comparative spareness and simplicity—a sometimes deceptive simplicity. It is as far from the harsh brass choirs of Donne's Holy Sonnets, on the one hand, as it is from the stately elegance and learning of sonnets by Spenser and Sidney on the other. Just as Shakespeare made use of classical mythology only in the most chary and tentative way, so he employed a diction that not only distinguishes his work from that of his fellow sonneteers but from the language of his own work as a dramatist, both early and late. Drama presents human beings speaking to one another in something approximating the manner of ordinary human discourse, whereas we often think of poetry as violating the normal modes of speech. Furthermore, one would suppose that when, in the course of his plays, Shakespeare turns to 'heightened' forms of speech, he would reserve such heightening for the chief utterances of his major characters, as when Macbeth says:

No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

(Mac. 2.2.58-60)

But it is merely a nameless Second Gentleman, never to reappear, who observes at the beginning of the second act of Othello:

I never did like molestation view
On the enchafed flood.

(Oth. 2.1.16-17)

The fact that Shakespeare can allot language like this to persons of no dramatic consequence whatever means that he is not attempting, by such musical flourishes, to convey character, but is simply treating with exuberant and exploratory relish the resources of the English language.

The solid facts about the Sonnets that can be called undisputed are few. In 1599 William Jaggard published two of the Sonnets (138 and 144) in a collection of poems called The Passionate Pilgrim, in which a number of other poems, some of them now firmly identified as being by other hands, were also attributed to Shakespeare. The 1590s were the time of the great vogue for sonnets in England, but Shakespeare's Sonnets did not appear until 1609, when they were published by Thomas Thorpe in a volume usually believed to have been unauthorised by Shakespeare. Thorpe possibly hoped to cash in, belatedly, on what was by then a waning interest in the form. His edition was mysteriously and indeed notoriously dedicated to 'THE.ONLIE.BEGETTER.OF.THESE. INSUING.SONNETS.MR.W.H., and there has been a great deal of argument over this man's identity. . .There has been at least as much conjecture about the order of the poems as about the dedication, some critics proposing that they should be linked by rhyme, or by words that connect one sonnet with another. Some of the sonnets are clearly linked in rhetorical structure as part of a developed argument; several in Thorpe's sequence are clustered round a specific theme. This order, fretted over and argued about, has not yet been superseded by any other that wins wide consent, and it has some elements of design and logic to recommend it. It is generally assumed that the first 126 sonnets are addressed to a young man; the remainder concern a woman. Both involve poems of unusual intimacy, sometimes openly bawdy and erotic in character, though the humour is similar to that of the off-colour jokes that can be found in many of the plays. The poems concerned with the man are, for the most part, more respectful than those about the woman, but even the first group takes liberties that would be admissible between friends in the plays, but are less likely between a poet and his titled patron—if indeed they are to be taken as addressed to the Earl of Southampton. Shakespeare had dedicated other poems to Southampton in words of conventional servility, though it has been correctly noted that the language Shakespeare used in his prose dedication of The Rape of Lucrece to Southampton is very closely echoed in Sonnet 26. Southampton, of course, is one of the leading candidates for the 'young man'—along with William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke—among those who wish to decode the sequence into a personal narrative.

The question of the historical identity of the man is interestingly linked to another question. A group of the earliest sonnets in the sequence is concerned to urge the young man to marry and beget children who will perpetuate his beauty. 'What man in the whole world', asks C. S. Lewis, 'except a father or potential fatherin-law, cares whether any other man gets married?' He regards this repeated recommendation of marriage as 'inconsistent . . . with a real homosexual passion. It is not even very obviously consistent with normal friendship. It is indeed hard to think of any real situation in which it would be natural.'23 Lewis's remarks here seem amusingly suspicious of the benefits of marriage, since he finds it improbable that one friend should recommend it to another; but far more important is his comment that it is hard to think of a 'real situation' in which such a recommendation would be natural. Are we to imagine a real situation behind the poems? Is Shakespeare always writing in propria personal Some critics have proposed that these 'marital' sonnets were commissioned to be passed on to the young nobleman as if coming from his mother.

The problem is not confined simply to the question of the young man's identity, or that of the so-called Dark Lady who is the subject of the later sonnets. Some critics with a strong narrative bent have come up with a detailed plot of sexual betrayal and infidelity which supposes that Shakespeare is simultaneously attached both to the young man and to the woman, and makes the fatal mistake of introducing them to each other, which leads, as in a third-rate film script, to their instant infatuation with each other, their abandonment of the playwright, and their exclusive erotic interest in each other. Followers of this line of argument suggest that Shakespeare acknowledged the double desertion in Sonnet 40—'Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all'—and Samuel Butler adds the excruciating twist, perhaps suggested to him by Rostand's Cyrano, that some of the sonnets addressed to the Dark Lady were written by Shakespeare for the young man to pass on as his own.

There is at least one further major puzzle that seems beyond the reach of any solution. This has to do with the sexual orientation of the poet, and the quality and degree of his intimacy with the young man. (The quality and degree of his intimacy with the woman is unambiguous.) About these matters almost no one feels neutral. Many of Shakespeare's plays have been construed to demonstrate an explicit or implicit homosexual bias on the playwright's part. The relationship between Horatio and Hamlet, between Antonio and Bassanio, and between Iago and Othello—to say nothing of Orsino's erotic interest in Viola disguised as a boy and played by a boy actor, as well as Olivia's interest in Viola, who she thinks really is the boy she pretends to be, or the relationship between Falstaff and Hal24—all these seem homoerotic to some readers. And these arguments are invariably advanced by appealing to the 'evidence' of the Sonnets.

There was an established tradition in Europe that placed a higher value on the love relationship between men than on love between the sexes. Towards the end of the Morte D'Arthur (Book xx, ch. 9), Malory has King Arthur speak in a mood close to despair:

'And therefore,' said the king, 'wit you well my heart was never so heavy as it is now, and much more am I sorrier for my good knights' loss than for the loss of my fair queen; for queens I might have enow, but such a fellowship of good knights shall never be together in no company.'25

Montaigne, in his essay 'On Friendship' (by which he means the friendship between men), says something not dissimilar:

To compare the affection toward women unto it [i.e. friendship], although it proceed from our own free choice [as distinguished from the bonds of child and parent], a man cannot; nor may it be placed in this rank. [Venus's] fire, I confess it . . . to be more active, more fervent, and more sharp. But it is a rash and wavering fire, waving and divers, the fire of an ague subject to fits and stints, and that hath but slender hold-fast [i.e. grasp] of us. In true friendship is a general and universal heat, all pleasure and smoothness, that hath no pricking or stinging in it, which the more it is in lustful love, the more is it but a ranging and mad desire in following that which flies us.26

'The exaltation of friendship over love was a widespread Neoplatonic commonplace . . . popularized in the writings of John Lyly'27—and not in Lyly's works alone, or in Montaigne's. There was the biblical story of David and Jonathan; the Homeric account of Achilles and Patroclus; the classical legend of Damon and Pythias; and, if more authority were needed, Aristotle's argument that relations between men who are friends must of necessity be closer than any possible relationship between men and women because men bear a closer resemblance to one another—an argument advanced in The Merchant of Venice by Portia herself in speaking of the 'love' between Bassanio, her 'lord', and his friend, Antonio. There is, moreover, a theological basis for the devotion of Antonio and Bassanio to each other. The play pointedly confronts the Old Testament (Law) with the New Testament (Love), and the latter is figuratively dramatised as an enactment of John 15.13: 'Greater love than this hath no man, when any man bestoweth his life for his friends' (Geneva Bible). Such love is expressly 'greater' than connubial love, and The Merchant of Venice exhibits much wit in giving each a due and proportionate place in its dramatic fable.

Since it was at times a part of Shakespeare's poetic strategy to invert, parody or burlesque sonnets in the conventional Petrarchan tradition—see, for instance, Sonnet 130: 'My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun'—it may be useful to illustrate this device by citing just such a model along with Shakespeare's irreverent treatment of the same conventions. The following sonnet by Sir Thomas Wyatt is in fact a translation of Petrarch's sonnet, In vita CIX, 'Amor, che nel penser mio vive e regna':

The longe love, that in my thought doeth harbar
And in myn hert doeth kepe his residence,
Into my face preseth with bolde pretence,
And therin campeth, spreding his baner.
She that me lerneth to love and suffre,
And willes that my trust and lustes negligence
Be rayned by reason, shame and reverence,
With his hardines taketh displeasure.
Wherewithall, unto the hertes forrest he fleith,
Leving his enterprise with payn and cry;
And ther him hideth, and not appereth.
What may I do when my maister fereth
But in the feld with him to lyve and dye?
For goode is the liff, ending faithfully.28

This remarkable poem draws its central metaphoric structure from a tradition that reaches back to the Roman de la Rose, which had been partly translated into English by Chaucer. The image is that of a faithful knight dedicated to the service of love, and obedient to the rebuke and correction of a sternly chaste but beautiful mistress, and thus destined to love and suffer simultaneously. But the image of knight-errantry, with all its military embellishments, goes back to the classical identification of love and war, the love of Venus and Mars, the proverbial association that links these forces in the expression, 'All's fair in love and war.' Wyatt's translation of Petrarch is lovingly compounded of a double allegiance: to Love, the involuntary passion that shows itself like a banner in the flushed face of the lover in the first quatrain—and to the beloved, to whom the lover submits in meek obedience, shame, and contrition in the second quatrain. It then becomes the complex duty of the lover to be faithful both to his passion and to his mistress; his loyalty to the former is expressed as a vassal's fidelity to his sovereign lord, and a resignation to accept death itself if that should be called for.

This very set of metaphors—military in character, involving notions of fidelity to the point of death, loyalty, treason, betrayal, and triumph—figures, with deliberate allowance made for the irony of its deployment, in what is probably Shakespeare's most outrageously libidinous sonnet:

Love is too young to know what conscience is,
Yet who knows not conscience is born of love?

Then, gentle cheater, urge not my amiss,
Lest guilty of my faults thy sweet self prove.
For thou betraying me, I do betray
My nobler part to my gross body's treason:
My soul doth tell my body that he may
Triumph in love; flesh stays no farther reason,
But rising at thy name doth point out thee
As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride,
He is contented thy poor drudge to be,
To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.
No want of conscience hold it that I call
Her 'love' for whose dear love I rise and fall.

(Sonnet 151)

It does not take a long acquaintance with this poem to realise that it is laden with puns, most of them leeringly sexual. Critics have ransacked the OED and precedents from Elizabethan literature in tracing the various meanings buried in this wordplay, but there has been very little agreement about whether this is to be regarded as a poem to be admired or simply a crude and embarrassing piece of youthful sexual raillery. Moreover, not only has the quality of the poem been left in doubt, but its meaning as well. For while the puns have been glossed, it is often left unclear which meanings apply to particular words as they make their multiple appearances from line to line. In addition, there has been little if any discussion of the rhetorical structure and premise of the poem.

It posits a dramatic context, an anterior situation, known to the person addressed, the beloved, and to be inferred by us, the readers. It is a defence against a prior accusation, a self-exculpation, a tu quoque argument, but presented in a spirit of bawdy good humour, and free from any sense of guilt or of wounded feelings. Indeed, our whole task as readers is to determine the nature of the charge against which the poem has been composed as if it were a legal brief for the defence. The brief wittily employs all the ancient metaphors of vassalage and faithful military service, of warfare, treason, and triumph that had been part of the Petrarchan conventions, but which are here adapted to carnal purposes where before they had served the most discarnate and spiritual ends.

The first two lines both contain the words 'love' and 'conscience'. To make any sense of them whatever requires a recognition that a different meaning applies to those words in each of the lines. 'Love' in the opening line is Cupid, too young to know or care about the damage he inflicts with his weapons of bow and arrow (the military imagery of weapons is implied right at the start), too young to feel the pang of sexual arousal himself, and thus unaware of the pain he causes others—hence, without conscience. But in the second line 'conscience' as carnal knowledge is begotten by the passion of love (the root meaning here is con scire, 'to know together', in the biblical sense: 'And Adam knew Heva his wife, who conceiving, bare Cain' (Gen. 4.1 in the Bishops' Bible)). For reasons that I hope presently to make clear, I am at variance with critics who regard the phrase 'gentle cheater' as an oxymoron, especially when they argue that 'cheater' implies fraud, deceit or infidelity. The OED cites these very lines to illustrate its first definition of 'cheater': 'The officer appointed to look after the king's escheats; an escheator' (though this meaning became obsolete after the seventeenth century, when the modern sense implying 'fraud' replaced it). An escheater was 'an officer appointed yearly by the Lord Treasurer to take notice of the escheats in the county to which he is appointed, and to certify them into the Exchequer'; the office is therefore one concerned to demand forfeits from those who have defaulted from their obligations, usually financial. In the present case, the 'gentle cheater' is an 'assessor' of some sexual malfeasance, which the sonnet will shortly make somewhat clearer; and the epithet seems to be used without complication in an affectionate and jocular spirit.

The phrase 'urge not my amiss' is densely compressed and probably cannot be construed in isolation from the line that follows: 'Lest guilty of my faults thy sweet self prove'. I would claim in defence of my reading of 'gentle cheater' that it chimes harmoniously with 'sweet self, as any suggestion of sexual treason would not. The third and fourth lines, taken together, are a central crux of the poem, and can plausibly be interpreted in contradictory and mutually exclusive ways. If 'urge' is understood as 'incite', we may read the lines as meaning: 'Do not incite me to some known but unspecified offence (1) lest you be to blame for my fault by inciting me, or (2) lest you turn out upon further inquiry to be guilty of the very same fault yourself.' If, on the other hand, 'urge' means 'accuse' or 'allege', the lines mean: 'Do not charge me with this unspecified fault, lest in some way you turn out to be responsible for it.' There is a further possible complication. In the seventeenth-century orthography of Thorpe's edition, the fourth line is printed: 'Least guilty of my faults thy sweet selfe proue'. And if 'Least' is taken in the modern sense, as distinct from a legitimate spelling of 'Lest', the line would mean: 'Distance yourself as emphatically as possible from my ways and errors.' But this meaning cannot be fitted intelligibly into the rest of the sonnet.

All this leaves us tantalisingly uncertain about what the fault may be, though the entire remainder of the poem is devoted to it, in the form of a legal defence and exculpation, commencing with the first word of the fifth line—'For'—as the beginning of a demonstration and proof of innocence in regard to the charge. From the evidence of the argument for the defence, the charge appears ambiguously to be that the lover has either made sexual demands of too great and burden-some a kind, or else is sexually backward, shy, and indifferent in performance.

The fifth line, with its punning use of 'betray' and 'betraying', is not without its own complexities and puzzles. It has been proposed by some critics that 'betraying' means an overt act of infidelity, and that what is being claimed is something like: 'Every time you are unfaithful to me, I become sexually aroused.' This seems to me at best unlikely, though it is of course possible. Far more plausible is the suggestion that 'betraying' is used here to mean 'seducing', as when Cleopatra says:

I will betray
Tawny-finn'd fishes; my bended hook shall pierce
Their slimy jaws; and as I draw them up,
I'll think them every one an Antony,
And say, 'Ah, ha! y'are caught.'

(Ant. 2.5.11-15)

In contrast to 'betraying', 'betray' here means the treasonable conveyance of the soul ('my nobler part') to the gross and carnal powers of the body. The body itself commits treason by subverting the soul from its chief goal and purpose. The 'I' in the fifth line betrays his own soul by subjecting it to the base authority of his body, so much corrupting the soul that it grants permission to the body to pursue its own lewd ends. And having gained this permission from the soul, the body seeks no further check upon its lusts (such checks as might be offered either by the soul or by outside authority), 'But rising at thy name doth point out thee / As his triumphant prize'. It should be noted here that the 'I' who has been advancing the whole argument of the poem has, rather interestingly, disappeared in this description of the warfare between soul and body. This familiar convention of spiritual and bodily conflict dates back at least as far as St Paul's Epistle to the Galatians 5.17: 'For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary one to the other' (Geneva Bible). This conflict was played out in such poems as Andrew Marvell's 'A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body' and 'A Dialogue, between the Resolved Soul and Created Pleasure',29 and may be found in other poems as well. In the present case, however, the conflict is circumvented or simply avoided by the total capitulation of soul to body.

The 'rising' of the ninth line and the 'pride' of the tenth refer to the tumescence of male sexual arousal; flesh is said to be 'proud' when it swells. The wit here lies in the fact that this truth pertains equally to body and to spirit: a man swollen with pride is guilty of spiritual sin. But these acknowledgements of vigorous sexual reaction are now excused—and indeed glorified—as a testament to the obedience and duty of a vassal to his midons, his absolute sovereign, the disposer of his fortunes good and bad, his very life and death. It is 'flesh' which is the subject of lines 8-14, and by flesh is meant the male sexual organ, which is personified as faithful even unto death, rising and falling at the behest of the beloved. For this reason it seems to me highly unlikely that the word 'cheater' in the third line can contain any overtones of perfidy on the part of the beloved—a meaning which would involve the notion that the speaker is sexually aroused only by the infidelity of his beloved. This is, as I acknowledged, possible, though it raises the whole ludicrous puzzle of frequency. For a man to say of himself that he is instantly aroused by a woman's beauty is at least understandable. To defend his reputation by saying he is aroused only by infidelity on the part of the woman he loves must mean he is aroused at far less frequent intervals, as well as in more curious circumstances, and it becomes thereby a somewhat feebler defence.

There is much more to this sonnet than has been here too briefly summarised, but we must return to the nature of the 'amiss' mentioned in the third line. Has the speaker been accused of sexual negligence, indifference, or impotence? Or of making too insistent carnal demands upon the beloved? The poem can, astonishingly, be read both ways, and in both cases the same argument for the defence works. If she has said to him that he has failed to gratify her sexual appetite, his response is that her 'betrayal' or seductive looks instantly result in sexual arousal on his part, so he is blameless. If, on the other hand, she has accused him of being too insistent upon satisfying his own carnal appetites, his response is that she herself must be blamed for his behaviour by the initial betrayal (i.e. seduction) that leads him to the further betrayal of his soul to his body. No doubt all this is forensic jesting, and the sort of banter not uncommon between lovers. Those who feel the point is overworked should consider once again how much in the way of traditional Petrarchan devices, metaphors of war and treason, images of vassalage and fidelity, are, as I think, brilliantly crowded into a mere fourteen lines. This may not be one of Shakespeare's greatest sonnets, but it is surely one of his wittiest.30

Sonnet 151, though full of puns and complicated wordplay, is still a comparatively simple poem in terms of its tone, and it probably intends a simple and comparatively straightforward meaning, if only we were so situated as to know the nature of the 'amiss' with which it is concerned. Far more complicated in terms both of tone and meaning is Sonnet 87:

Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know'st thy estimate:

The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting,
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.
Thy self thou gav'st, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me, to whom thou gav'st it, else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgement making.
Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.

The genius of this poem consists in its absolute command of tonal complexity throughout, by which it is left brilliantly ambiguous—through tact and diplomacy, with bitterness and irony, or with matter-of-fact worldliness—-just which of the two parties involved is to be blamed for the impasse and end of what had once been a deeply binding relationship. The pretext of the poem is one of self-mortification characteristic of the traditional early love sonnets discussed above. The lover insists upon his own unworthiness, particularly as regards the exalted, unapproachable condition of the beloved. Although there is a pun on the word 'dear' in the first line—a pun made the more explicit by the possibly commercial language of the second line—puns are not the building blocks of this poem as they are of others. The lover begins in what seems initially to be a spirit of generous renunciation: the line can mean both (1) 'I am prepared to give you up' and (2) 'I appear not to have much choice in the matter, so I am giving you up.' Taken in conjunction with the first line, however, the second line of the poem seems to include or suggest the following possible meanings:

  1. You know how much I love you.
  2. You know how much you deserve to be loved.
  3. You have a very high opinion of yourself.
  4. You know how much others love you.
  5. You know the value of the opinions of
    1. me?
    2. yourself
    3. others
    4. all of us.

The poem continues to manoeuvre between these modes of worldliness and unworldliness in a way that, by its skill, speaks of two different kinds of pain, and at the same time makes the pain almost tolerable by the sheer act of lively intelligence that went into the making of the poem, which is clearly no raw, unmediated transcription of experience. By the time we reach the end of the second line, the poem has begun to seethe with implied hostility, governed nevertheless by conventions of propriety and the decorum of charity. We cannot fail to notice the pervasive language of law and commerce, those two ledger-keeping modes of coming to terms with the world; and we cannot fail to feel the irony of the application of those modes to questions of love.

The speaker here seems to be giving the beloved a writ of freedom to depart, and justifying that departure by several different kinds of 'reason', generally practical and intended as plausible. The words 'estimate', 'charter', 'bonds', 'riches', 'gift', 'patent', 'misprision', and 'judgement' all speak, as might a shrewd auctioneer, from a market-place perspective. Beneath the surface of supposedly self-abnegating relinquishment, we detect a flavour of bitterness and scarcely repressed resentment. This may be most openly expressed, and at the same time best concealed, by the lines

For how do I hold thee but by thy granting,
And for that riches where is my deserving?

We do not love anyone on the basis of merit, or rank, or wealth, or for other worldly advantages. Love mixed with or tainted by calculation is highly suspect—is indeed not love at all. It follows then that if the beloved is willing to accept as a legitimate excuse for withdrawing from the relationship any of the various 'worldly' and practical excuses proposed by the lover, then the lover cannot but conclude that the love has not been mutual, whatever he may have thought it to begin with; that the beloved, surveying the prospect or prospects, has both reason and right to seek elsewhere, since no real love seems to be involved. The very word 'misprision' means both a misunderstanding or mistake, and also a clerical error of the ledgerkeeping sort. The final irony of the poem lies in the fact that both parties were deeply deceived—the beloved by either underestimating himself or overestimating the lover, and the lover by having believed that he was loved.

This mutual deception and self-deception are re-examined by Shakespeare in Sonnet 138:

When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unlearnéd in the world's false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,

Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O love's best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not t'have years told.
Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flattered be.

Sonnet 93 deals with the subject even more directly—'So shall I live, supposing thou art true, / Like a deceivèd husband . . . ' Sonnet 138 is a private meditation, with no express addressee, and may perhaps exhibit a certain candour of insight that direct address might forbid in the name of tact. But each is concerned with love as illusion, as self-deception, as bitterly unreal—in ways that remind us that the world of A Midsummer Night 's Dream is not altogether as taintless as it might at first appear.

This capacity for illusion and self-deception concerns not only matters of love but our very sense of ourselves, of our worth—our self-image and self-respect. This issue raises its head in the sonnets about the 'rival poet'. These are usually regarded as a group made up of Sonnets 78-80 and 82-86. But even in so 'early' a sonnet as the celebrated 29—'When in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes'—we find the quatrain:

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least . . .

Such vulnerability, modesty, uncertainty, are touching in their own right, and a small solace to lesser poets in their moods of tormenting self-doubt.

I have earlier raised the topic of how literally and precisely we should allow ourselves to read these poems as documentary transcriptions of personal events. This calls for a few further words. A number of philosophers, beginning perhaps with Plato, have argued on a variety of grounds that poetry is a tissue of lies. This was Stephen Gosson's view in The School of Abuse (1579), and John Skelton, maintaining that religious poetry is 'true', touches upon the same conventional topic when he asks:

Why have ye then disdain
At poets, and complain
How poets do but feign?31

This view, that poets are only feigning, did not differ greatly from ideas that were forcibly advanced during the period of the Enlightenment, when the domain of truth was confined more and more strictly to what could be known with scientific precision. It is a view still voiced in certain quarters to this day. But we may approach the question in another way—one that centres on the nature of poetic form and the demands it makes on the materials it must employ and put into artistic order. The raw materials of poetry can be recalcitrant; the demands of form can be severe. How are these conflicting elements to be reconciled? Here is W.H. Auden's especially persuasive answer to that question:

In the process of composition, as every poet knows, the relation between experience and language is always dialectical, but in the finished product it must always appear to the reader to be a one-way relationship. In serious poetry thought, emotion, event, must always appear to dictate the diction, meter, and rhyme in which they are embodied; vice versa, in comic poetry it is the words, meter, rhyme, which must appear to create the thoughts, emotions, and events they require.32

If what Auden says is right (and it seems to me almost indisputable), then the question of the documentary nature of the Sonnets is largely irrelevant. This will no doubt leave some readers feeling cheated. But the Sonnets are, first and last, poems, and it should be our task to read, evaluate, and enjoy them as such. Devoted attention to each of them in its own right will yield striking discoveries. They are not all equally inventive or moving. Some are little more than conventional; others are wonderfully original and ingenious. Scarcely any lacks true merit, many of them are beyond compare, and in bulk they are without question the finest single group of sonnets in the language. They contain puzzles which will probably never be wholly answered, and this may be a part of their enigmatic charm. But most of all they speak with powerful, rich, and complex emotion of a very dramatic kind, and we cannot fail to hear in them a voice of passion and intelligence.


2 Milton, Paradise Lost, IV, 256.

3 William Empson, The Structure of Complex Words, 1951, pp. 272-3.

4 Christopher Marlowe, Hero and Leander, 1, 251, in Works, II, 438.

5 Compare Sonnet 94: 'For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds.'

6 See the first sonnet in Sidney's Astrophil and Stella.

7 Walter Pater, Appreciations, 1889, p. 167. A similar identification is made more recently by Robert Giroux, The Book Known as Q, 1982, pp. 140-1, citing Pater and referring to Love's Labour's Lost as 'the sonnet play'.

8 See Prologue to Act 1; 1.2.45-50; 1.2.88-93; 1.5.93-110; Prologue to Act 2; 5.3.12-17; 5.3.305-10.

9 It should be added that while these two canonical varieties of the sonnet predominate among Shakespeare's ventures in the form, there are individual sonnets that deviate from both; for rhetorical purposes, or under the pressure of overwhelming feelings, the 'divisions' of some sonnets are at odds with both the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean convention. See, for example, Sonnets 66, 145, and 154.

10 William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, 2nd edn, 1947, pp. 2-3.

11 William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral 1935, pp. 89-115.

12 This is pointed out by Stephen Booth (ed.), Shakespeare's Sonnets, rev. edn, 1978, p. 259.

13 John Donne, The First Anniversarie, lines 213-18, in The Epithalamions, Anniversaries and Epicedes, ed. W. Milgate, 1978, p. 28.

14 J. B. Leishman, Themes and Variations in Shakespeare's Sonnets, 1961, p. 27.

15 Edmund Spenser, Epithalamion, lines 427-32, in Works, Minor Poems, II, 252.

16 Charles Seignobos, quoted by Maurice Valency, In Praise of Love, 1958, p. I. Much the same claim is made by C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love, 1936, p. 2: 'Every one has heard of courtly love, and every one knows that it appears quite suddenly at the end of the eleventh century in Languedoc.'

17 Lewis, Allegory of Love, p. 2.

18Ibid, p. 3.

19 William Wordsworth, 'Scorn not the Sonnet', a sonnet published in 1827.

20 Susan Sontag, On Photography, 1977, p. 154.

21 T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays 1917-32, 1932, pp. 9-10.

22 E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, 2 vols., 1930, II, 194.

23 C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, 1954, p. 503.

24 See W. H. Auden, 'The Prince's Dog', in The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays, 1962, pp. 182-208.

25 Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte D'Arthur, ed. Janet Cowen, 2 vols., 1969, II, 473.

26The Essays of Michael, Lord of Montaigne, trans. John Florio (1603), 3 vols., 1928, I, 195-209.

27 See David Bevington (ed.), The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 1980, p. 1582.

28 R. A. Rebholz (ed.), The Complete Poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt, 1978, pp. 76-7.

29 Elizabeth Story Donno (ed.), Andrew Marvell: The Complete Poems, 1972, pp. 25-8 and 103-4.

30 Anyone who wants to see how carefully constructed, how densely packed, a sonnet of Shakespeare's can be, and who would also like to see how a sensitive and painstaking reader with responsible critical intelligence can unpack those meanings and reveal that design, cannot do better than read Roman Jakobson on Shakespeare's Sonnet 129, in Roman Jakobson and Lawrence G. Jones, Shakespeare's Verbal Art in 'Th'expense of spirit', The Hague, 1970.

31 John Skelton, 'A Replication Against Certain Young Scholars Abjured of Late', in John Scattergood (ed.), John Skelton: The Complete English Poems, 1983, p. 384.

32 W.H. Auden (ed.), Selected Poetry and Prose of Byron, 1966, p. xix.

Source: An introduction to The Sonnets, edited by G. Blakemore Evans, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 1-28.