Truth and Decay in Shakespeare's Sonnets
For sweetest things turn sourest by their
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
Howsoever it may pique the reader with its opacity,1sonnet 94 achieves a concussive conclusion through its evocation of a rarely used sense: the poem terminates in thick smell. Shakespeare evokes smell, briefly, in only nine of the 154 sonnets. Sight, a sense that the poet can control, is preferred. One can close one's eyes or turn one's head, one can manipulate and sculpt the visual world; but invisible smell assaults and surprises the body, delivering a shock commensurate only to the shock of seeing an ideal downrazed, or a faith forsworn. The jarring couplet of 94 alludes, of course, to the beloved's alleged moral turpitude.2 Infidelity is so pungent here because, as John Bernard argues, the young man is not merely a representation of an ideal Platonic form but the ideal itself, 'not the mere shadow but the very substance of the divine.'3 The young man is a figure for the very possibility of belief, and hence allegations of his moral failure threaten to shatter not only the speaker's heart, but also his capacity for faith. The speaker's cosmology is knitted into the very flesh of his beloved—but like the lily, skin rots.
The fallibility of the speaker's ideals and the 'wantonness' (96) of his beloved (the two, I argue, are the same) provide the sequence with one of its central fixations: constancy. Critics have taken various positions on the matter: John Bernard, for one, dismisses the young man's sins as 'mortal accidents.' Denying Shakespeare's sense of the perfidious mutability and slippage of language, as well as the speaker's parallel anxiety over the undependability of the young man, Bernard insists that Shakespeare's ironclad faith in 'the Logos, the Name of names by which the Godhead reveals itself to men' engenders a verse which is as 'unique and unchanging' as the object of its praise: hence what he calls the 'predictable sameness' of the sonnets.4 On the other hand, Lars Engle insists that the sonnets are the harbinger of the fragmented modern psyche. Shakespeare, he claims, is not only aware of but also comfortable with the economic flux and inconstancy of all forms and values.5 Aligning himself with Anne Ferry and Joel Fineman,6 Engle offers a comfortably 'antifoundationalist' Shakespeare, a Shakespeare modeled upon Wittgenstein, Rorty and Lacan.7 These are plausible but also, I believe, desiccated readings. By over-emphasizing the speaker's faith on the one hand, and by underestimating his desire for faith on the other, both groups of critics thereby deny the speaker's torment and doubt, his simultaneous need and inability to believe in the constancy of Love, the beloved, and the poetry which alone can represent them.
The 'monumentalizing' sonnets engage the dialectic of the speaker's faith most explicitly: 116 (the constancy of love), 55 (the constancy of poetry), and 105 (the constancy of the beloved). The disagreements among critics on these sonnets reproduces the interior dynamic of each poem: at any given moment the speaker may believe with desperate faith, or undercut himself with detached cynicism.8 Rather than adding to the daunting amount of criticism on these particular sonnets, however, I will investigate representations of constancy by tracing the development of specific word clusters and images throughout the sequence as a whole. I will read the sonnet sequence as a sequence—a move of faith for which I can provide no justification other than the agnostic's: my belief cannot be disproved even if it cannot be proved.9 Shakespeare, intuition tells me, was well aware of the potential for reverberation between the parts of his sequence; he was cognizant of the resonance certain phrases or ideas might accumulate throughout. The sequence as a whole, then, dramatizes the mind's endurance of love, its struggle over time between desire and disgust, between philosophical idealism and the dictates of the corporeal. By...
(The entire section is 6,069 words.)