Since Valentines Day is next week, I thought I’d talk a little bit about Shakespeare’s love poems. Every year I try to study a sonnet or two and write one of my own for my wife and my family. So here’s some insight into the sonnets and I hope that this inspires you to read and craft your own love poems.
What Is A Sonnet?
Shakespeare wrote 154 short poems called sonnets.
They are 14 lines long
Each line has 10 syllables, generally in iambic pentameter
12 of the 14 lines are grouped into 3 groups of 4 lines called quatrains
The final two lines are called a rhyming couplet
A little History
The first collection of Shakespeare’s Sonnets was published in 1609, but NOT BY SHAKESPEARE.
We don’t know if this is the order he intended, we don’t know if he intended them to be published, and we DEFINITELY DON”T KNOW IF THEY ARE AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL.
Themes and Ideas
A lot of the sonnets use extended metaphors where the speaker describes his feelings by describing himself as another person, place, or thing. In some sonnets, he’s a painter or looking in a mirror, or an astronomer looking through a telescope or outdoors in nature and something reminds him of the beloved. Most follow a similar theme:
You’re beautiful like… [or] I’m trying to write about you but…
You wil age and die.
TIme and the sonnets
The most pervasive idea in the sonnet is a fight against Time. Time is often personified in the sonnets as being jealous, cruel, cold, unfeeling or petty. Time is also associated with the concept of Death. Like the Grim Reaper, he is the enemy of romantic love because he makes young lovers age and die.
THe BIG BUT..
In most of the sonnets there’s a “But” around the third quatrain (lines 9-12 or thereabouts), which challenges the power of time or Death. For example, the first 8 sonnets basically say: “You will age BUT… you will become immortal if you have children.”
The Young Man sonnets (1-126)
The first 126 sonnets (roughly) are about a young man with blonde hair. Though there is no evidence that the sonnets were autobiographical, many scholars have speculated that he might have been partially inspired by Henry Wriosley, the Earl of Southampton. Shakespeare dedicated two poems to Henry: The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis, which you can see the title page of here:
When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silvered o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defense
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence
I love this sonnet for its use of alliteration, the use of words that sound the same: “count,” “clock” “tells,” “time,” “green,” “girdled,” etc. The use of “count,” and “clock” in particular makes you imagine the sound of a clock in your head. The sonnet makes you keenly aware of the passage of time, first from the seconds of a ticking clock, then to the changing of the seasons, then at last to the span of a lifetime. This sonnet might not inspire much in terms of feelings, but its technical construction literally works ‘like clockwork.’ If you’re interested in r Elizabethan clocks and other timekeeping instruments, click here for a fascinating blog: https://www.cassidycash.com/did-shakespeare-have-a-clock-part-1-of-5/
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.
I go into detail explaining sonnet 18 in my class: “Love Poetry Shakespeare Style,” but to put it succinctly, this sonnet is famous for talking about the ways the beloved is Better than a summer’s day.
Sonnet 27- “Weary With Toil…
Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed, The dear repose for limbs with travel tired; But then begins a journey in my head To work my mind, when body's work's expired: For then my thoughts--from far where I abide-- Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee, And keep my drooping eyelids open wide, Looking on darkness which the blind do see: Save that my soul's imaginary sight Presents thy shadow to my sightless view, Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night, Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new. Lo! thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind, For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.
Not to seem crass, but this sonnet is literally panting with sexual desire. The speaker is exhausted but cannot sleep, with the image of his beloved haunting his thoughts. There are also a few religious allusions too where the speaker calls himself a “pilgrim,” much like Romeo and Juliet in their first meeting in Act I, Scene v. It almost seems like the beloved is both an angel that the speaker wants to bless him, and a succubus or vampire draining him of love and life.
XXIX “When In disgrace…”
Sonnet 29: “When in disgrace With Fortune and men’s eyes
When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes I all alone beweep my outcast state, And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, And look upon myself, and curse my fate, 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; Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising, Haply I think on thee, and then my state, Like to the lark at break of day arising From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate; For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Sonnet 118- The “Marriage” Sonnet
Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.
– Shakespeare, Sonnet 29
Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments. Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove: O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark, That looks on tempests and is never shaken; It is the star to every wandering bark, Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken. Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks Within his bending sickle's compass come; Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, But bears it out even to the edge of doom. If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved. This sonnet is one of the most famous poems in all of English literature all. In fact, it's quite personally important to me, because my wife recited it to me on my wedding day. It is full of powerful metaphors about how married love is stronger and more resilent than simple lust or infatuation. On my wedding day it was a powerful affirmation that my wife and I will endure age, change, Time, and eventually death, but our love will remain the same.
The Dark Lady Sonnets 127-152
Sonnets 127-152 seem to be collectively addressed to a woman with dark hair, dark skin, and musical talent, who seems to be in a love triangle with the speaker of the sonnets, and someone else. As you can see in this video, many theories have come up to try and expose who she really was, but again, he have no proof that these sonnets were in any way autobiographical.
As far as we know, the Dark Lady sonnets might simply have been a writing exercise for Shakespeare while he was writing Othello and Antony and Cleopatra. I’m not interested in the Dark Lady conspiracy, except for its usefulness for historians to highlight important Elizabethan women. I have to admit that I wouldn’t have known about Emilia Lanier, or the Countess of Pembroke if they hadn’t been roped into the Dark Lady theory. Otherwise, I’m only interested in the Dark Lady sonnets for their poetry and the interesting stories they tell.
In the old age black was not counted fair, Or if it were, it bore not beauty's name; But now is black beauty's successive heir, And beauty slandered with a bastard shame: For since each hand hath put on Nature's power, Fairing the foul with Art's false borrowed face, Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower, But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace. Therefore my mistress' eyes are raven black, Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack, Sland'ring creation with a false esteem: Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe, That every tongue says beauty should look so.
I admit this is a retroactive reading, but Shakespeare has been guilty of equating fair skin with beauty, so it’s nice to see this sonnet, which lends itself to a refutation of that notion. Much like how “Hath not a Jew eyes…” has been appropriated as a plea for tolerance, I hope this sonnet gains popularity as a source of pride for POC.
In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on Nature’s power,
Fairing the foul with Art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem:
Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.
How oft when thou, my music, music play’st,
Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds
With thy sweet fingers when thou gently sway’st
The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,
Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap,
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilst my poor lips which should that harvest reap,
At the wood’s boldness by thee blushing stand!
To be so tickled, they would change their state
And situation with those dancing chips,
O’er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait,
Making dead wood more bless’d than living lips.
Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,
Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.
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.
I ended with this sonnet, because unlike the previous ones, Shakespeare beautifully shows the frankness and honesty in true love. Shakespeare doesn’t use extravagant praise or pretty metaphors, but instead just says he loves his mistress for who she is. I wish that all of you reading this will find a love that you can enjoy without false comparison, (but then again, what is life without a little poetry in it)?
Happy Valentine’s Day!