Finally I come to Shakespeare’s poems, or rather to the Sonnets. Some of these, like the plays, are very well known, whereas the few other poems he wrote, though well worth reading (in particular the long narrative Venus and Adonis), would not I think be remembered were it not for his other work.
Perhaps the same is true of the sonnets taken as a whole. What Shakespeare is best at is depicting relationships between people in a social context. Though the sonnets are concerned, almost entirely, with the poet’s relations with two people, a young man and a woman termed the Dark Lady, they are monologues dealing with conceits, namely artificial expansions of aspects of the relationship. But several of the conceits are enchantingly put, and a theme that recurs constantly, that of passing time, is of course of universal interest. The first and the last two lines of Sonnet 12 express this graphically, while also asserting another idea we find repeated in the series, that of the importance of procreation:
“When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.”
Most of the 154 Sonnets are addressed to a youth, which has led to much speculation as to whether Shakespeare had a romantic interest in a young man. More directly sexual are the 26 sonnets addressed to a Dark Lady. The contrast serves, I think, to confirm that, as happens in many contexts in which women did not share the full life of their menfolk, intimacy between men could be intense, whether or not there were physical aspects to the relationship.
Certainly the intensity of affection does often seem romantically sentimental, as in the little known 71st sonnet:
“No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it, for I love you so,
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O! if, I say, you look upon this verse,
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse;
But let your love even with my life decay;
Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
And mock you with me after I am gone.”
Or in one of the best known, the 18th:
“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.”
That sonnet is also perhaps the strongest assertion of another constant idea in the cycle, that of the lasting impact of the written work, heard again in Sonnet 81:
“Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.”
Blended with the deep commitment or the relationship is another hallmark of British social relations, that of patronage. The young man of the sonnets seems to be of a higher social rank than the poet, so the adulation could be more openly expressed, as in Sonnet 57 :
“Being your slave, what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend,
Nor services to do, till you require.
Nor dare I chide the world-without-end hour
Whilst I, my sovereign, watch the clock for you,
Nor think the bitterness of absence sour
When you have bid your servant once adieu; ”
More movingly, a relationship that is not equal is described in terms of a difference in age, with the older poet being the suppliant:
“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 see’st 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 see’st 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 nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.”
Shakespeare also superbly expresses the passion of possession, though given the difference is situation, it emerges as the passion of being possessed, strikingly described in Sonnet 61:
“Is it thy will, thy image should keep open
My heavy eyelids to the weary night?
Dost thou desire my slumbers should be broken,
While shadows like to thee do mock my sight?”
Is it thy spirit that thou send’st from thee
So far from home into my deeds to pry,
To find out shames and idle hours in me,
The scope and tenor of thy jealousy?
O, no! thy love, though much, is not so great:
“It is my love that keeps mine eye awake:
Mine own true love that doth my rest defeat,
To play the watchman ever for thy sake:
For thee watch I, whilst thou dost wake elsewhere,
From me far off, with others all too near.”
And in contrast we have in Sonnet 87 an acceptance of the relationship ending, with abnegation expressed through feminine rhymes, when the last syllable of a pair of rhyming syllables is not stressed:
“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 gavest, 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.”
Finally, in looking at the poems about the admired youth, I should cite Sonnet 116, one of the most striking accounts of love itself:
“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.”
In contrast with the idealism of the relationship with the young man, and its exaggerated account of his qualities, are the sonnets to the Dark Lady, most obviously Sonnet 130:
“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.”
The last two lines there however provide a positive angle to what seems aggressive realism. But even this is missing in the other well known sonnet, 138, addressed to the lady:
“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 untutor’d youth,
Unlearned 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 suppress’d.
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 to have years told:
Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.”
But it would not do to end on this note, so let me conclude this article, and the account of Shakespeare, with a celebration of love, from Venus and Adonis, which also carries with it Shakespeare’s understanding of a closely related counterpart, an understanding that informs all his expositions of human character and experience:
“Love comforteth like sunshine after rain,
But Lust’s effect is tempest after sun;
Love’s gentle spring doth always fresh remain,
Lust’s winter comes ere summer half be done;
Love surfeits not, Lust like a glutton dies;
Love is all truth, Lust full of forged lies”