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Shakespeare’s sonnets are love poems that explore the joy, the pain, the regret, and the transience of this most volatile of human sentiments: Some of the poems evoke love’s joy, others its despair. Some decry the cruelty, others the waste, of unrequited love. Some mourn lost love, others exult in the new. Some refer to rival poets, others to rival suitors. Some are addressed to a young man, at times encouraging him to marry, at other times praising his youth and beauty, and still at other times complaining of his inconstancy and cold indifference. Some are composed to a “dark lady,” so called because of her swarthy complexion and black hair. Some express fear of high passion, others revel in it. Some dwell on the ravages of time upon the radiant glow of a young lover, declaring the poet’s devotion an ageless constant, others proclaim the lines of the poem itself an assurance of eternal youth.
Shakespeare’s sonnets first appeared as a quarto edition in 1609—a “quarto” was a small book about the size of a modern trade paperback. It is generally agreed, however, that the poet had nothing to do with the publication. There were no copyright laws in those days and a printer could reproduce any work he could get his hands on. Indeed, half of Shakespeare’s plays appeared in quartos during his career, none of them apparently with his approval or to his profit.
The 1609 edition is a bit of a puzzle. It appears that Shakespeare composed the sonnets some ten to fifteen years earlier. The first recorded recognition of the poems was a remark by a Francis Meyers in 1598, praising the “sugared sonnets” passed around in manuscript “among his private friends,” and two of them appeared the following year in a miscellany entitled The Passionate Pilgrime. So everything we know points to the conclusion that the sonnets were composed during the mid-1590s, when Shakespeare was in his early thirties. One must wonder why they were not published until so many years later.
Equally puzzling is the aforementioned evidence that the poet played no part in the publication of his sonnets, raising the question as to how they came into the possession of the printer. A short dedication in the opening pages of the book seems to raise more questions than it answers: “To the only begetter of the ensuing sonnets, Mr. W. H.” It is signed “T. T.,” identified as Thomas Thorpe, a well-known printer at the time. How the sonnets came into his possession is unknown, as is the identity of W. H. If we interpret “the begetter” not as the poet himself but as the source or the inspiration of the sonnets, we are offered some suggestive possibilities.
The most plausible proposal for the identity of W. H. takes us back to the sonnets themselves. Of the 154 poems in the collection, numbers 1–126 are addressed to a young man, 127–154 to the so-called “dark lady” (the 1609 quarto numbered them conveniently and they have been so identified ever since). Aside from the questions raised by the fact that Shakespeare addressed some of the most passionate love poems in the English language to another man, it is widely believed that the inspiration for these sonnets was Henry Wriothesley (pronounced “Rizley”), the Earl of Southampton. If so, it is unclear why the “begetter,” is “W. H.” and not “H. W.” and why an earl is addressed as “Mr.” It has been suggested that since gentlemen of the time considered it beneath their dignity to engage in any activity as common as publication, Thorpe inverted the initials to avoid embarrassing Wriothesely but cleverly kept them so that the earl could be properly acknowledged.
A sonnet is a highly structured poem, and it is helpful to our enjoyment of any work or activity if we are familiar with that structure from the outset. Modern poets tend to find conformity to a traditional design unnecessarily confining to the creative spirit, but such was not the case in Shakespeare’s time. Poets of his day felt that form was an integral part of meaning and were accustomed to compose in an established tradition. In doing so, they invited comparison to their renowned predecessors as well as their contemporary rivals, whose art they sought to match or surpass. The first edition of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost appeared in ten books, but he revised it for the second in twelve, again inviting comparison to the twenty-four books of Homer’s Iliad and the twelve of Virgil’s Aeneid, thereby declaring himself the English heir to their fame. Practical matters as well determined the length and scope of a work. Shakespeare himself acknowledged that he was restrained by his audiences’ impatience with a play longer than a “two hours’ traffic o’our stage.”
A familiarity with the form, structure, and length of the sonnet is therefore critical to our appreciation of these poems, providing us with a frame of reference, a place to stand, in experiencing art. Briefly, a sonnet is a poem of fourteen lines, each of which consists of ten syllables. A musical rhythm is achieved by accenting every other syllable in a line starting with the second, as in “That time of year thou mayst in me behold,” a meter referred to as iambic pentameter. A musical sound is achieved by adherence to a regular rhyme scheme, described in an alphabetical shorthand as “ABAB CDCD,” indicating that the final syllable of line 1 is echoed by the one in line 3, that of line 2 by the one in line 4, and so forth, as in:
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 ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
(Sonnet 73, punctuation and spelling are modernized)
The rhyme scheme of sonnets in fact comes in two varieties. The fourteenth–century poet Petrarch is said to have been the first to compose the sonnet form in a series of poems lamenting the indifference of an unresponsive Laura. His rhyme scheme divided the poem’s fourteen lines into two parts of eight, the “octave,” and six, the “sestet,” or in the aforementioned shorthand, ABBA ABBA CDE CDE (though the sestet could vary, e.g., CDCD EE). This division lent itself to a variety of rhetorical patterns, a question and answer, for example, an assertion followed by a denial, or something in the order of “on the one hand, on the other.” Hence, line 9 of the poem often began with “but,” “yet,” or “so,” indicating an alternative, or “turn,” to the sentiment of the octave.
The English, or Elizabethan, sonneteers, however, adopted a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, that is, three four-line rhymes, called quatrains, followed by a concluding couplet. This is sometimes called a Shakespearean sonnet, but, though he is certainly the most well-known of poets to employ it, the scheme was first designed by the English poets Surrey and Wyatt over half a century earlier. This arrangement lent itself to a different kind of development, three variations on a theme, for example, ending in a summary couplet, or three successive images capped by a couplet that drew meaning from them, or allusions to a loved one’s beauty, virtue, and compassion, concluding with a declaration of eternal devotion.
Since this is the prevailing structure of Shakespeare’s sonnets, it will be helpful to consider one of them in detail, offering the reader a model for the appreciation of the other 153. So let us turn again to the justly admired sonnet 73. The poet, addressing an unnamed, apparently younger lover, dwells on the prospect of his own approaching death, concluding in the couplet that he should therefore be loved all the more since he will soon be gone:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold A
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang B
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, A
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. B
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day C
As after sunset fadeth in the west; D
Which by and by black night doth take away, C
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest. D
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire, E
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, F
As the death-bed whereon it must expire E
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by. F
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong, G
To love that well which thou must leave ere long. G
The quatrains evoke a sense of ending—the year in the late fall’s bare trees, the day in the setting of the sun, and the dying fire—as they move in time from a season to a day to a final moment and in place from the outer world to the intimate space of the fireside. The couplet asks for a sympathetic response to the sentiment. Not all of Shakespeare’s sonnets are as carefully crafted as this one, with its imagery of autumn, twilight, and the fading embers of life, but they all follow the same pattern. And in some the poet, while adhering to the English rhyme scheme, occasionally adopts the Petrarchan “turn” with its “buts” and “yets,” as in sonnets 18, 29, 30, 62, 106, and 138.
Some critics have suggested that the sonnets record actual experiences in Shakespeare’s life, that, for example, the love poems addressed to Wriothesely reveal an erotic relationship with the young man, and that those to the “dark lady” are a personal history of his troubled relationship with her. The sonnets certainly ring with the sound of sincere obsession, but one must acknowledge the ability of a consummate poet to create art from any experience, however slight or profound. Wriothesely, was a potential patron. Shakespeare had already dedicated two long poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, to the wealthy earl, and the sonnets can be seen as yet another effort to attract that patronage. If he was indeed the person addressed in the sonnets—and there is no certainty in the matter—they may be seen simply as yet another appeal for his patronage.
It was not unusual for men of the time to characterize their relationship with male friends in terms of “love”. Shakespeare’s plays abound in such expressions: Iago, for example repeatedly pleads his “love” for Othello, and the Moor assures Cassio, “I love thee.” Romeo speaks of his “love” for his new cousin Tybalt, and Hamlet his for Laertes as they grapple over Ophelia’s grave. In this context sonnet 73 can be read as but a flight of poetic fancy. At the time, the poet, far from languishing in his golden years in somber contemplation of his deathbed, was a vigorous man in his early thirties and Wriothesley but nine years his junior. We do an injustice to Shakespeare’s art by reading it as autobiography, but then we know so little of his life that the temptation to seek him out in his lines is irresistible.
Aside from the numerous sonnets that praise the beloved’s youth and beauty, the reader will find many others that range widely over the experience:
The poet is not modest about his art. He claims that the loved one will defeat time, having been rendered immortal by the poems’ lines: “So till the judgement that your self arise, / You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes” (sonnet 55, “this” being the poem); “And yet to times in hope, my verse shall stand / Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand” (sonnet 60).
He complains about his lover’s rejection and pleads for pity: “Thine eyes I love, and they as pitying me, / Knowing thy heart torments me with disdain” (sonnet 132); “Be wise as thou art cruel, do not press / My tongue-tied patience with too much disdain” (sonnet 140).
He is distressed by the heat of his passion:
Th’expense of Spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action, and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of shame.
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust.
His devotion is unchanging and eternal: “Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks / Within his bending sickle’s compass come” (sonnet 116).
As we have seen in sonnet 73, he tends to exaggerate his age in a plea for sympathy: “No longer mourn for me when I am dead” (sonnet 71); “…my days are past the best” (sonnet 138).
He grieves at the prospect of parting: “How heavy do I journey on the way” and “My grief lies onward and my joy behind” (sonnet 50); “From where thou art, why should I haste me thence?” (sonnet 51).
Readers have identified the lover addressed in sonnets 127– 154 as the “dark lady” on the basis of a few reference to her coloring: “Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black” (sonnet 127). And sonnet 130 is a parody of the preference of chivalric romances for a fair-haired and fair-complexioned lady, distant and unattainable: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” and “If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.”
Thus, these poems of love can be read with pleasure by members of any generation, be they young or old. The young, perhaps caught up in a similar passion, will welcome lines that give voice to the joy and pain of such a time in ways they themselves might find difficult to put into words. Elder readers will look back with sympathetic nostalgia on romantic exploits of their youth, shaking their heads in disbelief at the memory of their early follies or recalling sadly a moment of neglect when love slipped away. All, then, will find in the sonnets a mirror of their own days.
Robert Thomas Fallon, now retired, is an Emeritus Professor of English at LaSalle University in Philadelphia. He is the author of four books published on Shakespeare and three on John Milton.