Blogging The Sonnets…

Well a Merry Christmas/Happy New Year to you one and all, this festive season leaves me feeling a little bereft literarily speaking as I have just finished teaching *a lot* of Shakespeare. I love teaching Big Bill in all contexts but I have especially enjoyed teaching The Sonnets. Teaching them for the first time this year, I have repeatedly and I suppose appropriately fallen in love with them on a biweekly basis. They are put simply, fantastic. Even the rubbish ones are compelling in the role they occupy within the broader narrative of the sequence and the good ones? The ones that everyone knows and you always assumed were a little bit done to death? When you revisit them, re-read them and puzzle them through, they actually make your stomach flip. The sheer talent and emotion inextricably woven together give me butterflies.
One slight problem with this is that I have become increasingly impatient with those who don’t ‘know’ the sonnets. I realise that this is entirely unreasonable and thus, I have decided to try and blog my way through them. Though borne of love this is also an unashamed effort to exorcise my desire to lecture all who cross my path on their fabulousness with a near religious fervour. And so, in order to avoid alienating everyone I know anymore than usual, I shall preach to the Internet. To quote Julie Andrews, let’s start at the very beginning: a very good place to start.
Sonnet I
From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel:
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament,
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding:
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.
The first sonnet in the sequence also forms the first of 17 so-called ‘procreation’ sonnets. They are collectively referred to as such because they follow roughly the same argument as cited above in an effort to compell, or to command really, the addressee to preserve his beauty for the world through replication. This is broadly considered to be one of the finer poems in this section, perhaps because it is the first but more, I would suggest, because there is a tangible sense of affection and longing operating beneath the surface here. The premise of the poem is that: you, the addressee, are beautiful and you have a responsibility to the world to preserve your beauty through replication; that is, through children. However, as it stands you, are a selfish, Narcissitic ‘glutton’ with no interest in procreating, only in ‘thine own bright eyes’. As such you will deny the world your beauty by taking it with you when you die. You bastard.
This is a relatively common idea that ties in nicely with the Elizabethan/Jacobean preoccupation with succession and inheritance. It is played out through a series of images intiated by that of ‘beauty’s rose’; again, a common image associated with female beauty (as well as female genitalia) that adds another layer to this call to sire children in the name of beauty. The poet distances himself from the subject with the collective personal pronoun ‘we’ later identified as ‘the world’ and there are many, in fact, there is a majority that believe this (as well as other of these first 17 sonnets) to have been a commission piece. Perhaps I am just sentimental (well, that is a fact, I am) but I would swear to the presence of an underlying desire, conscious or otherwise. The poet betrays himself in the endearment ‘sweet self’ and again when he addresses the ‘tender churl’ in the twelfth line: as the poem progresses the focus shifts from the ‘tender heir’ as a potential perpetuation of the addressee’s beauty onto the beauty himself and what a loss he and would be to the world. The insult is a gentle one, and the reassignment of the word ‘tender’ from ‘heir’ to ‘churl’ is again suggestive of affectionate mockery. OK, it’s all a far cry from the extraordinary, bursting declaration of Sonnet 18 but there is something there; the repeated possessives, the odd endearment and the rather too forceful desire to have the addressee procreate. As Don Paterson in his exceptional – and very accessible – commentary puts it, “the laddie doth protest too much, methinks”.
It is worth noting, also, that the beauty is explicitly identified as male here and ‘beauty’s rose’ is relegated to facilitator of the desired multiplication of the poet’s beauty. I love the fact that so many of these poems are addressed to the Young Man or Fair Youth not only but particularly because some biggoted people don’t realise it and will have them read at their wedding services, oh if they only knew… but I digress.
I hope this is of interest (particularly to any students of The Sonnets) and would like to direct those in search of a useful edition to The Arden edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones. I have already mentioned Don Paterson’s commentary but would also recommend looking at his introduction to 101 Sonnets ; it is again a very accessible introduction to the form without sacrificing critical clout. There are innumerable recommendations that I could make but given the amount I’ve already rambled I’ll settle for a stern imperative to check out this website and to look at Helen Vendler’s work.
As I said above, I have fallen irrevocably in love with these poems to the point that I have become an insufferable bore on the topic and suffice to say I hope you fall, helplessly and hopelessly in love with them as well…
Next time… Sonnet II!
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