Nearly 400 years after they were first bound and published as his “Quarto,” William Shakespeare’s collection of 154 sonnets remain a go-to curriculum for romantics, literature lovers and college professors. Full of nuance, texture, emotion and the occasional ridiculously confusing line, Shakespeare’s Sonnets are an immortal examination of death, love, lust and despair. And what hurt back in the late 1500s? Oddly, still applicable — and understandable — today.
Two weeks ago Nicole (of Linus’s Blanket) and I introduced a brand-new project — or adventure! — for ourselves: re-reading the works of the Bard now, as adults and great fans of the written word. Both avid readers, we believed we would get far more out of spending time with the sonnets and plays of one of the world’s most famous English-language writers than we had as, say, high school and college students.
And I think we were right.
For our inaugural post, we took a look at two of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets: Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) and Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun . . .”).
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 wand’rest 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.
Meg says: Writers have long been obsessed with the idea of immortality — and achieving it through their work. At first read, Sonnet 18 seems to be a romantic note to a lover explaining that though time may alter her, Death can never fully claim her; she will forever live on in the lines of the poem. This sonnet seems to be an attempt to bring immortality to the beloved, whose beauty he knows will never fade. Of course, doing more research, we learn that scholars believe the “she,” who is never given a gender, is actually a “he” — the “fair youth” of which Shakespeare writes. That adds a totally new dimension — and ambiguity — to the poems.
That final couplet is a killer — definitely one of my favorite of all of Shakespeare’s parting lines. The weight of it: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Four hundred years later, we’re still reading about the poet’s love for the object of his devotion — though that identity is largely unknown (and disputed). As readers, do we need to know who our “thee” is? No, I’d say. That’s another thing I love about the sonnets: like all great literature, they can be adapted and appreciated based on who we are as individual readers. I don’t need to know who “he” is in order to appreciate this poem — another grasp at immortality. The sentiment? It’s there.
Nicole says: I don’t think I ever got to the point in this sonnet when the idea of immortality and the quest for it actually crystallized in my mind. I got that he was comparing his lover favorably to something beautiful in a pretty straightforward way, which in my mind was quite a difference from Sonnet 130, which I had read first. His lover has all of these qualities which will outweigh the most glorious aspects of the seasons since her good nature is more lasting than the fickleness of nature.The part that threw me for a loop at first was when the concept of death was introduced.
When death made it’s entrance in the sonnet I was intrigued and confused. My first thought was that his lover has died, “Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade/ When in eternal lines to time thou growest:” But, the more I read it, the more I understood the subject of the poem would always outlive death and elude death’s clutches as long as they live in the memories of others. There also seems to be an implied reference to being immortalized through art, otherwise I’m not sure how the subject can go on being seen after death. I had no idea the lover in this poem is actually a man and it really doesn’t mean anything to me here. These are really beautiful sentiments about how the essence of a loved one survives even death.
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.
Nicole says: I wasn’t quite sure what to make of sonnet 130 in the beginning. His mistress compared unfavorably to just about everything under the sun, including the sun! When I came upon, “If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun”, I was fairly grossed out. Comparing breasts to dun, though I have no idea exactly what that means, just doesn’t sound good. He also compares her hair to bristly wires and says that her breath reeks. Does he love this woman or not?
I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and to find out the reason that he was going to reveal the reason that he didn’t like this woman, or to find out that she is an ex-lover of whom he is no longer fond, but that never happens. I think the point is that she is not perfect and he loves her anyway. Now I don’t know that I would like to be described so brutally as he describes his love, but the idea that someone knows your physical flaws and is okay with them- it’s pretty sexy. A very sincere Valentine. 🙂
Meg says: Wow! If our man Shakespeare was trying to win the heart — and hand — of a lady through his sonneteering, this doesn’t quite seem to be the way to initially go about it. Does it? We’re basically told that in comparison to all of these naturally beautiful things, his mistress — the woman with whom the poet is so infatuated — absolutely pales. And maybe looks terrible.
Sonnet 130 is very different from Sonnet 18 — and almost seems to be insulting! The poet’s beloved, now clearly identified as a woman, doesn’t have much going on for her in the looks department . . . but he loves her anyway. The eighth line stopped me dead in my tracks: “Than in the breath that from mistress reeks.” Just that word: reeks. I’m not a fan in general, but to characterize anything about her as “reeking” is not pretty or flattering.
But, like all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, that final couplet turns it all around; we know that the poet cares for her with a true and “rare” love. The tenth line, which tells us that his mistress “treads on the ground,” is actually very endearing to me. Being placed on a pedestal in theory sounds wonderful, but in reality? No one is perfect. That’s what I really like about this sonnet: though the poet obviously cares deeply for his beloved, he’s fully aware that she’s not without faults. That’s a rarer — and truer — love than being adored blindly. That’s what matters.
Discussion with Nicole & Meg
Did you like the sonnets we read this time around?
Nicole: I like them if only for the reason that they sound pretty. I love music and I write music so it would be hard for them to not hold some appeal because they ring in my mind and in my ear when I read them out loud- in an attempt to better understand them. I feel like something important and profound if not beautiful has taken place. But foreign languages, which I would argue that Shakespearean language is, can do that. The most mundane things sound beautiful when said in an unfamiliar language.
Megan: Sonnet 18 is arguably one of the most famous Shakespeare composed — and for good reason, I think. I like both it and Sonnet 130 for very different reasons. Like Nicole, the “musical” quality of the lines is really appealing — and accentuated by reading them aloud. That’s the only way I ever learned to read Shakespeare growing up: by learning the cadence of his words and them speaking them in pentameter. They’re gorgeous to hear, even if the words are difficult to understand in a modern context at first. Maybe especially then!
At first glance what did you think they were about?
Nicole: On the first few readings I had no idea what was going on, and just wasn’t sure of anything until I had read each several times. I think 13o revealed itself to me a little sooner than 18 did. In a few reads I understood that he might not have had a beautiful woman, but one that he loved nevertheless. I had to read and think about 18 a lot. For a little bit I thought someone had died in the sonnet, and I guess theoretically someone eventually will, but it wasn’t about death in the way that I originally thought. I’m not reading any of the annotated versions or reference materials in my first go around just because I want to see how much meaning I manage to eke out on my own and how relevant the poems are to my life and modern times. I might go back now and looks at more fuller analysis.
Megan: At first read, Sonnet 18 seems to be a romantic note to a lover explaining that though time may alter him or her, Death can never fully claim this person; she/he will forever live on in the lines of the poem, giving them immortality. That’s still what it’s about, I think, but there’s much more going on there! Sonnet 130 almost seems rude and unkind, and I cringed a little through the opening lines. But by the end, we realize the poet is speaking about his beloved in more realistic terms — and that he can love and appreciate her for who she truly is. That definitely works for me.
How many times did you read each one? Did further readings reveal deeper meaning?
Megan: I read each at least five times, most of those aloud. I wasn’t really “getting” what I wanted out of the readings until I could actually form my lips around the words. Then they started to come alive for me, and I began to see the deeper meanings unfolding like a fan. And a little Internet research and reading of annotations didn’t hurt, either!
Nicole: I read each about 5 times too! The first few readings left me with a blank mind. I didn’t think anything about anything, I was just reading them. My understanding of the sonnets unfolded and gave themselves up slowly. The meaning of a line would click into mind and with each reading another word or line would reveal itself and everything slowly became clearer.
What resources did you use to help make sense of the language?
Nicole: So far I haven’t been using anything. I only read the sonnets themselves because I really wanted to see how much meaning I could gather from them on my own and how relevant they were my modern situations and sensibilities. I think both are very relevant and easily relatable, and I am starting to see why Shakespeare is so timeless. I loved reading Megan’s comments because I learned some new things, but at the same time got a little validation that I wasn’t getting everything completely wrong.
Megan: Call me a cheater, but I read the sonnets in my Folger Shakespeare Library edition, which was awesome — it included notes to the left of each poem with synonyms for the traditional language Shakespeare used. Many of the particular words selected don’t have the same meaning in 2010 that they did in 1609, and the editors provided lots of helpful notations.
Did you find the “old thyme” word usage to be more difficult or interesting, like deciphering a puzzle?
Megan: Definitely! But I’m a wordsmith. Looking at the multiple meanings of lines and individual terms is all part of the fun. You have to work at Shakespeare; for most of us, understanding just doesn’t come naturally. Coaxing logic from the lines is part of the adventure.
Nicole: I found it to be very interesting and fun. I think that maybe the sonnets can be a little more difficult to work with because you don’t have the context and the action that the plays offer, but they are short that they can be a perfect introduction because the brevity gives the language less time to be overwhelming.
How would you feel if presented with either of these poems for Valentine’s Day?
Nicole: After I got over the language I think I would be okay with the. Sonnet 130 had better be highly figurative though. Otherwise it could give me a complex!
Megan: I totally agree with Nicole — Sonnet 130 would make me super-sensitive! And I’m not exactly the most romantic type, so Sonnet 18 might not agree with my system, either — when directed at me, anyway. But I guess I’d feel fortunate that someone would sit and craft a poem about my immortal beauty and their dedication to me!
On Friday, Feb. 19, we’ll be discussing Sonnets 30 and 109. Read along with us and visit the Bard’s sonnets here, all available for free.