Two Girls Read Shakespeare: Sonnets 18 & 130

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 . . .”).

Sonnet 18
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.

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 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. ūüôā

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.

Do Sonnets 18 or 130 make you swoon?

Love the Bard or despise him?

Share your thoughts with us —
interpretations, stories, memories —
in the comments.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

the atlantic ocean makes a comeback

pen_journalLike cleaning out an attic, basement or bedroom, cleaning out the files on my flash drive is a daunting task! It’s impossible to tell what I’ll find on there: old novels, started then discarded; random photos I’ve culled into “collections” over the years; bits of story ideas, some developed; favorite quotes; graphics I’ve made for others, and for myself.

The¬†most surprising¬†thing I’ve found lately is a collection of poetry¬†created in¬†my senior year of college. During my final semester in the creative writing program, we were asked to¬†compile our favorite works by poets both popular and unknown. I had a crazy time trying to narrow it down to less than twenty, but I did succeed — and I put them all in one Word document, making sure I had the fonts and spacing exactly similar for each one! That’s my editor OCD kicking in again.

Since printing out those poems and putting them in a folder two and a half years ago, I’d completely forgotten about my project — which I called “atlantic ocean.” I wasn’t into using capital letters then — including in my own name! — and I’d forgotten how different and serious I was! I guess that’s a byproduct of sitting around, writing poetry all day. Poets aren’t typically heel-clicking, cackling and ecstatic people. In fact, a lot of sallow-faced, beret-wearing scribblers come to mind! (For the record, I look terrible in hats — no beret for me.)

So who made the cut and was featured in Megan’s “atlantic ocean: an anthology”? Folks like Robert Frost , Billy Collins and Charles Simic, of course, but also outstanding writers like Li-Young Lee , Kim Addonizio and Galway Kinnell.

Poetry was once such an enormous part of my life, I would actually find myself “translating” life into poetry as I went about my daily nonsense! As I strolled across campus, sat down to have lunch or tapped a pen restlessly against a desk, I would try to pick out pieces of everyday living that made me question what I was or where I was going. Or just to look at something simple — something mundane — and examine it with fresh, open eyes. Since finishing my time in the English department and departing for the “real world,” my life-to-poetry translator device has been switched off like a basement light. I wonder how much of that was a conscious decision on my part and how much was merely life becoming, for a time, less interesting and less beautiful.

I wrote my first poem in two years this weekend and, though it’s certainly nothing to matte and frame, I’m proud of it. I’m proud that, for the first time in a long time, I parted my lips with something to say. Something that was real — something just for me. And finding this anthology buried in my files has only made the moment that much sweeter!

As fall is settling down into the crevices of every sidewalk, back yard and shopping mall, my life, too, is beginning again.

And I can’t talk about poetry without sharing poetry, so here are a few of my¬†favorites from “atlantic ocean”:

Eating Together
by Li-Young Lee

In the steamer is the trout
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,
brothers, sister, my mother who will
taste the sweetest meat of the head,
holding it between her fingers
deftly, the way my father did
weeks ago. Then he lay down
to sleep like snow-covered road
winding through pines older than him,
without any travelers, and lonely for no one.

Love Poem
by Linda Pastan

I want to write you
a love poem as headlong
as our creek
after thaw
when we stand
on its dangerous
banks and watch it carry
with it every twig
every dry leaf and branch
in its path
every scruple
when we see it
so swollen
with runoff
that even as we watch
we must grab
each other
and step back
we must grab each
other or
get our shoes
soaked we must
grab each other

The BookMooch Journals

img_5964While perusing Korianne’s blog a few weeks ago, I came across an exciting and curious link — for something called The BookMooch Journals. I know I’m constantly extolling the virtues of BookMooch, a community of literature lovers who swap books. I’ve gotten so many awesome titles over there, many of them in like-new condition. And all for my cost of mailing one of my own books to another member — around $2.23 in shipping, via media mail. I joined BookMooch last October and have, to date, sent out more than 50 novels — and gotten 50 in return. Sometimes it’s tough to find first-run books there, but I’ve managed to claim titles as varied as Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, Laurie Notaro’s The Idiot Girl And the Flaming Tantrum of Death and Geraldine Brooks’ March, all of which I’ve reviewed here at write meg! So it’s not impossible to get new books — just a little tougher. But I’m persistent.

Well, I have new BookMooch obsession to start taking up my time and energy — the aforementioned Journals. According to the project website, more than 400 of these art projects are currently in circulation, via BookMooch, around the world.

So how does it work? From their page:

The rules are simple: Begin one or more BookMooch-only journals, created out of a hardcover blank journal, a used hardcover book, or a sturdy softcover book, and create a theme and name for your journal. After you’ve made the first art entry in your journal, set it loose into the BookMooch world.

Participants can mooch your journal just like any other book listed on BookMooch. Each person that mooches a journal adds their art entry, and within two weeks re-posts it into the BookMooch system to be mooched by another member, who adds their art entry to the journal and again adds it back to BookMooch for the next moocher, and so on. When the journal is completed, it is sent back to its owner.

I love, love, love projects like this — and I just contributed to my very first journal! It’s called “A Year Of Poetry,” started by Milano in Florida, and is a recycled, hardback calendar. Since it began circulating in May 2008, it’s made stops in Oklahoma, Georgia, New York, Utah, Alabama, Virginia and, most recently, Maryland. In the future, it’s heading to the Phillippines, England, Australia and lots of other places here in the States.


I contributed three poems — two by me and one of my favorite poems ever by Kim Addonizio. I had a tough time choosing the “dates” on which to paste them. In the end, I went with the most personal ones available, but I’m really happy with my pages. To maintain a bit of an air of mystery, here’s just one of them — with Addonizio’s poem:


And, since it’s tiny, here’s one of my poems — added on the date I graduated from college! Despite actually graduating from the creative writing program, I think I’ve only written a handful of poems over the past few years. That pretty much broke my creative spirit! Ha. But I’m getting it back!

the english major
by megan

Your grammar enraged me
far more than
your cheating ever did,

And I’ll always love language
far more than
I ever loved you.