Two Girls Read Shakespeare: Sonnets 30 & 109

Welcome to another Friday of Two Girls Read Shakespeare! If you’re just joining us, Nicole (of Linus’s Blanket) and I have embarked on a project to spend this spring with Mr. William Shakespeare, that most classic of playwrights and poets. Read more about our project here and check out the first installment of sonnets here.

Nicole: Now Meg you picked these two out or us to study. What made you think that Sonnets 30 and 109 would be good to examine together?

Megan: For me, Sonnet 109 has a really different “feel” than many of the others — and definitely different than Sonnets 18 and 130! The tone of the poet here is almost boastful while still being imploring as he admits to having been unfaithful and “false of heart.” On the flip side, Sonnet 30 features a speaker who is melancholy and “paying” debts — through grief — as though they haven’t already been satisfied. The two tones here, so different, really appealed to me!

Sonnet 30

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought,
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye (unused to flow)
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan th’ expense of many a vanished sight.
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee (dear friend)
All losses are restored, and sorrows end.

Megan: In Sonnet 30, we meet a narrator whose mind drifts to the past and friends he’s lost, either through death or other circumstances. Lovers, too, seem to have gone by the wayside, and the poet weeps “afresh love’s long since canceled woe.” By the end of the sonnet, of course, the speaker’s hope and faith have been restored by thinking of a new “dear friend” — and all that suffering drifts away.

What really struck me about this sonnet was one particular line: “Which I new pay as if not paid before.” In the context of the whole poem, I took it to mean feeling grief all over again — experiencing pain as if we haven’t hurt before, and as if this hasn’t already broken us. Sometimes heartbreak feels like that, doesn’t it? Like “paying” a debt again and again with no end in sight. That definitely resonated with me.

Nicole: My first thoughts, I must confess were not as deep as my partner in crimes’ thoughts were. I saw the line, “I summon up remembrance of things past”, and thought, “So that is where that phrase comes from!” I had to read this one a few times (like I didn’t have to do with all the others!), but somehow I felt like the language was a lot more flowery than what we read last week, and I had more difficulty getting at the meaning behind the words. I understood maybe the first 4-6 lines and then it got a little crazy.

As I got to the end of the sonnet I felt like I was seeing a pattern emerge, and that Shakespeare was really obsessed with immortality and keeping things alive through memory because there he is again saying that he can be happy as long as he has his memories of his dead friends. Would you agree Meg?

Megan: Absolutely! Shakespeare is very preoccupied with living through and beyond words — and, through the sonnets, keeping alive those whom he loves. We saw this obsession in Sonnet 18 last week — how we all age and eventually die, but as long as Shakespeare’s poetry is available, his loves live on. Sounds like our man William was living in a constant existential crisis! And, you know, I can relate to that.

Nicole: Yes! He sounds very angsty and brooding. I think he might have been a hipster and would have lived out in Williamsburg in Brooklyn had he been alive today.

Megan: Oh, I can totally see that now — with the skinny jeans and a notebook, lounging under a tree and looking at all of the young families with their strollers, curling up a lip at the other hipsters with their Starbucks cups and iPhones. I think Shakespeare would be living off the grid, lost in deep thoughts and distancing himself from society.

Nicole: Or maybe living underneath the city in the subway tunnels! But we digress. On to 109!

Sonnet 109

O never say that I was false of heart,
Though absence seemed my flame to qualify,
As easy might I from my self depart,
As from my soul which in thy breast doth lie:
That is my home of love, if I have ranged,
Like him that travels I return again,
Just to the time, not with the time exchanged,
So that my self bring water for my stain,
Never believe though in my nature reigned,
All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood,
That it could so preposterously be stained,
To leave for nothing all thy sum of good:
For nothing this wide universe I call,
Save thou my rose, in it thou art my all.

Megan: Sonnet 109 really made me think. According to my handy-dandy Folger Shakespeare Library edition, the poet is imploring his love to recognize that though he has strayed and been unfaithful, he should be forgiven — because he’s returned. There’s no promise to do better, of course, nor any apology for having presumably hurt his love. “O never say that I was false of heart” — never claim that I didn’t love you! Except, you know, you were gone and cheating on me. This sonnet feels really different to me. Am I just projecting here? Was that a vibe you got, Nicole?

Nicole: I definitely got that vibe and it got my dander up as I was reading it. It’s a lot like things I have experienced with dating and with my own friends where men kind of run around and then when they get ready just show up again on their terms and when they are ready to deal with a relationship. No questions asked. Not that we would have these problems with our boy Billy because once again he is talking about another dude.

Another very modern poet thinks along similar lines.

Still I left you for months on end*
It’s been months since I checked back in
Was somewhere in a small town, somewhere lockin a mall down
Woodgrain, four and change, armor all down
I can understand why you want a divorce now
Though I can’t let you know it, pride won’t let me show it
Pretend to be heroic, that’s just one to grow with
But deep inside a n***a so sick

I think he was just expecting to show up again after he got finished on tour and with whomever he was keeping time and pick up where things left off but his girl had made other plans! Good for her.

Megan: Excellent tie-in with modern language, Nicole — color me impressed! From Will to Jay-Z, the boys keep trying to run games with us. Some things never change.

Nicole: I have to say that Jay gives more reasons than Will though for his shenanigans. Misguided and delusional reasons that ultimately don’t matter, but he does give you a little more to work with.

Further Discussion

Q: In Sonnet 109, the poet claims that despite his infidelities, he has returned to his lover — and should be forgiven. Would a carefully-worded sonnet be enough to gain back your trust?

Nicole: Uh, no. I think for me there is a certain period where I can be actively engaged and invested in working on a relationship but when you disappear, then I have to make my peace with that and move on. At that point it will take a lot more than some pretty words for me to consider rearranging my life for someone who has proved unfaithful and untrustworthy. Nice try Will!

Megan: I’m a sucker for pretty words, but I don’t think someone showing up and saying, “Hey, I know I haven’t exactly been around — but you are ‘my home of love,’ so, let’s just pick up where we left off. Sound good?” would be enough for me. The sentiment in Sonnet 109 is almost challenging.

Nicole: Challenging is such a nice word for it.

Megan: Oh, you know, I try to be diplomatic. “Condescending” could have also worked there, I think.

Nicole: Along with arrogant, selfish, ego-maniacal… I could go on. But I’ll stop here.

Q: Does the “dear friend” of Sonnet 30 seem to be a friend or lover? Would mere friendship be enough to heal old wounds, especially heartbreak?

Megan: Though friendship has the power to help and save us, I’m not sure it is enough to erase the past. The “dear friend” here seems to be a lover or potential lover — and that makes sense to me in the context. Friends are definitely the people you need to wrap an arm around you during times of heartache, but the Bard’s “remembrances of things past” seem very melancholy. He’d probably need more than friendship to help him process those memories!

Nicole: I would think that it was romantic too because I think that we tend to attach intensely melancholy feelings to failed relationships for far longer than we do with friends. When he says “And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe”, that sounds pretty intense to me. I think feelings can be more intense where the potential for a lover was lost just because we usually have fewer of them running around our lives. People can’t compensate for other people, but we do grow up used to the idea that we might lose friends as we progress through different stages in our lives- like moving, changing schools, changing jobs, and just changing in general. With love we are trained to keep it, and usually won’t let it go “without a fight”. People will pay some pretty high costs to keep love.

Megan: So well-said! And I completely agree. The intensity surrounding a potential love — or floundering relationship — is much greater than feelings of friendship, as it should be.

Q: What about friendship? Do you look back on people with whom you aren’t friends with anymore and take comfort in your memories? Is there a difference if the friend has died as opposed to if they are just no longer in your life?

Nicole: None of my friends have died, thankfully, but just through natural growth and change I have lost friends over the course of my life. Initially when a friendship is over even the happy memories are colored with a sense of sadness, anger or betrayal, especially now that you know the “ending”. But Shakespeare seems to be looking back over a great amount of time and for me after a few years, and with the wounds no longer fresh, I can really delight in all the fun and crazy times I had with a friend and honor who we both were even though we have moved on.

Megan: I’ve been fortunate never to bear the loss of a friend through death, but I do take comfort in old memories of friends with whom I haven’t kept in touch or, in some cases, “broken up” with. Friendships are relationships, too — not romantic, of course, but still relationships that require time, compassion, understanding and dedication. In cases where I chose not to be friends with someone anymore, or vice versa, it can be a little painful to look back on those times… knowing, as I do, how things have changed. I guess that’s partially what Shakespeare is saying in Sonnet 30, too — that the pain he feels like looking back colors the happy times. But the arrival of someone new, a “dear friend” he can think of and feel better? That makes a difference. But I’m not sure if that’s the case for me.

Join us next Friday, Feb. 26 as we discuss Sonnets 11 and 116.
All of the Bard’s sonnets may be found here.

*lyrics from “Song Cry” by Jay-Z

What do these sonnets do for you?

Love them, hate them?

Share your thoughts with us!

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. 🙂

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!

Two Girls Read Shakespeare: The Launch!

Two Girls Read Shakespeare: or
In Which We Correct The Miseducation of Megan & Nicole

It was a cold, wintry night when Megan (of write meg!) joined Nicole (of Linus’s Blanket) on her weekly feature “That’s How I Blog!” — a chronicle of the reading and blogging habits of those in the book blog community. It didn’t take long for the ladies to discuss classic literature, and what “classic” conversation can be brought up without the mention of William Shakespeare?

Reading Shakespeare as an adult is an entirely different experience than reading his works as an awkward, bored teenager. Megan’s previous experience with the Bard was limited to reading “Romeo & Juliet” in high school, acting in a few school plays and briefly memorizing a sonnet or two for theatrical auditions. College was much of the same — random experiences with Shakespeare as she studied English. One semester-long course introduced her to some of the history plays and she dug them, but the language always proved overwhelming. And, truth be told, I probably spent more time comparing one of my classmates to a dinosaur (no, really — he had a flat head!) than paying attention to the immortal words of love poured forth by our man William.

Nicole’s experience with Shakespeare is equally limited, actually, probably even more limited that Megan’s. Only for only a few short months as a freshman in high school did Nicole ponder “to be or not be with” Hamlet — Nicole chose to be. That’s pretty much all she remembers except some brief hand wringing by Ophelia before she is found floating down the river, and maybe some hand washing- but on further reflection that may have been in “Macbeth,” the evil machinations of that dude who was trying to separate Othello and his woman, and Iago and his trials with “The Merchant of Venice.” Any real understanding was limited by the lack of interest in dusty old texts where the English was unwieldy and extremely dated. Nicole then went on to college and, also as a freshman, with some small effort managed to avoid any mention the bard until Claire Danes and Leo DiCaprio did “Romeo and Juliet” and the student housing cable played it ad nauseum, ad infinitum and other Latin-esquey words with which Nicole is unfamiliar. She finished her stint in school sans reading any of Billy’s work and never looked back.

Which, dear readers, brings Megan and Nicole to the present moment, when post-“That’s How I Blog!” Nicole said to Megan, “Hey girl! Do you want to read some Shakespeare and talk about it on our blogs?” And Megan said, “Sure! What should we call it?” And they thought long and hard before e-mailing each other simultaneously, “How about ‘Two Girls Read Shakespeare’?”

And that’s exactly what’s happening!

Over the next few months, we’ll be spending time with the Bard’s sonnets and plays before picking up some of the modern “spin-offs” and sequels. And when better to discuss Shakepeare’s sonnets — considered by some to be insanely romantic (or just insane?) — than on Valentine’s Day?

On Sunday, Feb. 14, Nicole and Megan will post their discussion of Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) and Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun…”). We hope you’ll join us and share your thoughts, comments and criticisms! All are welcome to contribute, regardless of whether you’re a lifelong Shakespeare fan or a total novice. We’ll chat about more sonnets each Friday in February before moving on to a larger work — to be announced very soon.

So brush up on Billy’s poetry by checking out The Sonnets,
all available for free right here:

And check back to spend Valentine’s Day (and the spring!)
with Megan, Nicole and the Bard!

P.S. And because we both love John Mayer we will each try to bring everything back to one of his songs… you know… for extra credit, if we can.