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If thou survive my well-contented day,
When that churl Death my bones with dust shall cover,
And shalt by fortune once more re-survey
These poor rude lines of thy deceased lover,
Compare them with the bettering of the time,
And though they be outstripp’d by every pen,
Reserve them for my love, not for their rhyme,
Exceeded by the height of happier men.
O, then vouchsafe me but this loving thought:
‘Had my friend’s Muse grown with this growing age,
A dearer birth than this his love had brought,
– William Shakespeare, 1590-ish (disputed)
There once was a young man called Will,
Who couldn’t be happy until,
He’d written a sonnet,
And spent hours upon it,
Only then could he kick back and chill…
– Me, yesterday (undisputed, alas)
OK, well I’m not actually going to try to review the whole of Shakespeare’s poetic output, obviously. I’m not nearly qualified enough to do so. Instead, I’ll just say that the bard is one of my favourite poets. His work has resonated with me since I first studied it at school and I’ve returned to it time and again over the years. Actually, the fact that I know it so well enables me to just kick back and read it for pure, unadulterated pleasure, without the slightest taint of academia clawing away at my mind. Bliss.
P.S. – At this stage, I am entirely bored of the whole ‘did somebody else write Shakespeare’s work?’ and ‘did Shakespeare even exist?’ arguments. Yawwwn. The work exists, somebody wrote it, it was so long ago that the identity of the author doesn’t actually matter anymore except to the most pedantic, tedious academics. If you really must keep banging on about these issues, do me a favour and do it underneath somebody else’s review… I just want to enjoy the work.
I’ve dipped into Shakespeare’s sonnets in the past but this is the first time I’ve read the whole sequence through, completely and in order – and I’m underwhelmed, especially in comparison to the superlative Astrophil and Stella by Sidney which kicked off the whole sonnet craze in the 1580s. By the time Shakespeare starts writing his own sequence (or mini sequences?) in c.1593, the sonnet craze is not just over but clichéd so this is, in part, a self-conscious attempt to re-open something that i
The sequence as a whole is fairly repetitive as it works through its phases: the ‘reproductive’ sonnets written to a beautiful male friend (‘the master mistress of my passion’), poems about the ravages of time, of memorialisation either through a child or poetry. There’s a little flurry of excitement when the friend betrays the poet-narrator giving rise to some jealousy poems, offset later by their obverse as the poet-narrator betrays the friend.
The later section (from 127 ff.) transfers the poet-narrator’s obsession to a female mistress, conventionally cruel and beautiful (‘For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright | Who art as black as hell, as dark as night’). Perhaps the most interesting development is the explicit triangulation of desire when the poet-narrator accuses the friend and mistress of being lovers (‘But being both from me, both to each friend | I guess one angel in another’s hell’, where ‘hell’ is Renaissance slang for ‘vagina’).
Throughout there is smutty word-play (‘spent’, ‘will’, ‘hell’) and some misogynistic slut-shaming (‘Will will fulfil the treasure of thy love | Ay, fill it full with wills, and my will one’) but the sonnet form is overwhelmingly conventional with little variation in prosody, content or poetic form.
So, am I glad that I’ve read these? Yes. But the individual sonnets and the sequence overall is a very poor cousin to the cleverness, narrative sophistication, variety, experimentation and sheer virtuosity of Astrophil and Stella.
Excluding the two major narrative poems:
Snooze. It’s not bad, just boring. These days only two kinds of people genuinely like these; those who can cope with Love and the Moon poetry, which, thematically, has been losing ground on my attention since I became an adult and those who are obsessed with Shakespeare’s life, biographical and/or psychological, who were satirised up to the eyeballs by Oscar Wilde. I don’t have that obsession.
The best part is the epitaphs, which are at least witty.