Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sonnet Self-Reflection

Today marks the anniversary of the publication of Shakespeare's Sonnets in 1604. It is said that they were obtained by the publisher and put to press without the author's permission... Napster c.1604 (everything old surely is new again).

At risk of reviving the Great Debate, I daresay that they were and remain 154 of the most vexing pieces of poesy every visited upon the world. The sonnets raise ever more questions about the biography of the man than the plays ever have, though the questions have more to do with his preference of gender than the possibility that he was a literary McGuffin for someone else.

Are they autobiography and therefore a confession of his homosexuality? Were the sonnets addressed to the young man urging him to continue his genetically line (presumably despite his inclinations toward men) written for hire for the youth's father (as has been posited by those who don't accept the "Shakespeare was gay" thesis)?

Or are they just snippets of the things on his mind as he did other things and wanted these snippets of verse out of his head and put down somewhere he could keep track of them, a sort of poetic chapbook?

Honestly, we have no idea. As is the case with so much of the Bard's works, the sonnets rest comfortably atop a cushion of mystery, viewing the mortal scribblers who try to pin them down with sphinx-like disdain.

There are interesting arguments made by all sides of the "Shakespeare as Gay" debate and I don't really feel that his gender-preference changes the impact or cultural value of the poetry. Not for me, anyway.

All that aside, after this morning's round of NPR stories on the Sonnets and sundry issues arising from them, I've been trying to decide which of the sonnets is my favorite. (Shakespeare, of course was not the only sonneteer, simply the most famous and by far the most accomplished of his time.) The NPR piece ended with a call for favorite love verse and like any recursive thought, that returns me to pondering a favorite from the Bard himself...

Being no different than the next bloke to come along with an English Lit class or two under my belt, Sonnet 18 is a favorite (My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun...) and one of the few I can recite from memory.

As with any poetry, though, I tend to think that the real meaning has less to do with the poet than the reader. Biography and time can be transcended by the correct turn of phrase, the timeless advance of age and season and the wax and wane of love... each finds its niche in the reader regardless of the writer's original intent. It goes back to the writer's role of holding up a mirror in which we may see ourselves in others. The laments of Tennyson or the Idylls of Byron are each reflected and transmitted through our experiences and viewed in our terms, and so it is with Shakespeare.

For me, relevance is the handhold by which I manage to bridge the century's divide.

Which is the long way of going about saying that as a chronic insomniac, I have a particular affection for the 27th and 28th Sonnets, which I refer to privately as the "Sleep Cycle".

Sonnet 27

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed, The dear respose for limbs with travel tired, But then begins a journey in my head To work my mind, when body's work's expired. For then my thoughts (from far where I abide) Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee, And keep my drooping eyelids open wide, Looking on darkness which the blind do see. Save that my soul's imaginary sight Presents thy shadow to my sightless view, Which like a jewel (hung in ghastly night) Makes black night beauteous, and her old face new. Lo thus by day my limbs, by night my mind, For thee, and for my self, no quiet find.

Separation anxiety is nothing new, I suppose.

Whilst I comprehend and cannot deny that the angst of separated lovers stands at the nexus of these two sonnets, I tend to focus (from my own life) on the sleeplessness aspect. It is difficult not to quote these words "How can I then return in happy plight that am debarred the benefit of rest?" so eloquently put as it is. Insomnia too is nothing new and is the go-to for dramatizing the unquiet heart and mind in 16th Century poesy and present as it is in Shakespeare's other insomniac lament in the Scottish Play: "Sleep no more, Macbeth hath murdered sleep!"

Sonnet 28

How can I then return in happy plight That am debarred the benefit of rest? When day's oppression is not eased by night, But day by night and night by day oppressed.

And each (though enemies to either's reign) Do in consent shake hands to torture me, The one by toil, the other to complain How far I toil, still farther off from thee.

I tell the day to please him thou art bright, And dost him grace when clouds do blot the heaven: So flatter I the swart-complexioned night, When sparkling stars twire not thou gild'st the even.

But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer, And night doth nightly make grief's length seem stronger

My favorites? Not necessarily, but they are the two which ring most familiar with me and that goes a long way toward achieving that dubious honor. Their place in my heart was admittedly achieved one dark and restless night in college as I was knocking around and trying not to awaken my roommates and The Arden Shakespeare came easily to hand as what I thought of at the time as insomnia's cure. At dawn I was still awake and reading the words of a man four centuries in the grave. There's something to be said for relevence and self-recognition helping us grapple with our literary culture. (Thanks goes out to 'Open Source Shakespeare' for keeping me from the necessity of re-typing the sonnets in this post.) What is your favorite sonnet (and why)?

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).