Monday, June 01, 2009

Sonnet 87 by William Shakespeare

I quite frequently post poetry on Tuesdays, because poetry just once a week (for Friday) never seems enough to me. Today, I'm posting one of Shakespeare's sonnets - number 87 ("Farewell, thou are too dear for my possessing").

Today's sonnet is part of the Fair Youth sonnets (#1-126), all of which are believed to have been written for the same young man (the leading candidate for which is Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. The first 17 of the Fair Youth sonnets advise the young man to marry and have children, so that his beauty can be passed on to subsequent generations, and appear to contain nothing more than platonic love (although the fact that the Shakespeare loved the person for whom they were written is not seriously in doubt). From sonnet 18 onward, a far more romantic relationship appears to exist between author and subject, with ups and downs as the sonnets progress, including linked sonnets here and there that tell a particular "chapter" in their relationship. Read together, the sonnets tell a story of an evolving relationship, with the introduction of additional characters as the story progresses, including rival poets and the Dark Lady (for whom the last 28 sonnets were written).

This particular sonnet comes at the end of a sequence of poems talking about the importance of the Rival Poet to the Fair Youth. Rather than bidding farewell to the Rival Poet, Shakespeare appears to be releasing the Fair Youth. It reads more like the work of a wounded lover who wants to hurt the Youth and earn his pity (and reassurance from the Youth that no, he still loves Shakespeare) than it does to an actual break-up poem to me, but lots of analysis indicates that others read this as a straight-up break-up poem.

Sonnet 87
by William Shakespeare

Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know'st thy estimate.
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting,
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.
Thyself thou gav'st, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me, to whom thou gav'st it, else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision* growing,
Comes home again, on better judgment making.
  Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter:
  In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.


*misprision: misjudgment
Form
This poem is a Shakespearean sonnet, with the rhyme scheme ABABCDCDEFEFGG, and written in iambic pentameter. Yes, even though 12 of the 14 lines of this poem have 11 syllables and not the 10 you'd typically expect. The second and fourth lines of the poem are in standard iambic pentameter; the rest contain what is known as a "feminine" or unstressed ending. It's one of the reasons I selected this poem for the day, to discuss the fact that sometimes one can have a feminine ending in iambic pentameter without it changing the name or nature of the metre.

Analysis
This poem sounds an awful lot like a break-up poem; at the very least, the speaker (who I will assume is actually Shakespeare) thinks that he owes it to the youth to break up with him, and is operating from the "woe is me, I'm not good enough for you" position. The conceit (here a word which means "extended metaphor") which is in place for the poem is a comparison of the Fair Youth to a piece of property, which sounds like it ought to be demeaning, but isn't because of how Shakespeare goes about it.

He says, in essence, that the Fair Youth is so much better than he is (either in social position or otherwise) that Shakespeare can't possibly deserve him. (Cue Wayne and Garth bowing and saying "We're not worthy!") Being unworthy, Shakespeare wants to release the Youth from the relationship so that he can have the better life that he deserves. In the closing couplet, Shakespeare says that while the relationship lasted, he felt like a king, but now he realizes it was simply a dream.

The structure of the poem forms an interesting argument/progression:

First stanza: You're too good for me, so I understand if you want to be rid of me
Second stanza: I am nowhere near good enough for you, but maybe you didn't realize that before
Third stanza: You are too good for me, but maybe you didn't realize that before
Closing couplet: No matter what the cause of misjudgment, you're released by the mistake, and I'm left here to remember our time together when I felt like a king.

*cue Donkey from Shrek singing "I'm all alone, with no one here beside me . . ."*





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