Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sonnet 68 by William Shakespeare

Today, a sonnet that reminds me a bit of Sir Walter Elliot. Although Shakespeare intended to write it as a compliment to his beloved, the focus on external beauty and the comparison to those who now must wear wigs and cosmetics to approximate beauty conjured up images of Sir Walter preening in front of his looking glasses for me. (Remember Admiral Croft mentioning how very many of them had been in Sir Walter's dressing room back in Chapter Thirteen of Persuasion?

Sonnet 68
by William Shakespeare

Thus is his cheek the map of days outworn,
When beauty lived and died as flowers do now,
Before the bastard signs of fair were born,
Or durst inhabit on a living brow;
Before the golden tresses of the dead,
The right of sepulchres, were shorn away
To live a second life on second head,
Ere beauty's dead fleece made another gay.
In him those holy antique hours are seen,
Without all ornament, itself and true,
Making no summer of another's green,
Robbing no old to dress his beauty new;
  And him as for a map doth Nature store,
  To show false Art what beauty was of yore.


The poem is a Shakespearean sonnet, written in iambic pentameter and rhymed ABABCDCDEFEFGG.

Today's sonnet is not actually intended as a stand-alone, but is the continuation of the thought first broached in Sonnet 67 ("Ah, wherefore with infection should he live"). In Sonnet 67, he asks why the Fair Youth must live in a corrupt society, and why such beauty as his must be surrounded by "roses of shadow", concluding that the youth is alive to remind society what true beauty looks like. He picks up that thread at the start of today's selection, Sonnet 68, saying that the youth's face is a reminder of what true beauty looked like, a remnant of bygone days. Shakespeare speaks of how the hair of the dead is shorn and made into wigs for the living, but that the Fair Youth shows what truly beautiful hair looks like.

And yes, they used to shear the heads of the dead to make wigs. And yes, I think it's kinda creepy. (And I'll bet you thought that the housekeeper taking Scrooge's best shirt and bed curtains was bad - at least she didn't steal his hair!)

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