Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sonnet 33 by William Shakespeare

Today is a beautiful day here in New Jersey - sunny, highs in the mid-60's (~18 degrees Celsius), clear blue skies, noisy birds and all. The sun rose at 7:10 a.m. this morning and will set at 7:10 this evening, splitting the day in twain. Daffodils are nearly out, the grass (what survived the snows) is greening, and it is, to all appearances, spring.

It being Wednesday, it's time for some Shakespeare, and the loveliness outdoors put me in mind of the opening of his Sonnet 33, which begins on just such a glorious morning. His poem takes a turn, as sonnets are wont to do, but it seemed like a good pick for today anyhow.

Sonnet 33
by William Shakespeare

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
E'en so my sun one early morn did shine
With all triumphant splendor on my brow;
But out, alack! he was but one hour mine;
The region cloud hath masked him from me now.
  Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
  Suns of the world may stain when heaven's sun staineth.

Form: A Shakespearean sonnet, written in iambic pentameter (five iambic feet per line: taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM) and rhymed ABABCDCDEFEFGG. This poem uses quite a number of "cheats", beginning with the first line, where "many" is supposed to be said as one stressed beat, and the last two syllables of "glorious" have to be ellided: "full MANY a GLOrious MORNing HAVE i SEEN". The final couplet ends with "disdaineth" and "staineth", both words with what is known as a "feminine" (or unstressed) ending.

Discussion: I really like the metaphor in this poem. Shakespeare opens with a beautiful day, in which he is admiring the sun, then speaks of how the sun becomes obscured by clouds. The first four lines are about the beautiful day; the second quatrain is about how the clouds have come in the afternoon and he's not seen the sun during the latter half of the day. The volta or "turn" comes at the start of line 9 (as it so very often - but not always - does), when he mentions "my sun" - a metaphor for the beloved Fair Youth. This is a poem about trouble in their relationship. Nobody can be certain what it is, but it appears that the Fair Youth has done something to hurt Shakespeare's feelings - perhaps he has shown favor to another poet, perhaps he has absented himself from Shakespeare, maybe they had a falling out.

The closing couplet is a bit tricky to parse. The first line ("Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth") means "My love for him hasn't decreased because of this", and the second ("Suns of the world may stain when heaven's sun staineth") means that if the actual sun can be obscured (or "stained") by clouds, then it only stands to reason that luminaries such as the Fair Youth can also "stain". It's not as simple as that, however, since Shakespeare was invoking the word "stain" in a somewhat unusual sense to describe the clouds in the sky - therefore, he was deliberately going for the word "stain" because he wanted the double meaning to exist in assessing what was going on with the Fair Youth. His feelings are hurt, certainly, but his use of the word "stain" seems to indicate that he might be a bit angry as well, and (to me, but perhaps I read into it), it implies that the Fair Youth is under the influence of someone of whom Shakespeare disapproves - whether because he dislikes that person and/or their morality, or because he dislikes the fact that the person is somehow preventing the Fair Youth from spending time with Shakespeare.

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Anonymous said...

this helped alot! :D

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your analysis. It was thoughtful to include mention of the meter, it would have been nice to see an analysis to accompany it. What do you make of the motif of alchemy in the sonnet? Also, do you think the narrator is jealous even in the opening lines when the sun gives attention to other things?