Saturday, April 10, 2010

Sonnet 55 by William Shakespeare

Sometimes the mental path between two poems is pretty plain, as with the progression the other day from La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats to Song of the Wandering Aengus by W.B. Yeats, and sometimes it looks like a quantum leap. I thought, therefore, that I'd explain the hop-skip-jump of today's selection by walking through it.

Yesterday's selection, Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats, had me scratching my head this morning. At first, I thought about how I should've engaged in an examination of the ars longa, vita brevis component of it, and I cast about for a poem on that subject - of which there are many, really, but it wasn't the theme I felt like talking about today. Instead, this partial line of the "Ode" leapt at me: "therefore, ye soft pipes, play on[.]"

It called to mind the opening of one of my favorite of Shakespeare's plays, Twelfth Night, which finds a pining Orsino saying "If music be the food of love, play on!" Here, in fact, is his opening speech of 15 lines. Notice how the first three lines establish that there's a lovelorn backstory already in play, and that this is a comedy - since Orsino says, in essence, that if music feeds love, he wants to hear so much of it that he chokes to death, thereby ending his suffering.

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe'er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.

It being in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter), I considered declaring it a poem and calling it good, but that simply wouldn't do. However, I'd arrived at Shakespeare, hadn't I? And that ars longa, vita brevis notion was still tickling my brain, so I have arrived at least at today's poem:

Sonnet 55
by William Shakespeare

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments,
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme,
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils* root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick** fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
'Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
  So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
  You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.

*broils: tumults, battles

**quick: probably intended for its double meaning: 1) fast-burning and 2) the sort that burns something to its quick, or its very heart/center

Form: A Shakespearean sonnet, of course, written in iambic pentameter (5 iambic feet per line, taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM), and with a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The first eight lines are grandstanding, in a way: "Monuments shall fall into ruin, but not your reputation" is the gist of it. The next six lines take a slight turn (or volta) when the focus shifts away from monuments falling to wars and the ravages of time and more to the active nature of the poem and its ability to preserve the memory and reputation of the Fair Youth: "My poems about you will keep your memory - and therefore the essence of you - alive until Doomsday".

Discussion: First, let me say how very much I love the line about "unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time", "sluttish" being a word which here means "disgustingly dirty", and not actually something sexual. Second, let me say that this poem conjured for me an image of fallen statues, which naturally called up "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley, which I discussed as part of last year's National Poetry Month posts, with its image of trunkless legs standing in the desert.

Of particular interest are the personification of war through the invocation of Mars, the Roman god of war, and how Shakespeare claims that Mars is no match for poetry. In fact, he claims that poetry will outlast war, while the physical things built by men will not. (A different sort of take on ars longa, vita brevis, which is usually interpreted as meaning that a particular work of art - say, a marble statue - will long outlast a human life. Shakespeare's art is his poetry, which he claims will outlast even those marble statues (and he has been correct in some cases, as with respect to works of art destroyed by war or the ravages of time).

The final couplet is an extremely pithy summary of what he's been saying all along: "So, until judgment day, you live in my poem, and as a result, your spirit is kept alive in that of all lovers."

Pretty bold claim, and yet who am I to argue? Four hundred years or so after it was written, this poem is still around and we're still talking about it and about Shakespeare's obvious love (platonic, romantic, sexual, or otherwise) for the Fair Youth, whose identity can only be guessed at (although many believe it to be Shakespeare's patron, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton). Still, that Fair Youth's spirit is kept alive, is it not, by these poems? And while it would be tempting to dismiss Shakespeare's talk of "powerful rhyme" and his claims of keeping the Youth's reputation and memory alive until Doomsday as hubris - and I'm nearly certain he took crap for it during his lifetime and was undoubtedly accused of puffery, to say the least - it would seem that the Bard might be having the last laugh. For while it is not yet time for the final judgment (best as I can tell), there are plenty of folks still admiring Shakespeare's "powerful rhyme".

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Michael said...

Hello, Kelly,

I just discovered your blog today. Thank you for your interesting discussion of Sonnet 55. Thanks also for the link to your comments on "Ozymandias." There is a verse from Byron's "Don Juan" that has a similar theme (it's from Canto One, CCXIX), and, I suppose, it is a sort of antithesis to your Shakespeare entry from today:

What are the hopes of man? Old Egypt's King
Cheops erected the first pyramid
And largest, thinking it was just the thing
To keep his memory whole, and mummy hid;
But somebody or other rummaging,
Burglariously broke his coffin's lid:
Let not a monument give you or me hopes,
Since not a pinch of dust remains of Cheops.


Kelly Fineman said...

Brilliant juxtaposition - thanks so much for sharing it with me, Mike!