Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Sonnet 43 by William Shakespeare

It's been far too long since we spent a Wednesday with the Bard, has it not? (I will imagine and/or pretend that you have agreed, and urged just such a post.)

Today, Sonnet 43, a poem involving absence and dreams and wordplay:


Sonnet 43
by William Shakespeare

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright, are bright in dark directed.
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow's form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so!
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay!
  All days are nights to see till I see thee,
  And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.


Form: A Shakespearean sonnet, of course, which means that it is written in iambic pentameter and using the rhyme scheme ABABCDCDEFEFGG. (Iambic pentameter is technical poetic jargon that tells what the meter of the poem is - pentameter means there are five poetic feet per line; iambic means that iambs are being used, an iamb being a two-syllable foot composed of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one: taDUM. Since it's iambic pentameter, a line should gallop along as follows: taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM.)

The "B" lines in this poem - "For all the day they view things unrespected/And darkly bright, are bright in dark directed" - both contain 11 syllables, rather than the 10 you'd expect with iambic pentameter, because they have what is known as a "feminine" (meaning unaccented) ending - as, I might add, does perhaps the most famous of all Shakespeare's lines, "To be or not to be, that is the question." (From Hamlet, Act III, sc. 1) The presence of that extra syllable (or use of the feminine ending) does not mean the poem is no longer in iambic pentameter; most of the lines contain the usual number of usual iambs, so the occasional feminine ending doesn't skew the analysis.

Discussion: This poem is Shakespeare completely delighting in word play and in the double meaning of words, while writing a gorgeous tribute to the Fair Youth, who is currently away.

The first quatrain (first four lines) of the poem sets the scenario for us, and then Shakespeare really starts to play - with lines like "Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,/How would thy shadow's form form happy show." The first shadow speaks of the Fair Youth's ghost or dream image, the second talks of actual shadows; the first form is a noun, meaning the shape of the Fair Youth's image, and the second is a verb. He's playing with meanings and alliteration and more throughout this poem, and the playfulness and inventiveness is delightful, as are the contradictions in the poem: "I see best when my eyes are closed" is a paraphrase of the first line, and the topsy turvyness continues throughout the poem to its conclusion, when he says his days are dark (meaning sad), and his nights are bright (happy).

Shakespeare is having so much fun, in fact, that I don't believe he remembered to insert a volta or "turn" in this poem - something that usually occurs at or about the ninth line in most of the Bard's sonnets, where the first eight lines set the situation up and start to develop it, and then he shifts to make the point he intends to make.

There is a slight turn in the fifth line, when he shifts from talking about enjoying his dreams to talking about the Fair Youth's finer attributes, and a second slight turn in the ninth line, when he shifts from talking about the Fair Youth's beauty to talking about how seeing the Fair Youth is a blessing, but in some ways that's more of a return to the initial thought. And the closing couplet, which often is a sharper turning still, is essentially a distillation of what he's been saying throughout the poem: "All days are nights to see till I see thee,/And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me."

This is an achingly romantic poem, in my opinion, as Shakespeare pines for the Fair Youth throughout the day and dreams of him all night, looking forward to sleep so that he can (perchance) see the Fair Youth in his dreams. Oh, to have a lover write a poem such as this!


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