Modern poetry, in case anyone hadn’t noticed, begins with Shakespeare’s Sonnets.  Dante’s Vita Nuova  is the vital influence on Shakespeare’s sequence—which ushers in lyric mastery in English;  Shakespeare’s Sonnets are clearly an affirming, but expansive, response to Dante and Petrarch’s love-sick letters to Plato.  Beatrice and Laura are guides to Truth through love and suffering, and the Young Man and the Dark Lady are similar guides.

The Sonnets are too austere for most, Shakespeare as Angelo, as one critic put it, a harsh, moralistic, Platonist pinnacle, and yet the highest around.  Shakespeare’s Book of Sonnets is the scariest cliff-face in Letters.   Prevent the human holocaust by having a child!  Those first fourteen sonnets contain more poetic beauty than probably any poet produced, save Milton and Keats, but what a message! That’s how one must begin the climb into Shakespeare’s lyric masterpiece.

Sonnet One heralds Platonism (beauty’s rose, not rose’s beauty) and advanced physics (light’s flame):

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’st flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.

Just a sampling from Sonnets three, four, five, seven, and eight reveals poetry of the very highest order in every possible criteria:

Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime:
So thou through windows of thine age shall see
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.
    But if thou live, remember’d not to be,
    Die single, and thine image dies with thee.

For having traffic with thyself alone,
Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive.

For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter and confounds him there;
Sap cheque’d with frost and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’ersnow’d and bareness every where

And having climb’d the steep-up heavenly hill,
Resembling strong youth in his middle age,
yet mortal looks adore his beauty still,
Attending on his golden pilgrimage;
But when from highmost pitch, with weary car,
Like feeble age, he reeleth from the day,
The eyes, ‘fore duteous, now converted are
From his low tract and look another way:
    So thou, thyself out-going in thy noon,
    Unlook’d on diest, unless thou get a son.

Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,
Strikes each in each by mutual ordering,
Resembling sire and child and happy mother
Who all in one, one pleasing note do sing:
    Whose speechless song, being many, seeming one,
    Sings this to thee: ‘thou single wilt prove none.’

The theme of the first fourteen sonnets—immortality through children—transforms into immortality through poetry. You can see it happen, right in Sonnet 15.  Beginning with Sonnet 16, advice to another quickly turns into self-advice, as Shakespeare does not take his responsibility as a poet lightly.

Lovers of poetry know that one could write a book about each of the Sonnets; the journey through the whole magnificent sequence is harrowing and ecstatic.  Shakespeare’s Sonnet sequence sets the standard for all poetry.  There is no peak in English poetry that is higher, and yet from its unforgiving heights fall springs that feed the lush and fertile slopes of the Romantic and Modern lyric, Shelley and Keats and Millay.

Like clouds surrounding a high mountain, the anonymous nature of Shakespeare bedevils every critic and historian explorer.  Of biographical detail there is none, and the lamenting of this fact is endless: why didn’t Shakespeare in these intimate poems tell us more?

Did the master intentionally strive to be anonymous?  It seems so, since there was every opportunity in these privately distributed poems to not be anonymous, or at least leave some biographical clues.

But in these intimate poems there is only poetry and philosophy.

The psychologists rage, because there is only poetry.

The psychological approach doesn’t care for the Young Man and Dark Lady as guides invented by the poet, but seeks to place them in the real world of real character and real motive.

Healthy curiosity (Auden, in defending the Bard’s anonymity, called it vulgar and rude) for who the Young Man and the Dark Lady and the Rival Poet were is no doubt blameless; but unfortunately, the “real” of the psychologist is useless—because Shakespeare did leave clues on this matter: the Sonnets belong to poetry, not to the sort of “reality” the psychologist is after.

The attempt to turn the Sonnets into a Romance is a woeful mangling of the beauty of the Sonnet Sequence, especially when the Sequence is clearly no Romance.  To persist in finding in the first 126 sonnets a ‘Young Man roman a cleff’ has its rewards, but only in the realm of half-truth and unsatisfactory readings.  The problem is that the facade of fiction in Shakespeare’s Sonnets do not cover up reality, so much as a philosophical treatise (boring, sure).  Philosophical Truth gets a very small percentage of the population excited, but did the Young Man (who doesn’t exist) sleep with the Poet’s girlfriend (who doesn’t exist)?  Now that gets people interested.

There’s nothing wrong with psychological insight, but the irony is, there’s a lot more of it in the Sonnets when the reader isn’t trying to follow the movements of the Young Man or the Dark Lady in a story of some sort—a story which doesn’t exist.   It matters how you look for your psychological truth, and, in the case of Shakespeare’s sonnets, you’ll get more for your buck if you follow Shakespeare’s Platonic philososphy, not rumors about a romance with a Young Man.  How many miss, for instance, the obvious truth which has been stated above in this article, that the sonnets clearly shift in Sonnet 15?

The New Critics put up walls around the text—Auden, in this spirit, celebrated Shakespeare’s anonymity—and Eliot must have seen the danger, too, of prying literalists trampling on the grand tradition.  The Age of Freud was making it all about the poet and his lurking desires, and the dignity of the poetry was in danger of being compromised, or so many literary scholars thought.   Shakespeare’s Sonnets were suffering from a clamor of readers asking, Your poems are very nice, but tell us about these issues you were havin’ with your boyfriend!

This is not to say New Criticism did not suffer from its own excesses.  The New Critics tended to err in the other direction, reading endless “irony” into a given text—that had none.

Will we ever have the majesty of a Shakespeare’s Sonnets again?

Will the poet who writes a work as great have to be anonymous?


1 Comment

  1. December 18, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    This was excellent; thanks for writing it. I agree whole-heartedly with your critique of psychological criticism.

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