Shakespeare’s sonnets: stones and weeds

Lisa Gorton

This week, I’ve been rereading Shakespeare’s sonnets. I’m thinking ahead to ABR’s sonnet-o-thon at Boyd on Wednesday 28 November. (Yes, a promo! But the event is free:  We’re lining up to read as many sonnets as we can in an hour and a half. Some day – some festival – I wish someone would read the lot. Taken together, they repeat and rework images until they make, as much as anything, a study of the way obsessions work in time.

And how strange they are.  All those one-syllable words: the sonnets sound clear but get stranger the more you think about them. Take Sonnet 94, for instance: what a bitter and astonishing poem that is.

They that have pow’r to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who moving others are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow—
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces,
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flow’r is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die;
But if that flow’r with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity.
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

This is one of the poems I know by heart – there aren’t that many. Still, that fifth line surprises me with its coldness. Rightly? The surprise survives rereading because in that one line, that word even, the sonnet overturns not only your expectations, but also the sonnet’s entire decorative mode.

Emrys Jones once described sixteenth century sonnets as the pop songs of the time. What a beautiful description: it catches their combination of artificiality and ambition. People like Daniel and Barnes kept wheeling out archaic references: fire and ice, and flower blazons. Abruptly Shakespeare’s sonnets brought in images of city trade, leases and rent, farming and its seasons: not the other sonneteer’s permanent unreal flowers, but ones that live and die. It’s like that moment in Love’s Labours Lost when Berowne says that his heart is sick and Rosaline suggests medical treatment.

Sonnet 94 is one of the darkest and strangest of the sonnets. From the start, those heavy repeated words close it in: do none, do not, do the thing, do. Doing and the thing made sex and dick puns at the time. Take Measure for Measure: ‘Yonder man is carried to prison.’ ‘Well; what has he done?’ ‘A woman’ (I. ii. 86). Only in the sonnet, those other meanings never come to the surface: they work under the argument. They carry that thwarted sense of sexuality, which defines this sonnet’s mood. For me, sonnet 94 comes closest to justifying Robert Wilson’s darkly extravagant style:

Except that in sonnet 94, suddenly two lines open outwards; they give a glimpse of that world persisting beyond obsessions: ‘the summer’s flower is to the summer sweet/ Though to itself it only live and die’.

One of the things that is remarkable about these sonnets is the way they don’t narrow to an argument. Their images and phrases set off associations that other images and phrases catch up later. For instance, the idea of the stone persists in this sonnet exactly because those other things fester. In Shakespeare’s sonnets some images, and sudden phrases, are so strange, and so much greater than their setting, that they work outside the scale of the form. To take some utterly at random: ‘Make sweet some vial, treasure thou some place’ (sonnet 6); ‘And darkly bright, are bright in dark directed’ (sonnet 43); ‘And I by this will be a gainer too’ (sonnet 88); ‘Or captain jewels in the carcanet’ (sonnet 52); ‘Nativity once in the main of light’ (sonnet 60).

This sudden largeness, this richness of association, is what makes reading these sonnets so close to the experience of thinking – when the sound of a word, the circumstances of an image, set off other thoughts and memories. I can’t help thinking the word ‘steward’ in sonnet 94 recalled for Shakespeare the word ‘stew’d’ in Hamlet’s rant to his mother: ‘Nay but to live/ In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,/ Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love,/ Over the nasty sty’ (III.iv.92-95). Maybe that word association brought in the next quatrain’s combination of flowers, weeds and corruption. Hamlet goes on:’  ‘And do not spread the compost on the weeds/ To make them ranker’. ‘Stew’d’ and ‘compost’ and ‘weeds’; and so the lily festers.

You find the same associations in Measure for Measure. In fact, this play echoes sonnet 94 so often they might have been written at about the same time. Lucio describes Angelo as ‘a man whose blood/ Is very snow-broth; one who never feels/ The wanton stings and motions of the sense (I. iv. 57). There’s the echo of husbandry:  ‘As those that feed grow full, as blossoming time/That from the seedness the bare fallow brings/ To teeming foison, even so her plenteous womb/ Exspresseth his full tilth and husbandry (I. iv.41-45)’. And there’s Angelo’s bizzare formulation, hard to understand without reference to the sonnet’s end: ‘Not she, nor does she tempt; but it is I/ That, lying by the violet in the sun,/ Do as the carrion does, not as the flow’r,/ Corrupt with virtuous season.’ (II. 11. 165). Perhaps the plays brought a richness of association to the sonnets. Perhaps the experience of writing sonnets brought soliloquies into the plays, offering a way to show thought working upon itself: the mind alive in time.

Blogs are for pet theories, aren’t they? I have a pet theory about the sonnets: that they don’t only mark out a love triangle between the poet, the fair youth and the dark lady. I think there’s a fourth character on the sonnets’ invisible stage. In some sonnets Shakespeare uses ‘thou’; in some sonnets ‘you’.  In Elizabethan England, this was the difference between tu and vous in French. People take all the sonnets written to a man to be sonnets to ‘the fair youth’. My pet theory is that some are written as if to an older patron. Taken together, they compare various and competing forms of love: indebtedness as well as besottedness, jealousy and desire. It’s precarious to adventure these grandiose theories, though, unless you’re Harold Bloom.

Anyway, come on Wednesday if you feel like it. Rachel Fensham is reading, and Ian Donaldson, and Peter Rose.