Trevor's Reviews > The Sonnets

The Sonnets by William Shakespeare
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May 05, 09

bookshelves: literature, poetry
Read in May, 2009

I’ve been wondering for a while how to approach this review. I had thought that it might be interesting to do a close reading of a single sonnet and leave it at that. What I’ve decided is to write a quick review on this edition of The Sonnets, mostly chatting about the stuff this book gives to help a reader read them, and then, over the next weeks and months, add ‘comments’ which will be reviews of some of my ‘favourite’ sonnets. I’m quite looking forward to doing this – so we’ll have to see how things work out.

I’ve three editions of The Sonnets – two of which are Penguin versions and then this Cambridge text. This is by far the best. The introduction runs for over twenty pages and gives as good a telling of the various important ‘stories’ of The Sonnets as I’ve read.

It is not really all that remarkable that we know so little about these sonnets. They were written a long time ago and they were written to keep certain things ‘secret’ – and as such they have succeeded wonderfully. We don’t know who they were written for – neither the beautiful young man who is the main subject of the vast majority of the sonnets, nor the Dark Lady who is the subject of only sonnets 127 to 154.

It is virtually compulsory, when writing about The Sonnets to mention sonnet 20 – well, not the whole sonnet, but just the lines:

“Till Nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition thee of me defeated,”

This is invariably quoted as proof positive that our Will was no poof. The sonnets to this young man are quite remarkable and it is hard to know what to make of them. They start with a sting of sonnets calling on the handsome young man to hurry up and have children, as he is so incredibly beautiful that for him to deny the world a copy of his beauty would be simply too cruel to contemplate. There is argument after argument about this in the first few sonnets– but I kept thinking of GB Shaw and that line he is supposed to have said to some actress who suggested they should have children together as with her looks and his brains the child would conquer the world. To which Shaw is supposed to have replied,“What if the child has my looks and your brains?”

Which is the point – Shakespeare even says that the beautiful youth is the image of the youth’s mother at one point. So, his having a son is, quite literally, no guarantee that he will be leaving the world a copy of his beauty.

The youth comes across as a bit of a pain, to be honest. The other amusing thing is that Shakespeare spends so much time telling the youth that he (Shakespeare) is making him immortal by writing these sonnets – which ends up being more or less true, except no one knows who the youth was. There is the dedication, of course, which is to a Mr W. H. – but that seems to cause as many difficulties as it solves, as most of the people the sonnets could be about don’t have those initials and some people have decided to see them as being for William Himself… Anyway, the dedication is to the “Onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets” and given that some of them, at least, are written to a woman, that does seem to make the WH solution – even if there was one – a bit awkward.

I think I like the Dark Lady sonnets best – there is something much more carnal about them that gives them bite. There is no question what Shakespeare’s desires are towards this woman where his desires towards the young man are always harder to tell. These poems have a confronting honesty about them, particularly the ones that look at the nature of lust and how it over-powers our reason. These poems resonate to the core of my being.

The big theme across most of the sonnets is time – how it slips away from you when you least expect it and how cruel our loss of youth, our loss of beauty and our loss of vitality is in all its inevitability. These poems provide us with a cold stare into the unblinking eye of the human condition.

The limits of reason when confronted by lust in sonnet 129, “Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame” or much the same in 146 and 147, “Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth” are not exactly the sorts of themes you might expect to find from your standard collection of ‘love’ sonnets. 129, in particular, is a devastating poem – but we will get to that eventually.

So, as I said – this is not really a book that can be done in a single review or read in a single reading, so I’m not even going to try. Updates to follow…
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Quotes Trevor Liked

William Shakespeare
“Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated”
William Shakespeare, The Sonnets


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Trevor 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.




I’ve spent a lifetime misreading this sonnet. I’ve always read the first line as if it ended with a comma. And so the McCandless version has always gone like this. “Don’t let me end up in a marriage of ‘true minds’. I would much rather there were impediments. Love isn’t love that changes just because the person you love changes and stops loving you. And they probably will. No, true love doesn’t depend on THEM it depends on YOU taking them as being an ever-fixed constant of your love. It doesn’t matter if they end up as ugly as dog’s meat, love is what love is.”

Now, this reading is based on my misreading, because that isn’t what the first line says at all – there is no comma. Instead the sonnet says, “I can’t think of any impediments to the marriage of true minds and blah, blah, blah.”

I always thought this was the strangest poem to end up being called ‘The Marriage Poem’, as this is a marriage that rarely, if ever, has existed. Under my misreading of the poem true love is love that is not dependant on the love of the other person. It is love that is quite unconditional and no superficial changes to the object of that love are capable of changing it. That is, I think, a completely impossible love.

But like I said, this is a misreading and so it seems Shakespeare is saying love between ‘true minds’ is both possible and something that directs us through life.

As the commentary at the back of the book points out, one does not have to accept this sonnet as being quite so soppy as people may like to make it. Obviously, the idea behind this one is that ‘pure love’ exists and is the guiding light (quite literally) of our lives. Or, at least, love can be. As the commentary says, it doesn’t take too much effort to get an ironic message out of the last couplet, an ironic sting in the tail of the sonnet, “If this be error and upon me proved, / I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” A poet is surely playing games if they pop in lots of negative phrases to end off a poem. As the commentary points out, this poet protests far too much.

All the same, the best thing about this poem is that it is the most likely poem of Shakespeare’s to be read during a wedding service. Even if I have been wrong in thinking this wasn’t a terribly appropriate poem to be read at weddings, given it always seemed to me to be saying that ‘my love for you does not depend on you but more on me’ I guess people will insist on going on having it read at their weddings. I still think that the line about the bends with the remover to remove says something interesting about the loss of love by the object of our love towards us. But I’m prepared to believe that is possibly still just residue from my original misreading.

Having said that, what, in the end, still makes this sonnet so amusing when it is read at weddings is that Shakespeare didn’t write it for his wife or the Dark Lady or for his wedding, but for his male lover. Let me not, indeed.



Trevor Thanks Abigail, I'll have to see if I can track down Vendler's book.


message 3: by Helen (Helena/Nell) (last edited May 06, 2009 01:51PM) (new)

Helen (Helena/Nell) Yes, it is written to the young man, but then he does talk about 'the marriage of true minds'. The fact that there is a line break before the impediments is crucial. So your misreading is directly related to that. The sonnet introduces a highly idealistic idea and then drops to the second line with the whole idea of impediments. I've got a poem with impediments in it and this is where it comes from. It's the Mr and Mrs Philpott one with the candles in it -- which again (wordplay-wise) connects it with you.

But anyway, regarding the whole love and sexuality thing. This sonnet (apart from the rather oozing praise sonnets to the young man, who may have been a patron and therefore worth praising highly) is one of the few which is actually professing profound faith in love, the love of the mind which is stronger and realler than that of the body.

However, the dark lady sonnets -- the ones that are so very famous and most potent -- clearly emerge from a vast disillusionment with love (and sex), some of which must be connected with having sex with two people, one male, one female -- and an STD being the nasty little telltale detail that 'proved' the triangle, which was also a triangle of infidelity.

But hey, Shakespeare was unfaithful to his own wife before he had sex with the Dark Lady, who, in turn was very evidently unfaithful to him. He becomes obsessed with lies and lying in bed with a person, then totally cynical. He brandishes the bitter sarcastic wordplay of a person whose sexual jealousy has driven them slightly potty (it does that: fact).

The sonnets, I am fairly sure, are thought to have been written around the same time as Hamlet. Hamlet becomes neurotic about women and sexuality -- the way they let you down, the way the whole sex thing makes the garden rank and gone to seed -- and that's because Shakespeare himself was obsessing about it too. I think parts of Hamlet and also of Othello have personal resonance for Shakespeare, although I have no PhD to stake on this.

I hope he got over it in the end. I don't think we'll ever know. I like the fact that a man and a woman were involved. I like the sexual ambiguity. I think it's one of the things that gives Shakespeare a true edge. In every sense.

But I am always amused by the way 'Let me not' proliferates at weddings, given that it is the most untypical of the sonnets, and almost certainly represents what Shakespeare hoped was true at one time, and not what he discovered to be the case. Rather the reverse....

Nevertheless, I like that sonnet too. One of the ones I have by heart.

And I suppose it is vital in flagging the intensity of belief in love, which is necessary to explain just how badly he felt it, when it turn out that life itself made a mockery of his own love manifesto.


Trevor This is wonderful, thanks Nell.


message 5: by Richard (last edited May 06, 2009 08:30PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Richard Splendid review and discussion. I know so little about how to "properly" read poetry that this stuff is gold.
(And before someone claims that there is no 'proper' way to read poetry, I agree that there will be no single way -- but when I read it and get nothing but bewildered, I have clearly not found any of the myriad successful ways).
Especially amusing because in my younger days I was called upon by friends to read sonnet 116 at their wedding. Ah, the young and innocent.


message 6: by Trevor (last edited May 07, 2009 06:01AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Trevor You've started me...


Oh, there is a proper way to read poetry and it involves effort and intense and close concentration. There is nothing ‘easy’ about it. It demands that you read with an intensity that doesn’t make sense to read anything else with. Poetry is not for a second easy, that could almost be a definition. Poetry is harder to read than philosophy and if the poem is any good it has more, infinitely more, to offer.

I know so little about poetry, so it will take me no time at all to share with you the little I do know. What I know is that if you are listening to someone reading poetry (and if they are any good at reading it) try to force yourself to listen to the music more than the words. You sent me the BBC thing on TSE – if you can get hold of both TSE and Alec Guinness reading The Waste Land you’ll see what I mean. Eliot reads it like someone counting out the score, Guinness plays the poem like a pianist plays a sonata. The poem was written for a great soloist, and Guinness is almost an orchestra.

When reading a poem to yourself, think about how the music of the words is playing in your mouth. The music of poetry is often the hardest bit to get, the last bit of the meaning that makes sense. It is virtually always the most important part of the poem. Almost always poetry is best read aloud – you’ll be amazed at the difference it makes. When you are struggling with a poem stop and read it literally out loud. And play. You have to play with how you read it. Read the lines fast, or slow, or with a Mexican accent – anything that stops you hearing it as you already know it should be read. And remember it is a piece of music, a performance – an argument in rhythm and stress and tone.

We teach kids to read to themselves, but with poetry we need to learn once again how to read aloud. We actually have to learn this for the first time and great poetry teaches us how to do this by making the meaning become more alive the better we get at reading the poem.

Poetry allows you to come back a thousand times and each time find the poem anew – but to find it anew you need to approach it as if for the first time each time you come back.

People worry too much about what a poem means – but this is putting the cart before the horse. The meaning will become clear, worry about how it feels. The deeper you understand the feeling of the poem the more you’ll find that the meaning shifts to match that. I know that sounds like New Age nonsense, but it is true. As silly as it sounds, it is true. And much of the feeling is in the music of the poem.

I believe that deep down all writers want to be poets and all poets want to be composers. For a long time I thought I wanted to be a poet, but I found that it cost much more than I was prepared to pay.



message 7: by Richard (last edited May 07, 2009 07:19AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Richard Trevor wrote: "Almost always poetry is best read aloud – you’ll be amazed at the difference it makes...."

That I knew, ever since a young lady exhaled whiskey breath and some forgotten poetry over my shoulder right next to my ear in a dark and quiet bar on Haight Street. That was two dozen years ago, and poetry never sounded that good since.


Helen (Helena/Nell) Phew Trevor, that was good. That was immensely good. I'm going to have to cut and paste and save it somewhere else.

And Richard, I love the Haight Street anecdote. It is practically a poem in its own right.


Trevor Love and Poetry and Whiskey - these are a few of my favourite things.

I worried I'd gone too far last night when I wrote this, always hard to tell.


Richard Didn't a poet once say "too far is barely far enough"?

(OK, I just made that up...)


Anthony D Buckley Trevor
It's an asonishingly intelligent and penetrating review.


Trevor Yes Nell, a little too far, though amusing nonetheless.

Thanks Anthony, I had hoped to have reviewed another of the sonnets by now - hopefully tonight if I get a chance.


Trevor 129

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Is lust in action: and till action, lust

Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,

Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;

Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;

Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,

Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,

On purpose laid to make the taker mad.

Mad in pursuit and in possession so;

Had, having, and in quest to have extreme;

A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;

Before, a joy proposed; behind a dream.

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well

To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.



This is, to me at least, quite simply and without question the greatest of the sonnets. I know, it is a big statement, but this is something else.

I think of this as the quintessence of male poems. There is something utterly honest and utterly masculine about this poem. I don’t mean in ‘a strutting around in a muscle t-shirt making allusions to how long your penis is’ kind of way – but rather in the sense of feeling completely and uncontrollably trapped in your own biology and utterly incapable of even being able to understand (never mind justify) your own behaviour when it is affected by lust.

One day my eldest daughter was watching her cousin having his nappy changed and she spotted his genitalia. She must have been about four at the time, and she said, “They look just like brains.” My mother, who was changing his nappy bust out laughing. I can’t remember if she said, “And he’ll be using them to think with soon enough” or if that was taken as read by her gales of laughter, but that little story is as good a summary of Shakespeare’s point here as any other I can come up with.

The form of this poem – the endless lists of what lust is and the mirroring of phrases ‘knows well and well knows’ or ‘hated’ and ‘hunted’ and the declensions of ‘proof, proved’ or ‘had, having, had’ and the rhymes within lines ‘had’ and ‘mad’ and the repetition of the same word, ‘mad’ or ‘reason’, I think all contribute to the emphatic tone of this sonnet. Even on a first reading it is impossible to think this guy is being ‘mild’.

I’ve heard a reading of this poem that frames it in a ‘mock serious’ tone – I don’t think that reading works very well and in fact, believe that it takes away from the poem – but even that reading needs to be emphatically ironic. If you say about someone, “You are a …” and then give a list of nine adjectives it is fair to expect that people are probably going to think you are upset to a point where you are not really thinking clearly anymore. Let me explain. If you say of someone, “You are a fatuous, pigheaded, supercilious, ignorant, low-browed moron…” The person on the receiving end, in an odd sort of way, may be more likely to forgive you than if you just called them one of those things. There is a sense in which going over-board is almost excusable on the basis that it is as if you are drunk in your anger and people are more likely to forgive you when you are ‘drunk’ than if you appear to be both sober and in control.

And that is what this poem is about – this is the poem’s major mirroring. It acts out our lust-filled insanity in the language of the poem. Lust nullifies our reason and makes us mad – and to show us this Shakespeare starts with the sort of list making thesaurus entry that echoes how we talk when we are overcome with ‘passion’ and follows it through almost to the end of the poem.

We sometimes like to think that lust is a kind of temporary insanity – and that once it is satisfied we go back to being normal and rational. That is not the message of this poem. Not only are we insane in seeking to get what we lust after, but once we have it (once we have enjoyed it) we despise not only the object of our lust, but also ourselves and not just a little bit, but to the point of loathing. That is, more than is reasonable or rational.

Socrates says that when we do bad things we only do them because we don’t properly understand the good. To Socrates all that is necessary is to understand the good and then people will act in accordance with it. The implication being that to act in a way that is bad shows you don’t really ‘understand’ the good. For a long time I used to smoke – and to be quite frank, there is no lust like the lust of chemical addition. But all the time I knew it was bad for me, I knew it was an incredibly stupid thing to do – but past reason hunted, all the same.

A friend of mine once told me he was thinking of having an affair with a woman from the dark ages of his past, a woman he hadn’t seen in twenty years – I sent him this poem. I told Nell that I was doing this and she suggested I send him Joyce’s The Dead. In an odd way both of these masterworks are forever linked for me now. I guess we like to believe that the insanity of our passions diminish with time, but this is another of the madnesses of the human condition that Shakespeare blasts apart in this poem.

I started this review suggesting this is a very male poem – I don’t mean that I think women don’t feel overpowered by lust and never have regrets afterwards. I’m sure in the history of our planet there have probably been a couple of women who has woken up the next morning thinking, “Oh dear God, how did I think it was a good idea to sleep with THAT last night?”

But I can’t read the voice of this one as if it was a woman. I think this poem needs to be read slowly with an underlying anger to be read properly – with a sense of self-loathing – and perhaps because I can understand that tone so terribly well this poem feels infinitely male to me.

Did I mention that I like this poem? The first time I read it I thought Shakespeare had seen into my soul and despite not liking what he had seen there, I was stunned he had seen so clearly. I’m sure I am not the first person to have felt that. Socrates also says somewhere that he was glad when he felt released from the torments of lust – no other poem expresses those torments quite so well.




Sparrow I love the juxtaposition of the two poems. He seems so much more certain of lust than love. What adds the funny irony to 116, I think, is that feeling that he's saying "This is absolutely how it is . . . or not." Also, I always get the sense that it is the second half of a conversation - and in the first half he was letting himself "admit impediments". They both have that lovely tension that I think all the sonnets have (although I haven't read them in years) of light versus dark, what we want life to be and the bleakest version of what it really is.


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