Contributor Post Created with Sketch. One Immortal Monkey, Sonnet 130

 

Ladies and gents, I apologize in advance for the intolerably long notes below, but I recommend them if you have some leisure–they seem to me to include some insights about what Shakespeare offers as an education for love.

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red.
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
if hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red & white,
but no such roses I see in her cheeks.
& in some perfumes there is more delight
than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
that music hath a far more pleasing sound.
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
my mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
& yet, by heav’n, I think my love as rare
as any she belied with false compare.

Here’s a sonnet rather more modern than the latest feminist anti-rom-com talk. It is learned and graceful, and is one of the few works of Shakespeare I know that looks at the origin of love and of love poetry and the proper education of love. It makes vulgarity graceful while deflating the false graces that so impress us. I’m not sure it’s going to tell you not to look at pretty girls. It will certainly make no dent in the cosmetics industry, or the fashion industry, or whatever it is that does the dirty work required to keep philistines thinking they’re snobs. This sort of story is the opposite of that. If Jane Austen had had any weakness for rhyme and an audience of men, she would have written this story.

This is the story of a man who loves–and is facing competition from flatterers. In a world where there is poetry, who could conceivably not be in that position? This is a man who has to prove his love true without lying about it, as we all are encouraged to do. He seems confident, and even successful, but I would not recommend you try to pursue your love in his manner. This man is removing the beautiful ornaments that conceal the slavery of love. He is stripping the garlands from our chains. This is a dangerous thing to do, to say the least, because the poets who teach people to love poetically have a great influence on human affairs. Schools and businesses are far less influential than popular music. What this man is doing is saying, rather boldly that he prefers his own to the beautiful.

I have all sorts of things to say about that.

People like pretty poetry because it sounds good. And they especially like flattery in poetry. The craft put into it is spontaneously enjoyable. Do you know Bertie Wooster’s famous dictum, You can’t go by what a girl says, when she’s giving you the devil for making a chump of yourself. It’s like Shakespeare. Sounds well, but doesn’t mean anything? In these latter days, the nothing is especially effected by metaphor.

I like to make fun of people, so here’s an old trick about poetry. Count the words. There are 123 words in this sonnet, which is a lot, even for English. The central word is delight, which is, happily, also in the middle of the poem–the end of the seventh line. Delight is the theme of this poem, or the opinion that the pleasant is the good, which is meant to take your eyes off beauty. This is a rational sonnet, one that teaches us not to lose sight of what we’ve got for the sake of fantasies. It is an attack on Platonism as it’s taught by romantics and by people who don’t realize that Plato’s Symposium is supposed to be funny.

Now, let’s read ’em and weep.

First stanza. The lover makes his woman seem ugly by a series of impolite comparisons. Poetry does that. In the cold light of day, the praise heaped on women’s beauty has a downside: The man who looks at his mistress clear-eyed might be taken for a detractor. Were he talking about someone else, a fight should probably ensue. She is neither red nor white where she should be. Perhaps the woman is not well, or not so young anymore? She is black as you can ask, where you’d expect, but that is hardly a compliment.

The sonnet starts with “my mistress.” She is a woman, but not simply a woman. She is beloved of the lover speaking to us, let’s say, successfully. Love poetry is written by lovers. You worry about how to persuade someone to accept your suit of love; or if it’s a going concern, you worry about not losing your beloved. Beloveds obviously do not write love poetry. The purpose of love poetry is to get through your speeches what one cannot get through your looks; lovers are not beautiful–their beloveds are–no talking on the part of the beloved is required to create a lover. If a suit of love were anything remotely so spontaneous, love poetry would be impossible, and all we’d read about in verse were heroes and philosophers. We live through death-like misery whenever we fall in love, and happily read Shakespeare if we survive.

We are told almost nothing about this woman, as if it were impossible to see her, because we do not see with our eyes. We see with our minds, because of the blindness created by poetry. I can tell you exactly how a lover might come to this realization: One day, you try to talk to the woman, and her uncharitable response teaches you that it takes a lot of flattery to get in a word edgewise, your seriousness or passion notwithstanding. For those among us who aren’t naturally suspicious, it takes a further event — seeing fair lady, who was supposedly ne’er won by faint heart, won over by a reptilian weakling who must crawl because he cannot stand. Man thus learns how the free gift of love turns into a terrible injustice, a curse on the decent and good-hearted. How could any pretty woman be so vain!

Shakespeare looks at this another way. He starts with the damnedest metaphor of them all: the eyes and the sun, I’m sure you’ve heard it. He denies the slightest resemblance–this is one of only three negative statements in the poem, although you think there are many more. One tricky thing Shakespeare is pointing out is this: If fair lady’s eyes were suns, you’d be blind. The lover here is happy not to be blind. Another is this: Women may with propriety throw glances that might lead a man to his ruin. Seeing a woman is a great danger in itself, but seeing her look at you can decide your fate. Any man of sense will take care not to encourage that kind of insanity.

The two further comparisons, the lips and the breasts, are supposed to remind you that love poetry is really vulgar stuff. Eros is no philosopher, and what we want is not family-friendly or acceptable in a forum for decent conservatives. Here, the comparison with what poets have to offer in their work is not quite as negative–there is some truth in what they say. What strikes the man with an eye for color is that poetry sharpens contrasts here, rather than inventing stuff that should make you laugh. The difference is that the business with the sun is done in metaphor, but the other sort of stuff is done in similes. What poetry does to your mind here is what cosmetics do to your eyes. You can say poetry provides a service because there is a demand. That exaggeration is part of our desire. This is tied up with the fact that a man in love thinks his beloved prettiest. Eunuchs, however, often go around talking about de gustibus.

Finally, the poets are allowed one true depiction–hair is, in fact, black. But they’re wires, they grow on the head. That’s not Shakespearean, let’s say. Even when they get the color right, poets only do it to distract from the rather dispiriting reality. Poems here would seem to help women give men a rush of blood to the head. They teach men to dare, but not, it would seem, to dare well. Perhaps the problem is not that this deceives men. Perhaps they’re just badly deceived. The lover speaking here, after all, is no way dissatisfied with his beloved.

He is dissatisfied with the standards: Snow white is too white for people. But the simile is one thing: White snow also suggests something else. Metaphor comes back. This is innocence, or purity. That rather defeats erotic longing in one way, heightens it in another. The beauty you can’t have may tempt you to pretty speeches, but the beauty you can may tempt you toward pretty girls. That snow recalls purity should suggest that metaphor is basic to the language of morality. It is in tension with eros, which might look less pleasant than the beautiful. The beautiful may be comparatively bloodless.

The final image, the black wires, is really unpleasant. I am not sure I understand the associated metaphor. Is it supposed to show that poetic play with images can be unpleasant, to suggest that we should be careful of the habit of transforming parts of people into other things in our imaginations?

Except for the opening line, the poet suggests that before we even see what is in front of us, we see imaginations. Before the lips comes the coral, so too with the others. Poetry has constructed a world of images in between us and the world in which we live. We may have to deal with what the poets have done to us to see clearly again. But this is not to say that there was another way to go. Perhaps love, struggling as it does with fantastic metaphors, is where love lives or begins to know it is love. Perhaps our fantasies are natural.

Second stanza. Now, the speaker starts with what he himself can say from his own knowledge. This is what men should do: see with their own eyes, not take for granted what they hear–perhaps from poets. Hence the beginning–seeing is the subject, seeing the mistress in contrast with the images poets offer. Again, we have a strong negation. Again, a poetic phrase, this time a matter of decoration, suggests a comparison with the mistress. His mistress’ blush is not like damask’d roses, or maybe she does not blush. The blush recalls the white snow. It is, again, red and white, like lips and breasts were, or nearly were, before. Is a mistress supposed to blush?

This suggestion of intimacy continues with the very rude comparison of perfumes and breath. Close enough to feel someone’s breath is too close for poetry’s comfort. The lover is not satisfied with beholding his mistress, as an art critic would. He is now holding her. She is a mistress, not a painting of one. Perhaps the mistress is delightful even if all her parts are not. Are any simply delightful?

This is the first time the lover mentions pleasure. The description of the mistress and the contrast with the poets’ imaginations has been about beauty. Some perfumes — though maybe not many or most — are more delightful than breath. The mistress does not seem to have much to recommend her, either to the poets or to her lover. This plain woman is not a mistress because of her beauty, but because of love. Perhaps men looking to make love are not looking carefully. Perhaps the poets do them a favor in stealing their minds with fantasies. Or perhaps a lover should learn from what he does, not from what poets say he should do.

Third stanza. This quatrain is the only one to mention love. It starts, I love to hear her speak. The mistress is heard, not seen. This is the philosophical core of the sonnet. Speech is opposed to music–the latter is more pleasant as a sound; implicitly, the former is more pleasant as something said to cause love. That is wisdom. Perhaps the mistress speaks of love. That may be the most pleasing thing to a lover.

The sequel is a comparison even more astounding than the original comparison to the sun: The speaker admits he never saw a goddess go, but his mistress treads on the ground. He has heard poets talk about how goddesses are not tied to the ground. Earthly things are too hard. Everyone knows, love is on the wing. Maybe nobody has seen a goddess. Maybe poets just speak about it. The attack on love poetry and fantasy is an attack on the aspiration to the divine. The man who prefers his mistress’ speech to music is damned near atheism: Music is our education about the divine when we are young.

This is a comparison of the mistress as a whole and the goddess as a whole. For once, the things mentioned are in motion; this is the only motion mentioned in the poem, unless speech and breath are motions. Notice that breath, speech, and music are connected. The sun was only compared to the mistress’ eyes. This is possible because the portrait of the mistress is complete: The first stanza starts with the mistress, the second stanza ends with her. She encloses her comparison. In the second half of the sonnet, the mistress appears once–talk of her walk is between talk of a goddess and an oath: by heav’n. The question is, therefore, is love or the beloved some kind of divine thing? Is a mistress a ruler, despite her defects, in comparison with poetic imagination? Or is she merely the creature of poets?

Only in the third stanza is there a suggestion that the mistress be displayed to advantage by the extravagant comparisons. Her speech is preferred to music, though not in its aspect of sound. The other preference, perhaps, is for a moving mistress. Goddesses stand where they are painted or sculpted. This may be why the third stanza is a stanza: At first glance, its first couplet should belong with the first two stanzas, the description of the mistress; the second couplet with the concluding couplet, tied together by goddess and heaven. Though what’s the worth of an oath by heaven in the mouth of a man who just admitted he never saw a goddess move?

The unity of the stanza depends on the understanding of what is divine in relation to human beings. This is the work of love. The comparison between mistress and goddess is the only one in the sonnet where no preference is stated. The speaker grants that he has no access to the inspiration of the poets, but he does not reject his mistress for that reason. There are two motions described here: the going up of the divine, the moving on the ground of the mistress. This is what we know of love.

The couplet. It announces right away that it is opposed to the rest of the poem, giving the third stanza its needed definition. It starts, and yet!–the previous to the contrary notwithstanding, the speaker’s love is as rare as any love grounded in false comparisons. The rude honesty had thus far made us believe this was not the speech of a lover talking to his beloved. But now we sense that this lover is in competition with other lovers. They are armed with love poetry.

Imaginations of goddesses come spontaneously out of descriptions of beauty. Lovers call their beloveds divine in order to seduce them. This is double impiety! The speaker’s own impiety is to deny there are goddesses, as described in poetry, and to affirm love of a human being. Apparently, human beings are lovable. But what is the love of a woman if not the love of her beauty? Delight seems to be the key. First, the mistress has to be distinguished from the imaginations of the poets, which are ultimately imaginations of goddesses. Only then can love of a woman be affirmed, but then it seems worthless or impossible! How can something perishable and defective, by comparison with the divine, be lovable? Goddesses are lovable only in the beholding; a mistress can be held. That is one way to compensate. Speech may be the other.

But speech reverses the relationship. The poet’s speech is lovely, unlike the lack of speech in images. What is the worth of speech? Flattery may be more pleasing than music; is poetry more musical than music? Are love speeches more pleasing than music? But the attack on the lies of the poets, necessary to persuade one’s beloved to return love instead of shopping for flattery, raises questions–what should be preferred to music or flattery? It must be truth: The poet says what he truly sees, unlike liars. Part of that truth is that he has never seen a goddess. Truthful love is to be preferred to the lying loves of the poets. But it is less believable.

One affirms with an oath what would otherwise not be believed. That is a poetic device–calling on a divine authority. Needless to say, the American Constitution does not recognize that any oath depends on divine justice! The woman gives the lie to flattery; she does not deserve that praise.

This sonnet is about finding another kind of praise, one that is truthful. It is somewhat comic, so as to avoid the fevered idealism that drives talk of beauty. But the closing statement cannot be comic. There is danger in the comic truth. Reassurance is necessary, a return to our needs. Love is also something we need in order to know we are who we are–a lover who plays too much with the beliefs of his beloved will lose her.

There are 20 comments.

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  1. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Titus Techera: The final image, the black wires, is really unpleasant. I am not sure I understand the associated metaphor.

    I’m not sure what you think you’re not understanding, but I do know a bit about hair and historical attitudes toward races and class. Coarse or wiry black hair might have in Shakespeare’s time suggested the mistress would have suggested she was perhaps Jewess or Gypsy – or some similar ethnic group in England not quite “white” enough to be “one of us”.

    Add the dusky color suggested by dun breasts, and… Shakespeare might have been writing about me or my mother if we’d had poorer dental hygiene – women considered “white” by today’s standards, but who may not have passed for white in Shakespeare’s (or especially Kipling’s) day.

    We modern conservatives may mock Leftist feminist theorists and so on for making such a meal of, say, historical racial attitudes toward hair. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist, or played no role in historical attitudes toward beauty, purity, and desirability. That sexual attraction isn’t completely culturally-constructed doesn’t mean cultural attitudes have no say.

    • #1
    • May 16, 2015, at 8:34 AM PDT
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  2. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Titus Techera: She is neither red nor white where she should be. Perhaps the woman is not well, or not so young anymore? She is black as you can ask, where you’d expect, but that is hardly a compliment.

    On the other hand…

    5 “I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.

    6 Look not upon me because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me. My mother’s children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards, but mine own vineyard have I not kept.

    Blackness may connote a sort of feral sexiness (perhaps desirable in a mistress) as opposed to divine beauty. It need not represent ill-health or age (though I think I see what you’re supposing).

    If “even the Bible” is capable of recording feral sexiness as a compliment, well… Shakespeare had no reason to think of this passage, specifically, while composing his sonnet. But he was familiar with the Bible and it would not be unreasonable for readers of his time (or ours) to recall these famous words.

    • #2
    • May 16, 2015, at 8:56 AM PDT
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  3. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Titus Techera: The final image, the black wires, is really unpleasant. I am not sure I understand the associated metaphor.

    I’m not sure what you think you’re not understanding, but I do know a bit about hair and historical attitudes toward races and class.

    I only just learned this, which I never knew before:

    To Elizabethan readers, Shakespeare’s comparison of hair to ‘wires’ would refer to the finely-spun gold threads woven into fancy hair nets. Many poets of the time used this term as a benchmark of beauty, including Spenser:

    Some angel she had been,
    Her long loose yellow locks like golden wire,
    Sprinkled with pearl, and pearling flowers atween,
    Do like a golden mantle her attire,
    And being crowned with a garland green. (Epithal).

    (And doesn’t Spenser sound like the idiot who tried to seduce William Shakespeare’s mistress with this hackery.)

    Titus, I agree with your interpretation:  We’re given to understand that this lover is in competition with other lovers, who’ve approached his mistress with some fancy poetry. But I don’t for a moment believe Shakespeare was suggesting men should “see with their own eyes, not take for granted what they hear–perhaps from poets,” and I don’t see him as suffering the agonies of the insecure lover, here or elsewhere. He’s just swiping this guy with the back of his hand. Reminding him what a fool he made of himself by trying to compete with William Shakespeare in courtship-by-poetry contest.  You think you can seduce her after you flat-out insult her breasts and tell her her breath stinks, Spenser? There’s only one immortal bard, and there’s only one poet going home with her tonight. It won’t be you. 

    No, I don’t think  the author of Sonnet 18 has turned around here to question the entire genre of poetic flattery as a deception. He just (correctly) thinks he’s the best at it. And he makes sure we know it in 18, too–

    So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. 

    Well, no. Her eternal summer faded and no one ever thought of her again. He was immortal. But had he written it thus:

    So long lives this, and this gives life to me–

    It would not have been an immortal poem, even if it would have been more truthful.

    • #3
    • May 16, 2015, at 9:30 AM PDT
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  4. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Claire Berlinski:

    I only just learned this, which I never knew before:

    To Elizabethan readers, Shakespeare’s comparison of hair to ‘wires’ would refer to the finely-spun gold threads woven into fancy hair nets. Many poets of the time used this term as a benchmark of beauty, including Spenser:
    Some angel she had been,
    Her long loose yellow locks like golden wire,

    But did “wire” only mean “embroidery wire” (i.e, fine gold or silver thread) in Shakespeare’s time, or did it mean ordinary wire, too, especially if it wasn’t gold?

    In terms of structure, I prefer the Spenserian Sonnet, ackshully. And I think one of his contains some of the best lines on sexual love ever written:

    “Vain man,” said she, “that dost in vain assay,

    A mortal thing so to immortalize;

    For I myself shall like to this decay,

    And eke my name be wiped out likewise.”

    Spenser playing the narrator of the poem may contradict her, but I think it shows that he let her have the better argument.

    • #4
    • May 16, 2015, at 9:52 AM PDT
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  5. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    I’m not sure what you think you’re not understanding, but I do know a bit about hair and historical attitudes toward races and class. Coarse or wiry black hair might have in Shakespeare’s time suggested the mistress would have suggested she was perhaps Jewess or Gypsy.

    That may be.

    Add the dusky color suggested by dun breasts, and… Shakespeare might have been writing about me or my mother if we’d had poorer dental hygiene – women considered “white” by today’s standards, but who may not have passed for white in Shakespeare’s (or especially Kipling’s) day.

    I’m unsure he’d’ve written about you, Midge, unless to say, she completely blew me off!

    We modern conservatives may mock Leftist feminist theorists and so on for making such a meal of, say, historical racial attitudes toward hair. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist, or played no role. That sexual attraction isn’t completely culturally-constructed doesn’t mean cultural attitudes have no say.

    I don’t mock feminists as ignorant philistines when they say, there, injustice! I agree with that. I share the great men’s love of inequality, but I am satisfied that justice is preferable to what once was. Feminism is still soulless, though.

    Shakespeare likes black-white images, however. I think it’s because of light mostly. Poets are especially aware of what brilliance means.

    But don’t think of attitudes as historical; they are human.

    • #5
    • May 16, 2015, at 1:35 PM PDT
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  6. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    Claire Berlinski:

    Hello & thanks for the note, Miss Claire. I agree Shakespeare bragged a lot; I agree he had a lot about which to brag. But he establishes clearly a difference between understanding & success. The best man does not win. This is why Homer is writing poems about Achilles. & Horatio is twice the man Hamlet is…

    Now, as to the sonnets: They are in such disrepair & have been loved so little–or at least not too well–I think it was the Romantics who made their reputation, by the by, Keats especially said that’s where he learned about negative capability, the power of holding in one’s mind contradictory things–because they attempt something best left unattempted.

    To give you a clear example, all of Homer is on offer in an hundred languages, tens of thousands of lines. But if you look for the lines of Archilochus, a notebook will suffice. All else is lost. Or you could fit the fragments of the pre-Socratics in one volume, but there are three dozen Platonic dialogues. So also with Shakespeare: Had he not written the plays, the sonnets would have been destroyed by the unkindness of our race.

    None of the sonnets which I know shows Shakespeare. He never speaks to us–he hides behind a large number of interesting human types. He is an actor. He puts on destinies for show. His invisibility is actually his boast & it is meant as a sign of divinity, the greatest poetic ambition.

    • #6
    • May 16, 2015, at 1:43 PM PDT
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  7. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Titus Techera:

    I’m unsure he’d’ve written about you, Midge, unless to say, she completely blew me off!

    Well, you know what I mean… it’s just a class I happen to belong to, so I have personal experience with “palefaces'” mostly-innocent curiosity toward even the slightly brown.

    My mother, the first of “her type” to go to college when colleges had only recently relaxed their WASP-y admissions quotas, got the question (or the assumption) “You’re a Jewess?” all the time. She came to find it flattering (though factually incorrect), and I think that, rather than grievance, is the healthier attitude toward being considered “exotic” or “other”.

    • #7
    • May 16, 2015, at 1:44 PM PDT
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  8. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    There is a phrase in Herodotus, he calls the Greek gods the greatest of the children of Homer & Hesiod. That is the greatest form of poetic ambition. Socrates in Plato’s Republic calls Homer the teacher of Greece. He knew how to get to everyone–as Mr. Rob Long would say, he knew you flatter them, you give them the first hit for free, & you get them while their young. Ask any agent, immortality is a lot of hard work, even for the decade or so you can pull it off…

    The line, ‘I grant I never saw a goddess go’ is an attempt–not the first, one finds this in Sappho, or nearly–to attack again these poets whom everyone educated still reads or read about, at least. A new love poetry is required for a new world. It will not be the greatest heroes that are its heroes, it will be anonymous people. The characters acted out in the sonnets have interesting things about them & distinguishing features–primarily, they are all lovers–valetudinarians, let us say, need not apply. Nor manly men, come to think of it.

    The work of this sonnet is comic–making fun of lesser poets. But it includes an analysis of their achievement, not only of their limits. It is an attempt to go beyond the confines of political speech, to break the supposed universality of the laws by granting individuality–in a poem, admittedly–to everyone. This is the modern revolution done well…

    • #8
    • May 16, 2015, at 1:48 PM PDT
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  9. Arahant Member

    In my analysis of poetic forms, one of the points I came to was realizing that there was a best approach or starting point for each form. For instance, with a proper haiku, there is a seasonal/natural reference that can be the central metaphor. It is often best to start there when writing a haiku.

    With a sonnet, it is best to start with the end in mind. In some ways, the pivot/volta/”turn of thought” is more important than the number of lines and rhyme scheme in defining a sonnet. So, in the sonnet, one starts by figuring out where one wants to end, and then turning that around to find the beginning.

    Imagine Shakespeare sitting with a blank parchment before him and thinking of his lover. He wants to say, “She’s the best!” So, writing a sonnet, he starts with that in mind. Obviously, that will be after the turn of thought. So, before that, what’s he going to say? Well, she does not compare to standards of physical beauty of the time. She is not fair, but a Dark Lady. “Yeah, let’s start with that!” old Will says. The rest flows from there. Don’t read in too much, folks.

    • #9
    • May 16, 2015, at 5:39 PM PDT
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  10. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    Arahant:With a sonnet, it is best to start with the end in mind. In some ways, the pivot/volta/”turn of thought” is more important than the number of lines and rhyme scheme in defining a sonnet. So, in the sonnet, one starts by figuring out where one wants to end, and then turning that around to find the beginning.

    Imagine Shakespeare sitting with a blank parchment before him and thinking of his lover. He wants to say, “She’s the best!” So, writing a sonnet, he starts with that in mind. Obviously, that will be after the turn of thought. So, before that, what’s he going to say? Well, she does not compare to standards of physical beauty of the time. She is not fair, but a Dark Lady. “Yeah, let’s start with that!” old Will says. The rest flows from there. Don’t read in too much, folks.

    I’m not sure his thought is, ‘She’s the best!’ He certainly does not say that. The lover making his love speech here says his love is as rare as any competitor. The fact that he feels the need to strengthen the declaration with an oath, not used anywhere else, suggests it’s not the most plausible claim.

    What you’re up against is proving that true love could compete with false love. This is an unlikely proposition. The conditions for it, as stated in the poem, are indeed as rare as anything.

    • #10
    • May 16, 2015, at 10:25 PM PDT
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  11. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    Arahant:In my analysis of poetic forms, one of the points I came to was realizing that there was a best approach or starting point for each form. For instance, with a proper haiku, there is a seasonal/natural reference that can be the central metaphor. It is often best to start there when writing a haiku.

    With a sonnet, it is best to start with the end in mind. In some ways, the pivot/volta/”turn of thought” is more important than the number of lines and rhyme scheme in defining a sonnet. So, in the sonnet, one starts by figuring out where one wants to end, and then turning that around to find the beginning.

    Imagine Shakespeare sitting with a blank parchment before him and thinking of his lover. He wants to say, “She’s the best!” So, writing a sonnet, he starts with that in mind. Obviously, that will be after the turn of thought. So, before that, what’s he going to say? Well, she does not compare to standards of physical beauty of the time. She is not fair, but a Dark Lady. “Yeah, let’s start with that!” old Will says. The rest flows from there.

    I was nodding my head until the next line:

    Don’t read in too much, folks.

    Thing about Shakespeare–and it’s why he’s so much greater than his rivals!–is you can’t read too much in to it, because it’s really there. All of it. The more you look, the more intended meaning and play and genius and structure you find, and it’s all really there–it doesn’t just reflect the readers’ interpretation. It’s not us. It’s him.

    You can over-read a Rorschach blot, but you can’t over-read Shakespeare–what you discover (even on the 3,000th reading of these things) is there and it’s supposed to be.

    • #11
    • May 17, 2015, at 12:43 AM PDT
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  12. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    But did “wire” only mean “embroidery wire” (i.e, fine gold or silver thread) in Shakespeare’s time, or did it mean ordinary wire, too, especially if it wasn’t gold?

    I’m not sure. Anyone know?

    But I noticed another aspect of it that lends itself to the “oh-gross, but why do we find that gross” aspect of that line: the plural use of hair. We’d usually say “if hair be (is),” not “if hairs (are),” right? When I think of hairs growing, it changes things mentally from hair that grows on a head to the kind of gross stray hair you’d immediately pluck in horror if you found it growing from your chin. Anyway, I was trying to figure out whether he’d ever described a woman’s hair as hairs in any other context, and found corroboration that Elizabethan women did things with hair and precious metals that we don’t immediately relate to:

    CONSTANCE

    Thou art not holy to belie me so;
    I am not mad: this hair I tear is mine;
    My name is Constance; I was Geffrey’s wife;
    Young Arthur is my son, and he is lost:
    I am not mad: I would to heaven I were!
    For then, ’tis like I should forget myself:
    O, if I could, what grief should I forget!
    Preach some philosophy to make me mad,
    And thou shalt be canonized, cardinal;
    For being not mad but sensible of grief,
    My reasonable part produces reason
    How I may be deliver’d of these woes,
    And teaches me to kill or hang myself:
    If I were mad, I should forget my son,
    Or madly think a babe of clouts were he:
    I am not mad; too well, too well I feel
    The different plague of each calamity.

    KING PHILIP

    Bind up those tresses. O, what love I note
    In the fair multitude of those her hairs!
    Where but by chance a silver drop hath fallen,
    Even to that drop ten thousand wiry friends
    Do glue themselves in sociable grief,
    Like true, inseparable, faithful loves,
    Sticking together in calamity.

    And Titus isn’t quite right to say that it’s only in the Third Stanza that things are in motion. Her hair is growing, which only living things do. Gold filaments may be lovely, but they’re not alive.

    • #12
    • May 17, 2015, at 1:03 AM PDT
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  13. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Titus Techera:

    I’m unsure he’d’ve written about you, Midge, unless to say, she completely blew me off!

    Well, you know what I mean… it’s just a class I happen to belong to, so I have personal experience with “palefaces’” mostly-innocent curiosity toward even the slightly brown.

    By the way, I agree with you that one very obvious way to read this is that he’s talking about a woman who isn’t white. But I somehow suspect that if he felt English poetry lacked in similes sufficient to evoke the extraordinary beauty of a woman with dark hair and skin, he was up for the task of inventing them. I mean, Cleopatra wasn’t white, but she purpled the sails and so perfumed that the winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver, which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made the water which they beat to follow faster, as amorous of their strokes, and for her own person, it beggar’d all description. She did lie in her pavilion–cloth-of-gold of tissue–O’er-picturing that Venus where we see the fancy outwork nature: on each side her stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids, with divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem to glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool.

    He wasn’t so constrained by the prejudices of his time as to be unable to come up with a nice turn of phrase to describe the charms of a woman of color, as they’d put it now. 

    He’s really going out of his way to make the point. We don’t know if this woman is beautiful, and he’s strongly hinting that she’s not. (He could say her eyes are nothing like the sun, but they’re like the night sky–he does not. He could say her breasts are honey, but he does not.) He’s going to give her no encouragement in that department, even though everyone knows no one could do that better than he could, if he felt like it.

    The thing rests on the shocking discovery that he’s able to write a far more moving and effective love poem than anyone would dream a man could write without once appealing to his lover’s vanity or sense of womanhood. But you have to be Shakespeare to do it. Anyone else tries it, he’s going to sound like a jerk.

    • #13
    • May 17, 2015, at 1:29 AM PDT
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  14. Arahant Member

    Claire Berlinski:I mean, Cleopatra wasn’t white…

    Greeks aren’t White? I know they are less so after the Turkish invasion and Ottoman rule for centuries, but we’re talking Greeks before Christ here. The Ptolemies weren’t exactly taking in a lot of outside blood, either.

    Now, I know it’s a fancy new thing to do to cast people of African descent in the role, since she lived in part of Africa. I saw a version of Shaw’s Cæsar and Cleopatra at Stratford where they had a very pretty Black woman cast as Cleopatra. But then, I also saw where they had a woman cast as Richard III.

    But really, look at Cleo VII’s ancestry. Greeks from Macedon. One from the Seleucid Dynasty, who were Greeks from Macedon. And a Cyrene, whose father was from Macedon. And another Seleucid. The whole ancestry traces back to Macedon.

    • #14
    • May 17, 2015, at 3:35 AM PDT
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  15. Arahant Member

    Claire Berlinski:I was nodding my head until the next line:

    Don’t read in too much, folks.

    Thing about Shakespeare–and it’s why he’s so much greater than his rivals!–is you can’t read too much in to it, because it’s really there. All of it. The more you look, the more intended meaning and play and genius and structure you find, and it’s all really there–it doesn’t just reflect the readers’ interpretation. It’s not us. It’s him.

    You can over-read a Rorschach blot, but you can’t over-read Shakespeare–what you discover (even on the 3,000th reading of these things) is there and it’s supposed to be.

    While there is much more in Shakespeare that he intended to put in there than most any other author puts in, I still think it’s possible to over-analyze it and find things where Old Will would say, “Dude, thou hast smok’d some weed which verily oughtn’t have been smok’d.”

    • #15
    • May 17, 2015, at 4:01 AM PDT
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  16. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera

    Arahant:

    Claire Berlinski:I was nodding my head until the next line:

    Don’t read in too much, folks.

    Thing about Shakespeare–and it’s why he’s so much greater than his rivals!–is you can’t read too much in to it, because it’s really there. All of it. The more you look, the more intended meaning and play and genius and structure you find, and it’s all really there–it doesn’t just reflect the readers’ interpretation. It’s not us. It’s him.

    While there is much more in Shakespeare that he intended to put in there than most any other author puts in, I still think it’s possible to over-analyze it and find things where Old Will would say, “Dude, thou hast smok’d some weed which verily oughtn’t have been smok’d.”

    You mean, fantasy, not analysis. Analysis means taking a whole to pieces–breaking it apart; (there is an unstated desire to put it back together well). You could be wrong about the parts or their relations, but to over-analyze could only mean to break something into parts into which it s not meant to be broken. Whether you are or are not making the one mistake or the other is something you have to argue. What is implied is that Shakespeare wanted to say something he thought important & that the shape reflects the thing & his manner of saying it guides you. Hence, poetry is education.

    • #16
    • May 17, 2015, at 4:17 AM PDT
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  17. Arahant Member

    Shakespeare: time-travelling alien ghost robot

    Oh, and Elizabeth I, too?

    • #17
    • May 17, 2015, at 4:41 AM PDT
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  18. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    Arahant:

    Claire Berlinski:I mean, Cleopatra wasn’t white…

    Greeks aren’t White? I know they are less so after the Turkish invasion and Ottoman rule for centuries, but we’re talking Greeks before Christ here. The Ptolemies weren’t exactly taking in a lot of outside blood, either.

    Now, I know it’s a fancy new thing to do to cast people of African descent in the role, since she lived in part of Africa. I saw a version of Shaw’s Cæsar and Cleopatra at Stratford where they had a very pretty Black woman cast as Cleopatra. But then, I also saw where they had a woman cast as Richard III.

    But really, look at Cleo VII’s ancestry. Greeks from Macedon. One from the Seleucid Dynasty, who were Greeks from Macedon. And a Cyrene, whose father was from Macedon. And another Seleucid. The whole ancestry traces back to Macedon.

    Two questions: the historical Cleopatra and how Shakespeare would have conceived her. In neither case would she look like a sub-Saharan African or a Swede (hence the capacious phrase, “woman of color.”) The ancient busts of her always show a nose that makes me think, “Persian.”

    • #18
    • May 17, 2015, at 4:58 AM PDT
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  19. Arahant Member

    Claire Berlinski:Two questions: the historical Cleopatra and how Shakespeare would have conceived her. In neither case would she look like a sub-Saharan African or a Swede (hence the capacious phrase, “woman of color.”) The ancient busts of her always show a nose that makes me think, “Persian.”

    But do you think “Persian” because she looks as a Persian looked then? Or do you think Persian because Persia was ruled by Macedonian Greeks for centuries and they contributed their noses to the Persian gene pool? And I did mention that two of her ancestresses came from the Seleucid Dynasty. Also, as recently covered in another conversation, Persians are Aryans. Even today’s Persians are primarily of that ancestry.

    • #19
    • May 17, 2015, at 5:27 AM PDT
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  20. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    Arahant:

    Claire Berlinski:Two questions: the historical Cleopatra and how Shakespeare would have conceived her. In neither case would she look like a sub-Saharan African or a Swede (hence the capacious phrase, “woman of color.”) The ancient busts of her always show a nose that makes me think, “Persian.”

    But do you think “Persian” because she looks as a Persian looked then? Or do you think Persian because Persia was ruled by Macedonian Greeks for centuries and they contributed their noses to the Persian gene pool?

    Who knows? It’s not like any of us really know whose genes wound up making Persian noses look like they do now, is it? You know what happens when they do genetic testing on anyone in that region. People wind up very surprised.

    And I did mention that two of her ancestresses came from the Seleucid Dynasty. Also, as recently covered in another conversation, Persians are Aryans. Even today’s Persians are primarily of that ancestry.

    Could be. They look like those statues of Cleopatra’s my point, and she probably didn’t look like an Elizabethan woman, and she probably wasn’t imagined to look like one at the time.

    • #20
    • May 17, 2015, at 6:05 AM PDT
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