Saturday, April 19, 2014

Shakespeare's Sonnet 4

From time to time I will post a few lines of commentary on the Shakespearean sonnets. Though, of late, I have been proceeding in numerical order, I reserve the right to deviate from that pattern.

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?
Nature’s bequest gives nothing, but doth lend,
And, being frank, she lends to those are free.
Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largess given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums yet canst not live?
For having traffic with thyself alone,
Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive.
Then how when nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee,
Which usèd lives th' executor to be.

With this sonnet, Shakespeare continues his somewhat unusual and roundabout praise of the Fair Youth. Here, the subject of the poem continues to be lectured, presumably for his reluctance to engage in a romantic partnership.

For me, one interesting point here, as is true of many of these Fair Youth sonnets, is just how odd this praise is. I cannot think of any other literary source that chastises an individual for failing to share his or her beauty with the world. Once again, the great poet almost seems to be taking on the role of an interfering relative. That is, of course, assuming that the voice of the poem is not extorting the subject of the poem to establish a relationship with the writer himself.

What really stands out in these lines is the financial metaphor. The unwillingness of the Fair Youth to form a romantic attachment is compared to a profligate spender and bad investor. Words like “Unthrifty,”  “legacy,” “executor,” etc. emphasize the point. This theme just adds to the quirkiness of it all. Once again, it is not often that romantic solitude is compared to such pecuniary matters.  With lines like “What acceptable audit canst thou leave?”  I get the impression that Shakespeare may be attempting to be playful with us.

On a side note, I also think that it is a bit extraordinary that Shakespeare’s references to the world of money should be so applicable and understandable some four hundred years later. The terminology and concepts used here have remained remarkably consistent over time. Some things have hardly changed!

I have used the word “sublime” to describe other Shakespeare sonnets. I do not feel that these lines reach that same level of aesthetic beauty. In fact, they likely were not meant to. The sonnets are diverse little works, and sometimes the poet was not reaching for such sweeping grandeur. Instead, I would use the words “very clever” to describe this verse.

My commentary on additional Sonnets:


James said...

Another commentary worthy of the great sonnet being considered. And I can personally identify with the financial metaphor, having spent my career in accounting and financial analysis.
Seldom have I considered that a useful background for literary appreciation.
Your recognition of the continuity of financial concepts is worth noting. While I suggest this sonnet at least has a beauty in its fascinating turns of phrase even if it does not reach the sublime heights of Shakespeare's best verse.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Thanks!

Though not the most lofty of the Sonnets, perhaps in its areas of emphasis this one can be classified as great.

Suko said...

I enjoyed reading your astute commentary! I think I have a (paperback) copy of the sonnets in my bookshelves,and I hope to take a fresh look at them soon.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - One nice thing about the Sonnets it that they can be delved into whatever else one is involved in. They can be enjoyed in small easy to digest bits.

Lucy (Tolstoy Therapy) said...

Wonderful commentary, Brian! The 'Fair Youth' sonnets are some of my favourites, particularly when in comparison with the 'Dark Lady' verses.

I bought a few books on the sonnets last year, when studying them at university, and I've been thinking I must go back to them. I remember they're by Michael Schoenfeldt and Don Paterson, and both very good.

I look forward to more of your commentaries!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lucy - Thanks for the good word.

This is the second time that I am reading the Sonnets but it has been a long time, thus my memory of the Dark Lady series is sketchy. Hopefully I will get eventually get to them.

The books on commentary sound great but I am always torn as to whether to read that stuff or to read the works themselves. So little time!

Harvee said...

This sonnet makes me wonder what effect it had on the person it was written to, if there was an individual that it was meant for! Controversies over this, I know.

By the way, you are the winner of the giveaway of Black Chalk, on my blog. I have sent you an email, buat in case you do not receive it, do email me at so that I can pass along a mailing address for you to TLC Book Tours, the promoter!

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Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - I believe that folks have been debating a very long as to whether the object of the Fair Youth Sonnets was a real person or not. If they were real indeed, what did they think.

There must have been some story behind that!

I see your email, it just came in. I will respond.

Thanks so much for hosting the giveaway!

Caroline said...

This was hard work - understanding the sonnet I mean. I'm glad for your commentary. The first word already puzzled me no end.
It's not one I'd call "lovely" but it's interesting because of its recurring theme.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I too find Shakespeare hard work and English is my native language. I have worked hard for a long time to get him.

JaneGS said...

The financial metaphor is definitely interesting...and odd.

The sonnets make no sense to me unless they are the writer cajoling the Fair Youth into a relationship, but they seem rather pathetic if that is the case.

I found this phrase "Thy unused beauty" to be the hardest to wrap my mind around--I don't think of beauty as being used or not used. It is, it may fade, but it doesn't get used up.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - I think that these works are indeed the writer trying to pressure the Fair Youth into a relationship with someone. The reasoning and at times the imagery does seem difficult to comprehend. There is a school of thought that they are parody.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Another wonderful post. If only I didn't need someone to read the Bard's words to me to make them enjoyable.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - Thanks so much.

You raise a good point. I get something out of hearing Shakespeare that I do not get out of reading him. On the other hand reading him provides me with a level of comprehension that I cannot get from just listening. Thus I think that it is best to do both.

There are lots of YouTube videos that allow one to hear the Sonnets.

The Bookworm said...

Hi Brian, I do enjoy Shakespeare's sonnets. Like you say, his references still apply all this time later, but isn't that always the way with the all the greats?

I like these lines:
"Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee,
Which usèd lives th' executor to be"
...the way he mentions an executor of her beauty, like you mention, he's toying with us. The financial metaphors are pretty neat.

On another note, what do you think of those theories that he didn't write all of his work?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida- Indeed this one enigmatic. "Toying" is a great word for what seems to be going on here.

I tend to be really negative about the theories of different authorship. I spent a little a while back reading about them, including stuff from both sides and believe that they are utterly baseless.

Sharon Wilfong said...

I am not great at interpreting literature, but I think Shakespeare is complaining that there are not enough beautiful women in the world.

Why must beauty be so niggardly? -he complains.

Maybe that is why he uses the money metaphor. He finds beauty too stingy and needs to make more beautiful people.

I'm not agreeing with him, mind you. It seems to me Shakespeare enjoyed yanking people's chains.

Thanks for an interesting review, Brian. Take care!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon- Sometimes I think that half the trick of interrupting literature is just saying what you think that the author meant.

I love your interpretation of this one.

Heidi’sbooks said...

I don't have anything to add to your great commentary or to the comments, but I greatly enjoyed reading this post. I'm starting on a poetry survey, and I find it a bit difficult. I think it'll get easier as I go along. The Iliad is kicking my tail! :)I'm looking forward to Shakespeare. This sonnet seems fun, chiding and a little cheeky. I can see myself in this poem as I nudge my son to get out there and date some sweet girl!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Heidi - Thanks so much.

I too find poetry difficult. One nice thing about the Sonnets is that one can take them in little bites.

The Iliad is challenging for a lot of reasons. The fact that it is a translation bothers me. I find the morality difficult to take too (I always root for the Trojans).

I laughed at your personnel connection to this one!

So many books, so little time said...

There is so much of Shakespeare work I have never encountered. I think, for me anyway, it is easier to read and process when I have read your review and breakdown of it first. Wonderfully done, I look forward to more!


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - The only thing about my commentary is that I do not always focus in the main point, but instead sometimes talk about something that is just nteresting to me. Hopefully it is at least it is good stuff for thought and conversation.

Violet said...

Hmm. Well, I'm outing myself here as a Marlovian. :) I think that Christopher Marlowe was the real author of Shakespeare's works, although I'm not fanatical about it and I could be entirely wrong. I think Marlowe, who was gay, is grumbling about a young man who won't succumb to his (dubious?) charms. Maybe the youth wanted to be paid for his (ahem!) services and Marlowe's use of financial metaphor reflects this? I don't know. Just a thought.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - One reason that I discounted the Marlowe theory is that the the admittedly little that I have read of Marlowe (only Doctor Faustus) seems to be have written by a different person from Shakespeare works. The style is just so different.

You raise a good point about the author whoever he was of the Sonnets. It seems incontrovertible that to some degree he held erotic thoughts concerning the Fair Youth. Based upon the how exuberant the language is in these works, I would not even call these thoughts subtle or surprised.

I laughed out over your paying for services theory!

Violet said...

I used to discount the anti-Stratfordians, but it seems to me that the Marlowe theory could have some credence. It's just another conspiracy theory, but an interesting one, I think. This is a good overview of the issues:

Some people get very heated about it all, but I'm not bothered one way or the other. However, the Marlowe theory does enhance my view of the Elizabethan era as being awash with skulduggery and strange doings. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - I am laughing at the thought of folks fighting over the Shakespeare authorship thing like some do over religion or politics :)

The Argumentative Old Git said...

I'm afraid I don't quite get these early sonnets. Many of Shakespeare's sonnets seem to refer to some private event or events that we can but guess at: that's what makes them so fascinating. But in the later sonnets, there is a tremendous emotional investment on the part of the poet: here, he seems merely to be haranguing someone for reasons unknown, and, while it touches on on the characteristically Shakespearean theme of the transience of beauty, it leaves me rather uninvolved. For mme, it's only after the first 20 or so that this sequence of sonnets really gets going!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Himadri - It has been so long since I last read the Sonnets that it is almost like I am reading them for the first time.

These early Sonnets are indeed personal and really seem to refer to. Some very individual things. I shall see how what I think when I get to the later poems.

Maria Behar said...

(I deleted the two previous commenst because of a couple of typos....I can't help being a perfectionist! Lol.)

Wonderful and insightful commentary as usual, Brian! I totally agree with you that The Bard was not attempting to ascend to the sublime heights with this sonnet. And, I must sheepishly confess, this is the very first time I have read it. Now another confession: I don't like this sonnet at all, which surprises me, because I do love Shakespeare's work; well, what I've read of it, that is. I was assigned several important Shakespearean plays in high school, such as "Hamlet", "Macbeth", "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (this one, by the way, inspired the title of my blog), "Romeo and Juliet", and "The Merchant of Venice".

For some reason, I remember part of Portia's speech, from "The Merchant of Venice":

"The quality of mercy is not strained; it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest. It blesses him that gives and him that takes. 'Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes the throned monarch better than his crown." It goes on after this, of course, but this is all I remember. I cite it because I love these words. They are indeed sublime! And they express a universal truth, doing so in exquisite metaphors. In contrast, I got very little out of this sonnet.

Well, I guess not even Shakespeare wrote masterpieces all the time.....I hate to sort of criticize him for this, though. I mean, who am I to criticize this great poet? So I guess you're right; his intention in this particular sonnet was to express himself in a much more mundane way. Still, I can't help feeling somewhat disappointed....especially when I compare the sonnet to the "quality of mercy" speech!

Now this has whetted my appetite for some Shakespearean reading!! So maybe I'll return to one of the plays above, and let myself feast upon the sublime music of this immortal poet's words!!

Thanks for your fantastic analysis!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Thanks for the good word!

I think that if Shakespeare had not written so much I might have begrudged this one. However not only do we have all those play, but he also wrote lots of Sonnets, some of which are great. May I suggest that by "letting his hair down" once in a while it may actaully have I improved his body of work by giving it a little balence?

That is a great quote to memorize. It does indeed reflect a universal truth and coincides with my thinking lately.