Thursday, June 12, 2014

Shakespeare Sonnets 5 and 6

From time to time I will share some of my commentary on the Shakespearean Sonnets. I decided to cover Sonnets 5 and 6 together since they are linked together closely.

Sonnet 5

Those Hours, that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell,
Will play the tyrants to the very same
And that unfair which fairly doth excel:
For never-resting Time leads Summer on
To hideous Winter and confounds him there;
Sap check'd with frost and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o'ersnow'd and bareness every where:
Then, were not summer's distillation left,
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
Beauty's effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it, nor no remembrance what it was.
But flowers distill'd though they with winter meet,
Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.

Sonnet 6

Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface
In thee thy summer, ere thou be distilled.
Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place
With beauty’s treasure, ere it be self-killed.
That use is not forbidden usury
Which happies those that pay the willing loan;
That’s for thyself to breed another thee,
Or ten times happier, be it ten for one.
Ten times thyself were happier than thou art,
If ten of thine ten times refigured thee.
Then what could death do if thou shouldst depart,
Leaving thee living in posterity?
Be not self-willed, for thou art much too fair
To be death’s conquest and make worms thine heir.

Here we have some themes that one will have already become familiar with, if one were reading through the sonnets in order. Once again, we are reminded that youth, vitality and beauty, as symbolized by summer and “lusty leaves,” will not last. Instead, it will give way to age and decline, as symbolized by winter and frost.

Once again, we are eavesdropping on Shakespeare, or at least the voice of the poem, lecturing the Fair Youth that the remedy of such decline and eventual death as “make worms thine heir” is to procreate.

What I find distinctive about this couple of sonnets is that the imagery, as well as the messages conveyed, are particularly strong and a little melodramatic.

Some of this imagery is incredibly dark and stark.

Summer gives way to “hideous Winter.” “Bareness” is “every where,” andwinter’s ragged handcandeface”. The youth is urged to avoid “death’s conquest and make worms thine heir.” These are quite a set of extremely ominous and dreary descriptors for the inevitable decline that we humans experience.

The imagery is not all negative, however. In colorful terms, Shakespeare urges the youth to engage in the masculine role of procreation, “Make sweet some vial; treasure thou some place With beauty’s treasure.”

Perhaps the best example of the heavy handedness of the message occurs when the subject of the sonnet is actually urged to have ten children, as doing so will make the subject “ten times happier.

All of the above makes this set of sonnets particularly engaging and entertaining to read. Though one might make the argument that Shakespeare goes a little over the top here, one needs to keep in mind that there are 126 “Fair Youth Sonnets.” In my commentary on Sonnet 4, which is here, I concluded that the best descriptor for that verse was “clever,” as opposed to the grandness of some of the other sonnets. Here, we have more variation. It seems that Shakespeare was using this large body of short poems to express himself in diverse ways, from the very clever to the soaring sublime, to what I would argue here is slightly flamboyant. Ultimately, the tone of these two sonnets makes them a lot of fun to read.

My commentary on additional Sonnets:


James said...

Valiant and insightful commentary on these early sonnets. I like the phrase, "from the very clever to the soaring sublime", you use to describe these works.
Shakespeare was seldom less than very good, but when he soared he transcends our being with his poetry.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Indeed he was often the best. However, since he wrote so many Sonnets I think that he felt he could trow some variety into the mix.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

I really am going to have to get my husband to read these to me as as beautiful as they may be I really need to hear them spoken to appreciate them fully.

Great commentary as always, thanks or yet another thought provoking post.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Sorry, that was me somehow managing to post my comment twice.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy- Thanks so much. It would be so nice to get your husband to read these to you! That really is the preferred way. If for some reason you do not, they are upnon Youtube with various readers.

Sharon Wilfong said...

These sonnets are very beautiful. I like analyses about life and aging. It's the sort of thing I ponder a lot as well.
I'm inspired to get out my book of Shakespeare and read these sonnets again.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - As I get older the life and aging theme is also of interest to me too.

One nice thing about the Sonnets is that one can take them in very small bites!

Take care.

Violet said...

But flowers distill'd though they with winter meet,

Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.

I like these lines.

When we are old we are 'distilled'; and we may have lost our show (beauty) but our substance, our self, still lives sweet.

I think our cultural obsession with youth and beauty means that many of us fail to recognise and honour the 'living sweet(ness)' of our elders. And that's a shame.

I still think Marlow wrote the sonnets though. :)

The Bookworm said...

Interesting post, and Shakespeare's Sonnets are truly beautiful.
I have to say though, having ten children would not make me ten times happier...maybe ten times crazier! lol
Enjoy your Sunday.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - It is a shame. I also sense from these lines that there was at least a bit of it in Shakespeare's time.

I am going to need to actually read some more Marlowe before I weigh in further in the authorship controversy :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - Ha!, ha! I think that most modern folks would agree that ten children would not enhance happiness!

Suko said...

Tracy reminded me that these would be powerful if read out loud.

10 children is quite a handful--two, actually! Wonderful commentary on Sonnets 5 and 6, Brian Joseph.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Me too. I really must hear them read. My wife mentioned me reading them so I might give the a try!

Funny how the refrence to ten children creates such a reaction!

Violet said...

On the ten children thing? The rate of child mortality in those days probably meant that only a few of the ten would reach adulthood, so the ability to have many children was seen as a very good thing? The poor women though!

On the Marlowe authorship question? Google 'Marlovian' and see what pops up. This is pretty wild. ! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - Yes, if one reads history the infant mortality rate as well as children who died a little older was striking. One the other hand if ten children were making one happy perhaps Shakespeare was thinking about surviving children.

Thanks for the link. Yes, pretty out there stuff. Secret codes in the Sonnets! One of our oldest conspiracy theories :)

JaneGS said...

I would agree that Shakespeare goes over the top with these two sonnets in particular. Maybe it's my modern sensitivities that age need not be considered haggard, but he paints such a two-dimensional picture. It's almost as if these are exercises in developing theme rather than from the heart.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - Indeed his views on age seem so different from how I think of that human commonality. I have been pondering just shat Shakespeare was getting at here. It really is an enigma. I will be partially the subject of my next post on the Sonnets.

Harvee said...

These sonnets about winter remind me of our horrid/wonderful white winter of last year. Bitter-sweet season.

For never-resting Time leads Summer on
To hideous Winter and confounds him there;

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - Not so when I was younger, but as I get a little older imagery of harsh winters does indeed connect to reality for me too!

Lucy (Tolstoy Therapy) said...

Superb commentary as always, Brian. I'm so glad you've chosen these two sonnets - I've always overlooked them slightly on my readings, but they certainly deserve recognition! I definitely agree with you that the imagery is very distinctive. I like that you think it's slightly melodramatic too.

I love the opening phrase of Sonnet 6...definitively a line to remember!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lucy - Thanks so much.

I can see as to how some of these Sonnets can get overlooked. As I mentioned their quality is not entirely uniform and there is a bit of sameness to some of the entries in the Fair Youth series.

One thing that I think is fruitful is trying to focus on what makes each particular Sonnet distinctive.

Lindsay said...

Great insightful and thoughtful reading of these two sonnets Brian. I agree with your closing comment that they are a lot of fun to read, and I agree with Tracy about hearing them spoken out loud.

Lindsay said...

I'm so sorry that I duplicated my comment Brian.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lindsay - I really need to get around myself to hearing these read aloud.

People sometimes look at me funny when I say i find these fun to read :)

Caroline said...

I think these are the poems I like best so far. I love the imagery. A bit bleak but so expressive.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Indeed he shows the most emotion here as compared to the earlier ones.

So many books, so little time said...

10 children, good Lord I find my hands full as it is with a cat let!

I find Shakespeare to be very moving and have the complete works somewhere but it is not something I can read in large parts like any other print. As always it is lovely to hear someones thoughts on such work and I really do need to dig that book out!


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - And the ten children were a blessing!

One nice thing about the Sonnets is that they can be digested in little bits :)

JacquiWine said...

At school I struggled with Shakespeare’s plays, but your post leaves me feeling the urge to check out his sonnets – lovely piece!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - I think that the Sonnets are a great place to start as they can be read individually.

JacquiWine said...

Hi Brian, I heard Simon Russell Beale discussing Shakespeare's sonnets on the radio recently - it's just a brief snippets from BBC Radio 4's Front Row arts programme. I'm not sure if you can listen to this link outside of the UK, but thought it might be of interest to you (and other readers of your blog). If the link doesn't work, you might be able to listen via the 'Front Row Daily' podcast.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jaqui - Thanks for the link.

The clip played no problem. and I am in the US.

Simon Russell Beale mentions some interests contrasts between the Sonnets and the plays.

vb said...

You actually inspired me with your post on sonnets that I ought myself one though Iam yet to relish them...The way you have commented highlights the extend of your love and understanding of it..Though I doubt it might be the same with other Shakespeare lovers.Cheers again

Brian Joseph said...

Hi VB - Shakespeare can be challenging. It took me along time to be able to read him with comprehension.

One nice thing about the Sonnets is that they can be read on in small bits.

Maria Behar said...

Excellent commentary as always, Brian!

I have to say that I tend to differ with Shakespeare here, and with a lot of people as well. Lol. To me, the winter season is absolutely beautiful, majestic, and conducive to family closeness. Maybe that's because I've never seen snow or experienced freezing I guess the grass is greener on the other side, after all, even when it's frozen. : )

Not that I don't like beautiful, sandy beaches and sparkling ocean waters. But.....the HEAT. I HATE THE HEAT. And I don't like the fact that we don't get to see the change of seasons down here in Miami. Perhaps what I hate the most is getting temps in the 80s on Christmas Day!!!! Lol.

Of course, the Bard creates beautiful images here, along with the exhortation to the youth to not waste his valuable time, and procreate! That sounds funny to modern ears, but then, we have to remember that, back in those days, the life expectancy wasn't what it is nowadays. And it's improving all the time, too.

I agree with you that Shakespeare does sound a little melodramatic here. Again, that seems to be due to the shortness of life back in his day. Of course, even when he's being a bit melodramatic, he's still the BEST poet ever!!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - I love many things about the winter too!

Interestingly as I get older I can simultaneously also appreciate how winter imagery can be compared to desolation and even death. The contradiction can live within my brain!

In all his moods Shakespeare is indeed the best!