By James A. Tweedie Call me a snob but I am generally attracted to what is commonly referred to as “great art” or the “masterpieces.” Over the years I have looked at famous paintings and I have looked at less famous paintings. I have decided that famous paintings are famous for a reason. They are famous because they are the best of the best. Over hundreds of years, the cumulative judgment of critics usually gets it right. And the public, whether or not they can tell good art from bad, usually embraces the critic’s verdict as their own. (excerpt from “I Want My MoMA,” by James A. Tweedie) The above quote is the opinion of the lead character in my-four novel series, “Mike Maurison—Private Eye.” Mike’s view of art, at least in this instance, reflects my own. If you substitute the word “art” for the words “music,” literature,” or “poetry” I will also agree with it. Critical and popular consensus can sometimes agree on the top three works of a particular creator. Michelangelo as sculptor for example? Easy: Pieta, Moses, and David. Bach or Rembrandt? Not so easy. There are simply too many great masterpieces to choose from. The top three Shakespeare’s plays? Hamlet, of course, but after that, what? As one stage director put it, “Jeepers, what a question! For me, the real answer is whatever play I'm working on at the moment.” When it comes to Shakespeare’s sonnets we run into the same problem. How can we possibly choose five, or even ten sonnets from out of the standard list of 154 (plus two from “Love’s Labor’s Lost” and the variant of 133 in “The Passionate Pilgrim”) and declare them to be the best of the lot? As I researched the sonnets I came across numerous lists of people’s “Top Ten.” In almost every case, there was near unanimous agreement on #18, 116, and 130, with slightly over half of the lists also including #29. There was virtually no agreement on the other six. When I compiled my own list, I was not surprised to find that five of my “Top Ten” did not appear on any of the lists I had surveyed. As the old saying goes: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Or, as Shakespeare himself put it in “Love’s Labor’s Lost:” Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye, Not utter'd by base sale of chapmen's tongues. If such lists are the result of mere subjectivity, then what’s the point of the exercise? The answer is, “None, really.” Except, perhaps, for making an attempt to stimulate a conversation and get people interested in something they hadn’t been interested in before. My hope is that this essay will bear fruit in that regard. Let me make one thing clear from the outset: I am not a Shakespeare scholar, expert, maven, junkie, or groupie. I have, however, been interested enough in the Bard to have read everything he wrote and to have gone out of my way last summer to attend an outdoor performance of “A Comedy of Errors” in Penzance and a theater production of Hamlet in London. I last read the full set of sonnets over forty years ago and recently felt it was time to refresh my memory. In order to get a sense of sequence and possible thematic relationships I chose to read them straight through in two sittings, reading half of them one evening and the second half the following morning, all the while taking notes and ranking them according to how they tickled my fancy as I went along. I also chose to read them “cold turkey,” without engendering bias by reading anything about them before-hand. I did my research and study after I had read them, re-read them, and winnowed my list down to ten (counting the matched pair of 64/65 as one poem), a process which was more difficult than I had anticipated. My research led me to make one change to my list as several obscurities were explained which resulted in one poem becoming less interesting and another more so. To read them without bias allowed each sonnet to speak for itself. The experience was exhilarating. My subsequent discovery that many Shakespeare scholars believe the first 127 sonnets were inspired by a male youth caused me to reread the poems yet again. While I will not comment on this one way or the other I am willing to acknowledge that the gender relationships in these sonnets appear to be intentionally androgynous (see #20 for the most eloquent example of this gender ambiguity) and can be read either way. Here is my list, with the poems presented in numerical order. 10. Sonnet #18 Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate. Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And summer’s lease hath all too short a date. Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, And often is his gold complexion dimmed; And every fair from fair sometime declines, By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed. But thy eternal summer shall not fade, Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st, Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade, When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st. So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. This is, by consensus, the most popular of the lot, so I’ll not waste time or space attempting to justify the verdict. 9. Sonnet #23 As an unperfect actor on the stage, Who with his fear is put besides his part, Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage, Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart; So I, for fear of trust, forget to say The perfect ceremony of love’s rite, And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay, O'ercharged with burden of mine own love’s might. O let my books be then the eloquence And dumb presagers of my speaking breast, Who plead for love and look for recompense More than that tongue that more hath more expressed. O learn to read what silent love hath writ! To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit. There is some (intentional) ambiguity in this poem as in, for example, the phrases, “mine own love’s strength” and “mine own love’s might.” The phrases could be referring to either “the strength/might of the poet’s love” or to “the strength/might of the one he loves.” In either case, it is clear the poet is so overwhelmed by the object of his affection that he has become tongue-tied and unable to find an adequate way to put his feelings of love into words. He then begs the one he loves to “read” and “hear” how his love is being expressed in silent ways rather than in words written in books or spoken by the tongue. The rhythmic pattern is flawless iambic pentameter with a masculine ending to every line. I find the sentiment lovely and true to my own experience and was surprised that this poem did not make it onto anyone else’s list. 8. Sonnet #29 When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes I all alone beweep my outcast state, And trouble deaf heav'n with my bootless cries, And look upon myself, and curse my fate, Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, Featured like him, like him with friends possessed, Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope, With what I most enjoy contented least; Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising, Haply I think on thee, and then my state, Like to the lark at break of day arising From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate. For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings That then I scorn to change my state with kings. The poem’s sentiment can be summarized as follows: The memory of your love for me outweighs both my disgrace and poverty. In this poem, Shakespeare uses the octet to present the conflict. He introduces the resolution in the following quartet and concludes the matter with the couplet. Shakespeare challenges us by shifting the expected iambs in several places. At first glance, line 3 seems to insist on forcing us to cram three syllables into the first foot by either eliding the two-syllable word “trouble” into one syllable or splitting it into two half-rhythmic parts (the musical equivalent of splitting a quarter note into two eighth notes) to make it fit. The natural flow of this line also seems to transform the second foot from an iamb to a spondee requiring a heavy accent on both “deaf” and the first syllable of “heav’n.” But if we pay closer attention, Shakespeare has resolved the matter by eliding the word “heav’n” into one syllable, allowing us to follow the normal iambic pattern which now accents the first syllable of the word “trouble” along with the words “deaf” and “with.” The first feet of lines 5,6, and 10 seem to require a spondic interpretation with a heavy accent on both syllables. Whether Shakespeare did this intentionally for some purpose or whether he was simply fudging is hard to tell. What is clear, however, is that Shakespeare understood that the sonnet was made for man, and not man for the sonnet, and rather than criticize him for straying from strict adherence to poetic laws carved in stone, we should learn from his poetic license how the Muse who created such laws is also free to rework them when necessary. The anomalous feminine endings in lines 9 and 11 only serve to emphasize the freedom Shakespeare enjoyed in writing this sonnet. To further illustrate this point, note how Shakespeare breaks all the rules in Sonnets 126 (which is composed of only 12 lines and arranged in 6 couplets) and 145 (which is written in iambic tetrameter rather than the expected pentameter). Although included in the collection, are they real sonnets in alternative forms? Or are they something else entirely? 7. Sonnet #34 Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day And make me travel forth without my cloak, To let base clouds o'ertake me in my way, Hiding thy brav'ry in their rotten smoke? 'Tis not enough that through the cloud thou break, To dry the rain on my storm-beaten face. For no man well of such a salve can speak That heals the wound and cures not the disgrace. Nor can thy shame give physic to my grief; Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss. The offender’s sorrow lends but weak relief To him that bears the strong offense’s cross. Ah, but those tears are pearl which thy love sheds, And they are rich, and ransom all ill deeds. The poem is written as if making a complaint to the sun for luring the poet outside without a cloak with the promise of a beautiful day only to disappear behind rainclouds and leaving him soaked to the bone. The poet knows the injustice would not be remedied even if the sun should offer an apology, for the apology would not in any way remove the humiliation and discomfort suffered by the poet in getting drenched. Yet in an unexpected twist, the couplet reveals that the offense was given not by the sun at all, but by the poet’s lover, whose repentant tears are accepted as sufficient to ransom/redeem/atone for whatever pain had been inflicted by the (unspecified) transgression. This is a sweet sentiment beautifully expressed with a very satisfying resolution to the conflict (ie. a happy ending). Note how in this poem (unlike #29 above) Shakespeare exhausts all three quartets in presenting the problem while delaying resolution until the closing couplet. A frequent variation in his sonnets. 6. Sonnet #43 When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see, For all the day they view things unrespected; But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee, And, darkly bright, are bright in dark directed. Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright— How would thy shadow’s form form happy show To the clear day with thy much clearer light, When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so? How would, I say, mine eyes be blessèd made By looking on thee in the living day, When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay? All days are nights to see till I see thee, And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me. The poet, separated from the one he loves, finds the normal cycle of life reversed as daylight, with its laborious distractions, forces him to look at things he has no interest in. It is only at night, lying in the darkness with his eyes closed, that he is able to clearly see his love in his mind’s eye. The octet presents the curious dilemma while the following four lines present the yearned-for time of resolution when his eyes will once again “see thee in the living day.” Interestingly, the closing couplet returns to the opening conflict by restating it rather than resolving it. I like this poem because it captures the strange power of impassioned love to turn one’s world upside down and inside out. I am also captivated by the lovely image in line five: “ . . .whose shadow shadows doth make bright.” The sonnet also illustrates Shakespeare’s patented, witty, playful use of words in line six where he doubles up the word “form,” a ploy which serves as a lighthearted reminder not to take the poem too seriously, but to simply savor it. Again, note the feminine endings, this time in lines 2 and 4. 5. Sonnets #64/65 When I have seen by time’s fell hand defaced The rich proud cost of outworn buried age; When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed, And brass eternal slave to mortal rage; When I have seen the hungry ocean gain Advantage on the kingdom of the shore, And the firm soil win of the watery main, Increasing store with loss, and loss with store; When I have seen such interchange of state, Or state itself confounded to decay, Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate, That time will come and take my love away. This thought is as a death, which cannot choose But weep to have that which it fears to lose. Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea, But sad mortality o'ersways their power, How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea, Whose action is no stronger than a flower? O how shall summer’s honey breath hold out Against the wrackful siege of batt'ring days, When rocks impregnable are not so stout, Nor gates of steel so strong but time decays? O fearful meditation! Where, alack, Shall time’s best jewel from time’s chest lie hid? Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back? Or who his spoil or beauty can forbid? O none, unless this miracle have might, That in black ink my love may still shine bright. These two sonnets were clearly intended to be read as one poem insofar that the first, taken by itself, is unresolved and ends in a most unsatisfying manner. The second poem, without the context of the first, is incomprehensible. Taken together, however, they form a remarkably well thought-out whole. The first sonnet introduces the observation that all things wear out and decay. It concludes with the sad conclusion that “time will come and take my love away” in death. Indeed, the very thought of this is itself “a death” which brings grief and tears in anticipation of the inevitable loss. The second poem asks four questions, each seeking a way to either avoid or cheat the inevitability of death. The couplet affirms both the despair of finding no way out, but also the consoling hope that the poet’s love may yet attain immortality in his verse. The iambic pentameter is maintained intact in both sonnets along with a masculine ending to every line. I find the overall effect of this double sonnet to be both sadly dark and stunningly beautiful at the same time. Other examples of double (or closely-paired) sonnets are 27/28, 50/51, 57/58, 67/68, 69/70, 82/83, 88/89, & 135/136. In addition, I believe there is at least one triple sonnet to be found in Sonnets 91/92/93. 4. Sonnet #73 That time of year thou mayst in me behold When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. In me thou seest the twilight of such day As after sunset fadeth in the west, Which by and by black night doth take away, Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest. In me thou seest the glowing of such fire That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, As the deathbed whereon it must expire Consumed with that which it was nourished by. This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong, To love that well which thou must leave ere long. This poem has been interpreted in a variety of ways. My read is that it is a celebration of the beauty and strength of love that perseveres even as the poet’s youth fades and his once vital life succumbs to failing health, old age, or both. I find the autumnal descriptions in the opening quartet to be among the most vivid and poignant in all of Shakespeare’s writings. The fourth line is particularly striking as it presents the double image of “ruined choirs” as both the leafless boughs in which the birds once sang and as the once-consecrated spaces (“choirs”) of ruined churches and abbeys wherein human voices once sang hymns of praise. Shakespeare’s melancholy displays of decay, ruin and death could hardly be more poignant than they are in this image. As an aside, we must be careful to preserve the meter by reading the word “choir” as one syllable. The second quartet presents the same theme but uses the images of sunset, twilight, the end of day, and the approach of darkness as metaphors for the imminent arrival of death and the inevitable grief and loss it will bring to those bound in love. The third quartet introduces the image of the poet being reduced to ash by a fire fueled by the very sap (no doubt referring to his all-consuming love) which once gave him life. (“Consumed with that which it (ie. his youth) was nourished by.”) The closing couplet twists the tragedy into a victory where even sickness and death cannot dissuade one person from loving another until the end. The overall theme is most certainly an allusion to the vows made during the celebration of marriage; vows no doubt made by Shakespeare himself on the day of his wedding to Anne Hathaway. “Wilt thou love her, coumforte her, honor, and kepe her in sickenesse and in health? And forsaking all other kepe thee only to her, so long as you both shall live?” (Book of Common Prayer, 1549 edition) 3. Sonnet #88 When thou shalt be disposed to set me light And place my merit in the eye of scorn, Upon thy side against myself I’ll fight, And prove thee virtuous, though thou art forsworn. With mine own weakness being best acquainted, Upon thy part I can set down a story Of faults concealed, wherein I am attainted, That thou in losing me shalt win much glory. And I by this will be a gainer too, For bending all my loving thoughts on thee, The injuries that to myself I do, Doing thee vantage, double vantage me. Such is my love, to thee I so belong, That for thy right myself will bear all wrong. The poet, in the outrageous, twisted logic of this sonnet, comes to the conclusion that when the one he loves turns on him and berates and belittles him for his many faults, true love requires him to take his lover’s part and argue on behalf of the prosecution by giving self-incriminating testimony including revealing faults previously known only to himself! In this way, he not only proves his love by humble submission to his lover but makes him/her look good in the eyes of others by affirming and confirming his/her case. By not burning the bridge that once united them, this tactic also preserves the hope they may one day be reconciled. Thus, “Doing thee vantage, double vantage me.” I find this warped interpretation of true love enchanting, amusing and hilarious. It is the sort of scenario that Shakespeare so masterfully weaves into his comedies. Since so many of Shakespeare’s sonnets verge on the morose as they flirt with infidelity, separation, death, betrayal, darkness, despair, and even depression, it is refreshing to come across something like this every so often! Note that this sonnet (88) is paired with Sonnet 89 in which Shakespeare continues to exploit the convoluted theme by milking it for all that it’s worth! Lastly, don’t fail to note the feminine endings in lines 6 and 8. 2. Sonnet #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-fixèd mark That looks on tempests and is never shaken; It is the star to every wand'ring 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. This sonnet, along with 18 and 130, is most rightly one of the three most beloved of all the sonnets. It forthrightly celebrates love’s perseverance in the face of adversity. The only note I made after reading this poem was, “True love outlasts time.” The poet’s daring wager in the closing couplet is one he knows he cannot, and will not, lose. Those who love this sonnet and revel in the Bard’s exquisite mastery in joining language, image, sentiment, rhythm, rhyme and meter into one seamless, perfect whole, will most certainly agree with his conclusion that “Love conquers all!” As far as I am concerned, Sonnet 116 represents Shakespeare in his prime and at his best. It is unequaled in so many ways that for me to reference them all would not only take more words than I am willing to invest in writing them, but more time and effort than you the reader are likely willing to expend in reading them. 1. Sonnet #130 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 damasked, red and white, But no such roses see I in her cheeks; And in some pérfumes is there 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. And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare As any she belied with false compare. For the life of me I could not at first understand why this poem was consistently ranked among Shakespeare’s finest and most popular. It is enigmatic, completely counter-intuitive, and the polar opposite of everything a love poem should be insofar as it flirts with being outrageously rude, insulting and cruel to the supposed object of the poet’s affection. My initial response to this poem was, “My lover may be ugly, but by my love, she is beautiful,” followed immediately by “UGH! What is this?” Who would dare to write such a poem? And who would have the audacity to believe that such a verse would find acceptance anywhere or by anyone? It is my opinion that this poem, along with many, if not most of the sonnets, was written not to be shared, but to simply record the poet’s feelings and thoughts similar to the way that a more prosaic writer enters thoughts and feelings into a daily journal or diary. Indeed, the first publication of Shakespeare’s sonnets by Thomas Thorpe in 1609 took place without Shakespeare’s authorization, and quite possibly without his knowledge. That the sonnets had been held close to the author’s chest for so many years belies the suggestion that he had written them with the intention of one day publishing them himself. It is my opinion that the majority of these poems, with some possible exceptions, were never shared outside Shakespeare’s inner circle of friends. It is indeed possible to conjecture that had not Thorpe “seized the day” and printed a pirated copy of the sonnets, they could well have been lost to us forever. Despite my protestations, I do concede that I am numbered among the vast multitude who lists this sonnet as one of their favorites—but why? I would like to suggest that it is because each of us is painfully aware that we can never measure up to the standards of perfection expected and demanded of us by the world—a world that not only thrives on the exploitation of beauty but celebrates its unattainable perfection in the art of portraiture, photography (Diane Arbus excepted), cinema and commercial advertising. We live in an airbrushed age where face-lifts and make-up, buffed abs, boob jobs, and anorexic waistlines define who is and who is not beautiful. No doubt this was also true in Shakespeare’s day. In the face of all this, his defiance of such orthodox cultural standards in writing Sonnet 130 is nothing short of iconoclastic. This sonnet exposes the socially-constructed illusion of beauty in a way reminiscent of the classic tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes through creating a new reality wherein each of us is free—perhaps for the first time—to see ourselves stripped bare of pretense. In so doing, we are able to join Shakespeare in celebrating the awesome truth that we can, in fact, be beautiful just as we are, and that true love is blind to the frivolous and otherwise specious standards of culture that demeans, prescribes, exploits, delegitimatizes, co-opts, corrupts and in every other imaginable way, seeks to turn our precious humanity into a commodity. In the end, and in spite of his full embrace of the entrenched misogyny of his day, Shakespeare was inspired to see through the illusion long enough to capture the scandalously redemptive value of true love in Sonnet 130. As the old song puts it, “Everything is beautiful in its own way.” Or as Shakespeare himself puts it in Sonnet 84 “Who is it that says most? Which can say more Than this rich praise,—that you alone are you?” And that, I believe, is why we love Sonnet 130 so much.