Sonnets 33 – 48
Summary: the poet has experienced ecstatic fulfilment in the past (he reports in the opening quatrain), but now the sun has disappeared and gloomier days are upon him. Even so, he does not blame the object of his affections that he has been let down and betrayed.
Note: An extended metaphor of sun, clouds and the passing of the day hides the poet’s pain at his lover’s betrayal of him and subsequent disappearance, “Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace”. Some critics take “the sun” to refer to Hamnet, the poet’s son, who died age ten.
Question: how persuasive is the idea that “the sun” refers to Hamnet rather than the “fair youth”?
Summary: the extended metaphor introduced in 33 is revived. The poet regrets that he wasn’t prepared for the weather to break and his relationship to change. Apologies are welcome but cannot undo the harm done. But his friend’s tears are an exquisite consolation, nonetheless.
Note: Sonnets 33 and 34 are the first of the “Estrangement Sonnets”, exploring the fair youth’s apparent betrayal of the poet, together with his remorse and their subsequent reconciliation. The poet’s tone is impatient and the quarrel’s resolution less than convincing.
Question: is there any evidence here that this poem reflects lived experience on the poet’s part?
Summary: very few things in nature are perfect, observes the poet, and indeed he is himself to blame for colluding in the offences he forgives. In doing so he becomes effectively his own prosecutor, and an accessory to the “fair youth” who has hurt him.
Note: the octave contains a sequence of popular proverbs (“Roses have thorns … / And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud” etc) suggesting that the ideal is unrealisable. The sestet develops an extended metaphor around the idea of the fair youth as a “sweet thief”, liable for prosecution.
Question: how has the poet’s tone changed in comparison with Sonnet 34?
Summary: the poet regrets that despite their unifying love for one another, recent events (“blots”) suggest that their lives and love should be “separable”. Instead the “fair youth” should pay no attention to him in public lest he damage his own reputation – which in turn the poet would regret.
Note: the use of pronouns here reinforces the sense of a “separable” relationship. In the octave the dominant pronouns are first person plural (“we, our, our, our”); by contrast, as the idea of separation develops, the dominant pronouns in the sestet are the first person singular (“I, my, me, I, mine, mine”) together with the second (“thee, thee, thou, thou, thee, thou, thy”).
Question: the most touching love poems do not insist on separation; they regret it. Do you agree?
Summary: the poet takes vicarious delight in his friend’s abundant talents and advantages in life, “whether beauty, birth, or wealth, or wit”. In loving these gifts in his friend, he shares them at a distance, and takes pleasure in wishing him “what is best”.
Note: the poet compares himself to a “father” taking delight in the accomplishments of his son (or “child”). Parent / child relationships are naturally common in Shakespeare’s plays, though examples of parents taking delight in their children’s achievements are significantly less so.
Question: identify any parent/ child relationships in Shakespeare’s plays that follow this pattern.
Summary: the poet has no need of any greater inspiration for his poems than the “fair youth”. Any sense of accomplishment in his poems belongs to the youth – since who “cannot write to thee?” Traditional “rhymers” should focus on the youth – to whom the credit is due for these poems.
Note: Shakespeare’s sonnets (for example, 21) occasionally convey unflattering views of his rival poets – here dismissed as “rhymers”, their work as “vulgar”. At other times (Sonnet 32 for instance) he indulges a kind of false modesty about his own skills. This poem combines both approaches in praising the youth.
Question: compare Sonnets 37 and 38. What do we learn about the youth from these two poems?
Summary: the poet imagines himself and his lover as being one and the same person – therefore to praise his lover is tantamount to praising himself. So separation and absence suggest themselves – a chance to reflect on his love and thus bring him closer.
Note: once again the pronouns are worth exploring. In the octave, the poet’s lover is addressed, and the informal second-person pronoun is used four times. Following the volta, by contrast, “absence” is addressed, and the lover appropriately is relegated to the third person: “him”.
Question: this sonnet opens with two questions. How are questions used in general in the Sonnets?
Summary: the poet encourages his lover to depend on his devotion indefinitely, forgiving him for what may be his infidelity, even though being hurt in love is the worst of all griefs. “Lascivious” the poet’s lover may be, but his errant behaviour should not (says the poet) make them fall out.
Note: the word “love” appears eight times in the opening six lines of the poem, with various meanings: a person (“my love”), an emotion (“thou my love receivest”), an abstract ideal (“true love”). But after the volta, the poem’s central theme is ironically “robb’ry”, “grief”, “love’s wrong”.
Question: which other words (alongside “love”) play a central role in the Sonnets as a whole?
Summary: the poet accepts that his lover is extremely attractive and will very likely prove irresistible to women. But he questions whether the “fair youth” needed to be involved with his own mistress – could not, in short, “my seat forbear” – since the poet’s injury is thereby “twofold”.
Note: the “fair youth” has become a “straying youth” – with the poet’s own lover – inflicting a “twofold” injury on him. The closing couplet, spelling out the two injuries, gives significant priority to the infidelity of the “fair youth” over that of the woman described by the poet as “my seat”.
Question: how angry is the poet with the young man for apparently sleeping with his mistress?
Summary: the poet is preoccupied with the affair involving his mistress and his young friend. He is quite explicit that the greater injury to himself is the infidelity of the young man. But he consoles himself that in loving the young man, his mistress loves him too since “my friend and I are one”.
Note: the poem is notable not only for its monosyllabic plainness but also for its semantic transparency: there is a single metaphor here – “both … lay on me this cross”. This apparent reference to the crucifixion of Christ seems a touch incongruous in the context.
Question: how does this sonnet reinforce and enrich the thinking in Sonnet 41?
Summary: the poet contrasts the dullness of his days with the brightness of his nights, in which the vision of the “fair youth” is so vivid, it “shadows doth make bright”. Appearing in the poet’s dreams, the young man’s “fair imperfect shade” shines as to turn night into day.
Note: the poet’s use of rhyme in the sonnets is generally uninspiring: thee / me, alone / one, love / prove etc. This sonnet plays with sound patterns more ambitiously, using alliteration (shadow / show / shade / shines) and repetition (“shadow shadows … shadow’s form form …”) to reflect, perhaps, a sense not of release but of being trapped.
Question: after re-reading Sonnet 28, reflect on the various implications of night in the Sonnets.
Summary: the poet imagines himself able to travel as fast as thought itself, for then, no matter how remote he was from the “fair youth”, he would be able to join him in an instant. But being made not of ideas but of earth and water, he can do nothing more than weep at his limitations.
Note: the dominant end-rhyme comprising “thought / brought / thought / wrought” is reinforced by internal echoes in “thought” (lines 7 and 9) and “nought” (line 13). The conceit that love might efface distance is rehearsed in (among other places) “The Phoenix and the Turtle) (1599).
Question: does play with conceits of this kind undermine the force of his sadness and isolation?
Summary: the poet returns to the theme of Sonnet 44, glossing “air” as his thoughts of the “fair youth” and “fire” as his desire for him. Without these he is nothing (“death”, “melancholy”) until he hears from the youth, but his thoughts and desire for him are instinctive and the cycle is relentless.
Note: Sonnets 44 and 45 are based on the conceit that we are composed of four elements – earth, fire, air and water. Fire and air symbolise a-physical features, namely thought and desire, while earth and water represent the physical. Thought and desire are weightless, leaving the poet to lament that he is left with the heavier, more physical characteristics.
Question: how effective is the metaphorical field of “embassy” and “messengers” here?
Summary: the poet contrasts “Mine eye” (which apprehends the youth’s physical beauty) with “My heart”, which loves his essence. True, this essence inhabits the body, but the eye would protest that the body is the essence. The answer, he says, is for the eye to relish his appearance and his heart to appreciate his love.
Note: the poem is constructed around an extended metaphor of the justice system: “right / plead / plea / title (= entitlement) / empanelled (= to come before a court) / quest (= jury) / tenants / verdict / moiety / right”. There is also a less prominent field of military imagery here.
Question: how satisfying is the “verdict” delivered in the closing couplet?
Summary: in contrast with recent sonnets, the poet now describes his heart and his eye as mutually supportive: when he misses his young friend his eye is free to gaze on his picture and his heart to swell with love. So though he may at times be parted from the “fair youth”, he is “present still with me”, even in the poet’s dreams.
Note: the octave is underwritten by an extended metaphor of food and feasting (“famished / feast / banquet / guest”), describing a process in which, initially, “mine eye is famish’d” before “my eye doth feast” (lines 3 and 5). The sestet, notably, is free of figurative language, reflecting the poet’s renewed sense of purpose and confidence.
Question: metaphor depends on similarity – how similar are the appetites being described here?
Summary: the poet remembers that when he was younger he was especially careful with the things he most valued. Now he most values the “fair youth”, but though his love is “prey of every vulgar thief”, the poet has not locked him away except in his heart. No doubt he will be stolen as a result.
Note: a note of resignation enters the poet’s tone in this sonnet, acknowledging that what matters to him matters little to the “fair youth” (“to whom my jewels trifles are”), and accepting that eventually he will lose his “prize so dear”.
Question: is it valid to say that, on the basis of this sonnet, the poet sees the “fair youth” almost as he used to think of his property?
One Hundred Word Endnote:
Shakespeare seems to have composed his 154 sonnets largely for private entertainment, circulated and appreciated among friends. Their existence was first revealed in a book by Francis Meres in 1598, and two were published in 1599, probably without their author’s permission.
The entire collection appeared in 1609, but there the certainties end. The identity of the dedicatee (“Mr W.H.”) is disputed, and anyway he is not necessarily the subject of the poems; at least two lovers are addressed, and probably more than two; and it is highly unlikely the poems were written in the order in which they are printed.