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Lectures on Shakespeare
W. H. Auden
Edited by Arthur Kirsch

Book Description | Reviews | Table of Contents

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Sonnets

[4 December 1946]

Shakespeare's Sonnets were published in 1609, but the bulk of them were written between 1593 and 1596, so that's why we're reading them now. How far are they personal? How far are they technical exercises? There has been more nonsense written about Shakespeare's Sonnets than about any other piece of literature extant. Wordsworth said, "With this key / Shakspeare unlocked his heart," and Browning said, "`With this same key / Shakespeare unlocked his heart,' once more! / Did Shakespeare? If so, the less Shakespeare he!" In one sense the artist is always unlocking his heart, in another he is always dramatic. But actually there must be a difference between Shakespeare's dramatic works and poems about experiences that were happening to him. The question we must ask about lyric verse is: how far is it personal, how far is it dramatic? Most of these sonnets were addressed to a man. That can lead to a variety of nonsensical attitudes from exercises in special pleading to discreet whitewashing. It is also nonsensical, no matter how accurate your results may be, to waste time trying to identify characters. It is an idiot's job, pointless and uninteresting. It is just gossip, and gossip, though it can be exceedingly interesting when the parties are alive, is not at all interesting when they're dead.

Why should so much poetry be written about sexual love and so little about eating--which is just as pleasurable and never lets you down--or about family affection, or about the love of mathematics? Sexual love has, in very acute form, the double impress of nature and spirit and is therefore ideally representative of our human condition. The weak self that desires to be strong is hungry. The lonely self desires to be attached. The spirit desires to be free and unattached, and not at the mercy of natural appetite. It also desires to be important, and that conflicts with its desire for freedom. The weak self wants other things to exist so it may encroach on them, the lonely self wants other existences to hold on to, in extreme cases to be absorbed in. But the spirit wants to be only "I," wants its attachment to other things to be its free choice. Consciousness plays the least part in the pleasure of eating, but it plays some--that's why we recognize gluttony as a sin. But the element of consciousness is so small that gluttony is a staple only of comedy--for example, the story of the man who gives up a beautiful girl to marry an ugly woman who happens to be a good cook. His choice can't involve difficulty, for eating is a comparatively innocent occupation. It also has a generalized object of desire: it doesn't make very much difference what the food is. It is comic to see an individual overcome by something general. Take the man who is conversing very elaborately, very beautifully, on matters of the highest spiritual nature. Suddenly, when no one is looking, he snatches a cake. As in all natural humor, though, the amusement to be derived from this sort of situation, where the individual comes in contact with the universal, is limited. For example, there's a party. Everyone is waiting expectantly for the great writer to put in an appearance. He enters. Instead of producing illuminating conversation, the first thing he does is ask where the bathroom is. At the other extreme, the passion for mathematics, though it can be in selected persons quite as intense as any love affair, is too spiritual. But because mathematicians are still obstinately people, you can still get a mild comic effect from the contrast between their interest and their human situation: for instance, the absent-minded professor who forgets the day of his wedding.

Sexual love has both nature and spirit and the desire for personal choice. The desire begins with the individual object but ends in bed where things are generalized. I think that there's a good American story to illustrate this point. A man is on a visit to Chicago. He enters a restaurant. Yes, he sees a very beautiful girl in the restaurant, exquisitely beautiful, ravishingly beautiful. Yes, she is friendly, she smiles at him, she talks to him. Yes, her conversation is very witty, she is very agreeable, she is immensely entertaining. They go to the opera. Yes, she is very intelligent, she has a fine appreciation of the beautiful things in life, is keenly aware of values. They go to a night club. Yes, she is a wonderful sport, she enters wholeheartedly into the spirit of things. Later, yes, she responds beautifully to his love-making, is very understanding, says she loves him too. In the taxi, yes, her kisses are thrilling. And after that? After that it was like it is in Cincinnati. You see, any description of the sex act must be pornographic. To an outsider, to a child watching, it looks like eating. There is no realization that individuals are concerned. But they are, even at the last, though the fact may be not be evident. The nature of the act is that we must not remain self-conscious, it is destroyed if we do. Of course, to the child the act is comic, but it is not to the adult because he knows that spirit is involved. Literature makes people fornicating self- conscious and so violates the nature of the experience.

Why is love so peculiarly the subject of lyric poetry? War and work are dealt with dramatically, not lyrically. You often get people writing poetry when they fall in love who are not moved by their other equally important experiences to do any writing about them. It isn't at all because love poetry has any practical value. No one was ever seduced by a beautiful poem, though a bad one may be effective on occasion. Work and war are less subjective, they can be imposed on one for pragmatic reasons. Of course, subjective reasons, the combative instinct, loving your work, may enter in, but you always advance pragmatic, causal reasons--I have to defend my country, I have to earn my living. Now, these reasons are never advanced in love. The sex drive is enough, and reasons are always inadequate. It is an entirely personal affair, it is my love. It is a matter of necessity, I can't help myself. Duty does not enter into falling in love, though it may later enter into love itself.

Falling in love is the discovery of what "I exist" means. Now here we see the difference between essence and existence. I can readily imagine other people's feelings by analogy with my own, but I cannot readily imagine other people's existence by analogy with my own. My feelings, desires, etc., can be objects of my knowledge and hence I can imagine what other people feel. My existence cannot become an object of knowledge, and hence while, if I have the necessary histrionic imagination and talent I can act the part of another in such a way that I deceive his best friends, I can never imagine what it would be like to be that other person but must always remain pretending to be him. Falling in love is an intense interest in the existence of another person. That existence is not alone an object of knowledge, nor is it exclusively a goal of desire. That is why people write under these circumstances as they do not at other times. They are confronted with the question, "What is existence?" and with a tension between nature and spirit. To illustrate this tension one common rhetoric, used by Shakespeare, is to contrast the essential eye and the existential heart. Sonnet 46:

Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war
How to divide the conquest of thy sight;
Mine eye my heart thy picture's sight would bar,
My heart mine eye the freedom of that right.
My heart doth plead that thou in him dost lie
(A closet never pierc'd with crystal eyes);
But the defendant doth that plea deny
And says in him thy fair appearance lies.

To 'cide this title is impanneled
A quest of thoughts, all tenants to the heart,
And by their verdict is determined
The clear eye's moiety and the dear heart's part:
   As thus--mine eye's due is thy outward part,
   And my heart's right thy inward love of heart.

Also, Sonnet 24:

Mine eye hath play'd the painter and hath stell'd
Thy beauty's form in table of my heart;
My body is the frame wherein 'tis held,
And perspective it is best painter's art.
For through the painter must you see his skill
To find where your true image pictur'd lies,
Which in my bosom's shop is hanging still,
That hath his windows glazed with thine eyes.
Now see what good turns eyes for eyes have done:
Mine eyes have drawn thy shape, and thine for me
Are windows to my breast, wherethrough the sun
Delights to peep, to gaze therein on thee.
   Yet eyes this cunning want to grace their art--
   They draw but what they see, know not the heart.

I can talk about "my" feelings but not about "my" existence, as if I owned and lived outside it. Because you exist, my existence becomes important--Sonnet 62:

Sin of self-love possesseth all mine eye
And all my soul and all my every part;
And for this sin there is no remedy,
It is so grounded inward in my heart.
Methinks no face so gracious is as mine,
No shape so true, no truth of such account,
And for myself mine own worth do define
As I all other in all worths surmount.
But when my glass shows me myself indeed,
Beated and chopt with tann'd antiquity,
Mine own self-love quite contrary I read;
Self so self-loving were iniquity.
   'Tis thee (myself) that for myself I praise,
   Painting my age with beauty of thy days.

Or, one may react, "My feelings give your existence importance"-- Sonnet 141:

In faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes,
For they in thee a thousand errors note;
But 'tis my heart that loves what they despise,
Who in despite of view is pleas'd to dote.
Nor are mine ears with thy tongue's tune delighted;
Nor tender feeling to base touches prone,
Nor taste, nor smell, desire to be invited
To any sensual feast with thee alone;
But my five wits nor my five senses can
Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee,
Who leaves unsway'd the likeness of a man,
Thy proud heart's slave and vassal wretch to be.
   Only my plague thus far I count my gain,
   That she that makes me sin awards me pain.

The testimony of the five wits and the five senses are not of primary importance.

Dr. Johnson refuted determinism by kicking a stone, and that was a very sound thing, for freedom is the first order of consciousness, and you can't argue about it. Translated into the rhetoric of love, that means the lover can say, "You transform the world for me," in two ways. First, you transform my condition vis--vis the world, as in Sonnet 29:

When, in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur'd like him, like him with friends possess'd,
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 a lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
   For thy sweet love rememb'red such wealth brings
   That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Or, you may transform other objects, as in Sonnet 99:

The forward violet thus did I chide:
Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy sweet that smells,
If not from my love's breath? The purple pride
Which on thy soft cheek for complexion dwells
In my love's veins thou hast too grossly dy'd.
The lily I condemned for thy hand;
And buds of marjoram had stol'n thy hair.
And roses fearfully on thorns did stand,
One blushing shame, another white despair;
A third, nor red nor white, had stol'n of both,
And to his robb'ry had annex'd thy breath;
But, for his theft, in pride of all his growth
A vengeful canker eat him up to death.
   More flowers I noted, yet I none could see
   But sweet and colour it had stol'n from thee.

Another characteristic extremely important in the Sonnets is the experience of Time as a perpetual presence by which the past and future are judged, as set against the experience of a changing outside world in time. So, fading beauty is immortalized in art. Now what would be a good poem to illustrate that? Sonnet 65 will do:

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 of beauty can forbid?
   O, none! unless this miracle have might,
   That in black ink my love shall still shine bright.

Notice how frequently the concluding couplets of the sonnets are poor. Unlike many of even the greatest artists, Shakespeare is not interested in completely flawless wholes. He says what he wants to say and lets the sonnet end anyhow. But that is the fault of a major artist, for a minor one always completes the work carefully. For instance, when we read Dostoevsky, we feel, yes, this is wonderful, this is marvelous, now go home and write it all over again. And yet if he did, the effect might well be lost. Most of us, however, can't get away with that attitude toward our writing.

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File created: 8/7/2007

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