| Although the Sonnets gave fame to a Dark Lady, eighty per cent
of them are addressed to a Young Man. Moreover, the Sonnets’ truest expressions
of love and devotion to another person occur in the Young Man sub-sequence,
which predominates numerically and thematically. It contains most of the
famous sonnets of the sequence and produces more of the complex examinations
of human relationships for which the Sonnets as a whole are so valued.
In this article I shall comment on the nature of the relationship revealed in these poems and indicate how, ultimately, the rendering of this relationship is but a means to an artistic end.
The Young Man sub-sequence begins with seventeen sonnets urging a beautiful youth to marry and procreate in order to perpetuate his beauty. If “beauty’s rose” is to survive, the youth must create an heir. Time is the enemy and the Speaker chides the youth for his self-absorption and apparent indifference to “time’s scythe”. This set also introduces the theme of art acting as an agent of preservation: “And all in war with time for love of you / As he takes from you, I ingraft you new”(15); “But were some child of yours alive that time / You should live twice, in it and in my rhyme” (17). This theme is then given full expression in Sonnet 18 when the Speaker reveals the strength of his devotion to the youth.
What is the nature of the Speaker’s devotion? First, it is clear that he is infatuated with the youth. This is an infatuation of the eye and, as Sonnet 20 shows, it is undeniably erotic. Here is revealed the male writer’s frustration at Nature for cruelly producing such attractive beauty in a man.
Historically, there has been a reluctance by readers and critics to firmly acknowledge the homo-erotic element of the Young Man sequence. This element should be acknowledged but not sensationalised, as it is by those prurient “critics” who scan the Sonnets’ lexicon for homosexual innuendo. Neither should we go too far the other way and claim that, after Sonnet 20, the love discussed is purely Platonic, or as Keats so aptly put it, “All breathing human passion far above”. Sonnet 116 is still a long way ahead.
The Speaker does not shy away from examining and sometimes painfully exposing the normal concomitants of devoted and possessive love. For example, he refers to: depth of attachment (25, 26, 105); the pain and preoccupation caused by separation (27, 44, 50, 51); the “stains” of unnamed mis-demeanours (33-35); the Eternal Triangle (40-42); jealousy (57, 58); anticipating rejection (49, 87, 92); and changeability (109, 115, 123). The most painful part of all this for the reader is to observe the abnegation of the Speaker confronted with betrayal or indifference: “Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth” (33); Ah, but those tears are pearl which thy love sheds, / And they are rich, and ransom all ill deeds” (34); “And ’gainst myself a lawful plea commence” (35); “Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows, / Kill me with spites, yet we must not be foes” (40); “For thee, against myself I’ll vow debate” (89); “Then hate me when thou wilt, if ever, now” (90). The trend is clear: the Speaker is mortifying himself while trying to perpetuate both the relationship and his ideal conception of it.
Yet, at the same time, powerful poetical forces are at work creating ideas and emotions which rise above love’s petty politics. Right from the start of the sub-sequence, other themes rapidly accumulate and the reader is diverted into reflections about time (in its many manifestations), beauty, art and truth (personal and poetic) and other themes, all delivered with such variety of viewpoint, that we leave behind Keats’ “heart high-sorrowful”, “burning forehead” and “parching tongue”. The further we proceed in this sequence, the richer is our engagement with ideas which transcend the situations that engendered the poems. Certain sonnets have become famous as supreme examples of this transcendence: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” (18); “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought” (30); “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / of princes” (55) “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore” (60); “That time of year thou mayst in me behold” (73); “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” (116), and so on.
What art is it that transports us in this way? When we have reached
Sonnet 116 and suffer with the Speaker as he defiantly attempts to define
ideal love (knowing everything is crumbling about him), and when we solemnly
hear the end of it all with Sonnet 126, what have we experienced poetically?
In essence, it is the voice of the Speaker. It is an urbane but incisive
and believable voice, that progressively gains depth of character and expresses
itself with the diction of “easy conversational intonation”, as Helen Vendler
describes it. This conversational voice leads us through all the stages
of the affair, employing a profusion of images, modes of discourse, arguments,
verbal ingenuity and wit, allowing us to participate in a sometimes sublime
eloquence. And although this voice sometimes wavers and even at times ponders
ineffability, in the end it reasserts its power, as the Poet renders the
Young Man to time and death.
From Vol.2 No.3: March 2002 of "The Melbourne Shakespearean"
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