Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Sonnet 129

This sonnet by Shakespeare must be one of the philosophically worst things he ever wrote. See if you can figure out what it’s about. It’s a little hard to understand on first reading.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 129

Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and, till action, lust
Is perjured, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight;
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof--and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

It’s a real medieval Christian attack on sex. Brilliantly done, too. The poem is technically stunning. Many lines have a Ciceronian balance on each side of the caesura. How much did Shakespeare believe it and how much was just an exercise in a standard literary conceit?

As this web site notes, other Renaissance poets took up the same idea. Here is Philip Sidney:

Thou blind man's mark, thou fool's self-chosen snare,
Fond fancy's scum and dregs of scattered thought,
Band of all evils, cradle of causeless care,
Thou web of will, whose end is never wrought;
Desire, desire I have too dearly bought,
With price of mangled mind thy worthless ware ...
Sidney, No.31, Certain Sonnets (1598).

What gorgeous language! It strikes me as ironic that he’s wallowing in the sheer, sensual beauty of the English language as he denounces sex.

With Shakespeare it’s always hard to tell exactly what he believes. He wrote something different in Antony and Cleopatra:

Kingdoms are clay. Our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man. The nobleness of life
Is to do thus, when such a mutual pair
And such a twain can do't.

That web site says about this passage, Shakespeare “was able to celebrate sexuality as a glorification of nature.”

Sometimes I think he was just a pure dramatist who was able to make any character say what was needed without putting his own beliefs into it. Ben Jonson was the opposite, a fiery moralist whose point of view breathes throughout his plays. Was Shakespeare able to compartmentalize his values from his plays? Could a passionate valuer do this?

1 comment:

EdMcGon said...

Myrhaf, you started to hit on it at the end of your post. When someone is writing a play, they have to give their characters differing viewpoints on certain subjects, otherwise there is no conflict. How boring would a play be if all the characters were virtually clones of each other?

In poetry, a poet may be expressing a viewpoint with which they may not agree, in order to make a point.

There is even a third possibility. Sometimes, authors will change their views on subjects as they get older. For example, Mark Twain's later works were far more cynical than his earlier works.

There's my two cents.