Over the four centuries that English speakers have been discussing Shakespeare, there have been many battles over the Sonnets, who they were written for, when they were written, and whether or not they were about something real or were just a literary exercise. Although beautiful and important, I’ve tended to steer clear of discussing them partly because they’re so short on facts that nothing can be proven and, largely for that reason, because they’ve given rise to so many bizarre interpretations.
Then in 1999 I found myself preparing for an SOS Society conference where the Sonnets were a focal point, so I devoted several weeks to reading everything I could find on the subject going back to the 19th century. (An article I wrote later expanding on that lecture, The Story of the Sonnets, provides a good deal more detail for those who are interested. There’s also a Sonnets bibliography with comments on the books I found of most interest.)
Traditions of sonnet cycles
Some years ago I got into a fight with the usual coneheads on Hardy Cook’s listserv, who eagerly pounced on my statement that the best writing comes from experience, from enduring the emotions and insights that come from Life itself. Isn’t this what Keats means with “truth is beauty, beauty truth, that is all ye know and all ye need to know”? Keats was speaking to fellow artists and philosophers, of course––who else bothers about the relationship between Truth and Beauty? Certainly not the coneheads that were dominating SHAKSPER.
Believing that most if not all the plays (the good ones) were written out of Oxford’s own experiences and emotions, of course I believe that the Sonnets were as well; that is, they were written at a time when he was going through experiences like those described in the Sonnets. That others in like case over the centuries have found solace in Shakespeare’s Sonnets attests to their power, a power that comes from how accurately, and with a thousand subtle details, they describe experiences common to many readers, which is, of course, why they’ve remained in print for centuries, and why we need to look to common experiences for reasons why he wrote them.
It was Petrarch who introduced sonnets to the West. My guess is that like other sweets: stringed instruments, perfume, sugar, and Courtly Love, they originated in Persia (Iran), migrating to Italy via the cultural transfer from the Middle East to Venice in the 14th century. Traditionally a sonnet cycle is a narrative of sorts, describing day by day, hour by hour, verse by verse, the progress of a passion from its dizzying enception to its final spasm. We call these sonnets love poems in English, but the term the Elizabethans preferred was passion.
Love is too limiting a term for an experience that contains so many feelings, some anything but sweet––loneliness, loss, jealousy, envy, hurt feelings, remorse, disgust, even hate. Poems written after the things they describe are over differ from those written as they happen. Sonnet cycles, when they are genuine, are like raw footage, unedited, pungent, detailed, revealing themes through a process of repetition and insight that’s closer to life itself than the reflection of life we call memoirs.
It’s part of the tradition of the sonnet cycle that the poet doesn’t reveal the true identity of the beloved. An offshoot of the Courtly Love tradition, Petrarchan sonnets echo the yearning of a chivalrous knight for the beautiful but chaste wife of his lord. Bound to him by oaths of fealty, this Courtly Love trope adds a further bond between lord and vassal, whose sacred passion for the lady can never fade because it’s never fulfilled; (the role the Virgin Queen demanded from her favorites). Such poems are proofs of that love (“oblations, poor but free”), but only the lady herself is to know who is meant by “Stella,” or “Diana,” or “Phillis,” or “Caelica.” For the Poet to let slip anything that reveals the source of his passion is to betray his Muse, another kind of romantic pose, but still one of great artistic authority by Oxford’s time.
And because, as a narrative in verse, a sonnet cycle is meant to follow such a passion as it unfolds, I believe that, following Oxford’s death, those published his sonnets saw to it that (for the most part) they were published in the order he intended. Whoever had control of Oxford’s literary estate would have had great respect for it as literature. Notions that when he died he was careless about leaving his papers where just anyone, including family members who cared more about their image than they did literature, might have gotten hold of them, shows a lack of understanding of how great artists feel about their work. Having promised that he was going to leave a portrait of the Fair Youth for posterity to admire, he would certainly not have played fast and loose with their vehicle. Whoever got his papers also got strict instructions on what to do with them. This is simply common sense.
Oxford may have given up on Southampton himself (all passions must come to some kind of end), but he would never have given up on the poems that his love for him brought forth. As he says in his farewell Sonnet, #126, Nature who has been so kind to Southampton, allowing him to keep his good looks well into his maturity, will have to cash him in sooner or later: “She may detain, but still not keep her treasure;/ Her audit, though delayed, answered must be,/ And her quietus is to render thee.” In time the Fair Youth will cease to be both a youth and fair, but, as their author well knows, if properly published, the love poems he inspired will never lose either their beauty or their truth.
A great deal has been made of the fact that Shakespeare’s muse was a boy, not a lady. To the shame-based society that the Reformation made of the English, that’s been an awful shocker. However, if we pay attention to the poems it seems clear that the Poet’s desire is less sexual than emotional, the desire of a man for a son (Oxford was without an heir when he began writing them), and most important to an artist, for a muse whose charisma is potent enough to inspire his art. Unfulfilled desire is the force that keeps it going. It’s the number one Rule of Romance: fulfill the desire and the magic ends. The question here being, desire for what? My answer: a son-in-law whom he could love as though he were his own and, not least, a theater patron with solid credit.
Dating the sonnets
Back in 1999, I spent a good deal of time back seeking genuine scholarship on the dating of the Sonnets. I finally found it in a book titled Elizabethan Sonnet Themes and the Dating of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (AMS 1962, 1973). The author, Claes Schaar (writing for a Danish press, and so less constrained by hometown anxieties over identities), sticks strictly to the protocols of literary dating. Basing his conclusions on the work of two scholars, one a German (pub 1884), the other an American (pub 1916) who apparently had no knowledge of his German predecessor (190). Since these groundbreakers there have been others, all with similar results.
Ignoring the Stratford biography or any consideration of who the principles might have been, by comparing the language to that of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, the only works by Shakespeare whose dates are solid, they place most or all of the Sonnets somewhere in the early 1590s: “. . . the vast majority of the sonnets we have examined seem thus to have been written between 1591-92 and 1594-95” (Shaar 185). Their findings are corroborated by other scholars replicating their efforts, one being G.P.V. Akrigg, Southampton’s biographer, who gives an impressive list of scholars who agree that their language also places them close to the Folio versions of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Romeo and Juliet, which have been dated, by topical references and by language similarities to the two dated narrative poems, in the early 1590s (203).
All of this is by way of introducing Sonnet 107, which, although not considered one of his greatest, has probably caused the most discussion since it alone seems bent on revealing everything that he was so careful to hide in the other 125. Not only does it go out of its way to identify the Fair Youth as the Earl of Southampton and to locate him, and by extension the surrounding sonnets, to 1603 when he was released from the Tower by King James, it’s also written in a different style.
As Schaar explains, most of the sonnets were written close in time, one after another. Schaar et al see two bursts: 1591-92, and 1594-95. These dates fit perfectly with what we know of Southampton, who really was a boy, that is, a teenager, in the early 1590s. This scenario fits the first 17, the so-called marriage or procreation sonnets, with a known event, Burghley’s effort to get Southampton married to Oxford’s daughter, Elizabeth Vere. In fact, the entire cycle fits perfectly with the biographies of Oxford (the Poet), Southampton (the Fair Youth), Essex (the Rival Poet) and Emilia Bassano (the Dark Lady).
All but a very few of the sonnets, including those that come just before and just after 107, are end-stopped throughout, that is, the expression of each thought is compressed into a phrase that pauses at the end of a line. There are a very few (I counted four) in which enjambment carries the thought over from the first to the second line, though the basic iambic rhythm remains. This style is one of the things that places the Sonnets early in Shakespeare’s career, as later he became much more relaxed about meter and enjambment.
But in 107 the opening expression ranges across not just two, or even three, but the entire first four lines! Most unusually, the iambic rhythm is gone from those lines! It’s a good strong poem, but located as it is surrounded by sonnets of a diffrent style, it sounds like someone else wrote it. Frankly, it sounds like John Donne. I’m not saying he wrote it, but that’s who it sounds like. So there are two big things that make this poem stand out in contrast to the rest of the sonnets, a violation of the tradition of secrecy, and also of a pattern adhered to throughout the entire rest of the cycle.
Cherchez le editor
My guess is that whoever published the poems inserted 107 for the very reason that it’s assumed such importance today, because it identifies the Fair Youth and it also locates the cycle at a particular point in time. Since the author took obvious pains not to identify persons or events, this would have to have been done by the editor who prepared them for publication, and who probably was in harmony with the publisher.
I can’t say for certain who might have been Oxford’s literary executor, but a very good candidate would be William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, who, by 1603, when Oxford was approaching the end of his life, was better-situated than anyone else to protect the poet’s valuable papers from those who might be anxious to see them disappear. And who better to prepare them for the press than Pembroke’s own mother, Mary Sidney, who was probably already preparing another elegant edition of her brother’s works. This scenario also helps to identify the Sonnets’ dedicatee, the mysterious “Master W.H.”
Why would the Pembrokes wish to make clear what Shakespeare had left ambiguous?
I can’t answer that, but I can point to something similar that occured in 1598 with the third edition of Philip Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, edited and published by Mary, in which she included his sonnet cycle of the 1580s, Astrophil and Stella. She also included, for the first time, a sonnet that hadn’t been in any previous edition or in any of the manuscript versions that predated their publication in print back in 1591. This sonnet, numbered 37, is the one that identifies Stella as Penelope Devereux.
It’s often assumed that #37 was left out of the cycle at first because it identified Stella, though that doesn’t explain why it then became necessary to make the identification. True, by 1598 Penelope, though married, was openly living with her lover, Sir Charles Blount, Ld Mountjoy, so by then she had little reputation left to lose. Even so, why stir the pot? Could it be to direct suspicion away from Mary, who was suffering from the ususal rumors that followed women of celebrity, in her case that she and Philip had been lovers, that Stella was Mary, and that her brother was her son’s true father (Aubrey, Brief Lives, 140)?
That Mary (and her sons) might want to direct suspicion away from herself as the object of what could be seen as a shameful incestuous passion on Philip’s part would be altogether understandable, or that Penelope Devereux, already into her scandalous relationship with Mountjoy, would be willing to let her name be used to protect Mary (Sidney makes it clear that the lust was all on his side, that Stella remained pure) is not only the stuff of romance, it’s the stuff of real life, that is, the real lives of romantic poets, who tend to take big emotional risks, much as astronauts, firemen and bullfighters take physical risks.
There was a close bond between the Devereux siblings and the Sidneys. Philip and Mary were the children of Mary Dudley, sister of the Earl of Leicester. Throughout the years while Leicester was hoping to marry Queen Elizabeth, Philip played the role of his uncle’s heir. When Leicester finally gave up and married Lettice Knollys, widow of the 2nd Earl of Essex and mother of Robert and Penelope, Philip was forced to pass on the role of his uncle’s heir to Robert Devereux,Leicester’s new stepson. As Philip lay dying of wounds in 1586 (suffered under his uncle’s command), he honored this rather mystical bond by ceremoniously handing on his sword to Essex, a bond that Essex then honored by marrying Philip’s widow. (It was this sort of chivalrous behavior that made his friends love Essex.) This bond between Essex and the saintly Philip then extended to their sisters, Mary Sidney and Penelope Devereux.
Why Oxford wrote the Sonnets
There was nothing improper about the way it started. A marriage deal was in the works to unite his daughter and Burghley’s ward, the young Earl of Southampton, so the first 17 sonnets were written in the kind of passionate terms that fathers of marriagable daughters did back then. (See Burghley’s wooing of the saintly Philip in letters to Sir Henry Sidney.) Not every father could put such sentiments into verse, but as with all such social conventions, those who could certainly would. So that’s all that was at stake with the first group, known as the marriage or procreation sonnets, in which he simply urges the youth to marry, coyly playing on his teenage narcissism. That there were 17 in the first group suggests that they were nicely copied and bound as a gift for Southampton on his 17th birthday, Oct. 6, 1590.
With the 18th sonnet the tone changes abruptly. What was fatherly affection fast becomes something much more personal and intimate. So what happened?
When Oxford met Southampton, probably after the gift of the sonnets brought them together, he was at what may have been the lowest point in his life. Now in his 40s, suddenly feeling “beated and chopped with tanned antiquity,” the boy must have represented all the things that he felt he’d lost or never had: his own vanishing youth, the son and heir he never had, the beloved friend he lost “in death’s dark night” when Rutland died in 1587, and not least, the angel he so desperately needed to continue to stage plays.
To the 17-year-old youth, Oxford may have seemed what he too had lost or maybe never had, a loving father, and one besides with the kind of access to backstage at the theater that teenagers dream of. Teenagers need love and will respond to it wherever they find it. Had this occured when Oxford was not at such loose ends the moment might have passed, but things being what they were, it threw him for a loop, as they say, and as was his habit, he turned for solace to pen and ink.
My guess is that at some point, for Oxford the passion became less about Southampton and more about the poetry. My God, this was it! This was what he’d been striving for! This was what Sidney meant so long ago when he began his own sonnet cycle by quoting his Muse: “Fool, look in thy heart and write!” The exhilaration, the loneliness, the jealousy, the empty hours, all were grist for his poet’s mill. The original emotion became less important than how to express it.
The passion passed, as all things must, but like a beautiful shell on a beach after a great wave rushes back to sea, it left something precious in its wake, the language of Shakespeare. For it was in the crucible of his love for Southampton and the combined happiness and pain it brought him, that he found the voice he’d been seeking through all the years of translating and listening and experimenting, the language we speak today, the language of modern English.
A different take on Sonnet 107 can be found in an article by Eric Miller, a poet and independent scholar from California, published in The Oxfordian, vol 9, 2005.
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