William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare; drawing by David Levine

This edition of the sonnets is a heroic enterprise. Facsimiles of the 154 poems from the 1609 Quarto, printed opposite tactfully modernized versions, are followed by 403 densely packed pages of “analytic commentary.” The amount of attention that has been given to Shakespeare’s slim volume is staggering. Hyder Rollins assembled all the commentary and theories up through the early 1940s in his huge Variorum Edition;1 Since then, editions and “solutions to the riddle of the sonnets” have continued to appear at a rate almost equaling studies of Hamlet. Professor Stephen Booth knows all this commentary, and credits appropriately glosses proposed since Rollins. But for the most part he is going it alone, determined to do justice to all that is going on in these poems.

He has two goals in view. One is to put “a reader in command of as much of the mental furniture of the poet’s contemporaries as we can discover and recondition.” He does this superbly: his annotation does far more than any previous edition to show the fantastically rich way that Shakespeare exploits the verbal resources of his culture.

His other goal is to show that the sonnets themselves are mind-boggling. And that it is their great virtue to be so. Most of the poems, in his view, are “satisfying to read, unsatisfying to think about, and likely to evoke critical analyses that satisfy only by making the poem satisfying to think about.” His preface acknowledges William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity as pioneering his kind of “pluralistically committed” commentary. In exhibiting possible meanings of “So should the lines of life that life repair” of Sonnet 16, where Shakespeare urges the young man to beget a child “Much liker than your painted counterfeit,” Booth acknowledges that it was Empson who “in effect pointed out that all the suggested glosses for [‘lines of life’] are right.”

Booth is concerned to analyze the processes by which

the relevant meanings of Shakespeare’s words and phrases and the contexts they bring with them combine, intertwine, fuse, and conflict in the potentially dizzying complexity from which a reader’s sense of straightforward simplicity emerges. It is the complexity, I think, that gives the sonnets what critics of eras less ambitious than this one for the clinical precision of natural science called the magic of the sonnets, the sense they give of effortless control of the uncontrollable.

He out-Empsons Empson in doing justice to the wall-eyed openness of Shakespeare’s supremely wandering mind. But his reference to “clinical precision” is apt: he operates on the sonnets in a white coat. He has a fine anatomical mastery of the “corporeality” achieved by their language, to use Sigurd Burckhardt’s word.2 But he excludes consideration of the relationship between the sonnets and Shakespeare as a man writing them out of human situations, a man using poetry to relate himself to a well-born young man and a promiscuous mistress. He is concerned only with Shakespeare as the fabulous artificer.

This focus gives his commentary its unprecedented virtues, which I shall try to suggest by necessarily inadequate illustrations. And it permits him to turn his back on the quagmire of biographical speculations. In an acerb appendix on “Facts and Theories,” he deals summarily with “the expeditions to find ‘Mr. W.H.’ and ‘The Rival Poet,’ and the games of pin the tail on ‘The Dark Lady.’ ” We can grant him that they have probably all been failures (and mostly bores). But it is one thing to read the sonnets by thinking you have discovered their “story” (like so many—most vociferously A.L. Rowse) or making it up (like Oscar Wilde), another thing to read them with awareness of what they themselves convey about the use Shakespeare is making of them, enigmatic as this use often is. To retell a poem as a personal “story” is to substitute the story for the action of the poetry, which is what matters. But the action of the poetry can be properly understood, I think, only by recognizing that it is working to transform or cope with “situations and relationships which,” as J.B. Leishman put it, “cannot have been invented, if for no other reason than that they have been left so tantalizingly obscure.”3

We do not know the persons involved, but we can experience the gestures made toward them, and something of the roots of feeling in a particular temperament implied by the gestures. That they are gestures toward others means, I think, that the persons addressed cannot have been, as Booth suggests, literary creations. This is less obvious in the triumphantly generous poems where there is no resistance to the process of poetic transformation—as in Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”—than in those many less anthologized sonnets of desperate self-abnegation, complaint, or veiled remonstrance.


Empson, in Some Versions of Pastoral, dealt with the tensions that almost pull apart Sonnet 94 as the “Twist of Heroic-Pastoral Ideas in Shakespeare into Ironical Acceptance of Aristocracy.”4 In what seems to me the finest sonnet criticism of the century, he did not hesitate to consider how the forces of Shakespeare’s personality and of his society shape the ambiguities of the poetry. Booth, by contrast with his great predecessor in ambiguities, austerely abjures any reference to things outside the house of language; he predicates everything from words on the page—with a wonderful command of pages, in Shakespeare and around him in his period. This method goes with a conviction that (to caricature it) “the greatest poetry is the most baffling.” Like Touchstone’s notion that “the truest poetry is the most feigning,” there is much to be said for Booth’s view; but it is not the whole truth.

Booth’s first manifesto was An Essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale, 1969), where he developed the rationale of the present edition. There he argued that the unparalleled concentration of multiple, incommensurate patterns in the sonnets “gives the whole sequence an illogically powerful aura of coherence,” but frustrates any effort to comprehend the whole. We can only apprehend what the poetry is doing by attending to specific organizations of “unity in division, likeness in difference,” moment by moment, poem by poem. To say what the poetry means in other words than its own must by-pass or violate it. Interpretations by other critics, even including Empson’s of Sonnet 94, are brought in to show how any “critical performance” falsifies the complexity of a sonnet’s performance.

Both the Essay and the new edition contribute wonderfully to one’s awareness of fabulous poetic organization. No serious reader of the sonnets will want to do without Booth’s edition (which is too modest in neglecting to refer its reader to the also very valuable commentary in the Essay). Booth regularly adds to (and often corrects) one’s experience of each poem. But there is some indecisiveness, or again, silence, on how one is to understand the rich interplay of meanings displayed, how one is to put them together. This failure, I think, results partly from Booth’s refusal to consider the poems’ relationship to the situations implicit in them.

At times Booth insists that a “sense of straightforward simplicity emerges” from the sonnets, a sense “of effortless control of the uncontrollable.” But there are many sonnets where the effort at control is a central part of the effect. Booth also says that they are “uneasy” poems, without confronting his inconsistency. One chapter of the Essay finds the distinctive quality of the “uneasy” poems to be that they make us experience paradox. In our period, when much contemporary art is designed to fly apart in your face, a good deal of criticism has been praising the great art of the past for coming apart at the seams when you look hard at it. Booth has a very modern eye for what might fly apart in the sonnets, but gives an inadequate account of their coherence.

Neglecting the human gestures in the poems, gestures that must reflect actual, if sometimes obscure, personal relationships, he fails to reckon adequately with the problem of their often hard to settle tone. That there is an uncertainty about the tone of many of them is evident from the different ways that competent readers have taken them. And the tone we hear in a sonnet can change as we read those around it. “Tone conveys the attitude of the speaker toward what he is saying,” the manuals of New Criticism told us, thereby neatly separating a “speaker,” a dramatized presence, from a poet who mimes him. In Shakespeare’s sonnets, this distinction frequently breaks down; it is this that gives them much of their “uneasy” quality. I believe we must read Shakespeare along with Shakespeare dramatizing shakespeare, seeing both in an often uncertain interplay.

Booth has an excursus “On the special grandeur of the best sonnets” centered on Sonnet 116 (printed opposite), “the most universally admired” of all the sonnets, which involves this problem of tone. I can illustrate something at least of the richness of his commentary from his annotation of Sonnet 116, and then take up the issue about tone.

In his notes on the first two lines Booth stresses a strong specific echo of the marriage service: “I require and charge you (as you will answer at the dreadful day of judgment, when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed) that if either of you do know any impediment why ye may not be lawfully joined together in matrimony, that ye confess it.” Let me not is glossed:

May I never. (The tone is that of a vow, but the imperative use of Let also suggests prayerful beseeching and gives the poem psalm-like overtones; compare Psalms 31:17-18: “Let me not be confounded, o Lord: for I have called upon thee: let the wicked be put to confusion, & to silence in the grave / Let the lying lippes be made dumme…”).

Booth returns us to the marriage service in commenting that in line 12, one of the meanings of to the edge of doom is doomsday, “the dreadful day of judgment.” Only one of the meanings: Booth also brings in at line 12 “to love and to cherish, till death us depart,” from further on in the old service, where the pun in “depart” (stronger than the modern “us do part”) makes “the moment of death” one suggestion in to the edge of doom. He continues: “for doom meaning ‘death,’ see 14.14 and the proverb ‘Death’s day is doomsday’ [Tilley, D161].”


This illustration can suggest how handsomely the references to other works pay off by being brought into the poem’s action. But in the most challenging aspect of his account of the “grandeur” of the poem Booth explores meanings that could undercut or contradict its sweeping affirmation. Let can mean “stop” as well as “allow” (illustrations from Hamlet and from marginal glosses to the Geneva text of Psalms 115); Admit as “allow to enter” is countered by the potential meaning of impediments as “things that prevent entrance.” “O no” might be “O know [that]”—a parishioner’s “prefatory exclamation introducing an impediment” to the marriage. Finally, Booth sees an “undercurrent of frivolous sexual suggestiveness…veering off toward puerile joking about temporary…impotence…;quatrain 2, for instance, is always ready to turn into a grotesquely abstruse pun on ‘polestar.’ “

Booth says that “most of the sexually suggestive elements in the poem are obvious and in more danger of being exaggerated than missed”—and then characteristically adds in parenthesis: “but see 80.7, note (on bark), 137.1, note (on fool), mark in LLL IV.i.123-29, and….” Yet he observes that most of the “tangle of incidental relationships” countering the poem’s main assertion “surely never enters into a reader’s understanding of the lines; presumably it never touches his consciousness even to the extent that rhythm, rhyme, and alliteration do.” Nevertheless he believes that this “ideational static,” which we are led to ignore by our purposeful habits of reading, does contribute to the poem’s whole effect. These incidental elements work not to weaken or undercut the poem’s main assertions by irony, but “to make [them] sound as if they took cognizance of all viewpoints on all things related to love.” The statement “Love alters not” is “absolutely undiminished, is absolutely unmodified, and is, in fact, absolutely strengthened by the self-contradiction engulfed within it.”

This is very interesting but puzzling criticism. The meanings that Booth believes run against the grain of the poem are there but not there. I confess I had not myself been conscious of most of the sexual innuendo which he says is obvious. How am I now to regain my innocence and read the poem as making the absolute statement he finds in it? My guess is that I have been unconsciously aware of countermovement, for I have felt that the poem only tries to make an absolute statement, that it protests too much. But unquestionably many other readers will read the poem as an unqualified affirmation: it is a favorite in anthologies; it expresses a need all feel for unconditional love.

Yet read along with the neighboring sonnets, it also clearly fits Frost’s description of a poem as “a temporary stay against confusion.” It is read that way in a brilliant essay by Carol T. Neely in a recent number of the PMLA,5 written before Booth’s edition had come out. She observes that the poem “attempts to step back from, perhaps to escape from…the conflicts peculiar to [the] part of the sequence in which [it] appears.” She finds the precariousness of the attempt emerging in the poem, citing some of the same countersuggestions Booth feels are engulfed absolutely. Then she looks at the astonishing reversal of its assertion in the following sonnet, where some of the same imagery is used to acknowledge infidelities: “Accuse me thus: that I have scanted all… / That I have hoisted sail to all the winds….” At the close, Sonnet 117 attempts to justify infidelity by a couplet where we hear the same rhyme words as those of the couplet of Sonnet 116:

Bring me within the level of your frown,
But shoot not at me in your wakened hate, Since my appeal says I did strive to prove The constancy and virtue of your love.

When we look back now, Sonnet 116 becomes the statement of a wish, verging on a plea, that the beloved might not “bend with the remover to remove” the poet, even though he has been a “wandering bark.” We read it now as trying to make imaginatively real the wish for a love which is unconditional.

The tension between Sonnet 116’s affirmation and that of the poems around it is similar to the tension within the neighboring sonnets, a tension between their hopeful endings and their beginnings, with their acknowledgments of stress, as in Sonnet 109 (printed below).

Whereas Booth insists on an unqualified tone in Sonnet 116, in his comments on Sonnet 109 he goes to the opposite extreme, assuming that the speaker is joking in a “nimble apologia.” About lines 6-7 he observes that “Shakespeare’s purpose is presumably to display Falstaff-like gall in solemnly making a logical-sounding equation between two non-comparable things,” travel and infidelity. About line 8, “here, again, the joke is in the speaker’s opportunistic misapplication of a partially apt analogy.” Booth develops an account of sexual meanings of nature, in quite different contexts, and concludes that “in my nature reigned suggests comic reference to buggery.”

The lines “Never believe, though in my nature reigned / All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood” do acknowledge polymorphous temptations, which could include buggery. But “comic reference”? Surely the tone of the lines and of those that follow is passionate in a complex way: they plead, partly by self-recognition, for a reconciliation that would accept the actual complexity of the poet’s nature. As I read them, they are as moving in their way as 116 is in its way.

Booth’s appendix on “Facts and Theories” has an entry reading:

HOMOSEXUALITY: William Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual. The sonnets provide no evidence on the matter. See 126.4, note.

That note deals sensibly with the fact that “lover” in Elizabethan usage could mean simply “friend,” but also “paramour.” “The effective meaning of ‘lover’ (and ‘love’) in these sonnets is a dynamic and witty conflation of both meanings, which constantly and unsuccessfully strain to separate from one another.” Elsewhere Booth notes that Shakespeare was going the Petrarchan tradition one better by seeing his young man in a new version of courtly “danger,” and observes that “Shakespeare makes overt rhetorical capital from the fact that…his beloveds are not what the sonnet conventions presume them to be.” He stays, again, strictly inside literary usage and tradition. But we cannot read these poems fully unless we form some idea, however it is articulated, about the quality of the “two loves” they express, and arrive at a way of understanding the sexual innuendo which Booth glosses so indefatigably without providing a sure sense of how it is meant. Consider, for example, his parenthesis, following the joke that Shakespeare was almost certainly sexual: “Hermaphroditic wordplay is not likely to confuse any readers but those who treat the poems as biographical spoor: sexual wordplay has always been anatomically eclectic—as any reader of walls knows.”

But the sonnets are not scrawls above urinals. In a rhapsody of irritation, Booth concludes:

The sonnets, even those that most playfully engage themselves in incidental sexual-verbal trivia, often ring with passion and sincerity, but to assume therefore that they reflect particulars of Shakespeare’s sex life is to be as unreasonable as Hamlet would be if he assumed that the first player was a chum of Hecuba’s. The sexual undercurrents of the sonnets are of the sonnets; they probably reflect a lot that is true about their author, but I do not know what that is; they reveal nothing and suggest nothing about Shakespeare’s love life.

Sex life,” “love life”—these expressions make the enterprise of understanding a vulgar business. From what we know of it, Shakespeare’s sensibility was shaped by family ties in an especially deep way, and these poems, about relationships outside his family, reflect that special intensity. In those to the young man, much of the strangeness in the attitudes expressed becomes comprehensible when one recognizes resemblances to cherishing parental attitudes, and more deeply still, to childlike feelings of dependence. The poems to the young man start out, after all, precisely by dwelling on the need for a parent-child relationship. In urging him to have a child, the poet vicariously enjoys encouraging him to make a renewing image such as Shakespeare soon makes for himself of the young man: “Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest, / Now is the time that face should form another…” (Sonnet 3). These lines describe what the poet himself does in several later poems with the same mirror imagery: “My glass shall not persuade me I am old / So long as youth and thou are of one date” (Sonnet 22). Earlier he had used the image for the youth’s relation to his own mother: “Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee / Calls back the lovely April of her prime…”(Sonnet 3).

There is of course abundant psycho-analytic interpretation of the love expressed for the young man. Shakespeare can be seen, after the pattern Freud saw in Leonardo, as preserving his relationship to a maternal presence by internalizing her cherishing of him, becoming like her in narcissistically cherishing the young man. As the relationship becomes more intense, the poet makes the young man into an all-sufficing presence like the mother of infancy.6 To understand the intensity of the love,and the poet’s desperate gestures to maintain it against obvious disappointments, it seems to me essential to recognize these deep roots, however one names them. They explain the idealizing tendency of the love, and the status of the imagery which conveys it. W.H. Auden mocked the eager claims of “the Homintern” on the sonnets; he described the love as “mystical” and observed that such passionate devotion to a special kind of physical beauty rarely survives physical union.7

Booth has done so much for the sonnets that one certainly cannot demand that he also pursue psychoanalytic modes of understanding. But he does seem to miss or misjudge things about the poems for lack of some way of relating them to the situation and temperament they express. I have a general impression from his edition that the sonnets are not as serious for him as I feel them to be. A case in point is his treatment of Sonnet 53 (printed above).

Booth’s headnote for Sonnet 53 describes the place of substance and shadows as technical terms in the work of the Renaissance Platonists, and their “idea of the good, of beauty, [as] the disembodied substance of which each particular beautiful thing is only a partial and flawed reflection.” He then summarizes the poem’s use of that tradition:

Shakespeare here takes the Platonic idea of beauty and works his own paradoxes upon it; the poem is a hyperbolic compliment in which the beloved, an instance of embodied beauty, is said to be the form, the idea, the substance from which all other particular beautiful things derive.

The notes which follow tersely alert a reader to rich complications: for example, that the millions of strange shadows are not only Platonic reflections but also supernatural spirits or ghosts is suggested by tend, and shade in the next line; or again, that there are “vague overtones of the Pythagorean-Ovidian arguments for constancy in change” (with reference to specific lines in the Metamorphoses printed in an appendix). But Booth seems to me unconvincing when he suggests that “in view of the sexual ambiguity inherent in a love poem to a man and stressed by the casual equation of the male Adonis and female Helen, Shakespeare may intend an abstruse conflation of a play on counterfeit meaning a fraudulent imitation and a play on the bawdy potential in the first syllable of counterfeit.”

Booth says in his Essay that when one is immersed in a sonnet, it is often “like a dream where one accepts improbable transformations without hesitation and where one slips imperceptibly from one frame of reference to another.” About But you like none, none you for constant heart in Sonnet 53, he suggests that, as well as the obvious meaning, “no one is like you or your equal,” “like can momentarily register as a verb: ‘you feel affection for no one and no one feels affection for you.’ “

In dealing with the text piece by piece in this way, he does what Freud does with the text of a remembered dream. But Freud moves from manifest to latent content by interpreting the patient’s free associations, understood dynamically according to his model of the mind. In abjuring all reference to the poet as a man, Booth does without any model of the mind, Freudian or whatever. His program excludes considering elements of conflict in the poet’s relationship to the young man which might, as compensation for idealizing him, motivate the hostile thought that he is neither loving nor lovable. So he points to innuendo only to leave it flying about loose—modifying it with adjectives like “puerile” or “trivial.”

Since Booth turns a blind eye to human motives, his formalist analysis often leaves the impression that the poet’s purpose is fulfilled by the way he “works his paradoxes.” Sonnet 53 is the centerpiece of a chapter in his Essay which makes the point that “as the substance of the sonnets is paradox, so the style is paradoxical.” He shows marvels of simultaneous likeness and difference in the poem, in its phonetic resonances, its repetitions of the same or similar words with different effects (“everyone…every one…one…one…every,” etc.), its crossruffs of syntax with formal structures. The poem makes us experience paradox, he argues, because it makes us “uneasy about our competence to deal with matters in which we expect no difficulties.” His main illustration of paradox on a “thematic scale” is the second quatrain’s reference first to Adonis and then to Helen. He observes that “the subject is most obviously treated in sonnet 20 (on the friend as ‘master mistress of my passion’): men are like men, and, to put it as crudely as Shakespeare does, they don’t fit together; men are unlike women, and they do fit together.”

Booth’s discussion of Sonnet 53 makes us feel the wonder of Shakespeare’s artistic power. But it does not get into focus the poem’s movement toward something beyond paradox, toward a unity which is the ground beyond difference. The point about Adonis and Helen is that their difference is transcended. The surprise and wonder of the sonnet point to an animating presence which includes their qualities, a presence the poem conveys by synecdoche, parts taken for a whole which is beyond definition. Synecdoche is commonly the way that the beloved presence, the “all,” is evoked from “this wide universe” (Sonnet 109). Sonnet 53 is directly about synecdoche. It does not define the “substance” that “can every shadow lend”; it asks in astonishment, “What is your substance, whereof are you made?” “Adonis,” “Helen,” “the spring and foison of the year” convey the “you” which is “in every blessèd shape we know” but is more than any of them while giving them meaning. They are “received together” with this presence, to use the Greek root of synecdoche. Shakespeare here is going back through language used by Platonism to the sort of experience out of which it may grow.

One can use many imaginative schemes or analogies to try to place this “substance,” the “all” in the sonnets—while they remain, as Booth insists by his method, particularly and plurally themselves. One way their use of synecdoche can be illuminated, I think, is by the idea of the origins of play and culture developed in recent British psychoanalytic study of infancy, particularly in the seminal thinking of the late D.W. Winnicott. In his view, playing in the presence of the mother, and the objects of play specially identified with that situation, are crucial in the infant’s moving out from the symbiotic “all” toward separation. The child can endure periods of the absence of the parent by playing with “transitional objects.” These are things originally “received together” with her, things that are synecdoches for her: “And you in every blessèd shape we know.” Winnicott thinks of such play and its objects as existing in a special “potential space,” neither “objective” nor “subjective,” which is resonant both with the maternal presence and “Things of This World”—to echo an apposite title of Richard Wilbur’s. The things of this world which are made into art, in this view, have been brought into such a potential space as it expands beyond the nursery to include whatever each of us comes to make our own in the common culture.8

Many of Shakespeare’s sonnets can be seen, in this perspective, as play aimed at evoking, by way of the young man, a sense of the original maternal presence—and reckoning with its vulnerability to “never resting time” and other betrayals. The poems are transitional objects, for they are physical; meaning is made into “dulcet and harmonious breath”: “You still shall live—such virtue has my pen—/ Where breath most breathes, ev’n in the mouths of men” (Sonnet 81). The transitions the sonnets effect are back toward an original presence and at the same time out toward its new embodiment in the young man: a glow is cast upon him and on the world, and reflected back upon the poet. Winnicott has a discussion of the way the mother’s face mirrors to the infant what she sees in him or her, thus giving the infant an identity. His discussion is illuminating for the mirror/face which bestows or confirms identity in the sonnets. He also describes the stress for the child of a face which is indifferent or hostile, including situations where hostility must be preferred to the nothing of indifference:9 “Bring me within the level of your frown, / But shoot not at me in your wakened hate” (Sonnet 117).

To understand the sexual innuendo in the poems to the young man, it is essential, I think, to recognize that what is primarily sought with him is not what Booth calls “sex life” but a relation to a whole person. In many sonnets, the imagery by which the relationship is conveyed is appropriate to the earliest forms of physical communication—such as looking at a face, or eating, or both: Sonnet 75 opens with “So are you to my thoughts as food to life,” and goes on with “Sometimes all full with feasting on your sight, / And by and by clean starvèd for a look,” to end with “Or gluttoning on all, or all away.”

It is characteristic of the myopia I find in Booth that he should sense, quite factitiously I think, a phallic suggestion in “proud,” in this sonnet’s metaphor of the poet as a miser, “Now proud as an enjoyer, and anon / Doubting the filching age will steal his treasure.” His notes on Sonnet 75 send his reader whoring off (literally) to “proud” in one of the last poems to the mistress (Sonnet 151, printed opposite).

The “proud” satisfaction in Sonnet 75 is altogether different from the phallic “proud of this pride” denoted impudently in the poem to the mistress. In Sonnet 75 the relationship sought is to a whole person. Sonnet 151 aims toward a relationship of parts—private parts. Its impudence is of the kind that frees genital sexuality by exorcising inhibition from the “conscience” that “is born of love.” The mistress is clearly an example of “A Common Form of Object Choice in Men,” to use the title of Freud’s essay on the need men have to degrade women to free themselves from the taboo of incest. In the poems to the youth, the bar to physical consummation between men doubles for the incest taboo. The genital wordplay in them peers around the corner of taboo.

There are many ways to understand this intense and exclusive relation to the man, of course, besides referring to the infant-mother situation. Murray Krieger explores the way the poetry of the sonnets can recapture the equivalent of sacred time in a secular world, centering on the mirror-window imagery.10 J.B. Leishman, reading the sonnets by comparing them with the whole body of Western love poetry and devotional poetry, remarks in comparing Shakespeare to Herbert that sometimes “Shakespeare might almost be saying, blasphemously parodying St. Paul: ‘I live, yet not I, but my friend liveth in me.”‘ But, Leishman observes, the friend is not “regarded as the symbol or incarnation of something that transcends” him. He is “the supreme object of the poet’s contemplation of human life,” and so the poet’s feeling is not religious but potentially tragic, like Othello’s for Desdemona or Lear’s for Cordelia.11

The perspective of early childhood, however, permits specific understanding of the action of some of the sonnets in ways that seem useful. It can help us to see why so many of them deal with absence, indeed gain force from absence, as for example Sonnet 44: “If the dull substance of my flesh were thought….” In one of the loveliest, Sonnet 98, “From you I have been absent in the spring” (printed on this page), the idea of play as a way of enduring absence becomes explicit, even as the poem has embodied it. The luminous wonder conveyed in the lines about the lily and “the deep vermilion in the rose” reflects the presence recaptured when “You away, / As with your shadow I with these did play.”

That the beloved youth and his absence are endowed with the meaning of an earlier situation is consistent with the submerged reference in the poem to the time of the birth of a new, rival child, “proud pied April, dressed in all his trim.” He charms “heavy Saturn” to laugh and leap with him, and seems to sit and grow in a proud lap, from which the poet cannot or will not pluck him. But even as the poet feels again the winter of being left out, with the spring for someone else, he in fact realizes its beauty, tells a summer story, even though a poignant one. Shakespeare’s genius (and the capacity for growth that enabled it and was enabled by it) permits him to keep alive by poetry his relation to the grace of life.

In a review in this journal in 1970,12 Frank Kermode welcomed Booth’s full engagement with the paradoxical action of poetry in his Essay on the sonnets, seeing it as perhaps “a fresh start” in tired Shakespeare studies. He added the qualification that

It could, perhaps should, be said of this book that it is only a beginning; that sometimes what is referred to is not very clearly defined; that once we begin looking in this way we shall find a copious supply of new forms of hocus pocus. For the question arises, in what sense these patterns are simultaneously there….

This telling question frequently remains open in Booth’s edition. And I am sure that everyone who uses, and profits from, its annotation will feel that it does include some hocus pocus. For me, his wrangling over ambiguous possibilities in syntax often seems merely fantastical.

Let me conclude by saying how much I have learned from Booth. For example that the lines about the seamark “That looks on tempests and is never shaken” in Sonnet 116 “derive much of their power from being both simple and straightforward and simultaneously so complexly wondrous that beholder and beheld are indistinguishable from one another in a statement that makes their ordinary relationship perfectly clear”—a new instance for me of the mirror relationship (my italics). I hope that when Yale publishes the work in paperback, as it must, and soon, the excellently edited texts will be bound separately from the commentary; it is impossible to follow Booth’s annotation, which is “full to overflowing” like the poems, without the text before your eyes.

Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come.
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out ev’n to the edge of doom.
   If this be error and upon me proved,
   I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Sonnet 109

O never say that I was false of heart,
Though absence seemed my flame to qualify.
As easy might I from myself depart,
As from my soul, which in thy breast doth die.
That is my home of love; if I have ranged
Like him that travels I return again,
Just to the time, not with the time exchanged,
So that myself bring water for my stain.
Never believe, though in my nature reigned
All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood,
That it could so preposterously be stained
To leave for nothing all thy sum of good—
   For nothing this wide universe I call,
   Save thou, my rose; in it thou art my all.

Sonnet 53

What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since everyone hath, every one, one shade,
And you, but one, can every shadow lend.
Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
Is poorly imitated after you;
On Helen’s cheek all art of beauty set,
And you in Grecian tires are painted new.
Speak of the spring and foison of the year;
The one doth shadow of your beauty show,
The other as your bounty doth appear,
And you in every blessèd shape we know.
   In all external grace you have some part,
   But you like none, none you, for constant heart.

Sonnet 151

Love is too young to know what conscience is,
Yet who knows not conscience is born of love?
Then, gentle cheater, urge not my amiss,
Lest guilty of my faults thy sweet self prove.
For thou betraying me, I do betray
My nobler part to my gross body’s treason;
My soul doth tell my body that he may
Triumph in love; flesh stays no farther reason,
But rising at thy name doth point out thee,
As his triumphant prize—proud of this pride,
He is contented thy poor drudge to be,
To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.
   No want of conscience hold it that I call
   Her love for whose dear love I rise and fall.

Sonnet 98

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leapt with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flow’rs in odor and in hue,
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew.
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
   Yet seemed it winter still, and, you away,
   As with your shadow I with these did play.

This Issue

April 6, 1978