The Naked Truth

The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets

by Helen Vendler
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 672 pp., $35.00

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare; drawing by David Levine

A man urges a younger man, of much higher social status, to consider his duty to have children for his own good and that of his family:

This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.
(Sonnet No. 2)

Persuasion along this line is kept up by means of ingenious arguments and parallels; and as it continues the poet-pleader finds his relation to the other man insensibly altering. A new note of involuntary intimacy creeps into the urgent respect of his demeanor.

O that you were your self! but, love, you are
No longer yours than you yourself here live.
(No. 13)

Without ceasing to be respectful the poet becomes first familiar, then passionate.

For all that beauty that doth cover thee
Is but the seemly raiment of my heart,
Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me:…
(No. 22)

He feels he has the other’s heart, even if he has just lost his own, and he has it “not to give back again.” Nothing can be done about it, but the friend is urged “to read what silent love hath writ,” and learn to “hear with eyes” (No. 23). Whatever the friend’s beauty may suggest, he is not physically a woman, so there can be no question of sex between them (a joke is made of this), but the friend is both fickle and coquettish and is soon upsetting his poet, who “has still the loss,” even if the other repents of his wanton behavior (No. 34). The poet is too much in love to feel bitter, but he wonders at himself and at the irrevocable damage that this passion has done him, wasting not only his heart but his precious time.

Being your slave, what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire?
(No. 57)

The most penetrating of these love complaints, and the one, it may be, most painfully recognized by the reader’s own experience of falling in love, is Shakespeare’s sense of the loved one’s casual indifference, however much he may “play along” with the poet’s infatuation. Sonnet 61 presents us with the bitter knowledge that the loved one shows no jealousy, or even curiosity, about what his friend (or slave) may be up to when they are apart, while the man who feels true love is devoured with speculation and anxiety on just this point. This, for the poet, is the great test of the real thing, and he concludes, “O no, thy love, though much, is not so great.”

The poet’s only hope is that his verses on the young man’s beauty will outlast time itself. But even here there is a sudden danger, for the young nobleman has begun to…

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