A couple of weeks ago Meg and I announced that we wanted to get to the bottom of what The Bard was all about. Clearly we missed the boat as teens and college students, so now here we are trying to figure out what all the fuss was about, and if we really missed anything.
Last Sunday on Valentine’s Day we examined a few of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets to see what he was working with, and if his smooth words would really do the trick on that celebrated day of love. Meg and I decided that he did his thing, and we would indeed be swayed if he started going on and on about how we were like a summer day.
This week it seems our man Will has totally flipped the script on us! Read on to see how he did that and what Jay-Z has to say about the whole thing. Will he (no pun intended, though it is rather funny when your name is an action word) side with me and Meg or his fellow poet, The Bard.
Nicole: Now Meg you picked these two out or us to study. What made you think that these would be good to examine together?
Meg: For me, Sonnet 109 has a really different “feel” than many of the others — and definitely different than Sonnets 18 and 130! The tone of the poet here is almost boastful while still being imploring as he admits to having been unfaithful and “false of heart.” On the flip side, Sonnet 30 features a speaker who is melancholy and “paying” debts — through grief — as though they haven’t already been satisfied. The two tones here, so different, really appealed to me!
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.
Meg: In Sonnet 30, we meet a narrator whose mind drifts to the past and friends he’s lost, either through death or other circumstances. Lovers, too, seem to have gone by the wayside, and the poet weeps “afresh love’s long since canceled woe.” By the end of the sonnet, of course, the speaker’s hope and faith have been restored by thinking of a new “dear friend” — and all that suffering drifts away.
What really struck me about this sonnet was one particular line: “Which I new pay as if not paid before.” In the context of the whole poem, I took it to mean feeling grief all over again — experiencing pain as if we haven’t hurt before, and as if this hasn’t already broken us. Sometimes heartbreak feels like that, doesn’t it? Like “paying” a debt again and again with no end in sight. That definitely resonated with me.
Nicole: My first thoughts, I must confess were not as deep as my partner in crimes’ thoughts were. I saw the line, “I summon up remembrance of things past”, and thought, “So that is where that phrase comes from!” I had to read this one a few times (like I didn’t have to do with all the others!), but somehow I felt like the language was a lot more flowery than what we read last week, and I had more difficulty getting at the meaning behind the words. I understood maybe the first 4-6 lines and then it got a little crazy.
As I got to the end of the sonnet I felt like I was seeing a pattern emerge, and that Shakespeare was really obsessed with immortality and keeping things alive through memory because there he is again saying that he can be happy as long as he has his memories of his dead friends. Would you agree Meg?
Meg: Absolutely! Shakespeare is very preoccupied with living through and beyond words — and, through the sonnets, keeping alive those whom he loves. We saw this obsession in Sonnet 18 last week — how we all age and eventually die, but as long as Shakespeare’s poetry is available, his loves live on. Sounds like our man William was living in a constant existential crisis! And, you know, I can relate to that.
Nicole: Yes! He sounds very angsty and brooding. I think he might have been a hipster and would have lived out in Williamsburg in Brooklyn had he been alive today.
Meg: Oh, I can totally see that now — with the skinny jeans and a notebook, lounging under a tree and looking at all of the young families with their strollers, curling up a lip at the other hipsters with their Starbucks cups and iPhones. I think Shakespeare would be living off the grid, lost in deep thoughts and distancing himself from society.
Nicole: Or maybe living underneath the city in the subway tunnels! But we digress. On to 109!
O, never say that I was false of heart,
Though absence seem’d my flame to qualify.
As easy might I from myself depart
As from my soul, which in thy breast doth lie:
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 reign’d
All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood,
That it could so preposterously be stain’d,
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.
Meg: Sonnet 109 really made me think. According to my handy-dandy Folger Shakespeare Library edition, the poet is imploring his love to recognize that though he has strayed and been unfaithful, he should be forgiven — because he’s returned. There’s no promise to do better, of course, nor any apology for having presumably hurt his love. “O never say that I was false of heart” — never claim that I didn’t love you! Except, you know, you were gone and cheating on me. This sonnet feels really different to me. Am I just projecting here? Was that a vibe you got, Nicole?
Nicole: I definitely got that vibe and it got my dander up as I was reading it. It’s a lot like things I have experienced with dating and with my own friends where men kind of run around and then when they get ready just show up again on their terms and when they are ready to deal with a relationship. No questions asked. Not that we would have these problems with our boy Billy because once again he is talking about another dude.
Another very modern poet thinks along similar lines.
Still I left you for months on end*
It’s been months since I checked back in
Was somewhere in a small town, somewhere lockin a mall down
Woodgrain, four and change, armor all down
I can understand why you want a divorce now
Though I can’t let you know it, pride won’t let me show it
Pretend to be heroic, that’s just one to grow with
But deep inside a ni**a so sick
I think he was just expecting to show up again after he got finished on tour and with whomever he was keeping time, and pick up where things left off- but his girl had made other plans! Good for her.
Megan: Excellent tie-in with modern language, Nicole — color me impressed! From Will to Jay-Z, the boys keep trying to run games with us. Some things never change.
Nicole: I have to say that Jay gives more reasons than Will though for his shenanigans. Misguided and delusional reasons that ultimately don’t matter, but he does give you a little more to work with.
Getting to the heart of the matter…or more talk about these sonnets!
In Sonnet 109, the poet claims that despite his infidelities, he has returned to his lover — and should be forgiven. Would a carefully-worded sonnet be enough to gain back your trust?
Nicole: Uh, no. I think for me there is a certain period where I can be actively engaged and invested in working on a relationship but when you disappear, then I have to make my peace with that and move on. At that point it will take a lot more than some pretty words for me to consider rearranging my life for someone who has proved unfaithful and untrustworthy. Nice try Will!
Meg: I’m a sucker for pretty words, but I don’t think someone showing up and saying, “Hey, I know I haven’t exactly been around — but you are ‘my home of love,’ so, let’s just pick up where we left off. Sound good?” would be enough for me. The sentiment in Sonnet 109 is almost challenging.
Nicole: Challenging is such a nice word for it.
Meg: Oh, you know, I try to be diplomatic. 🙂 “Condescending” could have also worked there, I think.
Nicole: Along with arrogant, selfish, ego-maniacal…I could go on. But I’ll stop there.
Does the “dear friend” of Sonnet 30 seem to be a friend or lover? Would mere friendship be enough to heal old wounds, especially heartbreak?
Meg: Though friendship has the power to help and save us, I’m not sure it is enough to erase the past. The “dear friend” here seems to be a lover or potential lover — and that makes sense to me in the context. Friends are definitely the people you need to wrap an arm around you during times of heartache, but the Bard’s “remembrances of things past” seem very melancholy. He’d probably need more than friendship to help him process those memories!
Nicole: I would think that it was romantic too because I think that we tend to attach intensely melancholy feelings to failed relationships for far longer than we do with friends. When he says “And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe”, that sounds pretty intense to me. I think feelings can be more intense where the potential for a lover was lost just because we usually have fewer of them running around our lives. People can’t compensate for other people, but we do grow up used to the idea that we might lose friends as we progress through different stages in our lives- like moving, changing schools, changing jobs, and just changing in general. With love we are trained to keep it, and usually won’t let it go “without a fight”. People will pay some pretty high costs to keep love.
Megan: So well-said! And I completely agree. The intensity surrounding a potential love — or floundering relationship — is much greater than feelings of friendship, as it should be.
What about friendship? Do you look back on people with whom you aren’t friends with anymore and take comfort in your memories? Is there a difference if the friend has died as opposed to if they are just no longer in your life?
Nicole: None of my friends have died, thankfully, but just through natural growth and change I have lost friends over the course of my life. Initially when a friendship is over even the happy memories are colored with a sense of sadness, anger or betrayal, especially now that you know the “ending”. But Shakespeare seems to be looking back over a great amount of time and for me after a few years, and with the wounds no longer fresh, I can really delight in all the fun and crazy times I had with a friend and honor who we both were even though we have moved on.
Meg: I’ve been fortunate never to bear the loss of a friend through death, but I do take comfort in old memories of friends with whom I haven’t kept in touch or, in some cases, “broken up” with. Friendships are relationships, too — not romantic, of course, but still relationships that require time, compassion, understanding and dedication. In cases where I chose not to be friends with someone anymore, or vice versa, it can be a little painful to look back on those times… knowing, as I do, how things have changed. I guess that’s partially what Shakespeare is saying in Sonnet 30, too — that the pain he feels like looking back colors the happy times. But the arrival of someone new, a “dear friend” he can think of and feel better? That makes a difference. But I’m not sure if that’s the case for me.
*lyrics from Song Cry by Jay-Z
So, did you read along with us? What do you think about our questions? What would be your answers?
Next week we will be checking out Sonnets 11 and 116 before we venture out to read something a little bit meatier. See you next Friday!