bardseyeview

A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

A Sonnet, if you Wannit

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My glass shall not persuade me I am old
So long as youth and thou are of one date;
But when in thee Time's furrows I behold,
Then look I death my days should expiate.

So begins Sonnet #22, today's text in our Shakespearean breviary (with glass meaning mirror and expiate meaning end). It is worth speculating whether Shakespeare would consent to rewrite some of these lines in an age of cosmetic surgery. Well no, it's not worth it. But have you had a look a Robert Redford lately? He looks like a young man who vaguely resembles Robert Redford, although he certainly does not look like a young Robert Redford. His glass shall not persuade him he is old, even as it persuades us he's vain and perhaps even a little lost.

In these first four lines Shakespeare is saying that he won't feel old until his presumably younger lover starts looking old. Flattery or insult? Or is it just true, that one's love for another seems to stop the clock, until you're reminded of its progress not by your own deterioration, but by hers, or his? A certain species of gallantry would insist on the reverse; that one's lover appears never to age. But that's not Shakespeare's approach.

And anyway, it's not as if he's saying he particularly cares whether he does start thinking of himself as old, or even near death ("Then look I death my days shall expiate" – with "look I" meaning foresee). He seems pretty matter-of-fact about his own looks and even his own end. Clearly we are far away from the sort of time-defying sensibility that has extended both Joan Rivers' youth and her career beyond their proper conclusions, or that has disfigured Michael Jackson's face to so ironically resemble his disfigured heart. No, Shakespeare's focus is elsewhere (Seemly raiment means well-suited clothing):

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
How can I then be elder than thou art?

Now that's what I'm talking about. There's your thrilling and immortal love poetry. The faithful bardseyeviewer will recall examples of Shakespeare's lesser verse, presented in my "A Midsummer's Night Dream, Updated" post, as follows (it seems we'll be enjoying a little poetry tasting this evening):

Demetrius:

"O Helen, goddess, nymph, perfect, divine!
To what, my love, shall I compare thine eyne?
Crystal is muddy. O, how ripe in show
Thy lips, those kissing cherries, tempting grow!
That pure congealed white, high Taurus' snow,
Fanned with the eastern wind, turns to a crow
When thou hold'st up thy hand…".

It seems clear to me at least that Shakespeare is, as the friends I met in Japan who were from England and New Zealand would say, taking the piss out of Demetrius by having him say those words. (It's ok, Shakespeare himself uses that word in Henry VI part II:

"I charge and command that, of the city's cost, the pissing-conduit run nothing but claret wine this first year of our reign….".)

My kind of king. Well, I seem to be digressing. So let's return to Sonnet 22 (chary means carefully):

O, therefore, love, be of thyself so wary
As I, not for myself, but for thee will,
Bearing thy heart, which I will keep so chary
As tender nurse her babe from faring ill.

Huh? You'll want to move that "will" in the second line, to read, "As I will, not for myself, but for thee." Better? Now move it back to enjoy the poem.

It's a simple enough idea that he's expressing; let's each take care of ourselves, monitor those triglycerides, absorb more anti-oxidants, take more coffee this year or less the next depending on the latest study, and all for each other's sake, not our own.

All English sonnets end with a couplet, and here's ours:

Presume not on thy heart when mine is slain;
Thou gav'st me thine, not to give back again.

Well, that's a bit mean, isn't it? After I die, I'm taking your heart with me, so don't look to get it back. It's possibly the reason this otherwise beautiful sonnet is not among the more famous. Plus he contradicts this idea elsewhere, in Sonnet #71 for example, which starts with:

"No longer mourn for me when I am dead…"

and ends with:

"But let your love even with my life decay."

Maybe his feelings grew a bit more generous and less possessive (as in possessive beyond the grave) in the interim. Who can say? In any case, either sentiment is recognizably human. And if you read the sonnets like a lawyer reading statutes, you're going to be forever on the outside with your faced pressed to the glass.

Anyway, I hope you've enjoyed, and here's #22 again, whole:

My glass shall not persuade me I am old
So long as youth and thou are of one date;
But when in thee Time's furrows I behold,
Then look I death my days should expiate.
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
How can I then be elder than thou art?
O, therefore, love, be of thyself so wary
As I, not for myself, but for thee will,
Bearing thy heart, which I will keep so chary
As tender nurse her babe from faring ill.
Presume not on thy heart when mine is slain;
Thou gav'st me thine, not to give back again.
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