Lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnets have a habit of lodging themselves in my head and playing on a repeat loop – poetic earworms as it were. I suppose it’s not surprising really. Poetry is, after, all a form of music (or should that be the other way round?) and the Greeks, in their wisdom, barely distinguished between the two forms.
When, for no apparent reason, “No longer mourn for me when I am dead” (Sonnet 71) sprang persistently into my brain recently, I reached for my favourite edition of the Sonnets. Of course I have several versions but the one I like best is edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones for Arden Shakespeare, 1997 – mine is the revised 2010 edition. I like it because her introduction and notes are so good. It’s scholarly and very detailed but always accessible and never abstruse.
I took it away with me to a six day residential music summer school last month so that I’d have something completely different – although the music clearly a linking factor – to read at night. And it turned out to be an inspired idea. “Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?” (Sonnet 8).
I think, on balance, I prefer the “dark lady” sonnets to the young man ones but I don’t much care whether either of them was real or why these love poems were written. I just adore the idea that “fair” might mean both blonde and pretty but you can be attractive and dark. I was brunette in my youth so I don’t need convincing. I empathise with anyone who is not blonde for ethnic and or genetic reasons. “Then will I swear beauty herself is black/ And all they foul that thy complexion lack”. (Sonnet 132)
I enjoy, and marvel at, the shape of each Sonnet too: four quatrains and a clinching rhyming couplet. The technical craftsmanship is as extraordinary as a Mozart string quartet or a Dante Gabriel Rossetti painting. If you hear one of these sonnets read aloud Shakespeare makes you listen for those last two lines – like a cricket ball landing.
A few years ago I set myself the task of reading the 154 sonnets, one each night, starting on 01 January and finishing around the end of May – I can’t remember whether or not it was a leap year. It was a rewarding experience to savour each one slowly and individually. Yes, scholars divide them into sequences but each and every sonnet also stands alone with something timeless to say: about love, beauty, respect, the power of writing, ageing, grief, mortality and a whole lot more
I am of an age now, for example, when “Like as the waves make towards their pebbled shore/ So do our minute hasten to their end” (Sonnet 60) has more resonance than it once did as I try to pack more and more in while there’s still time. And having published a book (selling well – thanks, Folks) The Alzheimer’s Diaries about my late husband’s final years, the line “Or I shall live, your epitaph to make” (Sonnet 81) packs a certain punch too.
Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which were appeared in 1609 are unusual because they were published in his lifetime – unlike almost everything else he wrote. I hope they made him lots of money. And how right he was: “Since spite of him I’ll live in this poor rhyme” … “When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent” (Sonnet 107). We are still listening to that voice and its music 414 years after these near-perfect poems were published.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: The Twilight Garden by Sara Nisha Adams