Thursday, February 19, 2009

My Mistress’ Eyes …

I’ve mentioned Mahalo before, the “human powered search engine” that hands out tip money for good answers.  In looking for some topic ideas I started a conversation on the sonnets, and already I’ve learned something.  I don’t know who this Gonzo Joe fellow is (he quite literally just joined, his answer to my question is his first answer on the system).  But check this out regarding Sonnet 130:

What I think is most interesting about this sonnet that no one has mentioned yet is the direct irony of the tone compared to sonnet 18. The "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day" is probably the most well known of Shakespeare's sonnets among the general population because of its Hallmarkian cheesiness.

It's important to recognize that the irony is only of tone and not of theme, however. In fact, I would venture to say that 18 and 130 could be viewed as the same poem, written by the same man about the same women, the only difference being one is written in youth and the other is written at a much older age. This is, of course, not literally the case most likely, but thinking of them so does provide a nice framework for their explication.

If he’s not already hanging out here with us at Shakespeare Geek, methinks he should be :).


catkins said...

Well, OK, nice start, but there is a lot more complexity in the comparison of these two sonnets. First of all, of course, these are not individual poems, but two sonnets within a series of 154 interlinked poems. They should therefore be read in context. As such, Sonnet 18 looks very much like a sonnet written to a young fair-haired man and Sonnet 130 to a dark-haired and not-so-well-behaved lady. Second, Sonnet 130 is not ironic, it is just blunt. It does not mean the opposite of what it says (the definition of irony) it means exactly what it says, in no uncertain terms. No high-flown praise for the Dark Lady--just spit it out. Third, yes, the tone of 130 is starkly different from that of 18--this is a contrast seen between all of the "Young Man" and "Dark Lady" sonnets. Behind that tonal difference is much more than maturity. It reflects the difference in the loving relationship between the poet and the young man and the poet and the dark lady. In my opinion, it is the difference between asexual love and love tainted with lust and guilt. The emotional territory covered by the different sections of sonnets is vastly different. Excellent to have noted the tonal differences with similarity of theme. Better to go back and read the entire series and note the enormous complexity of interactions and richness of tone and emotion embodied within. Don't stop here. Read more sonnets.

Duane said...

I think I disagree, Carl. Not with the analysis, you're clearly better qualified to offer that than I. I take issue with the...necessity?... of your tone. You can't just tell people "Nice start, but now go back and read the entire series." Most mere mortals and non-academics will never do that. Heck, I've never done that. (Maybe I've skimmed them all at one point or another, but I certainly couldn't offer an in-depth study.)

It's my theory that most people know sonnet 116 because they've heard it at a wedding, and they probably remember 18 from school. Maybe, if they've had any additional theatre or literature schooling, they'll know 130 because of its unusual spin, or 29 because they had a teacher who was sick of 18. That's why I asked the initial question on Mahalo, to see if I could prove that theory. So when somebody has enough knowledge to not only explain the sonnets in a meaningful yet casual way (did you read Gonzo Joe's explanation of sonnet 154, by the way?) but to show interest in drawing connections between them, I consider it a huge win. I'm happy to have GonzoJoe's contribution, just as I am happy to have yours. If somebody else out there reading learns something new, from either post, all the better.

catkins said...

Sorry, but I didn't mean to sound overly academic. But my point is precisely that it is very limited to analyze any sonnet without reading all of the sonnets. And I know you haven't read all of The Sonnets and I think you should. And I don't mean to imply that one has to analyze all of the sonnets in order to analyze one of them. I just think you should READ all of them before trying to analyze any of them. It adds a dimension that cannot be appreciated otherwise. Would you analyze a speech from The Tempest without reading the entire play?

Gonzo Joe said...

No wonder my ears were burning. I decided to check out your site, and imagine my surprise (and flattery) to find my words on the front page. I thank you for that.

And a pleasure to meet you, Carl. You have seen right through me. While I was a tremendous fan of a few Shakespeare plays in my high school years, I am far from a scholar. Literary criticism, however, has remained a passion of mine, and while I honestly will not find myself with the time to do a thorough reading of the full run of 154 any time soon, I certainly appreciate the insights you offered in response to my cursory analysis, and when I do take to the sonnets, I shall keep you in mind.

When it comes to Shakespeare, I'll freely admit to being rustier than a thirty year old railroad spike, and I was never at any time a master of the entire canon. But I am always interested in learning more and discussions with intelligent folks.

A pleasure to meet you all.
--R.J. (aka Gonzo Joe)

catkins said...

Glad to make your acquaintance as well, and very happy that you have shown an interest in The Sonnets, my fave rave. I always wonder, though, what keeps so many Shakespeare fans from reading all of the sonnets. Does a real Shakespeare fan pick up Hamlet and read the "To be or not to be" speech and then decide the rest of the play is just too much to bother with? These are really enjoyable poems! Don't make your first pass through them a "thorough reading." Go ahead and rush right through all 154. Don't pore over them, or analyze them, or worry about figuring them all out. That can come later if you get hooked like crazy fools like me. Find an edition with good, brief glosses (it doesn't have to be mine--it is rather expensive; I would suggest the paperback Pelican) just to help you along. And read for the fun of it. I promise, you will enjoy it.

Duane said...

But Carl, I do think it's different. If your position is that the sonnets represent a continuous narrative comparable to a Tempest or Hamlet, then could you help me out and point out the Dramatis Personae? Act breaks, scene breaks, stage directions? Anything at all to provide meaningful context as to who is speaking, to whom, for what reason?
At least, some something not based entirely on conjecture and speculation?

It's hard to even argue the point until we decide whether the "narrator" in the sonnets is, in fact, Shakespeare - in other words are they supposedly autobiographical? If so, that also implies that they were written in chronological order, no? The narrator of sonnet 130 must by definition be a more worldly and experience narrator than that of sonnet 18.

maybe this exists, maybe not, but if somebody said "Here's a collection of the sonnets that comes with a sort of who's who / timeline to follow along", I think you might find more people encouraged to think of them as a continuous narrative. Someone needs to come along and tell it that way, filling in the blanks. What happened between sonnets X and Y to make the tone change? And so on.

I also think that somebody needs to do this as *fiction*. Novelize it. As soon as it takes on the feeling of an academic dissection, it loses too much (for me, at least). You ever have one of those conversations where you say "I wonder what Hamlet's relationship was to his Dad before the play begins" and somebody comes along to say, "There was no before the play, because Shakespeare did not write it." See what I'm saying? The analysis either has to be from the perspective of what Shakespeare meant, and why - or what the fictional narrator was going through in his life.

Gonzo Joe said...

Doing a fast reading first is good advice, and it's a form I've followed when reading other things critically, and Carl's point about the sonnets being a single work is well taken.

While they may or may not describe a narrative, I think it is entirely valid to consider a collection of poems (or prose) for that matter as being contiguous. This doesn't necessarily mean that the collection will tell a single story, but it does provide a context for each individual element, viz. the other works in the collection. I am reminded of "Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair" by Pablo Neruda. The poems are all by the same author, but the mood and tone of the poems varies greatly. Nevertheless, the poems "make more sense" as it were when they are considered in the context of the other poems. (I know this is a Shakespeare site, but "Twenty Love Poems..." is an old favorite from an early college class.)

That being said, I think there is some merit in extracting an individual element from a collection and analyzing it on its own merits as a single work. To again borrow from outside the realm of the Bard, Haiku as we know it came about in essence because Basho took the most popular poetry form of the day, linked verse, and extracted the 5-7-5 portions of the poem and eventually began writing only the 5-7-5 portions individually.

Perhaps I should have said I won't have the " read" instead of I won't have the "time to read" because while I am really busy with school work and work work currently, I suppose I could make the time. Next time I find myself with a few bucks to spend in Barnes & Noble, I think I will pick up that penguin Carl mentioned. I had one years ago, but, well, that was years (and several moves) ago.

J. M. Fincher said...

I have read these comments and I think my input will hopefully clear up some of these concerns. A sonnet sequence in its essence is a collection of poems where the narrator, "The Poet", has found a fascination with a person or persons. The fascination can be a literal person or an ideal personified by a person. The concept of the sonnet sequence comes from Plutarch. Another sonnet sequence---which I am very fond of---is "Astrophil and Stella" written by Sir Philip Sidney. If you don't know who this man is, I would recommend you read him. His work most a familiar with is the Apology for Poetry which defined the modern poet.

But, this is not about praising Sir Philip Sidney, this is commenting on sonnet sequences. I bring him simply because I can demonstrate what a sonnet sequence is since the story is little less complicated than Shakespeare's. Simply put, Astrophil, the poet, is in love with Stella. Stella seems to be fickle and has aspirations for power. The only way she can gain power is marry the one with the most stuff. So, through the sonnet sequence, she denies Astrophil for rich men and Astrophil is always dissatisfied. We don't know why exactly he is in love with her, how they met for certain or if there is any conclusion to his love.

From the example, there is a narrative to sonnet sequences. However, the narrative is more like a middle. There is no beginning and there is no end. The audience just get thrown into the poet's mind and see how he/she feels about something and then when either the poet doesn't care or finds a new love, we move on. The only sonnet sequence that does have a marriage and a resolution is Spenser's Amoretti.

Now, as for Shakespeare and his sonnet sequence. One must remember that Shakespeare was commissioned for his work. The first seventeen sonnets which was commission to be written for a son of a rich man on the son's 17th birthday, were written to get the son to procreate. Most likely, the subsequent sonnets were written as more of a exploration of themes. If there are any biological resemblances, they may be incidental or seem to be simply because of the intimate nature of the sonnet sequence. However, we can neither prove nor disprove if they are biographical.

Lastly, to be more specific to the post, "My Mistress' Eyes" is actually an anti-blazon. If you look at it, you can assume that Shakespeare is parodying the epic metaphorical descriptions of women that occurred so often in sonnets. I believe these last few with their ironies and antithesis are really more of Shakespeare having fun rather than actually being serious. (But, this based on impression rather than academics)

To end this post, I would like to say that I am big proponent for the reading of these sonnets. Not just these sonnets, but sonnet sequences in general. They are a rather fascinating genre since it is one of the few genres before the Novel that we have psychological insight and revolutions in both in form and insight. I would recommend another sonnet sequence written by a woman Mary Wroth "Pamphilia to Amphilanthus". And, everyone out there who has read this far, I thank you and appreciate any feedback.