Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sad Sonnet 66 (Says So Much…)

Dr. Carl Atkins is the author of Shakespeare's Sonnets: With Three Hundred Years of Commentary as well as a prolific commenter here at ShakespeareGeek, both while holding down a day job as a medical doctor. Instead of a typical author interview with press blurbs and bio questions we decided to do something different – Carl’s going to guest blog a series for us based on *your* questions.

Question from Lee :  I'm of the turn-the-volume-down school on the sonnets, meaning I think the more layers of modern psychology we put over them, the further we get away from the obvious.  Take sonnet 66 (please).  If I were on a desert isle, and knew only the basics of history, and had never heard of Harold Bloom, and that sonnet washed ashore, well I'd pick it up and quickly conclude the author was lamenting the loss of the Catholic faith (purest faith unhappily forsworn), complaining about censorship (art made tongue tied by authority) and mocking the Queen's much ballyhooed virginity (maiden virtue rudely strumpeted).  Honestly, what other "pure faith" had to be forsworn under Elizabeth besides Catholicism?  Was there really another "strumpeted" virgin in England other than Elizabeth?  Aren't we getting away from the obvious in our approach to the sonnets with all this Freudian who-ha about dark women and fair boytoys when instead we should be looking at history and the Essex Rebellion?  Shouldn't we be looking at Shakespeare as a political creature?  Thanks.  I look forward to your reply.  It's a very sad sonnet, isn't it?

It is a sad sonnet, Lee, but I see it from a different angle. Rather than complaining about political specifics, I see a generalized list of the world's ills that have been around for a long time. From my book:

Shakespeare now toys with an old French form, the Provençal enueg. Wilkins (1915, 496) explains its three regular characteristics: ³the list, the initial repetition, and the emphatic presence of a word denoting Œannoyance.¹² I think too much has been made of parallels between this sonnet and other works of Shakespeare, especially Hamlet 3.1.70-76 [TLN 1724-30], The Rape of Lucrece 904-7, and The Merchant of Venice 2.9.41-45
[TLN 1153-57] (see Rollins). Cruttwell (1960, 8-9), for example, finds that ³the long piling Hamlet-like list of the world¹s iniquities utterly overwhelms the protesting little line at the end.² I find nothing so serious here, just a new way to compliment the beloved. ³You are more important than all the ills of the world,² the speaker says. It may be that the conclusion is somewhat weak (we might expect some stronger expression of love), but the effectiveness of this poem lies in its form more than its content. The list, the repetition, the annoyance, and the protest work together to make the speaker¹s point: ³I love you. I don¹t want to leave you.²

About the Author

This book brings together the scholarship of dozens of the most brilliant commentators who have written about Shakespeare's Sonnets over the past three hundred years. This edition adds the significant work done by modern editors to the most important commentary culled from the two variorum editions of the last century. Atkins presents a straightforward edition without jargon with the simple goal of finding out how the poems work and how they may be interpreted. He is the first to collate the modern texts so that differences among them can be fully appreciated and compared. His discussion of meter and verse is more substantial than that of any other edition, adding particular dimension to this text. Those coming to "The Sonnets" for the first time and those seeking a fresh look at an old friend will equally find this edition scholastically rigorous and a pleasure to read. Carl D. Atkins is a practicing medical oncologist in New York.

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Willshill said...

It's interesting how the layers can be peeled off one after another. We come to accept one layer of interpretation over another layer over another layer. I'm with Lee a hundred percent, but it seems that maybe even he was accepting an interpretive slant as the bottom LINE. And why not, with all of the lack of discipline displayed by those who would indulge their own 'discipline' in heaping mounds of related theory upon Shakespeare? And no single character has suffered as much in this practice as has Hamlet. Back to the LINES, and what they're saying at face value--or as close to that as might be logically possible to determine. .

I found an obscure reference (at least to me--I don't often go hunting for sonnet analyses) Wilkins' complaining might have had Barnstorff (1862) in mind, I don't know, but Barnstorff's references to Hamlet make a lot of sense to me. One of the first basic similarities I noticed was the repetition, the listing seems almost interminable--much like the woes which might be incurred from the list --never-ending; and speaking about the very same things. Things common to humanity, as you say Carl, and about as bottom line as one may get,--but then what else is Hamlet's list--the oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, the law's delay etc.?

Unless it's a problem with the translation from the German, Barnstorff seems to intimate that the author's 'Love' is his own Genius, and that it might surface, through it all, every once in a while to be embraced; and is then allowed to be what it could be all the time, but for these chains, linked tormentingly together--much the same as the single linking of the solitary lines. But a glimpse will suffice.--That's not Barnstorff--it's just what I get from this:

"--Tired with all these, he would be gone, did not the desire, that his genius might live, make him cling to life."

I've always thought that left alone with his LINES and the successive action in the PLAY, Hamlet is Everyman--the one he speaks of in "What a piece of work...".

The coincidence between what you did with the analytical treatment and the Hamlet connection was striking to me--it may mean nothing to anyone else. Then again, maybe I "heaped a layer" (as it were) that nobody else would care to deal with.

catkins said...

That's very interesting. What I was reacting against in my commentary was the line of criticism that tries to date this sonnet by tying it psychologically to Hamlet. But your comments are a reminder that if this sonnet can be a commentary on everyman's view of the world's woes, so, too, could Hamlet (the character and the play). There is, as with much of Shakespeare, a universality to both of them.

Willshill said...

I don't know about the chronological aspect and wasn't inferring anything in that regard. I'd already been here earlier and was reminded when I just happened upon the Barnstorff book while researching, for an entirely different reason,Hamlet!
Shakespeare leaves little unmentioned with that list in the sonnet. It seems as though the construction in itself is meant to weary the reader.