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.
Context : Following up on our discussion about the possibly overrated Sonnet 116, I promised Dr. Atkins equal time to talk about favorite sonnets…
As for favorite sonnets that deserve more popularity than they get, also difficult because there are so many. I am going to cheat because you asked for one and I am going to name two. It is not just that I can't make up my mind (OK, it's partly that) but because I have different types of favorite sonnets. And I am exhibiting great restraint in choosing only two types, mind you. The first is a very beautiful sonnet, number 52. Here is the original printing, my glosses (mostly chosen from among other editors) and some of my commentary:
So am I as the rich whose blessed key,
Can bring him to his sweet up-locked treasure,
The which he will not ev’ry hower survay,
For blunting the fine point of seldome pleasure.
Therefore are feasts so sollemne and so rare,
Since sildom comming in the long yeare set,
Like stones of worth they thinly placed are,
Or captaine Jewells in the carconet.
So is the time that keepes you as my chest,
Or as the ward-robe which the robe doth hide,
To make some speciall instant speciall blest,
By new unfoulding his imprison’d pride.
Blessed are you whose worthinesse gives skope,
Being had to tryumph, being lackt to hope.
4 For blunting for fear of blunting 5 sollemne formal 6 sildom rarely 8 Or that is to say; captaine chief; carconet jeweled collar 9 as like 12 his its
In this sonnet, Shakespeare vividly describes scenes of a gloating miser, an eager celebrant, a crafty jeweler, and a proud gentleman. In swift succession, he compares the beloved to a chest full of treasure, a joyous feast, a special jewel, and a fine garment. The last, seemingly the most trifling of the list, is presented with such delicious pleasure that it dwarfs the rest, unfolding its imprisoned pride with a wealth of specialness. And all through the poem, as Vendler notes, we find blessedness.
My second undiscovered favorite is a more restrained sonnet, number 107. I just love the way this sonnet sounds! Again, with original printing, my glosses, and some commentary:
Not mine owne feares, nor the prophetick soule,
Of the wide world, dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love controule,
Supposde as forfeit to a confin’d doome.
The mortall Moone hath her eclipse indur’de,
And the sad Augurs mock their owne presage,
Incertenties now crowne them-selves assur’de,
And peace proclaimes Olives of endlesse age.
Now with the drops of this most balmie time,
My love lookes fresh, and death to me subscribes,
Since spight of him Ile live in this poore rime,
While he insults ore dull and speachlesse tribes.
And thou in this shalt finde thy monument,
When tyrants crests and tombs of brasse are spent.
4 confin’d doome limited duration 6 sad Augurs prophets of disaster; presage predictions 7 Incertenties i.e., things thought to be uncertain 10 subscribessubmits 12 insults ore triumphs over; tribes multitudes
With a dramatic change in tone and style, this unconventional sonnet returns to the conventional theme of the ability of the poet’s verse to immortalize the beloved. Commentators have been so caught up in the meaning and allusions of this sonnet that they have failed to notice its most salient feature—the incredible beauty of its rhythm, so very different from any metrical variations we have seen so far in The Sonnets....
The contrast between the beginning octet and the final sestet is arresting. The former is highly irregular and unusually rich with pyrrhics and spondees, while the latter is highly regular with only one initial trochee and one final spondee, both common variations in The Sonnets. Booth notes, “ . . . the first two quatrains have the kind of effect on a reader that prophecies have. They feel full of important and valuable meaning that seems potentially available to a reader but always remains just beyond his reach.” Or as Holmes puts it, “the far-stretching future . . . is reflected in such large, vague metaphors as are its only possible expression.” The mesmerizing meter in the octave enhances this vague feeling of unattainability—the iambic pentameter is as hard to find as the meaning, though inescapably present. The change with the sestet underscores the difference between the cosmic metaphor of the beginning of this sonnet and its narrowly personal ending, which focuses on what is important to the speaker and his beloved....
Rollins notes that this sonnet “has been made to fit whatever theory each writer on the subject is addicted to. Personal and political references of all kinds have been detected, especially in forfeit to a confin’d doome, in the mortall Moone which (or who!) hath her eclipse indur’de, and in the peace proclaimed by Olives of endlesse age.”...
Lever (1956, 267) takes a broader, more sensible view: “One thing is clear, that the sonnet is not a Commentary on the News, whether the news be the defeat of the Armada, the Queen’s survival of her grand climacteric, or the accession of King James. In the context of the group, it commemorates a moment of stillness when all the contradictions of life are suspended in the autumn glow of Love’s victory over Time.”
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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