Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Best Of : Shakespeare for Valentine’s Day

Think of Valentine’s Day and we think of love, and poetry. And who did it better?  Over the years we’ve hit on this Hallmarkiest of holidays a few times, so I thought I’d go back and grab some favorites:
[Originally posted January, 2007]
Once, a coworker asked me if I knew any good love quotes from Shakespeare.  Apparently it was his anniversary and he was working on something for his wife.  I asked him to be more specific.  While there's plenty of love to be found in the works, there aren't too many happy marriages :).  (I think we ended up with something from Romeo and Juliet).
Anyway, as Valentine's Day approaches I thought I'd go combing for some of the more obvious Cupid references.  At first Sonnet 153 leapt right out at me, but then I saw Sonnet 154.  I'm not a big student of the sonnets, so maybe somebody can explain this to me?

Cupid laid by his brand, and fell asleep:
A maid of Dian's this advantage found,
And his love-kindling fire did quickly steep
In a cold valley-fountain of that ground;
Which borrow'd from this holy fire of Love
A dateless lively heat, still to endure,
And grew a seething bath, which yet men prove
Against strange maladies a sovereign cure.
But at my mistress' eye Love's brand new-fired,
The boy for trial needs would touch my breast;
I, sick withal, the help of bath desired,
And thither hied, a sad distemper'd guest,
But found no cure: the bath for my help lies
Where Cupid got new fire--my mistress' eyes.
The little Love-god lying once asleep
Laid by his side his heart-inflaming brand,
Whilst many nymphs that vow'd chaste life to keep
Came tripping by; but in her maiden hand
The fairest votary took up that fire
Which many legions of true hearts had warm'd;
And so the general of hot desire
Was sleeping by a virgin hand disarm'd.
This brand she quenched in a cool well by,
Which from Love's fire took heat perpetual,
Growing a bath and healthful remedy
For men diseased; but I, my mistress' thrall,
Came there for cure, and this by that I prove,
Love's fire heats water, water cools not love.

Are those not almost the exact same sonnet?  I don't really have the attention span here at work to dissect the whole thing, so I'm going to assume that the ending is fundamentally different for each, but the setup's certainly the same, isn't it?  Cupid falls asleep, the nymphs come and steal his little bow and arrow and shove it in the water to cool it off.  Only instead of cooling it off, it produces a hot spring that men come to soak in.  153's ending makes clear sense - Cupid see's my mistress' eyes and that is enough to light his torch again, and the cure for the poet's ills is not the hot bath, but his mistress' eyes as well.  But what's 154 mean?  He went to the bath to try to stop thinking about his mistress, and it didn't work for him?

[ Originally posted Feb, 2009 ]

I’m a pretty big believer in that whole “eyes are the windows to the soul” thing.  Ask me if there’s beauty in a person, and I’ll look at the eyes first.  Does that make me an eye man?  Ain’t nothing in the world like a big-eye’d girl, as the song goes…;)

But let’s talk Shakespeare.  When I picked Sonnet 17 to be “our” sonnet (that being my wife and I, not you my dear reader), it was this one line that stood out:

If I could write the beauty in your eyes, and in fresh numbers number all your graces, the age to come would say “This poet lies, such heavenly touches never touched earthly faces.”

(Yes I was lazy with the syntax of the original there.)

For Valentine’s this year, on the card for my wife’s roses, I wrote this:

The bath for my help lies where Cupid got new fire – my mistress’ eyes.

That’s from Sonnet 154.

Then of course there’s the famous sonnet 130, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun…”
I’m at work and don’t really have time to write a small novel on the subject, so I thought I’d throw it out there for discussion – were eyes a particular theme of Shakespeare’s more so than other things?  Am I just seeing what I want to see?  I went combing through the sonnets last night and actually found him referring to his own eyes (most often in the context of “I get to see how beautiful you are”), but very often he does speak of “thine eyes” or “mistress’ eyes” and so on.

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