Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Time & Love

Shakespeare’s sonnets mark the brilliant culmination of the Elizabethan sonnet tradition, and after Shakespeare very few seem to have tried their hands with a form, which dies out more or less after 1598. But Shakespeare was writing on those particular themes, which had been also the subject matter of such renowned poets as Sidney and Spenser. The sonnet form was developed from the first translation of the Italian sonnets by Wyatt, and by the time Shakespeare was writing the whole genre had gained an entirely new dimension. It must be emphasised that Shakespeare deviated from the convention by bringing about a number of inversions. The most prominent one of those is that the love the first 126 sonnets celebrate is not one for a woman, but for a man. In other words, the beloved has been replaced by a friend. This fact and the intimate feelings sometimes expressed by the poet lead some critics to conclude that the poems had their origin in Shakespeare’s homosexual or homoerotic attachment to the young man. But considered in light of the Renaissance vogue of friendship—which could be of an intense emotional or mental relationship—it is generally agreed that the sonnets originated from the love for a friend, a love which is Platonic and artistically oriented towards finding, in increasing number of them, the significance of immortality in this love. In this the sonnets have become almost artefacts of eternity: they seem to have the restraint and poise of classical poetry; the whole piece achieves a semblance of painting in the use of shades and colours characteristic of its images.
Many of Shakespeare’s sonnets do seem to derive the consolation that the poetry of love, which celebrates the beauty of the friend, will themselves constitute the unageing monument of his love for the friend. This may be said to be the basic philosophical premise of those sonnet, and sonnet no. 60 partakes of the theme. But the arc of feeling demonstrates that this complacent attitudinising is discarded for a deeper exploration of the destructiveness of time’s powers. It has been suggested by no less a noted authority than J. B. Leishman that there is certain indefiniteness in Shakespeare’s conclusions regarding the relation of time to love and beauty. But ths does not reduce the validity of the emotion in his sonnets, and unlike those of Michelangelo and Petrarch, the chief key to Shakespeare lies in the understanding of the authenticity of his feeling for his friend.
The theme of the relationship between time and beauty is examined on a tragically and philosophically realised level in sonnet no. 60. The poem opens up with a kind of understanding characteristic of the Renaissance understanding of the power time possesses:
“Like as waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end…”
Here once again we are reminded of a few lines in Ovid’s Metamorphosis in Golding’s translation:
“As every wave dryves other foorth, and that that comes behynd
…Even so tymes by kynd
Doo fly and follow bothe at once, and evermore renew.”
Like Ovid, Shakespeare compares the human life to the expanse of the sea, the point of comparison being the principle of change present in both of the cases.
“Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity…”
This principle of change is not stated from the perspective of an Epicurean; it is rather stated as a teleologically understood truth—that every thing in nature proceeds from a beginning towards a destined end, a truth that human beings must accept as their destiny. The poet understands that it is a tragedy that,
“…Time that gave doth …his gift confound.”
In the sestet Shakespeare presents the theme of mutability in more harshly physical terms than Ovid and his contemporaries, perhaps because he wrote bearing in mind the particular physical beauty of his friend:
“Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth,
And elves the parallels in beauty’s brow…”
It ends with a characteristic Shakespearean understanding of the universal problem of human life that nothing remains constant but the “scythe to mow”, the principle or agent of change and destruction in the world. In the concluding couplet Shakespeare brings forth an answer and solution to the problems; his pen now comes out stronger than the ‘scythe’—now he can say,
“…my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth…”
It must be stated here that the conclusion Shakespeare provides in the theme of immortality assured through poetry is essentially Horatian and Ovidian. Horace wrote in his Odes: “Exegi monumentum aere perennius…”
(“I have finished a monument more lasting than bronze…”)
The sonnets, which celebrate the love of the friend on one level, give the reader also the accompanying sense of the poet’s continual self-effacement. This process is marked in sonnet 116. Keats observed that,
“A poet the most unpoetical thing in existence; because he has no identity – he is continually informing and filling some other body…”
The reader experiences this in Shakespeare’s treatment of his own self, in his continual self-abnegation and even depreciation of his worthiness. The poet is more interested in giving an impassioned vitality to the train of images just as a painter fills his canvas with his details. Spenser in his Amoretti, had finally established the wooer’s supremacy in marriage relationship and, says J. W. Lever, “even Petrarch had sacrificed himself in the alter of love…But, arguably enough, not so Shakespeare seems, in his magnanimous dedication to an art involved in his friend’s honour, to have refined himself out of existence.
In sonnet 116 the poet seems to have found stability in his psychological ground. This rendered the conflict between Time and Love ineffectual. The conclusion that there can be no conflict whatsoever is again unphilosophical but definitely not untrue. Shakespeare makes not a case, which is absolutely reliable. The sonnet produces its impact with those very famous oft-quoted lines:
“…love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds…”
The constancy of the poet’s love is a theme, which is also found in Petrarch, and the very metaphor, which represents this constancy, is Petrarchan,
“It is the star to every wand’ring bark
Whose worth’s unknown, although his heighth be taken.”
In Petrarch’s Canzoniere love is not subject to mutations caused by time. This has been conceived theologically for, Laura’s death basically is a release and the lover has the privilege of meeting her spirit in heaven. In Shakespeare one is not sure whether the conclusions are entirely theological or not, although the word “doom” in the last line of the third quatrain may have Christian overtones as far as the questions of love and eternity concerned; for, the eschatological reference does not occur strictly in the religious sense. It is rather like a rhetorical emphasis of the fact that the experience of time and love partakes of the immortal spirits of the universe. Therefore,
“Love is not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within the bending sickle’s compass come…”
“Rosy lips and cheeks” are not permanent possessions, but love in itself is something different from the beauty manifested on the surface. It is through this observation that sonnet 116 occupies a logical position in the chain of the sonnets. Sonnet 18 merely eulogises the outward beauty of the friend and this is counterpoised by the melancholy understanding of the devastating power of time in sonnet 60, but in 116 the perception has deepened and the beauty of the friend has been realised spiritually as something outside the changes wrought in nature. The love, which the inner beauty of the friend seems to have engendered, does not come within “the bending sickle’s compass” of time.
It is not a christianised version of the love celebrated in Petrarch or even in Spenser. Shakespeare’s theme draws something from Renaissance Neo-Platonism. But it is characteristic of him that the philosophy is concealed behind the emotive façade of poetry. There is no systematic exposition of this philosophy of love but a genuine self-research, an analysis of the poet’s personal states f feeling, and it is the depth of the feeling, which seems to pervade the words I the sonnets.
The couplet found in soonet116 bears a testimony to the poet’s awareness of the validity of his own conviction, but it also becomes an affirmative statement of the reader’s personal experiences with the pattern of the sonnets. Shakespeare says,
“If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”
These strongly worded lines, which suggest that his belief in the friend’s immortality are not false, are harmonised to the sonnets as a whole by virtue of what the poet seems to have done there, by the recovery from the depths of depiction and by the final recognition of the true nature of love. Like all great understanding of the human being Shakespeare’s conclusions are generalised and universal and verifiable with every new reading.

1 Comment

  1. suman kar

    It is really a very helpful artical to the readers of English literature.

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