This week, we’re learning about sonnets, and English Literature’s best-known purveyor of those fourteen-line paeans, William Shakespeare. We’ll look at a few of Willy Shakes’s biggest hits, including Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” Sonnet 116, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment,” and Sonnet 130, “My mistresses’s eyes are nothing like the sun.” We’ll talk about what makes a sonnet, a little bit about their history, and even a little bit about how reading poetry helps us understand how to be human beings.
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Hi I’m John Green, this is Crash Course Literature, and you look great.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Nah. Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
That William Shakespeare, he knew how to deliver a compliment.
That’s right, today, we’re talking about Shakespeare’s sonnets, 159 poems collected and published in 1609.
Mr Green, Mr Green, what’s a sonnet?
Good question me from the past.
In fact, such a good question that your 7th grade English teacher answered it for you, but apparently you’ve forgotten.
A sonnet is a poetic form consisting of 14 lines.
And there are various ways to order the stanzas and the rhyme scheme,
but the Shakespearean stanza — named for Will not because he invented it,
but, you know, because he was the best at it — consists of three four line stanzas
and a final rhymed couplet.
So, the rhyme scheme is: A, B, A, B, C, D, C, D, E, F, E, F, G, G
And the meter in Shakespeare’s sonnets, as in much of Shakespeare’s plays, is iambic pentameter,
which means that every line has 10 syllables, consisting of five iambs.
Which is just a fancy word for pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables,
so a line of a Shakespearean poem goes: duh-DUH duh-DUH duh-DUH duh-DUH duh-DUH.
This turns out to do something to English speaking brains that’s just very catchy.
Like, a lot of times pop songs are written in iambs.
Like, a lot of times when we speak, we accidentally speak in them.
But when I’m trying to remember the sound of iambic pentameter,
I just remember John Keats’s last will and testament, which was one line of iambic pentameter.
“My chest of books divide among my friends.”
So today we’re going to look at the history and controversy surrounding Shakespeare’s sonnets
and we’ll look at three particular sonnets.
They’re often known by their first lines, but they’re also known by numbers.
So, we’re going to look at Sonnet 18, aka Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?,
Sonnet 116, Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment,
and Sonnet 130, My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun.
So the sonnet gets started, like so many great things, in 13th-century Italy.
Dante got into it, and then Michelangelo. Let’s go to the Thought Bubble.
So the most famous early examples of sonnets were probably those by Petrarch.
He used a different structure from Shakespeare
and spent most of his time talking about a woman named Laura
which you have to pronounce La-oo-ra to make it fit the meter.
Anyway, he barely knew Laura, but when did that stop men from romanticizing women.
English sonnets started in the 16th-century and by the 1590s there was a huge craze for them,
kind of like the craze for boy bands in the 1990s.
Except with less choreography and hair gel.
This is more or less when Shakespeare started writing them.
Dates for his sonnets are pretty inexact, but actually that’s the least of our problems.
I mean, we know almost nothing about the poems, except the sweet rhyme scheme.
And that Shakespeare wrote them.
And yes. We are sure that Shakespeare wrote them.
He also wrote all of his plays, although the earlier and later plays were probably collaborations.
OK? That’s settled.
So Shakespeare wrote these sonnets, 154 of them, probably some time in the 1590s and early 1600s.
We don’t know if the speaker in the sonnets is Shakespeare himself or some imagined figure,
although it’s widely assumed that they’re fairly personal, as were most sonnets.
And we don’t know if these were all the sonnets he wrote.
They’re just the ones we have.
And they might have been intended for and audience of everyone,
or just for the people they were written for, or for an audience of no one.
However, two of the sonnets showed up in a collection in 1599, so he definitely didn’t keep them too private.
And a contemporary describes him as showing his “sugared sonnets” around to his “private friends.”
And then, in 1609, a reputable publisher named Thomas Thorpe,
published “Shakespeare’s Sonnets — Never Before Imprinted.”
Well, except for those two published earlier. Thanks, thought Bubble.
So, the book is dedicated “To the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets Mr WH.
All happiness and that eternity promised by our ever-living poet wisheth that well-wishing adventurer in setting forth.”
Now this dedication is signed TT or Thomas Thorpe so we have no idea if the dedication was actually Shakespeare’s,
or if it was just Thomas Thorpe, and we don’t have any idea who Mr. WH is,
although that hasn’t stopped scholars from trying to find out.
We also don’t know if Shakespeare wrote the sonnets in the order they were published in,
or if he wanted them to be published in that order.
So as originally published the first 17 sonnets are addressed to a young man,
telling him to settle down and have kids.
And then sonnets 18-126 are still concerned with that young man. Probably.
Relatively few of the sonnets have gendered pronouns, which has caused a lot of bother over the last 400 years.
But there’s fairly widespread agreement these days that in these sonnets there is
a relationship between two men that is passionate, and possibly even erotic.
And this bothered a lot of earlier editors so much,
that some went to all the trouble to change the pronouns from male to female.
So, does this mean that Shakespeare was gay?
I don’t know! I wasn’t alive in the 17th century.
I also think it’s dangerous to read biography into poetry.
Also, in 16th and 17th century England, passionate friendships among men were common,
and they didn’t necessarily involve sex.
That said, I still think it’s worth noting and understanding,
that all of the most romantic and loving of the sonnets are those addressed to the young man.
Like, sonnets 127-154, the ones addressed to the so-called black mistress are a lot darker.
And no one’s reading those at weddings.
But about the black mistress or the dark lady, who appears in those sonnets, we also don’t know who she is.
Scholars have suggested royal waiting women, female poets, at least one British-African brothel owner.
But we don’t even know if she was black as we use the term today,
or just brunette, in contrast to the blond young man.
But the dark lady sonnets are more complicated than the ones addressed to the young man.
The speaker feels tormented and ashamed of his sexual attraction to the woman
and even in the sonnets praising her, he gets, as we’ll see, some insults in.
Like, in sonnet 144, he actually compares the two muses.
He talks of having two loves: “The better angel is a man right fair; The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.”
One more thing to know:
Although Shakespeare was a beloved and popular playwright, his sonnets were not initially a hit.
Like, that 1609 edition? Pretty much nobody paid attention.
In fact, for 200 years whenever anyone wrote about the sonnets it was to complain about how boring they were.
One editor, explaining why he didn’t reprint them in 1793 wrote that not even
“the strongest act of Parliament that could be framed” would make readers like them.
And yet, I quite like them.
Like, Shakespeare manages to cram a lot of emotion even into his highly structured form.
And maybe most importantly, these sonnets make Shakespeare’s case for why he thinks poetry is important in the first place.
That people die, but poetry lives on.
Like, in sonnet 55, Shakespeare writes,
“Not marble nor the gilded monuments of princes shall outlast this powerful rhyme
but you shall shine more bright in these contents than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.”
And yet, quick side note, Shakespeare talks about how bright this young man’s memory will shine,
uuh, but we know nothing about him!
The poetry may last, but people still don’t.
So, OK, let’s move on to sonnet 18.
Now if you’ve seen Shakespeare in Love, you know that Shakespeare wrote this for Gwyneth Paltrow.
No. He didn’t.
In ‘Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day,’ the thee in question is that mysterious young man.
Basically, Sonnet 18 is one big extended metaphor.
But the hook is that it’s a metaphor that the poet admits isn’t especially successful.
Yes, the poet could compare his beloved to a summer’s day, but it turns out this comparison isn’t really apt.
Like, the beloved is nicer than a summer’s day.
The beloved has better weather.
(Really? Better weather? Well, I guess this was England, so, yeah. Let’s just go with it)
And there’s always sometimes lousy about summer days —
they’re too hot or they’re windy or if they’re perfect, they’re over too quickly.
But that’s not going to be the case with the beloved, because just like in sonnet 55,
the poet is going to immortalize the beloved in THIS VERY POEM.
Thereby he will make the young man perfect eternally.
Like, a summer day might end, but the beauty of the beloved is going to go on forever
“So long as men can breathe or eyes can see.”
And this wasn’t just, like, Shakespeare being arrogant.
It was a pretty common trope of Elizabethan verse,
this idea that human life is temporary, but that poetry is forever.
You have to remember, this was a time in human history where mortality was extremely common at all ages.
It’s not like the vast majority of people died old.
There was a lot of chance involved.
So it makes sense to draw a distinction between the constant changing of nature’s seasons,
versus the eternality of lines of poetry.
In the end, a poem that starts out saying that the beloved is not like a summer’s day,
turns out to be a poem in praise not of the beloved, or of summer, but of poetry itself.
But there’s one more brilliant twist in the poem.
I mean, look at the end, future looking verbs like
“shall not fade” and “nor shall brag” give way to ones in the conditional like,
“can read” and “can see” and then to the present tense of “lives” and “gives.”
So maybe Shakespeare is admitting that poetry has its own limits, too?
And then there’s Sonnet 116, which is the one you’re most likely to hear at someone’s wedding.
This one is also addressed to the young man.
This is in some ways the high point of Shakespeare’s love poetry,
although it’s perhaps a more insecure poem than it seems at first.
Here it’s not poetry that’s the greatest thing ever,
although Shakespeare definitely gives a hat tip to his own writing, but love itself.
Now, just as in Sonnet 18, there’s worry over the impermanence of human life and beauty,
how “rosy lips and cheeks” will be undone by time and death.
But hey, that won’t matter because love will last eternally or at least until “the edge of doom”
That’s what Shakespeare hopes, anyway.
But maybe he isn’t certain, because he’s playing some games with the language here,
and he’s showing how easily change and fickleness can happen.
Like, when you look at, or read the poem, notice how easily words change in it
— alters to alteration, remover to remove.
Maybe he’s worried that love might change, too.
I mean, look at that first line, “Love is not love,” and look at all the nos and nors and nevers in the poem.
But in the end, he does come to an emphatic conclusion.
He says that if all the things he’s said about love are in error “I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”
Obviously, he has written, and men have loved. So his defense of love is solid, right?
Well, but then remember the line, “Love is not love”?
There are all kinds of explorations in Shakespeare’s work about what real love is.
But for me at least, the best line of the poem is when he writes that “love is not time’s fool.”
True love, to Shakespeare, is not beholden to time. It doesn’t answer to time. It somehow transcends time.
And lastly, let’s take a brief look at Sonnet 130, one of the ones addressed to the dark lady.
This sonnet is almost a parody, a send-up of Petrarch’s sonnets about the lovely Laura, whom he barely knew.
That weird Renaissance worship of the person you met just one time, 20 years ago,
and the constant exploration of every facet of their beauty, their mouth, their eyes, their cheeks, their hair.
It gets a little overwhelming.
In sonnet 130, Shakespeare simultaneously does that, and refuses to do it.
Like, If he suggested that a summer’s day wasn’t a good enough descriptor of his beloved,
now he’s suggesting that if you compare his mistress to any of the typical stuff
—suns, roses, perfume— she’s going to fall very short.
Her breasts are the color of dun, her hair is like black wires, sometimes her breath smells.
This strange descriptive aggression characterizes many of the late sonnets,
where the poet seems to feel ashamed about being attracted to this woman.
But again, there’s a twist in the end, as there is with every good sonnet’s final couplet.
“And yet by heaven I think my love as rare/ As any she belied by false compare.”
Shakespeare isn’t saying, look, my mistress has onion breath.
Instead, the speaker is instead saying, all of you other poets have been exaggerating like crazy including past me.
If you were actually going to describe people realistically, his lover would be as beautiful as any other.
So take that, coral and perfume, and summer days.
And for me at least, that humanization of the romantic other is more romantic,
and ultimately more loving than any summer’s day.
And plus, she’s gonna get to live forever!
Well, not actually. Because we’re all going to die.
Even the species is going to cease to exist.
Thanks for watching Crash Course Literature. See you next week.
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This post was previously published on YouTube.