Monday, April 23, 2012

The solace of sonnets

NOTE: this post is written in response to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's Happy Birthday Shakespeare project

Shakespeare's mistress, aka "The Dark Lady" was a raging bitch. I know because Shakespeare says so, many times. Here's an example in Sonnet 131:
Thou art as tyrannous, so as thou art,
As those whose beauties proudly make them cruel;
For well thou know'st to my dear doting heart
Thou art the fairest and most precious jewel.
Yet in good faith some say that thee behold,
Thy face hath not the power to make love groan;
To say they err, I dare not be so bold,
Although I swear it to my self alone.
And to be sure that is not false I swear,
A thousand groans but thinking on thy face,
One on another's neck do witness bear
Thy black is fairest in my judgment's place.
In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds,
And thence this slander as I think proceeds.
He says that although she is not generally considered beautiful, he thinks so, but she behaves badly: "In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds. And thence this slander as I think proceeds."

It's interesting to note the legalese of the last line - saying anything negative about her is slanderous, except in reference to her bad deeds - that charge hasn't been thrown out of court.

In other sonnets he mentions she's cheating on him; she looks at other men when they are together; she lies all the time; and she's not even beautiful (he - says - that - alot.)

And yet he can't stop loving her.

The same thing happened to me. I came to love a guy with whom I worked on several theatre projects, although initially I didn't think he was attractive. During our final project together I realized he possessed some nasty traits, and even nastier friends, and when I called him out on some bad behavior his response was not to admit wrong-doing and apologize, his response was to stop speaking to me.

Logically what I should have done was shut down all tender feelings, immediately, and consider myself well rid of him. But instead I was in anguish for weeks.

During this time I happened to read an article on Shakespeare's sonnets, which I had never thought about much before - I'd only cared about his plays. And as I read about the "Dark Lady" sonnets I realized: Shakespeare understood exactly what I was going through.

You can't get a more accurate representation of the self-loathing that comes from realizing you love someone you don't like than Sonnet 147.
My love is as a fever longing still,
For that which longer nurseth the disease;
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now Reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen's are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed;
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.
He says it right there - reason, which he compares to a physician, is gone and he's consigned to utter irrationality: "For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright, Who art as black as hell, as dark as night."

It's a bad, bad feeling.

The Dark Lady sonnets are generally considered to be 127 - 152. The one that inspired me most is Sonnet 151 an ode to the triumph of erotic desire over all:
Love is too young to know what conscience is,
Yet who knows not conscience is born of love?
Then gentle cheater urge not my amiss,
Lest guilty of my faults thy sweet self prove.
For thou betraying me, I do betray
My nobler part to my gross body's treason,
My soul doth tell my body that he may,
Triumph in love, flesh stays no farther reason,
But rising at thy name doth point out thee,
As his triumphant prize, proud of this pride,
He is contented thy poor drudge to be,
To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.
No want of conscience hold it that I call,
Her love, for whose dear love I rise and fall.
I found his references to penile hydraulics, in the sixteenth century yet, most impressive. I'd never written a poem but 151 made me want to try my own sonnet:
My hopes drown on the bottom of the bay.
Brooding, I lie alone on a stark shore.
Beaten down by the predictable fray,
Prostrated I will never see you more.
I blame myself for my poor judgement: how
I dismissed any bad weather report;
The ill-starred forecastle of your port bow;
Your inability to find a port.
But still the white-foam-spraying dreams remain,
Sweating a sad tormented yearning girl.
Admitting that I may be quite insane
Again I search the oyster for the pearl.
No longer Gräfenberg the place will be -
The letter will forever stand for thee.  
The bit about the oyster and pearl is perhaps the most obvious part, but "sweating" and "Grafenberg" are also sexual references. It's not especially good, but I found it hugely diverting to write, and any time not thinking about a person I wanted to forget but instead on the rigors of a Shakespearean sonnet was better spent. It was an absorbing challenge to express my emotions within the discipline of fourteen lines of ten syllables with abab-cdcd - efef-gg rhyme scheme - read more about the form here. I admit I often ignored the unstressed-stressed syllable rule, but Shakespeare ignored it plenty of times too.

After the diversion of writing poetry you have the additional benefit of a completed poem you can recite in your head many times like a prayer to drive out evil spirits.

I wrote 110+ sonnets over the course of three and a half years. I know, I know, three and a half years, that's an absurdly long time to get over unrequited love. After I wrote the first ten, I thought I was done and the healing process was complete, but the desire to wring every drop of poison from my soul drove me on for much longer than I ever would have predicted.

On several occasions I borrowed lines from Shakespeare's plays:
Oh, how much I loved you! And even now
I feel echoes of relentless passion
That ripped through my life, and still recall how
Foolish I was and how you came to shun
Me, and my crime: loving excessively.
It was most unwisely done on my part,
But if wisely done, is it love truly?
That crazy reckless wanton fool, the Heart
Cannot else - t'is its only enjoyment
To throw itself into a high-speed fan.
Oh, it does make love to this employment!
Will never make a well-considered plan.
And I, too weak to prevent heart-breaking,
Entranced by visions of your love-making.  
If you know Shakespeare's plays you may recognize "make love to this employment" is a reference to this section from HAMLET:
So Guildenstern and Rosencrantz go to't.

Why, man, they did make love to this employment,
They are not near my conscience. Their defeat
Does by their own insinuation grow.
'Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes
Between the pass and fell incensèd points
Of mighty opposites.
A pretty unexpectedly earthy way to put it, but then that's why he's Shakespeare. I also borrowed from AS YOU LIKE IT, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM and OTHELLO. 

I don't plan to quit my day job and become a poet (although really nobody can make a living as a poet anymore), the main purpose of my sonnets was therapy. Like Shakespeare's Dark Lady, they may not be objectively beautiful, but they're beautiful to me. And in the spirit of Sonnet 151:
The passionate and ardent amoureuse
Best longs to see, blood-engorgéd, her man's
Virile member - oh she cannot refuse
Its cock-sure charms, the king of all organs,
And most exquisite and beauteous sight
To put fantastic sunsets all to shame,
With pinks and purples, his, in dusky light.
Involuntarily she calls his name
His darling sacred name and reaches out
To caress veracity's own token,
The luscious swollen token of no-doubt -
His approval manifest unspoken.
Oh! Longing longing in futility,
He will not rouse the staff of life for me.
Although Shakespeare was a professional poet, I suspect that getting all his frustration, self-loathing, lust and anguish out on paper benefited his emotional health too. But certainly he knew his work was good - he mentioned on several occasions that his sonnets would be immortal, as in Sonnet 107:
Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul,
Of the wide world, dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.
The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,
And the sad augurs mock their own presage,
Incertainties now crown themselves assured,
And peace proclaims olives of endless age.
Now with the drops of this most balmy time,
My love looks fresh, and death to me subscribes,
Since spite of him I'll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o'er dull and speechless tribes.
And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
When tyrants' crests and tombs of brass are spent.
It's immodest as all get-out, but he was right - his sonnets did stand the test of time. And I'm grateful they did.