It seems that yesterday was National Poetry Day. Some years ago I did try to get involved in this, having been told that our local library was going to be mounting a display. Moved by a certain sense of duty to my poor publisher, I went along and enquired rather diffidently if they’d like to feature some of my own work, you know, local poet and all that. The kindly librarian explained to me that really her wall-space was reserved for more established names: Pam Ayres, Maya Angelou, Roger McGough, Shakespeare…. I was not surprised, of course, but I did feel the need to remind myself of exactly what this Shakespeare fellow had done to merit a place in such distinguished company. Back home I picked up my ‘Lear’ and it opened at this passage, where the old king has just been reconciled with his daughter and the poetry gathers in a pool of serenity before its last plunge over the brink of tragedy. And I thought to myself oh well, fair enough.
From ‘King Lear’, Act V, Scene 3
Lear: ‘No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon’.
It is easy to become mesmerised by the eloquence and technical accomplishment of Shakespeare’s Sonnets at the expense of paying sufficient attention to what is actually being said. For these are not comfortable poems. In some cases they are hardly love poems at all, less a celebration of that emotion than a forensic dissection of it, and if human affection is there it often seems to ride on dark undercurrents of doubt, despair, jealousy and even revulsion. This sonnet, for example, is masterly as a poem, but what it actually says seems rather odd. How exactly are we to take the closing couplet? ‘When I’m dead, just forget about me: you know what people are like and I don’t want them making fun of you on account of some playwright chap having written poems about you’. If so, this sentiment sits strangely with the more rhetorical assertions in other of the sonnets about the loved one being forever celebrated in the poet’s eternal lines. Yet maybe this one comes closer to expressing the fundamental insecurity at the heart of the sonnets, that does much to give them their tantalising power. [The next sonnet in the sequence, 72, does develop the theme of this one but hardly elucidates it, losing itself in the verbal quibbling that the Bard so often defaults to, a kind of idling mode while he waits to get into gear again].
No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that write it; for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O, if, I say, you look upon this verse
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse,
But let your love even with my life decay,
Lest the wise world should look into your moan
And mock you with me after I am gone.