We call love an emotion, but it is distinct from feelings, such as sadness or anger. In fact, while we can be said to “feel” love, or “feel in love,” when one compares such a sensation with sadness or anger, love suddenly thrusts itself into relief. Love is, properly speaking, an attachment, a relation, a configuration, a projection, and a denial; love has the properties of reflection, absorption, and immersion. Is sadness like this? No. Instead, we notice that something odd occurs when love is around, to wit, that a phenomenon of love is sadness, and also anger—loving someone sometimes makes us sad, sometimes angry. Yet it is difficult to imagine the converse and love coming out of the experience of sadness. Is there any other emotion that produces so many other emotions? And what is the strange nature of love that it can make us feel exhilarated or depressed, whole or fragmented, connected or terribly alone? We'll let this musing stand for a moment and veer into a more literary and less speculative zone.
I recently had the opportunity to work on a collection of short plays called Love’s Fire, in which seven playwrights were asked to each write a play based on a Shakespeare sonnet. (NOTE: I will post another time on my thoughts regarding the deathless Bard, or as I like to call him The Shakespeare-which-is-not-one.) Though I’ve read through the Sonnets off and on since college, I never took too much care with them until this project—man, was I in for a surprise. I used online research, a couple books, and especially Helen Vendler’s monumental The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, for my resources. (Vendler’s book is probably the best I’ve seen on the Sonnets, and it works incrementally: the more you read the sonnets and her commentaries on them, the more you understand how crazy and beautiful the whole collection is—and therefore the more you understand what a fucked-up, twisted freak Shakespeare was.)
For a quick review of what you may have forgotten or never learned: the sonnet is a fourteen-line iambic pentameter medieval poetic form initiated by the Italians in the 14th century and brought to
Shakespeare came to the form after its popularity had begun to fade, and when his Sonnets were published in 1609, they sold poorly and received little critical attention for about two centuries. But what a complex and difficult treasure trove the Sonnets has turned out to be. Ever the innovator, Shakespeare performs a poetic sleight-of-hand so that the beloved addressed in these poems is not the virtuous woman of tradition but, respectively, a frivolous fickle young man and a promiscuous not-very-beautiful Dark Lady. Furthermore, Shakespeare takes the reader on an intellectual, emotional rollercoaster never seen in the literature before or since. The speaker (whom we distinguish from his author) of the 154 poems not only celebrates his beloved, but expresses his lust, frustration, impatience, anger, disappointment, possessiveness, forgiveness, despair, self-mocking, and even self-loathing. (Imagine the mind that conceives a love poem should begin, not “Be wise as though art beautiful,” but “Be wise as thou art cruel.”) Until a reader immerses himself in the cycle, the truly twisted nature of the Sonnets remains obscure. To read them is a disorienting experience that can leave a person feeling a bit demented, but he might also find it exciting to encounter a tightly-controlled fourteen line lyric on the frightening desire for control that results in the loss of it, in one case (sonnet 75), or in another, a not-so-veiled threat wrapped in a humiliating plea to the Dark Lady to pretend to love the speaker even though she has found love elsewhere (140). Many of the effects we attribute to love appear in these poems, and Shakespeare’s fearlessness in exploring the exquisite complexity, strangeness, and troubling dark places of love and desire make the Sonnets one of Shakespeare’s—and literature’s—great achievements.
So, this is the first installment in a short series of pieces (re)visiting a few of the sonnets of William Shakespeare. Attributed to me. Apologies to Helen Vendler.
So are you to my thoughts as food to life, Q1
Or as sweet seasoned showers are to the ground;
And for the peace of you I hold such strife
As 'twixt a miser and his wealth is found:
Now proud as an enjoyer, and anon Q2
Doubting the filching age will steal his treasure;
Now counting best to be with you alone,
Then bettered that the world might see my pleasure:
Sometime all full with feasting on your sight, Q3
And by and by clean starved for a look;
Possessing or pursuing no delight
Save what is had, or must from you be took.
Thus do I pine and surfeit day by day, C
Or gluttoning on all, or all away.
This relatively early sonnet to the young man is remarkable for its frenetic turnover of metaphors, as though the impassioned excitement of the speaker were forcing him to jump from one image to the next, even as he puts on casual airs with "now," "anon," "now," "then," "sometime," and "by and by." But it cleverly uncovers the dark obsessiveness of this love by shifting from a beautiful, elevated depiction of the young man as the thing that gives the speaker's thoughts life (doubled in the image of life-giving rain) in Q1, to a portrayal of him as the coins coveted by a possessive miser in Q2 [the "filching age" has been interpreted as a reference to the rival poet(s), from whom the speaker wants to keep the young man], to the frightening description of the speaker as a glutton, starved and feasting on the young man, possessing him even by force ("or must from you be took") in Q3. We start with a grateful plenty that turns into desperate acts of control and bewildering wildly vacillating sensations of starvation and overindulged satiety. The speaker has no delight except in the young man, and waits for what the young man will give him—or what must be taken. These fantasies of possession, control, and absorption are belied by the depiction in the sonnet of the pursuit of the young man by the speaker, not his ownership of him, because the young man clearly comes and goes as he pleases, thus starving the speaker for another look. The nature of their relationship is implied with sexualized words ("enjoyer", "treasure", "pursuing", "possessing", "had") and there is a sense of the immoral, or an ironized recognition of it, by the inclusion of the deadly sins: avarice, pride, gluttony, explicitly, and the implication of lust and envy. Finally, it is the lack of control that the sonnet depicts so forcefully not just in the frantic grasping and discarding of metaphors, but in their ultimate form as degraded bodily ravenousness. The final couplet not only says, to paraphrase, that the speaker pines and overindulges, or overeats everything or has nothing at all ("all away"), but implies the desire of the speaker to glutton on the young man until there is nothing left of him ("gluttoning… all away")—to love him so furiously that he destroys the young man entirely. In sum, the speaker seems disgusted, frightened, embarrassed, and guilty about his dependence on the young man, and this expresses itself in a kind of panicked rage.