11 July 2006

Fun With Shakespeare's Sonnets! Sonnet 94

This is the second in a series that closely reads several of Bill's sonnet cycle. The first is over here. Apologies to Helen Vendler, to whom I owe most of what is good in here.

Sonnet 94

They that have pow’r to hurt, and will do none, Q1
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmovéd, cold, and to temptation slow—
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces, Q2
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flow’r is to the summer sweet, Q3
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flow’r with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their own deeds; C
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

What is going on in this strange sonnet to the young man?. First of all, this is a rare example in the cycle of an entirely impersonal sonnet—there is no mention of “I,” “you,” “we,” “our,” or the rival poets. There is a sense that pronouns are being studiously avoided and a cautious strategy employed. In Q1 and Q2, we only have an enigmatic description of some sort of, it seems, exemplary person; but what sort of person is this who could do harm, who exercises that power over someone, or someones, yet never does so? What does it mean to move others—is it his beauty that gives him this second power? But the third line describes something more peculiar in that they that have this power are like “stone” and in the fourth line are described as “cold.” Being stone-like and cold aren’t usually positive qualities; moreover, these people are “slow” to temptation, not immune to it. Q2 gives the screw another turn with the not-quite-so-logically derived revelation that they “rightly” are in the good graces of god, or heaven, and are the conservers or caretakers of nature’s bounty, only to describe another odd quality: they are in complete control of how they appear, of their emotions, their faces; yet, others who may be excellent themselves, do not own that excellence as a lord, but only mind it, as a butler or steward would.

Now, as if this weren’t weird enough, in Q3, the speaker suddenly, bafflingly, changes gears altogether, and considers the image of a flower, which suggests that something about the argument in the first eight lines may be intractable or insoluble. Perhaps this complex depiction of the social realm and this “they” that live in it has become confused even for the speaker, and so he revels in the fantasy that the young man (we assume) is a flower, a thing to enjoy for its beauty, but that gives nothing back, since “to itself it only live and die,” no matter how sweet the summer may find it. The speaker clearly has mixed feelings about his subject, since his tenderness moves him to go from a portrait of a sort of person to a description of a flower. But we’ve already seen this back and forth in Q1 and Q2: are these powerful people good (they spare their power, are in favor with heaven, and responsible for nature), or are they bad somehow (they are deceptive in their appearance, cold, and unmoved by others)? The flower is also aloof, but it is free from the problem of doing something, instead, it “meets” with a base infection. It’s not the flower’s fault if it becomes infected—and here we return again to the discourse of medicine, sickness, disease, and infection that reappears constantly in the Sonnets. Furthermore, the event with the flower is a subjunctive one, an if/then statement of possibility and result, not present certainty: the flower in question isn’t infected, but if it should be, even a weed has more dignity. An ambiguity, a doubt, however, about the powerful person in Q1 and Q2 insinuates itself from the tension among the words “doing”/”showing,” “cold,” “unmoved,” and “lords and owners of their faces”: there is an implied discrepancy between appearance and action here. Similarly, while the delicacy of the flower quatrain shifts the register away from the stern social dimension, and while an innocent flower is said to have its infection thrust upon it unlike in the deeds-based moral space of human free will, the rapid degeneration demonstrated by “flow’r,” “base,” “infection” (line 11) “basest” (12), “sourest” (13), “fester,” “smell,” “worse,” and “weeds” (14) makes the qualification of “to temptation slow” (4) seem disbelieved even as it is uttered.

We must now look closely at the couplet (C), since it, and uniquely so among these sonnets, splits itself thematically as the sonnet itself does. The first couplet line resolves Q1 and Q2 (the description of the, until this point in the sonnet, irreproachable person) while the second half of the couplet does the same with Q3 (the innocent flower, now lily (a famous symbol of purity), that might meet with infection). Yet there is an overlap in that “sweet,” which has only been applied to the flower, now describes a thing that can do (i.e. a person), that has a will and the power of action (“deeds”), and therefore, the power to hurt described in the first line. Also, superlatives appear for the first time in “sweetest” and “sourest,” and while the couplet at first appears to split its two lines into individual commentaries on the two sections of the poem, the superlatives join the couplet into a unit analogy: as sweetest turns sourest by deeds, so do lilies that fester smell worse than weeds (not festered lilies, but lilies that almost seem to have chosen to fester). We can only conclude that the unspecified, undone “shown” thing in line 2 has been done.

Historically, this sonnet was interpreted as a detached observation on human nature, but it is clearly, and in the context of the surrounding sonnets, a direct address to the young man, who has done something very wrong to the speaker—the power to hurt finds its object in the sonnet speaker himself. In this light, the sonnet is a demanding admonishment, offering an image of someone the young man could have been if he had chosen, and even offering the flower as an exemplary image of innocence and beauty, only to sabotage any praise the sonnet might have given by way of the many, tiny, intricate logical explosions within the sonnet structure that destroy all tribute in the way a building is brought down in demolition. So, on the surface, though the speaker seems to offer a moral description that could apply to anyone, he intends his message for only one person’s eyes. Yet, touchingly, the speaker appears unable to express his hurt or anger directly; he cannot even bring himself into the frame with “I” or the young man with “you”—intimacy seems dead in the universe of this sonnet. Instead, the speaker expresses his disappointment in generalities, and so a despairing impotence pervades the poem, and the true import only shimmers and shivers among the play of words and meanings, and defines itself in the backwards revising gaze of the couplet. We confirm the final sense of the poem’s meaning in sonnet 95, where the unnamed “deeds” of 94 erupt as “vices” and “sins,” and where “evil” resonates phonemically throughout, as though the frustration of being unable to say how the speaker truly feels in the poem in question has finally surged forth into 95.

That was so cool, don't you simply just have to read the first one? I won't be mad if you don't....

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