The Possible Cures Of Love Melancholy English Literature Essay

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As far as Elizabethan sonnet sequences are concerned, it has been said earlier that the eyes of the mistress implemented love's wound into the lover's heart and that, as this wound soared the poet turned melancholy. Yet, most surprisingly, each and every time, it is precisely the mistress who is presented as the only possible cure for the lover's melancholia. Most often, indeed, the cure springs from the intervention of her eye which is expected to show pity. This is rendered perfectly visible in Spenser's Amoretti.

And kill with looks as Cockatrices doe:

But him that at your footstool humbled lies,

With mercifull regard, give mercy too. (Amoretti: 49,9-12)

Here it is the mistress who may heal the poet's wound. Smith also shows it well enough in his Chloris as he exclaims,

But winged Love's impartial cruel wound,

Which in my hart is ever permanent,

Until my Chloris maketh me whole and sound (Chloris : 11,5-8)

Exactly as Gisèle Venet puts it in the quotation reproduced earlier, love's wound can be healed by the mistress. As Fletcher writes it, "You gave me the wound and can the hurt remove" (Licia: 39,4). This may, however, sound quite surprising. Even though, as it has been demonstrated before, melancholia is defined through the consistent medical framework promoted by the Galenists, its cure definitely partakes of Paracelisanism as it clearly uses the motto "likes cure likes" as an axiom. This is perfectly perceptible, for instance, in Barnes's Parthenophil and Parthenophe, as the speaker exclaims,

Then (from her Venus, and bright Mercury,

My heaven's clear planets), did She shoot such blazes

As did infuse, with heat's extremity,

Mine heart, which on despair's bare pasture grazes.

Then like the Scorpion, did She deadly sting me;

And with a pleasing poison pierced me!

Which, to these utmost sobs of death, did bring me,

And, through my soul's faint sinews, searched me.

Yet might She cure me with the Scorpion's Oil. (Parthenophil and Parthenophe: 39, 1-8)

Here Barnes introduced the eye motif through his reference to the Venus and Mercury. Let it be reminded that Elizabethan writers used to refer to the eyes of their beloved through this metaphor. For them, the light emanating from their mistress's eyes was indeed comparable with the dark lightness of stars and planets, "Those two starres in Stella's face" writes Sidney (Astrophel and Stella: 26,14). The wound is here inoculated in Parthenophil's heart by Parthenophe's eyes. He compares love's wound to that of a scorpion, which "pierced" him with its "pleasing poison". Melancholia is again contemplated here in terms of voluptas dolendi. Yet, once more, the poet's only possible cure is the very cause of his disease: the mistress herself. She may cure the "scorpion" wound she inoculated in Parthenophil's heart "with the Scorpion's Oil". Here again, like cures like.

Let it be said that Burton himself introduces the same image in the opening pages of his treatise. As he explains the reasons and rationale of his writing in his notice to the reader, he asserts,

[A]s he that is stung with a scorpion, I would expel clavum clavo, comfort one sorrow with another, idleness with idleness, ut ex viperâ Theriacum, make an antidote out of that which was the prime cause of my disease. (Burton, 1854 [1621]:5)

A similar treatment is also presented in Smith's Chloris as the poet asserts, "She like the scorpion gave me a wound; / And like the scorpion she must make me sound" (Chloris: 19,13-4). Furthermore, Shakespeare also knew of this tradition as he introduces the same simile in Cymbeline. In Act 5, Cornelius asserts,

Your daughter, whom she bore in hand to love 

With such integrity, she did confess 

Was as a scorpion to her sight; whose life, 

But that her flight prevented it, she had 

Ta'en off by poison. (Cymbeline, 5.5.)

Here again, sight is important. The scorpion metaphorically features both the cause of trouble "a scorpion to her sight" and the active principle of the remedy which "take[s] off" the pain. The young lady has indeed annihilated the effects of the metaphorical scorpion's venim "by poison".

Now let it be said that, in Lodge's Phillis, this Paracelisan theory is even more clearly exposed,

As when two raging venoms are united,

Which of themselves dissevered life would sever,

The sickly wretch of sickness is acquitted

Which else should die, or pine in torments ever. (Phillis: 18, 1-4)

Daniel's Delia, unfolds around a similar image. Furthermore, the relation between the lover's melancholia and the eye is still emphasised here:

Love was the flame that fired me so neere;

The Dart transpearsing were those Christall eyes.

Strong is the net and fervent is the flame;

Deepe is the wounde, my sighes doe well report:

Yet do I love, adore and praise the same

That holds, that burns, that wounds me in this sort.

[...] [...] [...] [...]

Yet least long travailes be above my strength,

Good Delia, lose, quench, heale me now at length. (Delia: 14,3-8;13-14)

Daniel reintroduces the "darting-eye" metaphor and asserts that only "Good Delia" is able to heal the wound. The intermingling in these sequences of two traditionally opposed medical theories in relation with the notion of sight and love-sickness is surprising. It is another Elizabethan specificity which does not appear in earlier English verse. This poetic treatment springs from the very particular cultural context of Elizabethan England which, as Debus demonstrates it, was the only country in Europe where such a compromise between Paracelisanism and Galenism was ever achieved (Debus, 1960).

3.1.2. Causes and Motives of Sonnet Writing

In many Elizabethan sequences, sonnet writing appears as a means to convince the lady to administering the cure. For instance, in the first sonnet of his Astrophel and Stella, Sidney asserts that he "sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe" (1,5). The public exposition of the lover's pain and melancholia seems, indeed, a way to seduce the woman he loves,

Loving in truth, and faine in verse my love to show,

That she (dear she) might take some pleasure of my paine :

Pleasure might cause her reade, reading might make her know,

Knowledge might pitie winne, and pitie grace obtaine. (Astrophel and Stella : 1,1-4)

This informs us well enough as to the motivations of sonnet writing. Indeed, as Berowne has it in Love's Labour's Lost, "Fiery numbers" are the results of the poet's "sundry contemplation" before the ungraspable quality of feminine beauty (4.3.327-29). This idea is later synthesised as he exclaims, "Never durst a poet touch a pen to write / until his ink were tempered with love's sighs" (4.3.343). Throughout the Elizabethan sonnet sequences, the sonnet form is always envisaged as that kind of poetic expression unremittingly disclosing "the moodes and pangs of louers" as Puttenham has it in his Arte of English Poesie (1589:36). Even if the genre can to be construed as disclosing nothing but a fiction, sometimes even, as a "mere literary exercise" as Frye has it (1962:27), it is nevertheless constantly presented as a serious attempt to seduce or to obtain pity from the lady in order to heal the damaging wound her eyes created in the lover's heart. This train of thought is perfectly perceptible in most Elizabethan sonnet sequences. For instance, in Delia, Daniel exclaims,

These plaintive verse, the Posts of my desire,

Which haste for succour to her slowe regard,

Beare not report of any slender fire,

Forging a griefe to winn a fame's reward.

[...] [...] [...] [...] [...] [...]

My humble accents beare the Olive bough

Of intercession to a tyrant's will. (Delia: 4,1-4;11-2)

Whereas Spenser succeeds, as the epithalamion proves it, to obtain his mistress's favours, Daniel fails. He thus concludes his sequence with these words,

These tributarie plaints fraught with desire

I send those eyes, the cabinets of love

The Paradice whereto my hopes aspire,

From out this hell, which mine afflictions prove:

Wherein I thus do live cast downe from myrth,

Pensive alone, none but dispaire about mee;

My joyes abortive, perrisht at their birth,

My cares long liv'd, and will not die without mee.

This is my state, and Delia's hart is such;

I say no more, I feare I said too much. (Delia: 55, 5-14)

Here his sonnets failed to conquer Delia's stony heart, and therefore, the cathartic value of the whole poetic process has been negated. The lover remains melancholy, and the description he offers of his "state", which is highly reminiscent of Nicholas Breton's account of his own experience in Melancholike Humours, proves it well enough.

Muse of sadness, neere deaths fashion,

Too neere madnesse, write my passion.

Paines possesse mee, sorrows spill me,

Cares distress me, all would kill mee.

Hopes have faild me, Fortune foild mee,

Feares have quaild me, all have spoild mee.

Woes have worne mee, sighes have soakt mee,

Thoughts have torne mee, all have broke mee.

Beauty strooke me, love hath catcht mee,

Death hath tooke mee, all dispatcht mee. (Breton, 1929 [1600] : 14)

Daniel's verse is indeed most interesting. Here, he qualifies his sonnets as "those eyes" he sent as to make Delia see in his verse the pain and the melancholia she afflicted him with. This same motive of writing can be found in Sidney, Spenser and indeed, most Elizabethan sequences. Therefore, the Elizabethan sonnet does not merely partake of the lyric or epideixis, it is rather presented by the poets as a motivated form of verse, a pragmatic means to obtain the mistress's favours. The lady inoculated love's wound with her eyes, and, in order to seduce her and consequently heal the wound, the lover sends her his sonnets, his "fiery numbers" (Love's Labour's Lost, 4.3.329), his poetic "eyes" (Delia: 55,6).

3.2. "Make you live yourself in the eyes of men"

Shakespeare's Prompting Quill

3.2.1. Frost in the Mirror

From the previous assessment we learn that Elizabethan sonneteers presented their "fiery numbers" (Love's Labour's Lost, 4.3.329) as so many attempts to cure their melancholia. The lyrical-selves of Sidney, Drayton, Griffin, Daniel or Spenser present their sonnets as a means to show to their mistress the extent of their grief in order to have her see the richness of their love and the impact of the wound she inoculated in them. Nevertheless, it has been demonstrated so far that the principal source of the poet's melancholia in the Sonnets spring from absentia, and his anticipation of it. It has been said, also, that Time and Death were epitomes of absentia which is Love's nemesis.

Like other Elizabethan sonneteers, Shakespeare writes in order to find a remedy for melancholia, but, because his melancholia springs from a different context, the rationale of its sonnet writing is different. This section will be dedicated to the procreation sonnets in which the poet unremittingly attempts to incite the Fair Youth to procreate, viz. to provide the world with a living copy of him. This process may very well be interpreted as a way to overcome the absentia imposed by Time. This argument is still made stronger when one considers the way the speaker addresses his motivations. He refuses to see the Youth's "image d[ying] with [him]". In other words, he wants to eternise the aesthetic emotion of love and to enable forthcoming generations to contemplate the artwork the Youth represents. As such, he incites him to "shift his place, for still the world enjoys it" (9,10) "to print more" and "not let that copy die" (11,14). The poet wants this beauty to continue to "live in the eyes of men" (16,12). In these sonnets (1 to 17), ocular images endorse a new meaning. As he intends to drive the Youth into giving to see his beauty in another, the poet uses treasures of imagination in order to defend his point.

Indeed, throughout these sonnets, the Youth's sense of sight is constantly put to the test. The poet unremittingly calls him to look upon himself objectively: "Lo, in the Orient, [...] So thou, thyself..." (7,1;13), "Mark how one string, sweet husband to another [...] Sings this to thee" (8,9;14), "Look whom she best endowed [...] and meant thereby / Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die." (11,11;13-14). Indeed, most of these sonnets follow a similar pattern: the poet draws from numerous examples in the objective world and calls the young man upon considering the similarities between these objects and himself. In other words, by means of this analogical modelling, he incites the Youth to look at himself indirectly, through the mirror of the world, as if from a distance. This train of thought is epitomised in sonnet 3 as this mirroring process explicitly permeates the sonnet.

Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest 

Now is the time that face should form another; 

Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest, 

Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother,

For where is she so fair whose unear'd womb 

Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry? 

Or who is he so fond will be the tomb 

Of his self-love, to stop posterity? 

Thou art thy mother's glass, and she in thee

Calls back the lovely April of her prime: 

So thou through windows of thine age shall see

Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time. 

But if thou live, remember'd not to be, 

Die single, and thine image dies with thee (3)

Here, the poet incites the young man to look at himself in the glass. He expects that this will lead to his recognition of the necessity for him to father children so that his beauty may be renewed in his offspring. He defends his point by a reference to the youth's mother whose beauty has been renewed in him. This kind of incentive is not typically Shakespearean. Indeed, other Elizabethan sonneteers used to introduce 'mirror' sonnets in their sequences. For instance, in Daniel's Delia, the poet asserts,

I once may see when yeres shall wreck my wrong,

When golden hayres shall change to silver wier:

And those bright rays that kindle all this fire

Shall faile in force their working not so stronge

[...] [...] [...] [...]

When if she grieve to gaze her in the glasse,

Which then presents her winter-withered hew,

Goe you, my verse, goe tell her what she was,

For what she was shee best shall finde in you. (Delia: 33,1-4 ; 9-12)

Here Daniel envisages the days when Delia will "grieve to gaze her in the glasse" because "Time's desire" would have "fade[d] those flowers that deckt her pride so long" (Delia: 33,7-8). Against that time he opposes his verse which will serve as a mirror to Delia and show her "what she was". Let it be remarked that time is here described as that force which will make Delia's eye-beams "fail[ing] in force".

Similarly, in Cynthia, Barnfield's male addressee is asked to look at himself in a mirror:

Sighing and sadly sitting by my Love,

He ask'd the cause of my hearts sorrowing,

Coniuring me by heavens eternall King

To tell the cause which me so much did move.

Compell'd: (quoth I) to thee I will confesse,

Love is the cause; and only love it is

That doth deprive me of my heavenly blisse.

Love is the paine that doth my heart opresse.

And what is she (quoth he) whom thou so'st love?

Looke in this glasse (quoth I) and there shalt thou see

The perfect form of my faelicitie.

When, thinking it would strange Magique prove,

He open'd it: and taking off the cover,

He straight perceived himself to be my Lover. (Cynthia : 11)

In both sonnets, the mirror serves the beloved's recognition. With Daniel, his very verse - his poetic "eyes" as it was said earlier - becomes a mirror in which Delia will, in the future, be able to look backward to her "flower, [her] glory passe" (35,14). In other words, she will recognise her past beauty in this mirror when this beauty will fade. This is a means for Daniel to have her recognising the value of his verse "not all unworthy" and his love, so that, when she will receive the scary "message from [her] glasse, / that teils the truth and saies that all is gone" (Delia: 36,3-4), she will "repent that [she] had scorn'd [his] teares" (Delia: 36,12;13). With Barnfield, the mirror - which in definitely not a magic one - enables the young man to recognise himself as the poet's lover. Whereas Daniel inscribes the process of recognition in the future, Barnfield inscribes it in the present. In sonnet 3, Shakespeare's treatment of the mirror image is very different. It both partakes of present and future and indeed, the Youth's mirror must be considered as that "glass that shows what future evils" (Measure for Measure, 2.2.96) are about to strike him. Present and Future are strongly correlated here and the dissolution to come is already perceptible in the poem's 'now-moment'.

3.2.2. The Life and Death of Narcissus

Furthermore, sonnet 3, with its reference to the Youth's "self-love" that will "stop posterity" (3,8) has to be construed as a sequel to sonnet 1 which reads,

But thou contracted to thine own bright eyes

Feed'st thy light's flame with self-substantial fuel.

Making a famine where abundance lies

Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel. (1, 4-5)

The echo with Venus and Adonis - Shakespeare's intensely personal adaptation of an Ovidian narrative displayed in the tenth book of the Metamorphosis - is stricking. Here, as the bawdy, sexually-solicitous and over-sweating goddess attempts to compromise the unresponsive adolescent into a passive rape, she exclaims:

Is thine own heart to thine own face affected? 

Can thy right hand seize love upon thy left? 

Then woo thyself, be of thyself rejected, 

Steal thine own freedom and complain on theft. 

Narcissus so himself himself forsook, 

And died to kiss his shadow in the brook. (Venus and Adonis, 157-62)

In both cases the young addressee is called upon to realise that his own preoccupation with his beauty, or rather, his visual recognition of it and the subsequent self-love it elicits, is going against nature's law. But even more important, perhaps, are the implications of this reference to Narcissus. The Epistle Arthur Golding adds to his 1567 translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses informs us well enough as to how the Elizabethans understood this myth. He writes,

Narcissus is of scornfulnesse and pryde a myrror cleere,

Where beawties fading vanitie most playnly may appeere. (Golding, 1904 [1567] : 3)

Interestingly enough, Ovid's Narcissus - who, as the Fair Youth, was "contracted to [his] own bright eyes" (1,4) and "died to kiss his shadow in the brook" (Venus and Adonis, 162) - is himself, in Golding's own words, considered as "a mirror cleere", one unremittingly recalling the "vanitie" of "beawtie". The contagion of this mirror image is indeed most interesting as it also springs with the same meaning in the Sonnets.

Furthermore, in her Paradoxia Epidemica, Rosalie Colie advances a most witty remark about mirrors. As she puts it,

The psychological effect of mirrors is that they both confirm and question individual identity - confirm by splitting the mirrored viewer into observer and observed, giving him the opportunity to view himself objectively, as other people do; question, by repeating him as if he were simply an object, not "himself", as he surely "knows" himself to be, by repeating himself as if he were not (as his inmost self insists he is) unique. (Colie, 1966: 355-6)

Colie's remark is essential as to our understanding of Shakespeare's sonnet 3 and perhaps, as to our understanding of all the procreation sonnets. Indeed, as the mirror operates a "splitting" of "the mirrored viewer into observer and observed" it redoubles the very act of seeing. As the youth "look[s] in [his] glass" (3,1) he is confronted to his own reflection watching him. This reflection is but the incarnation of a paradoxical non-being, a mere copy of the youth's appearance, his "face", but not of his essence. This clearly animates the dialectic of the palpable being and the non-existent, and that of essence and appearance which literally infuses the sequence. The young man looks in the glass at his own reflection and, this very reflection - which is not alive - looks back at him as through the very eyes of death. His epiphany before his own beauty, his own appearance, is therefore considered as a "tomb" (3,7).

Indeed, the glass reminds us of our mere quality of walking corpse, one depicted by Bolingbroke in Richard II as "this frail sepulchre of our flesh" (1.3.196). This train of thought was made most clearly explicit by countless artists in the Renaissance visual arts. See for instance Furtenagel's painting of the Burgkmairs reproduced at this end of this section. Therefore, in sonnet 3, the mirror-glass becomes a most powerful metonymy for the hour-glass: the one glass synthesises and visually represents the effects of the other. This thought quietly navigates throughout the sequence until its final blossoming in 126 and the poet's reference to "Time's fickle glass" (126,2). Furthermore, let it be said that a similar treatment appears in Pericles as the eponymous hero exclaims "For death remember'd should be like a mirror, / Who tells us life's but a breath, to trust it error" (Pericles, 1.1.45-6).

Nevertheless, this "splitting" referred to by Colie appears even more complex in sonnet 3. The Youth is not merely split between observer and observed, he is also a mirror himself: "thou art thy mother's glass" (3,9) as the poet's claims it. As such, this sonnet has to be construed as a series of recognitions. First, the young man is called upon to observe his reflection in the glass and to recognise his beauty. Second, he is expected to realise that he is both essence and appearance, not merely 'appearance' as his reflection - his "image" (3,14) - is. Finally, the poet's argues that the Youth sends the reflection of his mother and that he is therefore a mirror himself. In other words, this confrontation is expected to convince the Fair Youth "to form another" (3.2) face - viz. a reflection of himself in a living, three-dimensional mirror, one of flesh and bones, just like him, conveying essence as much as appearance: a child.

This, indeed, is central to the understanding of this sonnet and to the understanding of the motives of writing expressed in the procreation sonnets as a whole. Each of them serves as a mirror. By their witty plays on analogy they all intend to have the Youth looking at himself from a distance, to get him looking at death in the face and realising that he, also, as all those objects, will die. As such, all his procreation sonnets serve as a mirror for the vanity of beauty and indeed, the poet, who perfectly knows the Youth's narcissism, expects he will attempt to look at himself in another kind of mirror, the living, three-dimensional mirror a child incarnates.

Whereas other Elizabethan sonneteers present their verses as so many poetic "eyes" and expect them to show their grief and the extent of their love in order to seduce their mistress and to convince her into administering the cure to melancholia, the poet of the Sonnets has different motivations. His first sonnets are so many incentives to the Youth in order to procreate, to eternise his beauty, that is, the aesthetic experience which elicited the poet's love. They are mirrors held to the Youth which intend to give him to see the reasons why he should preserve this beauty by transferring it on another. We know that the poet's original melancholia springs from absentia but we also know that he is able to palliate to it through the trick envisaged in 47. Nevertheless, it has been argued earlier that Time and Death were considered as epitomes of absentia, as a threat to Love which cannot simply be healed with so simple a trick. If his procreation sonnets succeeded, i.e. if the youth had transferred his beauty onto another, the aesthetic experience would have been preserved and the poet's melancholy suffering altogether annihilated with the disappearing of the threat. This, however, was not the case.

3.3. "My gentle verse, which eyes not yet created shall o'er-read"

A Poetic Manifesto: Eternising the Aesthetic Experience

3.3.1. Consequences of a Failure

In the Sonnets, the poet fails to convince the Youth to procreate, and therefore, most surprisingly, the rationale of his sonnet writing changes. From sonnet 15 he envisages writing as a means to counteract Time's destructive power, and therefore, to annihilate the threat of absentia. He exclaims, "And all in war with time for love of you, / As he takes from you, I engraft you new." (15,13-14). The same idea appears in sonnet 100,

Rise, resty Muse, my love's sweet face survey,

If Time have any wrinkle graven there;

If any, be a satire to decay,

And make Time's spoils despised every where

Give my love fame faster than time wastes life,

So thou prevent'st his scythe and crooked knife. (100,9-14)

It has been said earlier that the poetic process underlying the poet's creation in his procreation sonnets was depicted in highly visual terms. The poet holds a mirror to the Young man - ie. he shows him reasons to procreate - in order to have him giving his beauty to see to others through his son. These sonnets were therefore designed as to show something to the Youth. To some extent, this is also true for the immortalisation sonnets, for instance, in sonnet 77 the poet exclaims,

Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear,

Thy dial how thy precious minutes waste,

The vacant leaves thy mind's imprint will bear,

And of this book, this learning mayst thou taste.

[...] [...] [...] [...]

Look what thy memory cannot contain,

Commit to these waste blanks, and thou shalt find

Those children nursed, delivered from thy brain,

To take a new acquaintance of thy mind.

These offices, so oft as thou wilt look,

Shall profit thee, and much enrich thy book. (77,1-4;9-14)

In this poem the speaker envisages the Youth's future: "thy glass will show", "thy mind's imprint will bear", "will truly show", "will give thee memory", "thou shalt find", "thou wilt look", "shalt profit thee". As he forecast the future, the poet gives a great importance to the notion of memory. Nevertheless, two different kinds of memories are envisaged in this poem. On the one hand, the memento mori (the glass, the dial) which - as reminders of the future - look forward to death and time's effects; on the other hand, the book (the sonnets), which will act as a reminder of the past and enable the Youth to look backward. The speaker asserts that, as the youth's beauty will disappear, the memories of his early days will vane: "Look what thy memory cannon contain". He envisages his sonnets as a future reminder of the youth's beauty. When the days of beauty will be gone, the book will recall them to the Youth: "Those children nursed" (the sonnets) will "deliver" memories to his "brain" and enable him to "take a new acquaintance" of his past beauty. In the couplet, the echo with the youth's "mind's imprint" is most explicit as to the meaning of "book". In other words, "so oft as" the dedicatee "will look" the material book the sonnets represent, he will enrich the "book" of his memory.

In many ways, this sonnet is highly reminiscent of the process at work in Daniel's Delia. His sonnet 33 provides a similar treatment. As the poet envisages the days when Delia's "beautie / [...] must yield up all to tyrant Time's desire" (Delia: 33,5;7), he presents his sonnets as a future reminder of that beauty,

Goe you, my verse, goe tell her what she was,

For what shee was shee best shall finde in you.

Your fierie heate lets not her glorie passe,

But (Phenix-like) shall make her love anew. (Delia: 33,11-4)

Nevertheless, Shakespeare's aim in the immortalisation sonnets is not only to show something to the Youth, but also to show his beauty to forthcoming generations. This is made particularly explicit in 81 as the speaker exclaims,

Or I shall live your epitaph to make,

Or you survive when I in earth am rotten;

[…] […]

Your name from hence immortal life shall have,

[…] […]

When you entombed in men's eyes shall lie.

Your monument shall be my gentle verse,

Which eyes not yet created shall o'er-read,

[…] […]

You still shall live -- such virtue hath my pen --

Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men. (81,1-2;5 ;8-10;13-14)

This sonnet is particularly interesting as it synthesises the aim of the poet. As he envisages the day when one of them will die, he defines his verse as an epitaph. Even though the poet will soon be forgotten after his death, the name of the Youth will become immortal because of his poetry, "such virtue hath [his] pen". His work will be a monument and survive the youth. In other words, poetry will implement the memory of the Youth in the eyes of forthcoming generations. The echo with sonnet 18 is self-evident,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,

 So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

 So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. (18,12-4)

As such, Shakespeare's Sonnets should be construed as a means to eternise the aesthetic experience of love, to give it to see to others and not only to the Youth. They are poetic "eyes" as those of Daniel, they give to see. Nevertheless, contrary to other Elizabethan sonneteers who intended to show the extent of the grief to their mistress in order to seduce her and obtain the cure for their melancholy suffering, Shakespeare, whose melancholy springs from his fear of absentia transforms the original aim of his Sonnets. They become a monument. In other words, he palliates his fear of absentia by transposing his aesthetic vision into the suspended, ever-present moment of a poetic emotion.

3.2.2. Poetry in Question: The Artistic Process

Nevertheless, in 17 he questions the ability of his verse to do so:

Who will believe my verse in time to come,

If it were filled with your most high deserts?

Though yet heaven knows it is but as a tomb

Which hides your life, and shows not half your parts.

If I could write the beauty of your eyes,

And in fresh numbers number all your graces,

The age to come would say 'This poet lies;

Such heavenly touches ne'er touched earthly faces.'

So should my papers, yellowed with their age,

Be scorned, like old men of less truth than tongue,

And your true rights be termed a poet's rage

And stretched metre of an antique song. (17-1-12)

Sonnet 54 informs us well enough as to the way the poet intends to overcome these difficulties.

O! how much more doth beauty beauteous seem

By that sweet ornament which truth doth give.

The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem

For that sweet odour, which doth in it live.

The canker blooms have full as deep a dye

As the perfumed tincture of the roses,

Hang on such thorns, and play as wantonly

When summer's breath their masked buds discloses:

But, for their virtue only is their show,

They live unwoo'd, and unrespected fade;

Die to themselves. Sweet roses do not so;

Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made: 

 And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth,

 When that shall vade, my verse distills your truth. (54)

Indeed, the aim of this sonnet is clear enough: as in 21, the poet at once asserts the fairness of his argument, "O let me true in love but truly write" (21,9) and features his attempts at preserving the beauty of the Fair Youth. He wraps up these notions in the same imagery he already used earlier in 5 and 6, that of the distillation of flowers. The idea is that his verse distils the quintessence of the young man exactly as distillation extracts the quintessence of "sweet roses" in order to make the "sweetest" perfumes (54,12). The poet's linguistic choices are most revealing here. He first presents the original principle, "roses", associated with an adjective, "sweet". But when it comes to presenting the results of the distillation process, the substantive "odours" is this time associated with a superlative, "sweetest". Distillation is therefore instituted as a process enabling already "sweet" things to become "sweetest". The essence of the original principle is kept but it is unpolluted, concentrated and exacerbated by poetry. What was already "better" is "still made better" (119,10). The sonnet itself therefore endorses a performative value as it literally distils and extract the quintessence of the words it displays: "beauty" becomes "beauteous" (54,1), "fair" (54,3) becomes "fairer" (54,3) and, through the simple trick of an extended polyptoton, "sweet" redoubles (54,9;10) and becomes "sweetest". In other words, poetry is presented as a means to extract the quintessence of the young man : "My verse distils your truth" (54,14) and to immortalise it in the poetic substratum. It becomes the "living record" of the Youth's "memory" (55,8).

The arrival of the Rival Poet in the sequence informs us as to the way this poetic distillation is performed. The poet unremittingly condemns the Rival's use of imitation. For him, his poetry is unfaithful to his subject.

And do so my love; yet when they have devised

What stained touches rhetoric can lend,

Thou truly fair, wert truly sympathised,

In true plain words by thy true-telling friend;

And their gross painting might better be used

Where cheeks need blood; in the it is abused. (82,9-14)

This sonnet opposes Shakespeare's art and that of the rival. It is very interesting as it opposes true art and artifice. The rival uses a poetics of praise, and so doing, he is unfaithful to his subject. He rather masks the young man in the "gross painting" (82,13) of a panegyric of his physical features, one that has no connection to the real. Shakespeare goes on with this painting metaphor and definitely establishes the climatic condemnation of these uses in 83.

I never saw that you did painting need,

And therefore to your fair no painting set;

I found, or thought I found, you did exceed

The barren tender of a poet's debt:

And therefore have I slept in your report,

That you yourself, being extant, well might show

How far a modern quill doth come too short,

Speaking of worth, what worth in you doth grow. 

This silence for my sin you did impute,

Which shall be most my glory being dumb;

For I impair not beauty being mute,

When others would give life, and bring a tomb.

There lives more life in one of your fair eyes

Than both your poets can in praise devise. (83)

Here Shakespeare asserts the simple truth of his verse. Whereas the Rival intends to "devise" (83,14) the living imitation of the youth's "fair eyes" and fails, our poet remains silent about it. He "impairs not beauty being mute" and as such, his text, clad up as it is with the constant halo of vagueness and smoke of mystery he creates around his characters, involve the reader's imagination. His Sonnets grant the young man with an eternal life within our eye, both our physical eye through the materiality of the text, but, and this is perhaps even more important, within our "mind's eye" as Hamlet calls it, that is, our imagination. Conversely, the Rival presents everything, claims everything real and as such, does not call for our imagination. It is therefore a "record" (55,8), a "monument" (81,9), but definitely not a "living" one (55,8) as that of Shakespeare. The Rival creates nothing new, nothing individual, nothing universal, but rather copy what already is. His verse "brings a tomb" (83,12) in which the Fair Youth is forever buried. This criticism is highly reminiscent of Montaigne's own words in his essay, Sur les vers de Virgile.

Celui qui dit tout, il nous saoule et nous dégoûte. Celui qui craint à s'exprimer, nous achemine à en pense plus qu'il n'en y a. Il y a des la trahison dans cette sorte de modestie: Et notamment nous entrouvant, comme font ceux-ci, une si belle route à l'imagination. (Montaigne, 2009 [1588] : 142)

Even if the context is different, that's precisely what Shakespeare does for use in his Sonents, and the impact they had on generations of readers shows it well enough. He opens for us the highway to imagination. He isolates a moment of pure emotion, and turns it into shape on the physical material of a piece of paper. His poems trigger our imagination; they implement the image of the youth in our mind's eye and therefore, as they present crystallised moments of poetic experience, they quicken into being a new, imaginative universe.

We can now better understand Theseus's words in A Midsummer Night's Dream:

The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And, has imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen

Turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name. (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 5.1.12-7)

Shakespeare's stance as a poet in his Sonnets is very close from Theseus's theorisation. Poetry is envisaged as an incarnation, an embodiment of emotion, the turning into shape of an "airy" - that is an unsubstantial - shadow. The poet attempts at urging into "the real world the unsubstantial image his soul so constantly beheld" as Joyce most poetically has it in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. From his visual, aesthetic observation the poet feels. He then crystallises this emotion, this state of psychological activity that is a no-thing in the tangible world into the actual coming into being on the page of a wording, a "name" with the implied cognitive, visual, oral and aural dimensions of the Saussurian sign. With Shakespeare's Sonnets, the aesthetic experience elicited by the visual recognition of beauty becomes essential. It is remediated through the eye of the poet who literally puts it before our own eyes with all the materiality of the text, and metaphorically implements it within our mind's eye through his creative alchemy


Contrary to Sir Philip Sidney and his Apologie for Poetrie, Samuel Daniel and his Defence of Ryme, Thomas Watson and his Passionate Centurie of Love or George Puttenham and his Arte of English Poesie, Shakespeare leaves us with no personal account of literary criticism at all. However, there is enough explicit metastylistic material in his plays and poems as to provide us with a clear view of his own conception of art, of how he followed the artistic philosophy of his days and age, and to what extent he distinguished himself by it and from it. The Sonnets are perhaps, altogether with Love's Labour's Lost, Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream, the most explicit on this matter. As such, when confronted to the Sonnets, one is obviously called upon to consider the metastylistic explorations of sonnet 76. Here answering to the laments of the fashionable Fair Youth, Shakespeare draws an apologia of his own. The sonnet form clearly deprives his "verse" of "new pride", "variation" or "quick change" (76,1-2) but the nobility of his subject vindicates for the conspicuous thematic monomania at works throughout the sequence. His love for the young man is his only "argument" (76,10), one nevertheless prone to a constant stylistic readjustment referred to in the poem by the clothing metaphor of "dressing old words new" (76,11). The oxymoronic co-ordination of "new and old" in verse 13 - encapsulated as it is by the two echoing polyptota of verses 12 and 14 "Spending again what is already spent:"(76,12) and "So is my love still telling what is told" (76,14) - at once associates the present and the past, the ancient and the modern and informs us well enough that Shakespeare's poetic work in the Sonnets has to be construed as palimpsest, a piece of literary creation disclosing old poetic features clad in the new robes of inventive novelty.

Giving new strength to old words is actually the crux of Shakespeare's art, and indeed, ample evidence has been provided so far by the critics as to the sources of his dramatic production. Nevertheless, as it has been demonstrated throughout this term-paper, the same can also be said of his contemporary sonneteers. As far as the eye is concerned, all of them extensively draw from older sources. Their works feature images which were already present with the classics, yet, these are newly adjusted to the Elizabethan culture. From the basic darting-eye metaphor emerges a complex symbolism, associating at once the heritage of late-medieval bestiaries, the medical theories of their days and age and even, the current interest in melancholy.

This comparative reading has nonetheless revealed that Shakespeare reverses this renewed convention. Like others he clad old words in the new robes of inventive novelty, yet, he does it in a very different way. He does not merely actualise old poetic topoi, he rather readjusts them it in his own idiosyncratic way.

Let it be reminded that in his Arte of English Poesie, Puttenham wrote,

The very Poet makes and contriues out of his owne braine both the verse and the matter of his poeme, and not by any foreine copie or example, as doth the translator, who therefore may well be sayd a versifier but not a Poet. (Puttenham, 1589:1)

All the sequences we studied so far only partially fulfil this definition. Obviously, these writers "make and contriue of [their] owne braine both the verse and the matter of [their] poeme[s]". Yet, this creation is only achieved through their personal positioning in regard of other's "foreine copie[s] or example[s]".

As far as the Sonnets are concerned, they are constantly informed by the Elizabethan literary tradition. Shakespeare uses an "old" form of poetic expression, "old themes", "old" rhetorical devises, "old" motives and clutters them up with a "new", intensely personal body of emotions. (73,13). It clearly appears that Shakespeare does not ignore the literary tradition he uses but rather uses it as a limit imposed to be transgressed. The basic essence of his creation springs from his intensely personal use of a negative heuristic with regard to the works of his predecessors and contemporaries.

So doing, Shakespeare succeeds to injecting new blood into an already moribund, though popular, form of poetic expression; one which by the time unremittingly exposed "Petrarch's long-deceased voes" (Astrophel and Stella: 15,7) in quite a highly mannerist and extremely conventionalised way. These Elizabethan sonnets, with their desperate lovers crying floods of tears, entangled in a bad romance with their feminine monsters of frigidity, or being targeted by the arrows of their mistresses' eyes, may indeed appear extensively remote from any accurate description of actual human love. The traditional petrarchan conceits unremittingly explored in Elizabethan sonnet sequences can be construed as a veritable code of emotion, a grammar of love, a syntax of feeling, that is, a codified way to express a poet's "want of inward touch" (Astophel and Stella: 15,10). Shakespeare breaks with this grammar of emotion: he uses the same words, images, and themes than his contemporary writers, yet he nonetheless rearranges them in his own idiosyncratic way. As such, in his sequence, Shakespeare succeeds to restore love to love poetry, thus conflating at once Aristotle's views on mimesis and Horace's conception of imitatio. He utilises the best available literary model for the expression of love and makes it the appropriate vehicle for the entire scope of our human condition and experience, from the most basic behaviours to the subtlest states of emotion. His art becomes a veritable mirror held to the true, essential, nature of love, one nevertheless framed in the oxidised copper squares of a poetic convention.