Saturday, June 1, 2013

Sonnets 36-39: To entertain the time with thoughts of love

Sonnets 36 (top left), 37 (top right), 38 (bottom left), 39 (bottom right)
Four sonnets, from thirty six to thirty nine (combined in the collage on the right), represent a brief pause in the dramatic sequence, as though an actor, just before the next blow of mischievous fate falls on his character, interrupts the flow of the drama with a monologue, taking stock of his situation and trying to make sense of it. Isn't it what we all do to create our own life stories: rethinking painful failures, betrayals, losses, trying to to give them some meaning in the context of our lives?

General wisdom has it that sonnet 39 is linked directly to sonnet 36 (both announce a separation, and both deal in painful paradoxes of inner oneness being outwardly twain), while "happier" sonnets 37 and 38, do not, in one sense or another, belong here; that they are inserted here almost randomly. I don't think so: it seems to me, that, in the course of this brief pause in dramatic action, the speaker shifts his focus from his torment to his beloved, redefines the whole situation, and returns to the theme of separation empowered by its newly rediscovered meaning.

Let me show this to you in some more detail. In Sonnet 36, the speaker accepts the inevitable separation:

Let me confess that we two must be twain,
Although our undivided loves are one... 
but concludes by saying that his friend's reputation is more urgently important to him than his own happiness:
<...> I love thee in such sort,
As, thou being mine, mine is thy good report 
This conclusion, perceived by many commentators as a lame attempt at self-consolation, opens, for the speaker, a path to the next sonnet, 37, which shifts the context of romantic despair to that of unconditional parental love: he compares himself to a decrepit father, delighted by his young son's abundant life and wishing him what is best. This change of metaphors inevitably moves the focus of the speaker's mind from himself to his young friend, and to his own admiration and love (as opposed to the plain torment of the separation).

This shift of inner focus recalls and rekindles his own role as the poet of the young man's beauty and wit, and the young man's role as his muse in Sonnet 38:

Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate;
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date.
Once the poem-muse aspect of the relationship is foregrounded, brought into focus again, it gives a new meaning to the separation itself, and that's what the next sonnet, 39, is all about: now it can be viewed not just as a torment, but as something good for poetry:
Even for this let us divided live,
And our dear love lose name of single one,
That by this separation I may give
That due to thee which thou deservest alone.
And the last six lines of the sonnet sum up, in effect, the whole four-sonnets-long experience:
O absence, what a torment wouldst thou prove,
Were it not thy sour leisure gave sweet leave
To entertain the time with thoughts of love,
Which time and thoughts so sweetly doth deceive,
 And that thou teachest how to make one twain,
 By praising him here who doth hence remain! 
Following Shakespeare's explicit lead (note the verb deceive here), many critics and readers perceive this constant contrast of what feels like a "really experienced", lived story and its "redefinition" in the speaker's mind as an exposure of self-deception. I don't see it that way at all: the meanings, the stories we make of our life become its true fabric, and nowhere is it more evident than in this case. Whatever the "realities" of love affairs behind the sequence (if there were any at all), their essence survives in the sonnets, and only in the sonnets. These poems are so obviously, so strikingly more real and ever-lasting than any fleeting four-centuries old "facts". And the "facts", the "real" story, without the alleged self-deception? They also only exist in the sonnets, and it's the sonnets' magical power that makes one perceive one version of the story as more "real" than the other, sending thousands of people, over the centuries, in search of its protagonists.

But in the end of the day, one can pause to ask oneself: is love itself a reality or a self-deception? The life's ultimate truth or the nature's grandest "cheap trick"?

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