When forty winters shall besiege thy browIt is, of course, Shakespeare's birthday today and, as is customary, we mark the occasion by opening the Sonnets and finding something that seems appropriate. Those first seventeen poems in the sequence (written on commission to urge a young aristocrat to quit messin' around and, like, have some children, forsooth) have never seemed particularly interesting, but when I look upon this particular fair youth whose birthday also falls in April I can't help feeling, yep, you had a point, Will. I'm not saying I was ever beautiful, as such, but: job done. Is it just me, though, or is it cold in here?
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty's field,
Thy youth's proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tattered weed, of small worth held.
Then being asked where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say within thine own deep-sunken eyes
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserved thy beauty's use
If thou couldst answer "This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse",
Proving his beauty by succession thine.
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel'st it cold.
By the way, if you've ever found the sonnets hard going, I thoroughly recommend Scottish poet Don Paterson's book, Reading Shakespeare's Sonnets, as the most accessible way in. His blokeish, but practitioner's view of the sequence genuinely elucidates the connections and the difficulties, and he is happy to score a B++ when Shakespeare fails to clear the bar he has set himself so dizzyingly high, rather than seeking some spurious explanation. The seventh line in no. 11, here below, is an example. As Paterson says, the problem is that this sonnet cannot really stand alone, as "you need to have read Sonnet 1, at least, to make any sense of If all were minded so ... i.e. 'if everyone thought like you, humanity would die out by teatime'".
As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou grow'st
In one of thine from that which thou departest,
And that fresh blood which youngly thou bestow'st
Thou mayst call thine when thou from youth convertest.
Herein lives wisdom, beauty, and increase;
Without this, folly, age, and cold decay.
If all were minded so, the times should cease,
And threescore year would make the world away.
Let those whom nature hath not made for store,
Harsh, featureless, and rude, barrenly perish.
Look whom she best endowed she gave the more,
Which bounteous gift thou shouldst in bounty cherish.
She carved thee for her seal, and meant thereby
Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die.