Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Rotten Smoke and Heavenly Alchemy

Shakespeare's probable birthday today.
Sonnet 33

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine,
With all triumphant splendour on my brow;
But out, alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask'd him from me now.
 Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
 Suns of the world may stain when heaven's sun staineth.

Sonnet 34

Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,
And make me travel forth without my cloak,
To let base clouds o'ertake me in my way,
Hiding thy bravery in their rotten smoke?
'Tis not enough that through the cloud thou break,
To dry the rain on my storm-beaten face,
For no man well of such a salve can speak
That heals the wound and cures not the disgrace:
Nor can thy shame give physic to my grief;
Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss:
The offender's sorrow lends but weak relief
To him that bears the strong offence's cross.
   Ah! but those tears are pearl which thy love sheds,
   And they are rich and ransom all ill deeds. 

I am an admirer of poet Don Paterson's interpretations of the Sonnets.  Annoyingly flippant and matey in tone, at first sight, you slowly realise the true depth of his engagement with each poem and its place in the whole sequence.  This is quite some achievement.  As he says
"The problem with reading Shakespeare's sonnets is the sonnets themselves, by which I mean their reputation. Much in the same way as it's almost impossible to see the Mona Lisa as anything but a parody of itself, or hear Satie's Trois Gymnopedies without the feeling that someone's trying to sell you something – a bar of chocolate perhaps – it's initially hard to get close to the sonnets, locked as they are in the carapace of their own proverbialism. "A Shakespeare sonnet" is almost as much a synonym for "love poem" as "Mona Lisa" is for "beautiful woman". When something becomes proverbial, it almost disappears; and worse, we're allowed to think we know it when we really don't."
He is in no doubt that Shakespeare was gay or bisexual, and describing a real emotional and physical relationship with another man, complicated by a shared affair with the so-called "dark lady": it is extraordinary how long this obvious reading of the sonnets was resisted.  Evidence?  The poems themselves... In 2013, it is impossible to read them closely and in sequence without reaching any other conclusion.  In 1613?  Who knows? The sheer reckless boldness of this may have been its best disguise, of course; hiding in plain sight, as we say.

If you have an iPad, the Sonnets app from Touch Press is a must-have.  You get the texts, in modern and facsimile 1609 folio versions, readings by actors, plus the full commentary from the Arden edition and interpretations from Don Paterson's book, all interactively and contextually linked together.  You can get happily lost in there for hours.

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