Sonnet Book

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A Prosodic Odyssey: Sonnets from page to stage.

10 years ago I completed my post-grad diploma thesis on Q1609 sonnets. Being a bear of little-brain I sought help from the best on the subject: Stephen Booth, John Kerrigan, Stanley Wells, KD Jones, and Helen Vendler. All these big-brained creatures explicated the various intellectual pitfalls and insights of these poems and their writer.

I’ve moved from Caroline Spurgeon’s imagery to Northrop Frye’s neo-platonism and reached the almost therapeutic transactive analyses of Holland and Schwarz and Philip Davis’ electrifying book called Shakespeare’s Thinking. I’ve embraced white magic in terms of numerology, tarot, emblematic and cabbalistic symbolism, culminating in Alistair Fowler’s triumphal forms illustrated by magnets.

The rhetorical preciosity exhibited in these sonnets is the counterpart to their internal peregrinations. For that I had books by Peter Hall, Patsy Rodenburg, Kirsten Linklater and all-too-brief workshops with Cicely Berry and Andrew Wade. I’ve performed sonnet marathons at the Rose theatre, sonnet 116 at weddings and recently sonnets 44 + 45 at a funeral. I’ve performed on the Old Vic stage down to a milk-crate outside the castle at Haye-on-Wye. Basically I’ve studied these sonnets on the page and on the stage.

This paper then attempts to separate Q1609 Sonnets from A Lover’s Complaint, plus the sonnet form from the writer of that series of 154. I arrived at the confessional voice as a rhetorical stance, as opposed to an actual voice, within this series. My conclusion, like Sasha Roberts in ˜Reading Shakespeare’s poems in EME, is they are brilliant displays of lit-wit and possibly I’m a nit-wit for learning them all.

What do I want?

I want to eliminate Shakespeare from the sonnets, along with the smoke and mirrors of biography and its degeneration into conspiracy. I want to get away from ˜Shakespeare in literature, and into the life of the poet, by means of the persona of the sonnets.

Real Shakespeare is to me replicated human response to the rhythms inherent in the verse he composed out of linguistic necessity. (and that’s as far as I want to go with Shakespeare’s intentions)! The Sonnets virtuosity stands a side-by-side test with any other Elizabethan scribbler, Noble or not, in terms of form and content. And more often than not, outstrips them in plainness of style.

Focus for a minute on the fact that a much ignored part of Shakespeare’s early writing career was as a poet in search of a patron, like so many of his contemporary poetasters. Court patronage demanded a taste of your wares. A good narrative poem about a gory date-rape starring 2 popularly known mythological figures, or another rape by a lust-filled Roman King might get you some credit and good standing as a poet.

This sonnet series is vastly different from those narrative poems. They were, like Michael Drayton’s Idea sonnet series, a long-term project and perhaps undertaken whimsically. What the Renaissance Italian poets knew as serio ludere, or serious playing. Certainly he created and worked on them from 1593-1608. (as early as 1588 if you follow Andrew Gurr with Q145’s Hate-away pun).

I actually want to move away from the idea that this quarto of 154 Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint belong to Shakespeare and imagine or pretend, they were written by Anonymous. (The latter poem perforce is shrouded under the cloak of anonymity once more).

The consequence of this anonymity is that the author’s biography, the identities of the Fair Young Man, the so-called Dark Lady, the Rival Poet, the Dedication, and most importantly, the Conspiracy theorists are eliminated from requiring explication, in one fell swoop.

The living writer will figure personally only as the agent necessary to creating the persona we judge or identify with as readers. So the author is the ‘I’ of the sonnets, and you are he, by reason of your eyes reading his poems. We are after poesy here not conspiracy.

Brief history of Q1609- quill to press.

We know nothing of how they were composed by his modern quill. Or how they delivered to patron and friends. Or how they eventually reached the press before May, 1609. Two variants of Sonnets 144 and 138 reached print in ˜The Passionate Pilgrim” in 1599. Further that same year Francis Meres mentions Shakespeare’s sugr’d sonnets to his private friends in Palladis Tamia.

We know not how they transferred to the hands of Thomas Thorpe, who ˜staied” them to be printed, and presumably looked to earn some money off them, as he had numerous other collections. His nickname was Odd Thorpe and indeed his dedication to the sonnets is odd.

They were published May 20th, 1609. Only one batch was printed on the press of George Eld, two of whose compositors compiled the Quarto, from a copy, foul or fair, we cannot know which. They were titled, unusually for comparable series, with the author’s name and the subject at hand: Shake-speare’s Sonnets.

Two printer/booksellers split the batch, William Aspley and William Wright, who we assume sold out. (Edward Alleyn made a note of paying 5d for his copy in June, 1609). Thirteen copies are extant still and jealously guarded, in libraries public and private. The copies show few variations, and only one scholar so far, Hyder Rollins, collated them all in 1944.

The history of the Sonnet has a tradition of 250 years in Renaissance letters before our Sonnetteer appears. Petrarch set the standard in conceits to strive for and thousands followed his example, including ours, who took on Petrarch’s standards and trashed them in Q130. French and Italian sonneteers on the continent worked the theme of Romantic love until it became tired and cliched. Wyatt and Surrey had brought the trend to England in the reign of Henry 8th and more than a few English sonneteers translated many a European sonnet as their own.

Manuscript transmission was and remained common throughout this period and pedestrian sonneteers would sprinkle the ink with sugar to make it glitter and shine. The early 1590’s in England saw a slew of talented sonneteers publishing their series devoted to their unattainable beloveds, often with an accompanying Complaint. Another brief resurgence in interest took place from 1603-1605. The longest and most original Elizabethan series of any set forth is this sequence of 154 sonnets.

The history of ideas contained in this sonnet series has a tradition too. For that we need to travel back to the Ancients in Greece. What follows is a tale where many elements of the arts of writing such lyric verse are illustrated. Renaissance sonnetteers would have known a version of this tale from many sources, including Ovid’s metamorphoses.

Mnemosyne had nine daughters conceived over the course of nine unforgettable nights with Zeus. Mnemosyne, the personification of memory, lived on Mount Parnassus with her nine talented daughters. Calliope was the oldest, most assertive, and wisest. Calliope, whose symbol is a stylus and wax tablets, was the Muse of Epic Poetry.

Calliope had a son called Orpheus, who as a boy was given a golden lyre by Apollo, who amongst other things was the god of Music. Apollo taught Orpheus to play the lyre and sing his lyric verses. Over time Orpheus mastered and played the lyre so beautifully he could charm birds and animals, and make trees and rocks dance. On his wedding day his wife Eurydice was bitten by a snake and died, whereupon she went down to the underworld.

Orpheus’ mourning songs and elegies moved the gods of the underworld, Hades and Persephone, so much that they allowed him to take Eurydice back to earth, on condition he not look back at her before they reached the upper world. He lost her a second time.

Now Orpheus turned away from women and took consolation in tender youths, giving a name to pederasty. The Maenads, followers of Dionysus, threw sticks and stones at him, but the magical force-field of his lyric music warded them off. They finished the job with their hands.

After the Maenads had finished dismembering him, his floating severed head and lyre continued to sing and play all the way down to the Mediterranean seashore. His lyre was retrieved and carried to heaven by the Muses and placed among the stars, where it could presumably wax lyrical.

Such is the devotional love you had to attain to as a sonneteer. Such complete devotion to the beloved that no trial is too hard, no simile so stellar, no memory so forgetful, it can’t kill death, time, eternity, and imagination. Poetry for our Sonnetteer is an activity for his whole being and not merely a reaction to the vagaries of enforced love or Fortune’s wheel.

The sonneteer seeks a movement of his soul, the essential 21 grams of an individual, away from the identification with the lover, divesting oneself of the artful ego, seeking the nobility of mankind, and an elevation to the stars and the divine mind, which created it all in the first place. Art copies Nature merely and raises the question anew: what sense does it make of the world?

Construction and inner workings of the sonnet form.

The sonnet is a true marriage of mind and soul distributed over form and content. Each ideal Elizabethan sonnet is a string of words, ideas, and sounds, expressing an argument in 14 lines, confined to a maximum of 154 syllables and a minimum of 140 syllables, riming abab cdcd efef gg. (As usual there are exceptions).

Speaking one, I consider to be like cracking a whip!

The argument develops like the steps of making a good espresso. The machine is the sonnet form and the ideas within are the ground coffee, filtering with boiling water the author’s wit and will, squeezing out the essence of a good cup of espresso of a particular sonnet.

Aristotelean Logicians love to treat argument as a syllogism with major and minor premises, followed by a conclusion. Except the tendency of the argument here, sides more with open-ended enthymemes rather than conclusive syllogism. You could also say the octet develops the thesis and antithesis and the final sestet achieves a synthesis. The epigrammatic couplet delivers the moral of the whole, whether it be bitter or sweet, salt or sour, open or closed.

This sonneteer wrote in a plain Platonic style, which already renders it moral. He also likes to jump right in, dramatically engaging his audience. The argument in a sonnet for the Clarkson fans is developed like the four steps of a combustion engine namely: Suck, Squeeze, Bang, Blow.

Suck, in Quatrain 1 he asks a question or poses a statement.
Squeeze, in Quatrain 2 he replies with a riposte or further development.
Bang, in Quatrain 3 he jumps to his highest, or deepest level.
Blow. In the final Couplet he closes the argument off, or opens it up to be continued.

The 8:6 of the octave and sestet, forces a volta or a jump, which breaks and splits the sonnet form. This almost mathematical ratio is the natural break that invokes symmetry and asymmetry. It applies to the golden ratio, or golden section observed in architecture, painting, and especially music. It also occurs at the moment of denouement in most dramatic stories.

Don Patterson in his introduction to ˜101 Sonnets from Shakespeare to Healey”..describes the sonnet as a small square poem. A paradox. A squared circle. A mandala that invites meditation. A unity of meaning. A machine for remembering itself.

The Narrative of Q1609 Sonnets:

Simply put, the poet loves a young man, who in turn steals or is stolen by the poet’s mistress. The young man dallies, then bores, with the mistress, whereupon the poet forgives the young man, who promptly employs another rival poet to sing his praises.

The poet again forgives the young man but slowly realizes the young man in reality (funny that) is hardly any of the virtuous things he’s been calling him, so the poet considerately and ceremoniously dumps him. Q125 +Q126.

Meanwhile the mistress continues to make the poet’s life a living hell. Inevitably, thanks to his insight afforded by the young man, the poet realizes his submission to his lover is sick and maddening, so he scornfully and unceremoniously dumps her too. Q152.

This action was new to sonnet personas. One didn’t dump, one adored and idealized and forgave one’s beloved for all unattainable eternity. But then it was usually just one beloved. So perhaps this thin gruel of a story is smoke and mirrors hiding the feast of its true purpose. In any case it is an unflattering portrayal of beloved and/or patron.

Personal observation proves to me that rhetorical analysis and use of orthography are demonstrably applied throughout the series. Assonance and alliteration support the tone and atmosphere of each sonnet. Argument moves from cerebral conceit to smutty wit in dancing figures, climbing tropes and devious schemes. The balance of metre and rime is worked to the bone and fleshed out as quickly.

Masculine and feminine are both liberally, and almost hermaphroditically, intermixed in form and content. Time is fought and conquered (Q146) and given his due (Q126). Nature turns five hundred courses of the sun (Q59) and seasons wax and wane charting the body politic. The chain of being is married to the humours and the elements and all their correspondences. Shadow and substance are reflected in the mirrors of your mind.

Consequences to an actor/scholar of Q1609:

My conjectured genesis of this series lies in the concept of serio ludere, or serious playing with the sonnet form and hermetic philosophies. The sonneteer’s need for unity and discontinuity, tension and resolution, symmetry and asymmetry, lyric inspiration and argumentative vigour are satisfied. The intellectual sponge is squeezed dry and ready to absorb once more. In which case, there is an argument for this series as a grand conceit or Opus Circulatorium.

In that the individual sonnet reflects the sonnet series, it is simultaneously one sonnet alone, and by synecdoche, all the sonnets in one. It is an apotheosis, the last of all the great Elizabethan sonnet series, a grand unity of its constituent parts whether they be imaginative, structural, semantic, syntactic, phonemic, or graphic. Helen Vendler uses this last rhetorical chain of being, and declares the writer a master of aesthetic strategy.

Their writer would know their linear fate on the press, if ever that time should come. Few poets could have considered printing their work, more likely hope was for manuscript circulation at best. In any case there would be little profit, but what need of that?

This sonneteer wrote eternal lines and quite possibly did not see them to press. The why lies more in the realm of, why write them in the first place? If he truly believed his prediction of immortality, he would know his own understanding of it was enough. Indeed this seems to be his conclusion about love in his sequence. His papers, his children, yellowed with their age, would have to fend for themselves.

We do not know the extent this sonneteer studied Hermeticism and Esoterica, or if he read one of the hundreds of popular Emblem books, or texts on Alchemy, or Astrology, or Tarot, or Hebraic Cabbalistic symbolism, or the hieroglyphics of Hermes Trismegistus, or the numerology of Pythagoras. Or if he had experienced direct contact with a Magus, or his apprentice. These ideas belonged to the magical, mythical past when numbers, symbols, astrology, and White and Black magic had meaning.

The mysteries were dying in his present, still held in the common understanding and memory, but destined to be forgotten. This sonneteer lived and practiced on the cusp of ages and the millenium. We likewise do not know if he had any contact with the scientific Natural philosophers, hailing the new school of observation and experimentation. Contemporaries like Galileo, Harvey, Copernicus, and Descartes, had be vilified and die before a brave new world would yet come of science and reason.

So why not create an Opus Circulatorium capable of being represented as a Quadrangle, a Triangle and a Circle? Only one other sonneteer Girolamo Benivieni wrote a series of 154 sonnets, which Pico della Mirandola explicated in 300 pages of commentaries. The latter, which I have only seen in a French translation at a Hermetic Philosophy Library in Amsterdam.

The restraint of time disallows any exploration of the various philosophical streams and traditions touched on today. But it is not from lack of desire. If these contents have pleased your ears and withstood the censure of your minds I will continue with some graver labour to explicate further. In the meantime I shall delight to recite this Opus Circulatorium in any shape be it circle, triangle, or square. A final quote seems fitting…

˜When thou hast made the quadrangle round, then is all the secret found.

˜The Compound of Alchymie” 1591. George Ripley (believe it)!


˜On the Literary Genetics of Shakespeare’s Poems and Sonnets”, T.W. Baldwin. Univ. of Illinois Press,1950.
(pt.3. The Sonnets).

˜Shakespeare’s Reading”, Robert S. Miola. O.U.P. 2000.
(Chap. 1. p. 1-12. Elizabethan Reading. Chapter 7. p. 152-164. Shakespeare as a Reader).

˜Shakespeare’s Ovid”, Ed. A.B. Taylor. C.U.P. 2000.
(Chap. 6. p.96. Ovid, petrarch, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Gordon Braden).

˜Shakespeare’s Poetic Styles”, John Baxter. Routledge and Keegan, 1980.
(Chap. 4. p. 56. The standard: The Moral and the Golden. Chap. 5. p. 77. The standard: The metaphysical and the Shakespearean).

˜A Companion to Shakespeare’s Sonnets”, Ed. Schoendfeldt. Blackwell, 2007.
(pt. 4. 12 p.185 Arthur F. Marotti. p.204 Marcy L. North. Pt. 9. 24 p.405 Margaret Healey).

˜Shakespeare and the Arts of Language”, Russ McDonald, O.U.P. 2001.
(Chap. 2. Shaping the Language. Words, Patterns and the Tradition of Rhetoric)

˜Reading Shakespeare’s Poems in Early Modern England”, Sasha Roberts.
(Intro: Reception History)

˜A Concise Companion to Shakespeare and the Text”, Ed. Andrew Murphy. Blackwell, 2007.
(Pt. 1. Chap. 1. Helen Smith-The publishing Trade in Shakespeare’s Time).

˜Backgrounds in Shakespeare’s Thought”, John Erskine Hankins. Harvester Press, England. 1978. (chap. 3. Numbers, p. 61).

“Renaissance Magic and Hermeticism in the Shakespeare’s Sonnets”, Thomas O. Jones. The Edwin Mellen Press, NY, 1995.
(Pretty much the whole book, chaps: 1, 5, 6, 10, 14, 16).

˜The Occult: A History”, Colin Wilson. Vintage Books, Random House, 1973.
(Pt. 1. Chap. 3. The Poet as Occultist. Pt. 2 Chap. 3. Adepts and Initiates.Chap. 4. the world of Kabbalists).

˜101 Sonnets from Shakespeare to Heaney”, ed. Don Patterson. Faber and Faber, London. 1999. (Introduction p. ix).


(Wikipedia files on Orpheus, Hermes, Calliope, Apollo, Dionysus, Mnemosyne).

Ritman Library of Hermetical Philosophy. Amsterdam

(Hermes Trismegistus. Ficino. Corpus Hermeticum).

Ovids Metamorphoses
. (Book 10. Qrpheus and Eurydice. Book 5? Narcissus).

Q1609 Sonnets Hardy Cook and Ian Lancashire
Hardy Cook and Ian Lancashire. Q1609 Sonnets: Intro.