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One of the disturbing things about lyric poetry, for those interested in ideas, is that the ideas that short poems express seem laughably simple: "I need you, you need me, yum yum," as one of our more lighthearted poets, Frank O'Hara, put it. Shakespeare's sonnets seem to have a narrow range of themes and ideas: Time destroys all beautiful things; poetry eternalizes those things in language; love can be surprised by betrayal; absence is a torment; the world is full of evil, and so on. These commonplaces occur over and over in the sonnets, and commentators tend to reiterate them rather helplessly.
Lyric poetry is almost never assigned in a course on the "great books" because the exposition of ideas in poetry seems too platitudinous for discussion. Yet one knows that Shakespeare was not indifferent to the conceptual universe, as his plays amply demonstrate. I believe the way in which lyric deals with ideas--that is, by transforming them into forms--is still incompletely understood. And so, with one of Shakespeare's sonnets as my proof text, I want to discuss some of Shakespeare's strategies for converting ideas into lyric forms. To do this, I must differentiate between the theme of a poem and the ideas enacted by its form, and I shall do this with the well-known sonnet 30, which closes with an address to the beloved young man:
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste;
Then can I drown an eye (unused to flow)
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancelled woe,
And moan th'expense of many a vanished sight.
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee (dear friend)
All losses are restored, and sorrows end.
The theme or main thought is simply stated: "Whenever I think about the past, I sink into a melancholy recollection of all my losses; but if, when I am doing this, I think of you, I seem once again to possess all I have lost, and my melancholy ceases." That is, the theme is a narrative of reiterated loss (represented by all the "ands") followed by a restoration of happiness through the consciousness of love. If this is the theme, what are the forms? And what ideas do the forms represent? All interpretation of lyric must be an interpretation of its forms, since its themes are too simple to invite anything as grandly named as "interpretation."
Let me begin with the simplest of all forms, that of proportion. What we find here is disproportion: loss takes up a good deal more temporal space (12 lines) than restoration (2 lines). Since for every poem, the only world there is the world of the poem, we are told that in the world as this poem sees it, more of life is spent on grieving than on joy. This sadness might seem to be contradicted by the happy thematic end to the poem, if we did not notice another formal property, this time a grammatical one--Shakespeare's use of the passive mood in the last line. To a linguist, passive and active may be interchangeable forms, but to a poet they are not. Shakespeare does not say, "You restore all losses and you end all sorrows," which would put agency in the active ministration of the young man. The poem remains enclosed in the speaker's mind; his thought of the young man makes him happy, but the restoration is an inner one without any intervention by the young man himself. Subjective grief; subjective joy; an absence of external verification; a predominance of loss throughout life, at least in memorial reconstruction.
One grammatical property of the sonnet makes my paraphrase--which has so far suggested that memory just happens--inexact. The speaker's memorial reconstruction has been willed ("I summon up remembrance"), and it is not only voluntary, it offers desired opportunities: "Then can I...Then can I." What is delightful about it? We can see, thematically, that memory refreshes the springs of dried-up feeling: "Then can I drown an eye unused to flow"; "Then can I grieve at grievances foregone." (On such a small modal word as "can," such turns can rest.) In what forms, then, will Shakespeare cast his speaker's eager memorial reconstruction?
We come now to the chief formal property of the sonnet: its increasing tautology of vocabulary, which comes to a climax in lines 9 to 12, with their reiteration of the words "grieve," "woe," "moan," and "pay." "Woe" itself is reiterated from line 4 and from line 7; "moan" is reiterated from line 8. We know that Shakespeare knew and used more words than anyone else in the history of world literature; it was not that he lacked synonyms for these words. No: when we interpret the linguistic form back into the experiential form, tautology in language means tautology in experience. Freud's remarks on mastery through repetition come to mind here; the voluntary replay of traumatic experience is an avenue to mastery. It is important that the original traumatic experience be replayed in exactly its original form until it loses its original sting. Once mastery is complete, it can be savored, and summoning up remembrance represents psychic mastery rather than helpless recollection of suffered grief. This sonnet, then, by its employment of tautology as form, seems to argue for the Freudian and even Kleinian idea of reparative mental action through memory.
If one is enjoying mastery through memorial repetition of traumas overcome, why break off this pleasurable activity to think of the present? What makes the speaker, during his "sessions of sweet silent thought" into which he has summoned up, voluntarily, "remembrance of things past"--only bad things, we notice, not good things--suddenly "think on" his friend? On first glance, we can see no motive for this sudden change of disposition. Intrinsically, nothing limits the replay of mastered trauma, and yet it is interrupted: why?
Here we must ask about another formal property of the poem: its creation of a self through language. Lyric has only a short time in which to create, in the brief lyric "now," a believable speaking self voicing a believable verbal utterance. There are many ways of making a lyric self plausible, but the one Shakespeare adopts here is to give his speaker an existence in time extended over many temporal markers. For the sake of simplicity, let us call the earliest time implied by the poem T-1, the next implied epoch T-2, and so on. The speaker, let us say, at T-1 had never had a friend. By T-2, he has acquired one friend. By T-3, he has several friends. By T-4, one of these friends has died. By T-5, several of these friends have been "hid in death's dateless night," and he has wept for them. By T-6, he has ceased to weep for some time. By T-7--the time of memorial reconstruction--he deliberately summons up the thought of several "precious friends hid in death's dateless night" so that he can once again "drown an eye (unused to flow)" in weeping for them. In creating these seven implied "panels" of time past, the poet has given his speaker a credible existence over time, during which he has acquired emotional attachments, lost them, wept for them, given up weeping for them, and resolicited, in silent thought, his former attachments so that he can once more feel himself to be an emotionally living person, and one who has mastered trauma.
This process, introduced with line 4, "And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste," is first elaborated with specific respect to dead friends, love, and vanished sights; it is then generalized to grievances, woes, and moans. We notice that as the poem goes on, the process is formally speeded up. It took two lines to speak of lost friends; by line 8, the whole process is encapsulated in four words: "grieve at grievances foregone." Once (T-1) the speaker was without grief; then he encountered (T-2) grievances at which he grieved (T-3); then he forwent grieving (T-4); now he can return (T-5) to grieve again at the grievances formerly foregone. Five different times told in four words. The self always sees each present action against an implied set of past experiences; in fact, this formal property of the poem defines the self as Shakespeare understands it--as the sum total of continuously articulated related experiences. This cognitive definition of the self--a self that brings its conscious baggage with it whenever it introspects--is one not present in most pre-Renaissance lyric, nor in most modern lyric, for that matter, which tends to reveal only one isolated moment of selfhood. The multilayered self of Renaissance lyric, elaborated by Petrarch through Christian remorse (as he recalled his devotion to Laura, which eclipsed his devotion to God) was secularized by Shakespeare into the assertion (formally made in this sonnet) that the self is a constantly self-recapitulating agency, and that its self-recapitulation is in the service of the psychic mastery of trauma.
But something is wrong with this definition of the self. It still does not account for the abandonment of memorial reconstruction for the thought of the young man--a thought apparently so unmotivated, so haphazard. "But if the while I think on thee"--what has provoked that sudden thinking? When we look for its possible motivation, we notice the concealed sting in Shakespeare's poem--the moment in line 12 in which tautology ("grieve at grievances," "fore-bemoanèd moan," and so on) reverses itself, appearing in antithetical form: "new pay as if not paid." This reversal represents the moment of danger in Freudian repetition-in-the-service-of-mastery-of-trauma: controlled delectation in voluntarily renewed tears may give way to involuntary re-experiencing of the full blow of the early wound. The speaker now pays the debt of tears anew as if not paid before. The solacing cushions of mastery are removed, and the full debt of suffering is exacted again. This unexpected and non-delectable pain is what sends the speaker's mind off seeking relief, which it finds in the thought of its "dear friend," the young man.
We now see the fuller picture of the self, as Shakespeare conceptualizes it. It is primarily an affective self, yearning to acquire precious friends and love, but also an inquisitive self seeking to know new things. The affective self has encountered repeated losses, and these have caused repeated sorrows. Experience is cumulative, and the cognitive self, over time, compiles a continually updated list of all past acquisitions, losses, and sorrows, while maintaining its affective balance by, on the whole, repressing expressions of sorrow for long periods. The self has learned that under controlled conditions, in "sessions of sweet silent thought," it can carefully summon up (while in a psychically strong position, since it is in current possession of a dear friend) its previous losses, and re-grieve them in a distanced and even pleasurable fashion. Yet this exercise always risks probing too deep in past disasters; when it does this, it finds that its tautological reinvestigation of trauma risks reopening the original wound, causing acute pain. In the service of irony, Shakespeare's speaker applies a dry financial metaphor to this disastrous experience: he "moans the expense" of many a vanished sight, and then, as he tells his woe-accounts, discovers he has to pay with new moans a debt he thought he had paid earlier with fore-bemoanèd moans.
The formal arrangements of the sonnet are what convey the true idea of the poem, then, which is not its apparent theme (that thinking about a friend when you are remembering past losses makes you feel better) but rather, what sort of thing a self is--a consciously articulated and cognitively updated time-chain of emotional experiences--and why it might want to remember losses and sorrows, and why it might want to stop remembering them once it had begun. This sonnet is one of those that use their formal means--here disproportion, tautology, and a surprise reversal--toward the illumination of human psychology.
Each of the sonnets acts out, and often puts into direct conflict, ideas from the Western philosophical inventory which are not stated as such but implied by the formal arrangements by which the content is purveyed. Form is content-as-arranged; or content is form-as-deployed-in-embodiment. Shakespeare rarely repeated himself; as soon as he had found one congenial formal arrangement--like the steady-state waves followed by an eclipsed sun followed by rapid anterior transfixings in sonnet 60--he never needed to do that again. Instead, he was likely to say to himself, "Perhaps I'll do life as a masque," and write sonnet 66. Or he might say to himself, "Perhaps I'll show things skidding up and down in value," and write sonnet 55. Or he would say, "I'll show them how to do a credible self in lyric," and write sonnet 30. Or he would think, "You know, one has very different ideas of oneself in age depending on whether one is looking at one's body, one's mental energy, or one's erotic feelings," and write sonnet 73. In each case, the idea had to find its enactment. In every case, we miss the idea if we skip the enactment and dwell on the platitudes of theme. The sonnets are a great repository of models, ideas, and suggestions, put with great elegance and concision. They deserve to be valued for the formal work they do, and to be seen as a standard for the potential of lyric form to express complexity and rapidity of thought.
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