My thoughts ran recently to what books I would be glad to have with me, were I to be marooned on a lighthouse. The limit had to be three, rather than the Desert Island Discs generous eight records. Having selected already The Loom of Language by Frederick Bodmer and John Lennard’s The Poetry Handbook, I think the necessary complement would be the Katherine Duncan-Jones edited, complete Shakespeare’s Sonnets [London: The Arden Shakespeare, 1997] which contains much else besides the incomparable verses; (and my copy seems to have been printed in Illyria!)
The fascinating arguments over the centuries about the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, and quite certainly the dark man; whether they reflect straight or gay love and what each individual sonnets means will help to while away the time waiting for the tempest outside the lighthouse to subside.
As well as every one of the 154 carefully crafted, fourteen-line sonnets Duncan-Jones includes ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ written in 47 stanzas of seven lines. There is an erudite yet highly readable introduction and then every poem is carefully introduced and annotated. The Editor discusses the context and allusions to be found in Shakespeare’s work, with cross-references here and there to the plays, and the reception and criticism of his oeuvre over the centuries since they were penned. Probably the one way to convince any doubters that this would be the perfect third book to turn to at intervals, while reading the other two, is simply to quote the first and last to represent the other hundred and fifty-two. My own reading ‘tip’ is to let Shakespeare’s punctuation shape your reading (out loud if possible) without losing touch with the pulse of the pentameters and the richness of the internal and end-rhymes.
Regarding the first, Duncan-Jones says: “The sonnet sets out a eugenic proposition: the most excellent examples of natural beings are under an obligation to reproduce themselves. But the addressee, to whom this rule applies, is narcissistically dedicated to self-love, allowing his beauty to go to waste by hoarding it up.”
From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy life’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament,
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thy own bud buriest thy content,
And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.
Sonnets 153 and 154 should really be read as a pair but the final poem is about Cupid lying asleep, what happens next and the paradoxical outcome.
The little love-god lying once asleep,
Laid by his side his heart-inflaming brand,
Whilst many nymphs, that vowed chaste life to keep,
Came tripping by; but in her maiden hand
The fairest votary took up that fire
Which many legions of true hearts had warmed;
And so the general of hot desire
Was, sleeping, by a virgin hand disarmed.
This brand she quenched in a cool well by,
Which from love’s fire took heat perpetual,
Growing a bath and helpful remedy
For men diseased; but I, my mistress’ thrall,
Came there for cure, and this by that I prove:
Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.
Another trio for the lighthouse library soon but, meantime, what are your suggestions?