SONNETCAST – William Shakespeare's Sonnets Recited, Revealed, Relived
By Sebastian Michael
Podcast transcripts, the sonnets, contact details and full info at www.sonnetcast.com
SONNETCAST – William Shakespeare's Sonnets Recited, Revealed, RelivedMay 28, 2023
Sonnet 53: What Is Your Substance, Whereof Are You Made
The tender and complex Sonnet 53 – just over a third into the series – finds yet another entirely new register and conjures up not only an image of a beautiful person being admired but also a sense of great intimacy that comes delicately paired with that feeling of wonder at something almost alien that may just be too good to be true.
Sonnet 52: So Am I as the Rich, Whose Blessed Key
The astonishingly suggestive Sonnet 52 is the closest William Shakespeare has come so far to answering in his own words the question that has agitated readers of these sonnets for centuries: is this a physical, even sexual, relationship he is having with the young man, or could it not simply be one that is very close, maybe romantic, but nevertheless purely platonic. With its choice and precisely placed vocabulary, it relates an either already experienced or imminent reunion and thus also marks the end of the prolonged period of separation that appears to have been imposed on Shakespeare and his young lover since Sonnet 43.
Sonnet 51: Thus Can My Love Excuse the Slow Offence
Sonnet 51 picks up from the dull-paced journey of Sonnet 50 and contrasts this with the poet's boundless desire for speed once he is on the way back home to his lover. It also marks the end of the extended period of separation that began with Sonnet 43 and so concludes this sequence of nine sonnets that appear to have been written while Shakespeare is away from London.
Sonnet 50: How Heavy Do I Journey on the Way
Sonnets 50 & 51 once again come as a pair, whereby Sonnet 50 evokes in a measured tone of melancholy the sorrow and sadness Shakespeare senses on a strenuous journey at slowly having to move further and further away from his lover, while Sonnet 51 then contrasts this with a notion of just how eager he will be on his way back to him and how fast he wishes that return leg of the journey could happen.
As on previous occasions, we will look at both these sonnets back-to-back in the next episode, but concentrate on the first one of the pair, Sonnet 50, for now.
Sonnet 49: Against That Time, if Ever That Time Come
The soberly solemn Sonnet 49 opens an unnervingly real register that does away with hyperbolic praise, clever contrivance, or poetic acrobatics, and instead drives through a short structured sequence of dreaded but perfectly plausible scenarios towards a devastating denouement. Seldom until now and rarely hereafter do we hear Shakespeare quite so roundly, so comprehensively, and above all so authentically self-aware and self-effacing.
Sonnet 48: How Careful Was I When I Took My Way
Sonnet 48 ends the emotional hiatus brought into the sequence by the previous five sonnets and plunges our poet back into a deep anxiety about how much he can trust that his lover will still be there when he returns from his trip.
Sonnet 47: Betwixt Mine Eye and Heart a League Is Took
Sonnet 47 again follows on directly from Sonnet 46, developing the argument further and arriving at a conclusion which is also maybe not altogether surprising, but which validates the premise set out with Sonnet 46 much more than that on its own led us to expect, thus tying Sonnet 46 tightly into this couple as a unit.
Sonnet 46: Mine Eye and Heart Are at a Mortal War
Sonnet 46 is the first in a second couple of sonnets that take a more abstract approach to dealing with separation, while employing a fairly established classical trope, in this case a conflict between the eye and the heart over which of these two should 'own' the young lover. Similar to Sonnet 44 in the previous pair, Sonnet 46 can ostensibly stand on its own, but it nevertheless serves as the foundation for its counterpart, Sonnet 47, which follows on from it directly and really needs to be read as an extension of it. We will therefore again look at both sonnets together in the next episode, whilst concentrating here on Sonnet 46.
Sonnet 45: The Other Two, Slight Air and Purging Fire
Sonnet 45 follows on directly from Sonnet 44 as a seamless continuation and therefore needs to be read in tandem with it for it to make sense. With Sonnet 44 having introduced the two classical elements earth and water and explained how it is their heavy materiality that prevents William Shakespeare from being with his young lover, Sonnet 45 now speaks to the nature of the remaining two elements, air and fire, and finds a way to express how it is that even though they be physically insubstantial and infused with liveliness, they still contribute to his prevailing sadness about this period of separation.
Sonnet 44: If the Dull Substance of My Flesh Were Thought
Sonnet 44 is the first in two pairs of poems that together sit in a larger group of sonnets which see William Shakespeare spending time away from his young lover and expressing his anguish over this absence. It comes in an unequal coupling with Sonnet 45, whereby 44 can easily stand on its own, but 45 directly follows on from 44 and only makes sense when read in its context. And of course, we will look at them both together in the next episode. This instalment though focuses on 44.
Sonnet 43: When Most I Wink Then Do Mine Eyes Best See
Sonnet 43 leaves behind, for the time-being, the upheaval and upset caused by the young man's betrayal of Shakespeare with his own mistress and picks up the theme – and to a lesser extent mood – of Sonnets 27 & 28 when Shakespeare – away from his young lover and tired with travel – is kept awake by the beautiful young man's vision appearing to him in his dreams.
Special Guest: Professor Stephen Regan – The Sonnet as a Poetic Form
In this special episode, Stephen Regan, Professor Emeritus at Durham University, who is currently a research associate in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne and the author of The Sonnet (Oxford University Press, 2019), talks to Sebastian Michael about the sonnet as a poetic form: its origins, how it reaches the English language, what Shakespeare does with it that is so extraordinary, and what its outlook is for the 21st century and beyond.
Sonnet 42: That Thou Hast Her, it Is Not All My Grief
In the second of two sonnets that try to deal with the fallout from the young man's infidelity, William Shakespeare contorts himself into an argument that, really, both his young lover and his mistress did what they did only for the love they both bear him. That this is something of a delusion is a conclusion he himself comes to as easily as we do. Sonnet 42 nevertheless yields a valuable new insight into the suddenly so complex situation by drawing a clear distinction between the levels of priority and the types of connection William Shakespeare feels he has with the other two protagonists of what, without his own intention or let alone approval, has turned into a remarkably post-modern love triangle.
Sonnet 41: Those Pretty Wrongs That Liberty Commits
Sonnet 41 is the first of two sonnets in which William Shakespeare tries to make sense of the young man's transgression and to absolve him of any guilt. Like its companion Sonnet 42, it can be read independently and does not form an actual pair, and like Sonnet 42 it doesn't really succeed at what it sets out to do, because by the end of it, it is as clear to us as it is to William Shakespeare that both the young man and Shakespeare's mistress, with whom the young man has had a sexual encounter, have in effect betrayed our poet. What both Sonnet 41 and Sonnet 42 make abundantly clear and leave no doubt about is that this is exactly what has happened and that for William Shakespeare the most important thing now is to reassure himself as well as his young man that, as Sonnet 40 concludes: "we must not be foes," because clearly he cares too much for him than to let this peccadillo spell the end of their relationship.
Sonnet 40: Take All My Loves, My Love, Yea, Take Them All
With his forcefully forgiving Sonnet 40, William Shakespeare finally connects us right back to Sonnet 35 and sets out on a short sequence which explains with startling frankness what has happened and what should now, and, more to the point, should not now be the consequence of this. That Shakespeare feels desolate about his lover's 'ill deeds' is beyond doubt, as is the fact that this sonnet goes straight to the heart of the matter: love. This poet, who has the greatest vocabulary of any writer in the English language if not ever then certainly up until then uses the word 'love' ten times here – more often than in any other sonnet – to mean either the emotion itself or whoever may be this other person or indeed these other people whom he directs this emotion towards in a relationship that has suddenly become at the very least triangular in the most spectacular fashion.
Sonnet 39: O How Thy Worth With Manners May I Sing
Sonnet 39 is the last of four sonnets that seem to disrupt the sequence of events until Sonnet 35, and picks up more or less directly with Sonnet 36 by suggesting that it would be best if William Shakespeare were separate from the young man, though for wholly different reasons. The sonnet appears to post-rationalise an imposed absence of, or from, the young man, while also echoing the question posed by Sonnet 38 of how to sing the young man's praises, but then again developing this into a totally different direction. As with Sonnets 36, 37, and 38, it is not entirely clear whether this sonnet has been grouped together with these other poems here simply because it appears to make reference to at least two of them, or whether it really does belong into this smaller group, irrespective of whether that smaller group is in the right place or not.
Sonnet 38: How Can My Muse Want Subject to Invent
With his remarkably deadpan Sonnet 38, William Shakespeare changes tone completely and positions his own poetry as the product of the man who has so long now been his Muse. Like Sonnet 37, it does not obviously fit into the sequence, but like Sonnet 37, it still clearly speaks to the same young man and also like Sonnet 37, it references topics that have been expressed earlier in the series: in this case the particular relationship that exists between a poet and the person he is inspired by to write poetry for, something that has been addressed as early as Sonnet 21, where Shakespeare compared himself favourably to the kind of poet who sings his love's praises in unsubstantiated hyperbole.
Sonnet 37: As a Decrepit Father Takes Delight
In the first of three sonnets that appear to disrupt the sequence that concerns itself with the young man's evident infidelity, Sonnet 37 revisits the themes previously encountered of the poet's keenly felt lack of luck, absence of esteem, and sorely missing success, and contrasts this with the young man's abundant riches, both material and metaphorical, describing them as a source of sustenance and survival even while Fortune bestows her gifts elsewhere.
Sonnet 36: Let Me Confess That We Two Must Be Twain
With the curious Sonnet 36 William Shakespeare appears to be either inverting the guilt and shame that the previous three sonnets have laid upon the young man for his evident transgression and projecting it directly on himself, or to be uncovering a new source of scandal that gives him reason to suggest – borderline disingenuously, it might seem – that they dissociate themselves from each other, even though in the same breath it also emphatically confirms the love they hold for each other.
Sonnet 35: No More Be Grieved at That Which Thou Hast Done
With his tormented, paradoxical, and sensationally revealing Sonnet 35, William Shakespeare absolves the young man of his misdeed and puts what has happened down to nothing in the world being perfect, not even he. It is the third in this set of three sonnets that might be considered a triptych, and with it, Shakespeare appears to resign himself into the triangular complexity his relationship with the young man has acquired, while dropping a nugget of information that to us comes as something of a poetic bombshell.
Sonnet 34: Why Didst Thou Promise Such a Beauteous Day
The devastated and devastatingly powerful Sonnet 34 picks up from where Sonnet 33 wanted to not only leave off but let go, and like a second wave of pain and mourning asks the young man directly why he has allowed the gorgeous sunshine of this relationship to be cast over with appalling weather. And unlike Sonnet 33, it not only tries, but apparently succeeds at forgiving the young man's conduct, paving the way for an even more conciliatory Sonnet 35, principally – and most tellingly – prompted by the young man's apparent response to being so called out.
Sonnet 33: Full Many a Glorious Morning Have I Seen
With Sonnet 33 a new phase begins in the relationship between William Shakespeare and the young man. The storm clouds that gather in this poem are a direct and intentional metaphor for the turbulence the two face, as the young man has clearly gone and done something to upset his loving poet. What exactly this is, the sonnet doesn't tell us, but it is obvious that Shakespeare is hurt and disappointed, whilst trying to rationalise the young man's behaviour in a way that makes some sort of sense to him.
Sonnet 32: If Thou Survive My Well-Contented Day
The wryly ironic Sonnet 32 marks a caesura in the canon, as it sits right between a development arc in the relationship that spans the sequence uninterrupted from Sonnet 18 to Sonnet 31, while giving nothing away of the entirely new phase the relationship enters with the storm clouds that gather in Sonnet 33. In tone, in attitude, in self-evaluation, it gains access to a register different to any that has gone before and quite unlike any that is soon to come, and so it stands out, rather, for being really quite unique.
Sonnet 31: Thy Bosom Is Endeared With All Hearts
With the astonishingly bold, borderline brazen, Sonnet 31, William Shakespeare strikes a completely new tone and tells both his young lover and us things he has not revealed before. It comes as close as we have seen thus far to declaring a physical component to their relationship, and in doing so opens an entirely new chapter with a whole different dynamic.
Sonnet 30: When to the Sessions of Sweet Silent Thought
Sonnet 30 picks up on the theme of Sonnet 29 and develops the 'sweet love' remembered there into a reminiscence about lost love, missed opportunity and failed aspirations, among which again it is the thought of the young man that has the power, here not so much to simply lift the spirit and therefore the state of mind and heart, but to restore the losses suffered and to end the sorrows they have brought – to, in essence, heal.
Sonnet 29: When in Disgrace With Fortune and Men's Eyes
One of the most celebrated poems in the canon, Sonnet 29 casts William Shakespeare in a state of deep and lonely unhappiness, from which the memory of his young lover is able to lift him in spectacular fashion. By continuing the theme of weariness and dejection established by the previous two sonnets, it confirms our notion of Shakespeare being on the road, away from the young man, but rather than focusing on a longing desire to be with him, it rejoices in the love experienced before.
Sonnet 28: How Can I Then Return in Happy Plight
Sonnet 28 continues on from Sonnet 27 and develops the thought further, elaborating on the ways day and night appear to conspire to make William Shakespeare's struggling life a misery as he travels, away from his young lover. While it thus does not tell us anything that is in that sense new, it produces a layered internal dialogue that gives us a great sense of the poet's state of mind and disposition of heart.
Sonnet 27: Weary With Toil, I Haste Me to My Bed
Sonnet 27 is the first of several sonnets in which Shakespeare laments the fact that he is away from his young lover, thus answering the question posed indirectly by Sonnet 26 as to who is on the move. And while this sonnet can stand on its own, with a fully formed and perfectly concluded argument, it does come as a pair with Sonnet 28, which follows on directly from it and which, by contrast, relies on this sonnet to be properly introduced. The two should therefore be looked at together, and we will do so when we get to Sonnet 28.
Sonnet 26: Lord of My Love, to Whom in Vassalage
The obsequious, so as not to say startlingly submissive, Sonnet 26 radically changes the tone and therefore our perception of the constellation between William Shakespeare and the young man: gone is the confidence of Sonnet 25, gone, even, is the complexity of Sonnet 24 and the uncertainty of Sonnet 23, long gone seems the joy and exuberance of Sonnet 18. With Sonnet 26, William Shakespeare effectively withdraws, resets, and almost apologises for having been presumptuous in his declarations of love.
Sonnet 25: Let Those Who Are in Favour With Their Stars
The at once defiant and celebratory Sonnet 25 is the first in the series to tell us something about William Shakespeare's own situation in life, and it also makes an astonishingly bold claim on the young man, newly asserting not only that the two of them belong together, but that they are inseparable.
Sonnet 24: Mine Eye Hath Played the Painter and Hath Stelled
With the complex and in its conclusion quietly insightful Sonnet 24, William Shakespeare looks more closely at what is happening between him and the young man whom he has declared his passion for, and he does so in a tone that manages to be both hopeful and realistic – so as not to say resigned – at the same time. It spreads the short shadow of doubt that Sonnet 23 had already tentatively cast over the relationship, but it still does so in the subtlest of ways, leaving plenty of room for the renewed optimism that will follow briefly with Sonnet 25.
Sonnet 23: As an Unperfect Actor on the Stage
The simultaneously self-conscious and also cautiously confident Sonnet 23 counsels the young man in the art of love, and in doing so it becomes the first one in the series to signal an uncertainty on William Shakespeare's part about the level to which the young man's love for him matches his own, in both degree and sophistication. And it is also the first sonnet to tell us that while Shakespeare still fully believes in the power of his written words, he has a tendency to become tongue-tied when in the presence of his young lover.
Sonnet 22: My Glass Shall Not Persuade Me I Am Old
The superficially traditional and almost a little wistful sounding Sonnet 22 is the first one to address the age difference between William Shakespeare and his young lover and it is also the first one to expressly show us that – certainly as far as the poet is concerned and believes to understand – this love is mutual and reciprocated. Which makes this the third sonnet in quick succession to give us invaluable insights into Shakespeare's emotional world.
Sonnet 21: So Is it Not With Me as With That Muse
The distinctive and sincere Sonnet 21 stands out as the first in the series in which William Shakespeare addresses an unspecified general 'audience' to talk about his love – as opposed to the young man directly, or a personified concept, such as Time – and it is also the first one to reference the poetry of somebody else or of other people. It therefore marks an especially significant stage in the development of the relationship and a notable new stance with which Shakespeare positions himself towards his love and the outside world.
Sonnet 20: A Woman's Face, With Nature's Own Hand Painted
The fabulously frank and somewhat saucy Sonnet 20 takes the proverbial bull by the horn and leads it straight to the elephant in the room, addressing head on the fact that the person I, the poet, am here in love with is a young man; and it confirms one of the principal clues we were given earlier as to the young man's identity, which two facts together make this one of the most important sonnets for our understanding of The Fair Youth and Shakespeare's relationship with him so far.
Sonnet 19: Devouring Time, Blunt Thou the Lion's Paws
The heartfelt, somewhat self-conscious, but defiant and confident Sonnet 19 underlines the bold assertion I, the poet, William Shakespeare, made in Sonnet 18: that it is my poetry itself that gives life to the young man who receives these sonnets, and thus preserves his youth forever.
Sonnet 18: Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?
One of the most famous sonnets in the canon, Sonnet 18 bursts onto the scene with an energy, confidence, and message all of its own, setting the tone for a whole new kind of relationship and putting the poetry itself centre stage. It is one of the easiest to understand – which may in parts account for its immense popularity – and it is utterly delightful in its unabashed affirmation of life.
The Procreation Sonnets
The Procreation Sonnets are something of a conundrum: they are entirely clear in their intention, in their message, and in their poetic purpose, they stand at the beginning of the originally published sequence, and yet at first glance they seem to fit nowhere properly. And more than anything else – and more than many if not most of the other sonnets that we have of William Shakespeare’s – they raise the basic question: why? Why does William Shakespeare at some point in his life take time out of what cannot have been anything other than a busy schedule to tell a young man to produce an heir? What concern is the young man of his? And who is the young man?
In this Special Edition of SONNETCAST, Sebastian Michael, author of The Sonneteer, summarises what the Procreation Sonnets tell us so far about William Shakespeare and the recipient of the first 17 Sonnets...
Sonnet 17: Who Will Believe My Verse in Time to Come
The intricate, self-aware, and in places truly tender Sonnet 17 is the last one to advise the young man to produce some offspring, which makes it the last of the Procreation Sonnets, and it segues smoothly into entirely different and really new territory where William Shakespeare as the poet begins to take centre stage right next to the man he has been writing these sonnets for.
Sonnet 16: But Wherefore Do Not You a Mightier Way
The riveting and really rather irony-infused Sonnet 16 directly follows on from Sonnet 15 and completes the argument set up and semi-resolved there. And while Sonnet 15 can just about stand on its own – with, as we have seen – quite thrilling significance for how it then can be read, Sonnet 16 absolutely needs to be read with Sonnet 15 for it to make sense.
Sonnet 15: When I Consider Every Thing That Grows
With the somewhat suggestive, slightly cheeky, and categorically confident Sonnet 15, William Shakespeare taps into a whole different register that positions him as the poet in a whole new relationship towards the young man he is writing to, and with astonishing effect.
Sonnet 14: Not From the Stars Do I My Judgement Pluck
The at first glance curiously anticlimactic Sonnet 14 seems to take us a step back in any real or supposed trajectory that the sonnets so far have described, but it nevertheless offers an intriguing insight into the constellation between the poet and the young man, and may in fact hide more than meets the eye.
Sonnet 13: O That You Were Yourself, But Love, You Are
The personal, pleading, and particularly revealing Sonnet 13 marks an especially noteworthy change in tone, and it provides one specific detail that narrows the field of candidates for the young man dramatically in one fell swoop.
Sonnet 12: When I Do Count the Clock that Tells the Time
In the gorgeous, pensive, and mature Sonnet 12, William Shakespeare finds a whole new register to relate a message that is by now familiar, and he reveals something of the depth and melancholy that will become a feature of future poems in the series.
Sonnet 11: As Fast as Thou Shalt Wane, so Fast Thou Growst
The refreshingly blunt and remarkably utilitarian Sonnet 11 makes a now well established old argument with a couple of surprising new twists and confirms, or at least supports, a couple of observations about Shakespeare's day and about the young man that we made before.
Sonnet 10: For Shame Deny That Thou Bearst Love to Any
The spectacular Sonnet 10 boldly goes where no sonnet in the series so far has gone before and radically changes the tone and the dynamic between the poet and the young man.
Sonnet 9: Is it for Fear to Wet a Widow's Eye
The multi-layered and marvellously complex Sonnet 9 sets out with an unlikely supposition to make some strongly suggestive statements about the young man and his conduct and introduces a whole new, massive, and massively important, concept to these poems.
Sonnet 8: Music to Hear, Why Hearst Thou Music Sadly?
The quite contradictory because poetically plausible but seemingly lightweight Sonnet 8 makes yet another, maybe somewhat more laboured, attempt at coming up with a metaphor to move the young man to making a child: music. But it does offer up a significant new revelation...
Sonnet 7: Lo! In the Orient When the Gracious Light
In the fascinating Sonnet 7 William Shakespeare draws on a classical image to try and convince the young man that he needs to produce a son: the sun travelling in its chariot through the sky, and although the metaphor may have its flaws it still tells us yet more about the poet, his education, and his cultural context.
Sonnet 6: Then Let Not Winter's Ragged Hand Deface
Sonnet 6 seamlessly follows Sonnet 5 and continues the argument set up there: the poet compares the young man to a flower which, as winter approaches, can only maintain its beauty in a distilled form, and encourages him to distil himself by depositing his essence somewhere so it can not only be preserved but even multiply itself.