Shakespeare’s Sonnet 123

Memorization has its advantages and disadvantages.  On the one hand it gives me something to think about in odd moments and sometimes rewards me with a sudden insight; on the other, I think I miss out on the context that comes from a straight reading.  The other day I realized I don’t really get Sonnet 123.

No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change.
Thy pyramids, built up with newer might,
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange.
They are but dressings of a former sight.
Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire
What thou dost foist upon us that is old,
And rather make them born to our desire
Than think that we before have heard them told.
Thy registers and thee I both defy, 
Not wond’ring at the present nor the past,
For thy records and what we see doth lie,
Made more or less by thy continual haste.
This I do vow, and this shall ever be,
I will be true despite thy scythe and thee.

As I recall, I was attracted to this sonnet for two reasons.  One was the obvious echo of Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.”  I think this reaches for or implies something else I was thinking about at the time, from Lao Tsu, “Without going outside, you may know the whole world.”*  The second reason was that I thought it might be the inspiration of one of will-o’-the-wisps of meaning glimpsed in the random pages of Borges’ Library of Babel, the phrase “O Time thy pyramids”.

What’s odd about this sonnet?  It’s one of those I’ve remarked on before, that has little conspicuously attractive imagery.  Then, between body and couplet (often an interesting transition), the poem switches from largely impersonal (the speaker may start out “I” but comes back to “we”) theorizing on history to strident declaration.  Time in this sonnet is not just the ragged hand of winter defacing the poet’s love (Sonnet 6), but a subtler problem.  In fact, I really think this poem is about something like what I have called “historical imagination”, the way knowledge of history informs our everyday thinking.  I’d like to think that, but I just don’t know what it’s really saying.  Some foolish people see a thing for the first time and think it’s the first time it’s ever happened.  They must not be students of history.  The speaker is too wise for that.  That’s the second quatrain.  But then he would also defy history’s lying records.  So where does that leave him?  With just that bold vow, I suppose.  Is it a convincing renunciation?

There are other sonnets on time, of course, though none quite like this one.  I thought of “When in the chronicle of wasted time,” (106) with which I am familiar enough, but realized on looking back over the sonnets that I had totally forgotten about the one right after 123 that starts

If my dear love were but the child of state,
It might for Fortune’s bastard be unfathered…
It’s tremendous.  I still have a lot to think about.

* Tao Te Ching 47, trs. Feng & English

Three Reasons I Don’t Read Shakespeare’s Sonnets

I don’t read the sonnets because they are nice love poems.  There are a few of those, but a lot could just as well be called anger poems or excuse poems.  Some of the best sonnets, like “When my love swears that she is made of truth” and “A woman’s face, with nature’s own hand painted” make cynical fun.

I don’t read them because they are particularly good for imagery.  For every “kissing with golden face the meadows green” or “and sable curls all silvered o’er with white” there are three lines like “who do not do the thing they most do show”.

I don’t read them because I think they’re truthful.  He says, “My love shall in my verse ever live young”, but who sits around thinking about how attractive Shakespeare’s beloved was?

That is to say, I’ve spent quite a bit of time on the sonnets, but I find it really hard to say why.


Write it Down, My Friends

What little I manage to put up here would never have come together at all if I didn’t keep a lot of notes.  By long experimentation I’ve hit upon a combination of lists and journals that seems to complement the way I think.  I guess I know this because I don’t find myself unable to locate something I know I have written or starting new lists only to forget about them, at least not as much as I used to.  I don’t claim to have done anything very important with this, but once in a while I manage to gather up the threads of something I’ve been thinking about for a while and at least make myself think that my reading has not all been a waste of time.  Considering the little vogue for affected confessions to the effect that nobody remembers what they read (see How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read), maybe this is an accomplishment.  I’m not saying reading for pleasure or whatever is shameful, just that trying to remember what you read isn’t necessarily stupid.

Shakespeare, of course, has been over this (Sonnet 77):

Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear,
Thy dial how thy precious minutes waste;
The vacant leaves thy mind’s imprint will bear,
And of this book this learning mayst thou taste:
The wrinkles which thy glass will truly show,
Of mouthed graves will give thee memory;
Thou, by thy dial’s shady stealth mayst know,
Time’s thievish progress to eternity.
Look what thy memory cannot contain;
Commit to these waste blanks and thou shalt find
Those children nursed, delivered from thy brain,
To take a new acquaintance of thy mind.
These offices, so oft as thou wilt look,
Shall profit thee, and much enrich thy book.

A trifle compared to some of the other sonnets, yet formally perfect, memorable, and more than enough to make me wonder why I want to say anything else in praise of diaries and the like.  (Not my observation, but it makes the most sense as a kind of occasional poem inscribed in a blank book that Shakespeare gave as a gift.)

I only just realized that the phrase “Look what thy memory cannot contain” can be read two ways.  The more obvious, to me, is that the recipient should use the gift as a journal, to help himself remember.  This is borne out by his going back and taking “new acquaintance” with what has been written.  But “thy memory” is not just what you remember, what stays in your head; we also use it to mean what is remembered about you after you die.  This interpretation has the advantage of cementing the connection between the book and what might have seemed to be a separate theme of the poem, namely wearing beauty and mouthed graves.  In addition to pointing out the private advantage to one person of keeping a journal, it also points out the public advantage: there is much that the collective memory cannot contain and even the memory of beloved friends would be lost to time, but the book offers hope.

Loss and public benefit are both apposite to Thinking the Twentieth Century by the historians Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder.   It was put together out of a series of conversations shortly before Judt’s untimely death in 2010.  In each chapter, some aspect of Judt’s biography is drawn out into something wider.  The two are mainly historians of Europe, so the book really focuses on World War II and communism, with excursions into the history of Zionism, liberalism, the war in Iraq, and so forth.  It’s important stuff.  Being mainly an intellectual history, a discussion of why people might have thought what they did and who was right and who was wrong, it seems only fitting that Judt talks about his life, schools, teachers, and colleagues.  I was surprised by Judt’s apparent apology, at the end, for intruding in some way on history which ought to be written impersonally.  He was being modest.  I have no doubt that his reminiscences enrich the work.