The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love.
Reading of Sonnet 126
Not technically a "sonnet," #126 remains problematic.. It has only 12 lines in six rimed couplets. It is located between the so-called "young man" sequence and the "dark lady" sonnets.
First Couplet: Time and the Mirror
O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
Dost hold Time’s fickle glass, his sickle hour;
The speaker addresses the young man, calling him "my lovely boy," and remarking that the young man has the ability to look into the mirror and know that time is passing. The phrase, "his sickle hour" refers to time cutting down youth, metaphorically with a sharp harvesting blade.
Second Couplet: The Loss of Youth
Who hast by waning grown, and therein show’st
Thy lovers withering as thy sweet self grow’st;
In the second couplet, the speaker refers to the young man’s losing his youthfulness as he has grown into a mature adult, and even though those who have loved him may have withered into old age, the young man is still a sweet soul and still maturing.
Third Couplet and Fourth Couplets: What If?
If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,
As thou goest onwards, still will pluck thee back,
She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill
May time disgrace and wretched minutes kill.
The third couplet finds the speaker beginning an "if" clause with the main clause in the fourth couplet: if nature who rules over the wreckage of bodily aging will keep you in your prime for what seems an unusual period of time, she’s merely playing tricks, even though it may seem she has the skill to disgrace time and make minutes cease to tick by.
Fifth Couplet: An Admonition
Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure!
She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure:
The speaker admonishes the young man not to let nature use him for "her pleasure" by believing she will allow him to keep his youth forever. She may put off making him look old, but she will not sustain his youth, even though it may be considered her "treasure" to have him always fresh and lovely and in his prime.
Sixth Couplet: The Reckoning
Her audit, though delay’d, answer’d must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.
The speaker’s final warning uses an accounting metaphor: though nature may delay her "audit" or reckoning of the youth’s years, they will definitely be counted because it is just the way she operates. She will make him aged and feeble in the end.
Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford
The real ''Shakespeare"
A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence
Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.
Marriage Sonnets 1-17
The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.
Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare." For example, Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poets has opined:
Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.
For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."
Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Traditionally classified as "Fair Youth")
The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.
Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.
Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154
The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.
Three Problematic Sonnets: 108, 126, 99
Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy." Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.
The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.
While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.
Sonnet 99 might be considered somewhat problematic: it features 15 lines instead of the traditional 14 sonnet lines. It accomplishes this task by converting the opening quatrain into a cinquain, with an altered rime scheme from ABAB to ABABA. The rest of the sonnet follows the regular rime, rhythm, and function of the traditional sonnet.
The Two Final Sonnets
Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.
Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.
In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.
Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."
Roger Stritmatter – He Who Takes the Pain to Pen the Book: The Poetry of the 17th Earl of Oxford
Questions & Answers
Question: Can a sonnet have 12 lines? Other than the one mentioned above?
Answer: Shakespeare sonnet 126, which features six couplets for a total of 12 lines, is not technically a sonnet; it seems a bit odd that the sonneteer did not just add one more couplet to total 14 lines. There is an 11 line sonnet called curtal sonnet, which is more common but still rather rare.
© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes