Shakespeare's sonnets are the most beautiful representation of the most pathetic love, I mean the kind that is just guaranteed to make your life a living hell as the price of whatever short-lived pleasure you got out of it.
The whole thing is rigged against the narrator (we'll call him Shakespeare) from jump, and he knows it but he can only go forward. Don't you get the sense from the sonnets that the guy, the beloved, is just never really there? That Shakespeare is doing all the work of feeling and finding and assigning meaning? I mean, here's Shakespeare writing, you know, Shakespeare's sonnets
, for crying out loud, out of the fullness of his heart--
As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put beside his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength's abundance weakens his own heart;
So I for fear of trust, forget to say,
The perfect ceremony of love's rite,
And in mine own love's strength seem to decay,
O'ercharged with burthen of mine own love's might:
O let my looks be then the eloquence,
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more expressed.
O learn to read what silent love hath writ,
To hear with eyes belongs to love's fine wit.
--but of course the other fellow never will learn to read "what silent love hath writ." Because he doesn't need to. He's not "o'ercharged with burthen of [his] own love's might; he's just going along minding his own business.
I picture Mr. Thing reading the insomnia sonnet
in bed and falling asleep before getting to the end.
I read Sonnet 29
"When in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes..." and I want to give him some advice a friend gave to me a long time ago: don't get accustomed to all the nice part because It Will Be Taken Away.
But they're friends
! And what a comfort that is.
But if the while I think on thee (dear friend)
All losses are restored, and sorrows end.
Swell. But all the same I'd urge you not to hit the "Send" button because--
Full many a glorious morning have I seen,
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green;
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy:
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride,
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine,
With all triumphant splendour on my brow,
But out alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath masked him from me now.
Yet him for this, my love no whit disdaineth,
Suns of the world may stain, when heaven's sun staineth.
There. What did I tell you?
He's the best advocate for this bounder against his own self--
No more be grieved at that which thou hast done,
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud,
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authorizing thy trespass with compare,
My self corrupting salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are:
--even when the guy steals one of his girlfriends from him
This sort of thing just can't end well. According to the self-help literature
--which I was reading FOR A FRIEND--Shakespeare is doing everything wrong. Instead of excusing and forgiving and indulging and accommodating, he should be noticing certain warning signs and strengthening his fortifications, protecting himself from these feelings instead of just letting them take him to the Bad Place where they're certainly headed.
I have to say that in my own experience this has never worked. But then I never really tried. Or by the time I needed to try it was already too late--I was already, emotionally speaking, a mass of bruises. But at least when things got to that point I only had to figure out how to get myself better--I had at least got the message that I didn't need to be figuring out what the other party really meant or if he meant anything at all. So that was something.
The self-help book had lots of examples of unhappy couples or unhappy people whose couple status went screaming off a cliff and they're crawling stunned and bewildered out of the smoking wreckage--but it didn't show any examples of happy couples. I suspect that I would not have liked their happy couples anyway. Isn't that interesting? I think I'm automatically suspicious of the attempt of any professional person to explain the happiness of other people. Just as I am suspicious of the "we" of the professional social scientist, the one they use when they are talking to the public: as in "We lie to make ourselves look good." I mean, then I just think, "Well, maybe you do. But not me. And maybe you need to hang out with a better class of people." Yet I am easily convinced by their portrayals of unhappiness. The happiest couple I can think of in literature is Admiral and Mrs. Croft in Persuasion
. It's not that I don't believe in happy couples: I even know some! I just think that happiness itself speaks with greater authority about itself, in its own words, than anyone who takes it upon himself to define it.
But anyway Shakespeare. He doesn't take any of the good advice from the self-help books. The sonnets are about gradual but complete surrender to this feeling--at least until the very last ones when the feeling seems to have burnt itself out. But you read all the way through and there's no resistance, nor, until the later sonnets when he's talking about women again, any of the cynicism about such feelings that John Donne will frequently express
. (I might mind Donne's cynicism more if he hadn't written The Good-Morrow
, but really he's just a very different kind of artist.)
At a certain point Shakespeare had to have seen that he couldn't talk himself out of his feelings and they weren't going to invoke any corresponding return of feeling in the other party. No win, and no cure. Failure? I don't think so. It's something, after all, to add it to the record of human experience, to say it happened, it happens, it matters that it happens.