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That in black ink my love may still shine bright.
– William Shakespeare, Sonnet 65
It’s April again, Shakespeare’s birth month and National Poetry Month in the U.S. and Canada, so I thought we ought to look at some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, beginning with this April reverie.
Sonnet 98: From you have I been absent in the spring
From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue,
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight
Drawn after you, – you pattern of all those.
. . . Yet seem’d it winter still, and, you away,
. . . As with your shadow I with these did play.
Sonnet 98 is pretty straight forward:
Shakespeare’s “proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim” is an image of all the colors of trees and flowers coming back to life after winter. The poem is full of the joy and renewal of spring, but it’s muted and shadowy for this Lover missing his Beloved. He is not moved by the call of birds or the sweet smell of flowers, and though he names the white lily and the red rose “figures of delight” it’s only because they are reminders of his Love. (In the language of flowers, red roses stand for romantic or passionate love, and white lilies are for purity or majesty.) He still feels the cold of winter, because she is only there in his imagination.
Sonnet 115: Those lines that I before have writ do lie
Those lines that I before have writ do lie,
Even those that said I could not love you dearer:
Yet then my judgment knew no reason why
My most full flame should afterwards burn clearer.
But reckoning Time, whose million’d accidents
Creep in ‘twixt vows, and change decrees of kings,
Tan sacred beauty, blunt the sharp’st intents,
Divert strong minds to the course of altering things;
Alas! why, fearing of Time’s tyranny,
Might I not then say, ‘Now I love you best,’
When I was certain o’er incertainty,
Crowning the present, doubting of the rest?
. . . Love is a babe, then might I not say so,
. . . To give full growth to that which still doth grow?
Sonnet 115 is especially meaningful for me. It is the sonnet I chose for my vows to my husband on our wedding day instead of the traditional words, or something I could have written that might make me wince as the years passed. Shakespeare is indeed “not of an age, but for all time” as Ben Johnson called him.
Everything I said before wasn’t true, even when I said my love for you couldn’t be any greater. I didn’t have any way to know this love’s fire would keep burning brighter. Time’s random incidents can change anything, even avowed love or king’s commands. It ages and withers beauty, weakens our commitment to future plans, sidetracking even the most resolute. So if I fear what Time may do to us, should I say ‘NOW I love you best,’ seizing this moment because I’m not sure of what’s to come? No, this Love is in its infancy, so I will believe it grows, and will be greater yet.
My husband’s chose those sonnet for his vows:
Sonnet 29: When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
. . . For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
. . . That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
To me, this is the easiest one of all to understand. When things are going badly, and cries to heaven are useless, he curses fate and envies those who have better prospects or good looks or many friends, another who has more talent or capacity, feeling dissatisfied even with what he most enjoys, almost hating himself, but then he remembers his Beloved, and everything seems so much better that he wouldn’t change places even with kings.
(In All’s Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare says what I felt often as the wedding day drew closer: “That I should love a bright particular star / And think to wed it . . .”)
This was the music we chose to play during our exchange of vows:
April 23rd this year will be our 35th wedding anniversary. He’s still my bright particular star.