Poem of the Week

Shakespeare, Whom the World Is Celebrating, Mopes in a Seasonal Love Poem

Scholars agree that this rueful sonnet is addressed to a young man, possibly an earl.

Forbes Masson as Kate in the 2014 Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Taming of the Shrew.
PR/RSC

Sonnet 98

William Shakespeare

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April dress'd in all his trim
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing,
That heavy Saturn laugh'd and leap'd with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odor 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.

From Shakespeare’s Sonnets, London, 1609

Glosses:
Pied – multi-colored
Trim – finery
Saturn – the planet associated with lethargy and gloom
Nor nor – neither nor
Lays – songs
Figures – imitations

William Shakespeare, the Sanders portrait, the earliest known depiction in his lifetime, 1603.
Wikipedia

April 23 was a double holiday: not only Passover but also the date William Shakespeare’s baptism record indicates he was born, in 1564, as well as the date of his death in 1616. Incidentally, the birth and death dates of Passover hero Moses also traditionally coincide: Through a reading of Deuteronomy 31 together with Joshua 4, rabbis figured he was born on the 7th of the Hebrew month of Adar (towards the end of winter) and died on the same date, aged 120.

The polite fiction is that poems aren’t necessarily autobiographical: Poets can imagine persons and situations, right? However, scholars agree that this rueful sonnet is addressed to a young man, possibly one of two earls. Literary gossip is interesting but the specific name and gender of the “you” is irrelevant to the reader. The surprise in this poem is the disjunction between the setting and the mood – like the lyrics of “Singing in the Rain,” only the opposite. The gorgeous day is not pleasurable.

“From you have I been absent” implies that the protagonist is the one who has gone away, perhaps from built-up, tumultuous, insalubrious and malodorous London to the countryside (Stratford-on-Avon?), leaving his beloved behind. April is so glorious that even gloomy types are exhilarated yet the vivid flowers and birdsong are but pale imitations of the beauties of the person who isn’t there. The “summer story” untold is Shakespeare’s nod to his romance “The Winter’s Tale” (1564), suggesting that he hasn’t been able to concentrate on writing anything major. In the final couplet, the poet tells his beloved how he is spending their time apart: “playing” with writing about the scene and acutely feeling their separation.

Shakespeare celebrations are everywhere. At the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, the British Council will be sponsoring a “Shakespeare Lives” program. Jewish Venice will mark the concurrent 500th anniversary of the founding of the ghetto and of Shakespeare’s death with a performance in the ghetto of the legal thriller you guessed it, in which Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg will make a cameo appearance.  And Mayor Rahm Emanuel has declared Chicago the Shakespeare capital of the United States.

*Celebrate at home, with a partner: Have a conversation using the optional Early Modern English pronouns thee, thou and thy/thine for the second person singular. Extra points for verbs – see Sonnet 18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

*Bonus: The Shakespeare Heptet performs Sonnet 98