Shakespeare’s art is reborn: by love

Sonnet 29

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,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
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 remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

”Sonnet 29 is essentially a single sentence, cascading down the lines with the virtuosity of the natural speaking voice that Shakespeare mastered in his career as an actor and playwright. He treats sonnet structure with audacious, jazzlike improvisation, as if it weren’t even there.

The sonnet re- creates an episode of severe depression that appear as all too familiar to Shakespeare (he was probably in his forties). The litanylike cadence catches us up in an obsessive menthal rhytm so that we see things as he does. Direction is ingeniously indicated by the extra three theatrical ‘blocking’: we are made to look one way and then another in a psychologically distorted world. At the same time, we feel burdened by heavy emotion, sinking to the nadir of the poem in the world ‘despising’ (Camille Paglia, from ”Break, Blow, Burn”, New York, 2005).

Isn’t it amazing, if I may insert my own comment here, that the greatest genius in Western literature – who we suppose is the one talking – is lamenting about his own feelings of inferiority in regards to his formal education (it is said to have been rather rudimentary) , his social status, his looks (well) and most surprisingly his art – ”Shakespeare, incredible to us, envies another’s ‘art,’ that is, literary skill, probably because it is of a more regular, polished, and fashionable kind (Camille Paglia)”? He envies people in high places who were blessed by the same Goddess Fortuna that had abandoned him, people who were more handsome than him (”Featur’d like him”) and so on. But isn¨t it also amazing that the grievances expressed in this poem come alive in a way that an old man – like me – with a justly depreciated self image can identify with them over 400 years later? These opening lines could be a mirror of my own self-image for most of my life: ””outcast,” ostracized, ”in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes” ! And now with female eyes too, not unexpected, though, being 70 years old…As often has been repeated: Shakespeare in his timeless humanity is our contemporary.

But let’s get back to Paglia’s admirably sensitive and insightful reading:

”Art makes a disturbing reentry. That he is least ‘contented’ with what he most enjoys suggests Shakespeare’s writing career is in crisis. Uninspired, he is merely going through the motions. But his identity is so centered in art making that any threat to it worsens his sense of extremity. ‘Myself almost despising’: he tastes the surfeited self-loathing that leads Hamlet to the brink of suicide.

At the corrosive word ‘despising,’ when the poem seems about to self-destruct, rescue ‘haply’ (luckily) comes as a happy thought—the memory of a precious face. Is it a man or a woman? The poet blurs it. But since the sonnet’s human dramatis personae have all been male, we might well conjecturc that the beloved is the ”fair youth” whom Sonnet 144 calls an ”angel,” a role he plays here over the distance of time. His effect on the poem and on Shakespeare’s ”state” of mind is immediate: the mood darts upward like ”the lark at break of day arising”. It’s a new dawn……The lark bursts into song for the sheer joy of being alive. Its ”hymns” follow the same arcing path as the poet’s earlier ”bootless” prayers, but a bird doesn’t care if ”heaven’s gate” is locked. It makes music because it can. So does poetry flow from him, Shakespeare implies, when love is the goad. The beating of the lark’s wings surely mimes the beating of his own heart, which quickens at the mere idea of the beloved.

The poem concludes in unqualified direct address: ‘For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings’ . Perhaps the sonnet was sent as a gift to its inspirer, but the beloved has already half materialized as a luminous presence. The friend’s ‘sweet love’ may or may not have been physi­cal, but it is enduringly restorative. Lady Luck’s stinginess has been neutralized by a bonanza of spiritual ‘wealth.’ Love allows the re­vitalized poet to ‘scorn’ ambition and materialism: high rank and power now seem paltry. Emotional exaltation brings salvation. Shake­speare’s art is reborn, crystallizing in the poem before us.”

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