Monday, 12 May 2014

Shakespeare 450th Birth Anniversary Festival – Symposium on Apr 27, 2014, Prof Thomas Duddy on The Sonnets

The dedication page of the Sonnets published by Thomas Thorpe in 1609

The Sonnets would not have been printed except that Thomas Thorpe got hold of them through W.H., thought to be William Harvey, the 3rd husband of Countess Southampton to whose son, the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesely, Shakespeare’s patron, the sonnets were addressed.

WS revealed himself in the Sonnets in all his vulnerability and as far as people know it was not meant for publication, but sent to his patron and close friend, to whom they are addressed. They were not literary exercises at all, but intimate personal correspondence in the form of sonnets from WS to his patron. But some were circulated among friends of the Earl and came to the notice of Francis Meres, a Cambridge man, who refers to them in 1598.

They probably date to the plague years of 1592-93. Prof Thomas Duddy confesses his frank love of the Sonnets, scores of which he has memorised, for his macular degeneration makes reading very difficult now.

Prof Thomas Duddy  

Yet Prof Duddy  stood with his mike in front of the audience and thrilled them with the riches that lay in the complex mind of William Shakespeare as evidenced in the sonnets. He chose Sonnets 18, 29, 65, 73, 97, and 138 which were given as handouts to the audience. Then he proceeded to treat them one by one, reciting them first and expatiating on what was noteworthy, raising questions to think on as a mentor would.

Later a number of KRG readers wished he would lead a seminar on the Sonnets when he returned in Sept from Brooklyn. What follows is Joe's recollection of the talk, but it has equal parts of  Helen Vendler's The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets and his own reflections.

To read more click below:

 Exposition of Shakespeare's Sonnets by Thomas Duddy

Prof. Duddy, Ph.D., is a retired professor of English with degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and the State University of New York at Buffalo. He taught at City University of New York and Brooklyn State College. He lives between Fort Kochi, Kerala, and Brooklyn Heights, NY. He is a poet with two published collections, On Boca Ciega Bay (1997) and Regarding the Snow (2004). At present he is working on his magnum opus, a long poem, tentatively named Wedding Song.

Prof Duddy chose 6 sonnets and time-permitting wished to read each of them and provide an exegesis for the student and ask questions as if he were in a Literature class teaching the Sonnets of WS.

Sonnets are meant to be received in two ways, as performance in voice, and as words on the printed page; this is true of all poetry. There are two ‘energy constructs’ that are used for sonnets, the 8/6 construct of an octet followed by a sestet, in which at line 9 a change of idea takes place, a volta as the Italians call it. Of course, the octet itself is made of two quatrains, rhymed ababcdcd, and the sestet efefgg. And every line is in iambic pentameter; but the meter can be broken by the poet for emphasis and for variation to prevent the sonnet from lapsing into sing-song. The rhymed couplet at the end has an epigrammatic quality in the best sonnets. The argument (which flows though all Shakespeare sonnets) advances by quatrains. This logical and literary structure which pervades the sonnets, no matter what their subject, may look artificial or contrived to moderns, but they forget that in Shakespeare’s time, it was an instinctive rhetorical device and sonneteers thought in such terms and it became part of their mental equipment; it is much like singing in a particular raga; given the raga’s structure, a trained musician in India will have no trouble singing in the defined raga whatever the subject.

Another structure for the sonnet is 12/2. The rhymed couplet at the end is a cause for some worry. If it is weak or indifferent, the sonnet fails to make an impact.

Sonnet 73
THAT time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.
   This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire/ That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

It is obvious WS is writing about old age, his perhaps, or more likely it’s the poet-observer who is writing, and the ‘me’ may be a fictional me. The sonnet proceeds in three successive arcs of diminishing sweep. The first quatrain is about a particular season of the year, autumn, when the leaves fall; the second about a particular time of day when the sun fades; and the third about the residue of ashes on which what’s left of his vitality must extinguish. The couplet, said Prof Duddy, is prose-like, implying he didn’t think it was up to form.

Joe recalls two lines from this sonnet as outstanding. The first is the metaphor for autumn
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang

'Bare ruin'd choirs' characterises wonderfully the decrepit state of age in the guise of boughs that are bare, without leaves; what a stroke of genius to choose the word ‘choirs’ for the state of his life! Bare ruin'd choirs, say it again and again, and extract its pith. In his time WS witnessed the ruin that happened to Catholic churches that were razed in a religious frenzy, and that may be the origin of this metaphor he uses for decay.

Joe also thought the couplet states with fine condensation the poet’s appreciation of the strength of his lover’s attachment that shee can continue to love him knowing the object of hiser love will be extinguished soon. Indeed, Joe liked the last line so much that he incorporated it into a toast he made for his friends in the autumn of life at a reunion recently:
May this whiskey your life prolong
For what we love we must leave ere long!
And what we leave we can't recover,
Not again — not now — not ever!

Sonnet 18
SHALL I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
   So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
   So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

The structure of this sonnet is 8/6, more common with Shakespeare. No. 18 is the most famous of his sonnets, because it is a sunny piece, metaphorically and literally. The bravura of its opening line
SHALL I compare thee to a summer's day?

takes your breath away. From there the limitations of the summer’s day comparison to the beloved is elaborated line by line for the next seven lines! And then again an ecstatic declamation:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade

The reasons it will not fade are somewhat tendentious but stated grandly, ending with the idea that death won’t come to her. The couplet tells why:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

The poet is boasting that what gives immortality is hiser being embedded in his sonnet as subject, for his verse will endure beyond his death and her death. 
Indeed he was justified in that supreme confidence, for here we are reciting it 450 years later, and you bet it will be recited 1,000 years later too – if humans are still around.

Prof Duddy says the repetition of the word ‘this’ is extraordinary in the last line. It is very telling. Is this a love poem? Sure it is, and that’s how Madhav Sharma used it in his desperate bid to woo the Carmel Convent girl in his one-man play Bharat, Blighty, and the Bard – Shakespeare for Everyone. Prof Duddy quoted the opening of John’s gospel, In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with Godand the Word was made flesh. It’s the poet’s words that will last.

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,
Featured 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

This was the first sonnet of WS that Prof Duddy became acquainted with. The poet feels downcast. Troubled, he wishes to be like someone more favoured of fortune, higher in intellectual power (‘scope’) or better equipped with literary skill (‘art’), but ‘haply’ (perchance) the thought of a loved one comes to his mind … and then the gloom vanishes
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings

These are beautiful poems, said Prof Duddy, and he wished Happy Birthday to William Shakespeare! What a nice word ‘haply.’ Every sonnet has word clusters that are memorable and signal the central thought; here it is thy sweet love remember'd in Joe’s opinion. If you were to give titles to these sonnets you could affix such lines.

Shakespeare loved paradox, and used it abundantly in his sonnets. Here it’s visible in the phrase
With what I most enjoy contented least

The contrasts between most and least, between enjoy and contented offers the paradox. The poet also uses the same word in different senses within a sonnet, as here, ‘state’ in line 10 means ‘state of mind’, and the same word in line 14 means the poet’s ‘lot’. ‘state’ occurs in line 2 also.

But what is this lack of rhyme between ‘possessed’ and ‘least’ in lines 6 and 8 respectively? One can’t believe Master Shakespeare was a poor rhymer. The sonnet form he adopted absolutely requires the rhyme scheme of the 14 lines to be ababcdcdefefgg. The mystery disappears on reading Prof David Crystal who ascribes it to the difference between the Original Pronunciation (OP) of Elizabethan times and modern day British Received Pronunciation (RP). There are 19 instances in the sonnets, he notes, where love is made to rhyme with move, prove, and their inflected forms. “Only a third of the sonnets rhyme perfectly in modern English. And in 18 instances it is the final couplet that fails to work, leaving a particularly bad taste in the ear,” says Prof David Crystal.

The solution to the lack of rhyme between ‘possessed’ and ‘least’ in lines 6 and 8 respectively is found in Prof Crystal’s paper Sounding Out Shakespeare: Sonnet Rhymes in Original Pronunciation; see

In OP ‘least’ and ‘possessed’ had the same vowel sound at the end! So too ‘East’ and ‘West’ which are rhymed in sonnet 132. Prof Crystal is a votary of OP and has several websites devoted to Shakespeare’s works, his own books, and a fine glossary of Shakespeare’s words:

In sum, I conclude, in the articulation of the sonnets of Shakespeare it is better to revert to OP.

Sonnet 65
Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o'er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer's honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
   O, none, unless this miracle have might,
   That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

When you finish reading this sonnet, and the last line fades, you have the sense of perfect beauty revealed in words. How soft and lovely are the ten monosyllables of the last line that trip away on tip-toe:
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

You can imagine WS dipping his quill in black ink and writing the words ‘black ink.’ Shakespeare loves such moments of self-awareness, and that is his genius at work. The poem existed in real time for him as he wrote it. The two k’s in black ink (coupled with the k sound of miracle in the previous line) and the two long i’s in shine bright cannot fail to impress the ear.

As in all the sonnets Joe looks for lines of sheer beauty that live on in the memory, and here it is lines 3 & 4:
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

Where else have we heard ‘honey breath’ (line 5)? Why, it’s in Romeo and Juliet Act 5, Scene 3
. O my love! my wife!
Death, that hath suck'd the honey of thy breath,
Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty:

It is one of the locutions that WS repeats in different contexts. Here it is again in Coriolanus, Act 4, Scene 7 as Marcus comes upon his niece Lavinia who has been raped and had her hands cut off and her tongue cut out:
Alas a crimson river of warm blood,
Like to a bubbling fountain stirr'd with wind
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
Coming and going with thy honey breath
(Frank Kermode, Shakespeare’s Language)

The word ‘hold’ recurs in this sonnet, once in each quatrain – hold a plea (line 3), hold out (line 5), hold … back (line 11). When this happens usually WS will cause the word to appear in the couplet as well; here it does not, and the word miracle takes its place in the couplet instead.

The octet has established that there is no way beauty can survive in nature because far stronger objects are subject to the decay caused by Time. The poet asks these questions, despairingly:
... how shall summer's honey breath hold out

...where, alack,
Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid?

... what strong hand ... hold his swift foot back?

... who ... can forbid?

As Helen Vendler points out in her book, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, all the questions are answered in the last line. Where: in black ink – and the black ink implicitly answers the other questions, What strong hand: mine, Who … can forbid: I

Thus although the beauty of the beloved cannot last in nature, it will endure in the poet’s sonnets in black ink, and that will be the place where Time's best jewel from Time's chest will lie hid. WS has said the same thing before, in Sonnet 18 with these immortal lines,
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this give life to thee.

Sonnet 97
HOW like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
What old December's bareness every where!
And yet this time removed was summer's time,
The teeming autumn, big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burden of the prime,
Like widow'd wombs after their lords' decease:
Yet this abundant issue seem'd to me
But hope of orphans and unfather'd fruit;
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And, thou away, the very birds are mute;
   Or, if they sing, 'tis with so dull a cheer
   That leaves look pale, dreading the winter's near.

No. 97 is the first time we come across an Absence sonnet telling how the poet feels when the beloved is not there.
HOW like a winter hath my absence been
And yet this time removed was summer's time,

Pause a moment – the poet is not remarking on her absence, but his. That inversion is striking, is it not? He implies thereby that mentally she was always in his mind, with him, but it was he who was absent from hers. And though it was in sunny summer, the separation made it seem like dreary winter. The summer-winter contrast has to be imagined in the context of English weather.

Vendler notes that Keats remembered No. 97 so well that he transmuted it into the ode To Autumn. She cites the contrasting phrases in the sonnet: “The repeated subversion of any pleasure – as teeming and rich yield to widowed wombs and decease, as abundant issue becomes orphans and unfathered fruit, as singing turns to dull cheer – suggests the final power of the imagination over what might be called objective reality.”

Prof Duddy asked why there is a redundancy between widowed wombs and lords’ decease, since the decease of the lord implies a surviving widow. I think this is the emphasis that WS lays on often, when he restates, or explicates one line or word with another line or word. Take Hamlet's lines,
O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!

The three words 'melt', thaw', and 'resolve' indicate the same physical action.

The imaginative complexity in this sonnet comes from the poet living through actual summer, yet it appearing to him as winter; and the wanton burden of the prime (=spring, the season that just went by) soon yielding abundant issue in teeming autumn (the season to come). But that imagined fruitfulness of autumn gives him no hope (hope of orphans). After this rigmarole the poet returns to actual time, the summer, but sees the beloved enjoying this pleasant season, but not he. Why? Because,
thou away, the very birds are mute;
Or, if they sing, 'tis with so dull a cheer
That leaves look pale, dreading the winter's near.

For Joe lines 12 & 13 carry the pathos of the poem, especially line 12, And, thou away, the very birds are mute;

Prof Duddy characterised this as the art that conceals art (ars est celare artem, in Latin, i.e., True art is to conceal art), how effortlessly it seems the poet has conceived the poem so that he gives no evidence of any artifice, although a sonnet by design is a crafted work that must adhere to several rules. “We are not in the presence of poetry but of texture, for the poet has simplified things to the bone,” said Prof Duddy.

As for the birds being mute, he found the opposite is the case in Fort Kochi with koels, that start off the day with their insistent whistling cry, repeated at intervals. Yet you can never spot them, so secretive are they , emblematic of art concealing art. Of course, now his vision is so bad, Prof Duddy would not be able to discern the tree in which the koel sat, forget the koel.

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