January 11, 2016: The puzzle of sonnet 81

Most of today’s working time was spent on writing for “The making of a great painting” (Module 2), but today is also the start of sonnet 81 painting; the “underpainting day”.

Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten,
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

A rare occasion when the modern reader is also a character of the poem: we are these eyes not yet created, we are these tongues to be. The promise of immortality — or at least of a life well beyond the usual human limitations — is thus apparently upheld by the very fact that this poem is still being read and rehearsed. With one caveat: this is Shakespeare’s immortality, not anyone else’s. Not his young friend (or lover, or patron) — the assumed addressee of the sonnet (unless, of course, we decide to count the centuries-long fascination with his true identity as a kind of immortality).   

It’s not the first time in the sequence its author promises immortality-through-art to its addressee, but this is the first time — as far as I recall — that this promised immortality is so explicitly opposed — twice! — to the author’s own mundane mortality (the earth can yield me but a common grave). It is this opposition that makes the poem’s promise an apparent lie.

This contradiction puzzles the mind, and suggests — to me at least — that the superficial reading (a poet addressing someone) is wrong. There must be something else going on here: the first, conventional interpretation just doesn’t work — and there are two more aspects of the poem that make it fall apart.

First, the opposition between the listener’s immortality and the speaker’s mortality is introduced by although and though — as is their mortalities (or immortalities) are expected to be intrinsically linked to one another. Well, they are, in a sense — insofar as a poem’s immortality and the poet’s immortality are essentially the same thing. But that’s what this poem is denying. And secondly — it’s the name of the listener that the sonnet is supposed to immortalise (your name from hence immortal life shall have). But the name of a young man is never even mentioned — not here, not elsewhere in the sequence! Dante might have immortalised the name of his Beatrice, and Petrarch, the name of his Laure — but Shakespeare left the name unnamed!

And that’s why I cannot believe this poem is (a part of) a conversation between the poet and his beloved. In some way, it must be a conversation between two different “selves” of the poet (momentarily, the mind is tempted by the idea of alternative authorship: one person’s verse is immortalising the name of another).

“Two selves” might sound like introducing too much modernity into Renaissance poetry, and this well may be so. But, after all, that’s the point of immortality — Shakespeare holds a mirror up to everyone, and I am no exception. But I don’t think so, not in this case, because of the context of this poem in the sequence: the context of a relationship between a poet and his muse. This context, I beleive, offers a key to this puzzle.

2016-01-11 13.54.05The painting — as I see it now, and as I started it today — will work on the opposition between earth and air (picking up the theme of “breathing”, and the implied link between breathing and inspiration). It continues to explore the painterly contrast between cubism and Turner, and, I hope, will strengthen it (compared to previous sonnet paintings). It’s the opposition between straight lines and a circle, between harsh edges and subtle variations of colour.