ISSN 2454-8537

International Journal of Humanities in Technical Education Vol: 3, Issue 2 – February - 2019 – ISSN 2454-8537

Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the Metaphysical Poetry

Dr. Jaylaxmi Jadeja, Associate Professor, M.V.M Arts College, Rajkot

So much has been said about the creative genius of Shakespeare, much can yet be said is the awe that this world great dramatist attracts even after 400 years of his death placing him in the order of immortals. He defies definitions, regulates the rules, plays with his plays, alters the traditions and still bewitches and bewilders the reader, the audience, the spectator, the actor and the director as an artist at once of the physical and the metaphysical fetching this ‘upstart crow’ the everlasting feather of being universal.

Shakespeare steals the show by giving free flow to his pen whether writing for the page or the stage. All attempts to classify his poetic genius have led to further questions and confusions, making his works all the more ambiguous and interesting. The common string that binds all his works despite form and phase in which they are written, is the love, the most basic of all human emotions that functions as the umbilical cord of the artist. A passionate presence of love is witnessed, be it erotic and sensual, as in Venus and Adonis and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, earthly and human as in The Merchant of Venice and As You Like It, doomed and tragic as in his Tragedies like Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra, ironic and ambiguous as in Taming of The Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure. Like or unlike Ovid, Shakespeare is preoccupied with love of love and love of art, double playing on restrain and freedom on both form and content.

Excited by Jan Kott’s interpretation Shakespeare’s works in Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1965) and inspired by Prabha Sampath’s ‘… Love which alters when it alterations finds…’(2010), I propose to study some of Shakespeare’s sonnets with some of the metaphysical poems like Donne’s ‘Song’, Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’, Robert Herrick’s ‘ Delight in Disorder’ and ‘To The Virgins, To Make Much Of Time’ among others.Metaphysics rests on the premise of intellect. The effort here is to interpret love the ‘basic need’ of human beings whether tragic or comic, in metaphysical manner, where love interpolates largely with the concepts of beauty and time. With highlights on sonnets and cross lights on the comedies and tragedies this paper attempt to analyze the force of love, which is neither exclusively creative, nor exclusively destructive but absolutely inevitable aspect of the human life in all it’s pure chaste, scatological and orectic dimensions, making the whole gamut of ‘art of love’ and ‘love of art’ so spectacularly colorful.

The earliest mention of the ‘metaphysical school’ is found in an undated letter by the Drummond of Hawthornden (1585-1649) who ‘speaks of poets who make use of metaphysical ideas and scholastical quiddities.’ (Gardner, 1957:15) From Jonson’s ‘the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together’ to Eliot’s acclamation that the metaphysical poets ‘are in the direct current of English poetry’, numerous attempts have been made to define and discuss the term. To suit the present requirement, some of the striking features of the metaphysical poetry are simply summarized. It is marked largely by its limited theme, i.e. primarily love for woman and love for God and its simple yet terse and dense style. Concentration is its prime characteristic, followed by analytic and epigrammatic argument and persuasion, an abrupt beginning, hammering and ingenuity of idea instead of reflecting upon an image or thought. The origin of the ‘strong-lined verse’ the signature style of the metaphysical poetry lies in the ‘general desire at the close of Elizabeth’s rein for concise expression, achieved by an elliptical syntax, and accompanied by a staccato rhythm in prose and certain deliberate roughness in versification in poetry.’ (Gardner, 1957:16) Helen Gardner aptly writes:

The manner of metaphysical poetry originates in developments in prose and verse in the 1590s.The greatest glory of the decade is that it saw the flowering of the drama. Metaphysical poetry is the poetry of the great age of our drama. Its master John Donne was, we are told, ‘a great frequenter of plays’ in his youth.(22)

If the ‘frequenter of plays’ be the master of metaphysical poetry, can we not conjecture the producer of plays to be the master of the master of metaphysical school? The two fold attribute so much appraised by Dryden in Donne i.e. the expression of having deep thoughts in common language and having extraordinary thoughts in ordinary situations is also evident in Shakespeare’s sonnets. Just as the term metaphysical poetry is largely understood and explained when contrasted with Petrarchan and neo-classical modes in English poetry, so is Shakespearean sonnet conceptualized and executed in opposition to Petrarchan tradition of composition as well as the treatment of the subject. Keats’ advise to the reader to ‘wander with it and muse upon it and dream upon it’ is not possible with a reader of metaphysical poems and Shakespearean sonnets. Both make certain demand on the reader creating confusion in his mind with regards to the pleasure of poetry with the pleasure of the puzzles. Michael Best remarks in the introduction to William Shakespeare on the ‘Art of Love’:

Shakespeare’s sonnets offer a fascinating array of exploration into the passions and tensions of love, at the same time, they are deeply puzzling. We donot with certainty know when they were written; who they were written; or what audience Shakespeare intended for them. The best guess is that they are the products of Shakespeare’s more mature years, written intermittently and very possibly revised or polished over time. (26)

Parting and union, life full of love and love full of life, loyalty in love and sufferings of betrayal, reciprocated love and unrequited love, temporariness of beauty and timely gains of sensual pleasures, permanence of Platonic love and the charm of beauty and love, as victims in the hands of Time are the essential instruments for the metaphysical poets and Shakespeare too. 154 sonnets on love, i.e. love, admiration, fascination for a young friend and love for a dark woman itself is a pointer towards the metaphysical nature and manner of his sonnets. The ideal of feminine beauty (dropping eyes, mourning face) capable of leading the lover to the spiritual quest, for which coyness was the attribute of woman in courtly tradition in the Renaissance literature, becomes the core question for Shakespeare and the metaphysical poets alike.

For example, Marvell in the Poem ‘To This Coy Mistress’ and Herrick in To The Virgins, To Make Much Of Time, implore their respective beloved to shun away coyness and allow them to make physical advancements.

Herrick writes:

Then be not coy, but use your time,

And, while ye may, go marry;

For, having lost but once your prime,

You may forever tarry.

Marvell writes:

Had we but world enough, and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime.

Ironically enough, it is very difficult to say that Shakespeare’s mistress was coy. Instead his friend as well as the mistress are both unconventional as expressed in Shakespeare’s sonnets 20 and 130 respectively.

A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted

Hast-thou, the master mistress of my passions; …

….. By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.

But since she pricked the out for women’s pleasure,

Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.

If Shakespeare’s drama triumphs on his dexterous use of irony then his sonnets are a success on his intricate use of paradox; scattered all through the 154 sonnets and more so in the later section mainly addressed to the dark woman. Sonnet 130 is the epitome of such a paradox.

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red than her lips are red;

It is the best example of an extended dissonance of external beauty and internal beauty. The outward beauty which rested on the fairness of the complexion, brightness of the eyes, hue of the hair, sweetness body odour, suppleness of touch, melody of voice and the sublimation of the divinity are all too paradoxically put forward culminating into the last powerful couplet commenting on the poet’s love to be rare for his beloved is incomparable.

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare

As any she belied with false compare.

Is the same paradox not implied in Robert Herrick’s Delight in Disorder?

Herrick is trickily placing and misplacing pieces of clothes and clothing that cover different parts of a beloved’s body which creates a kind of seeming disorder that is quiet delightful. Like Shakespeare, he too rejoices the disorderliness of the concept of beauty.

A sweet disorder in the dress

Kindles in clothes a wantonness

A lawn about the shoulders thrown into a fine distraction…

A careless shoestring, in whose tie

I see a wild civility;

Do more bewitch me than when art

Is too precise in every part. (Delight in Disorder)

Sonnets 130 and 131 substantiate this thought further.

Thy black is fairest in my judgement’s place.

In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds,

And thence this slender, as I think proceeds. (Sonnet-130)

…To mourn for me, since mourning doth thee grace,

And suit thy pity like in every part.

Then will I swear beauty herself is black,

And all they foul that thy complexion lack. (Sonnet-132)

From the paradoxical perception of Petrarchan blond beauty, we now move towards the graver aspects of love i.e. inconstancy infidelity and the mutability in the face of Time. Shakespeare’s plays abound in illustrating the point. To mention just a few:

‘ Frailty ! thy name is woman ! (Hamlet)

….And all the argument is a whore and cuckold’. (Troilus and Cressida)

‘What sense had I of her stolen hours of lust?’

I saw it not, thought it not, it harmed not me: (Othello)

John Donne’s much anthologized and imitated poem ‘Song’ bears a very strong resemblance to the ideas expressed (though removed from the context) in the above lines.

..Thou, when thou return’st, wilt tell me

All strange wonders that befell thee,

And swear


Lives a woman true, and fair.

…. Though she were true when you met her,

And last, till you write yours letter,

Yet she

Will be

False , ere I come, to two, or three.

Shakespeare never stops surprising his readers in is multidimensional treatment of love. Michael Best righty remarks:

As Shakespeare’s plays and poems explore the art of love, they return insistently to the challenges that face lovers of all ages and persuasions. Love, especially young love, is ecstatic, but at the same time tenuous, brief, unrequited or resisted. (144)

The course of true love never did run smooth not only for the characters but for the poet too. Whether the obstacles are self-inflicted or not, Time is the biggest culprit for the lovers. For instance the conversation between Lysander and Hermia in A Midsummer Night Dream and Herrick’s To The Virgins, … speak of the devastating role of Time.

Lysander Or, if there were a sympathy in choice,

War, death or sickness, did lay siege to it,

Making it momentary as a sound,

Swift as a shadow, short as any dream;

Brief as the lighting in the collied night

That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth,

And ere a man hath power to say “Behold”!

The jaws of a darkness do devour it up:

So quick bright things come to confusion. (Act-I Sc.1)

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,

Old time is still a - flying;

And this same flower that smiles today.

Tomorrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the Sun

The higher he’s a - getting,

The sooner will his race be run,

And nearer he’s to setting.

Sonnets 146 and 147 are strikingly metaphysical in their use of metaphors, and uniqueness of the spiritual quest. In sonnet 146, human body is compared to Earth and mansion to suggest that the soul resides in that body which is temporary like a mansion.When the reader comes across, ‘Shall worms, inheritors of this excess, eat up thy charge?’ one is immediately reminded of … ‘then worms shall try That long preserved virginity, And your quaint honour turn to dust, And into ashes all my lust: .. (To his Toy Mistress) In the same way sonnet 147 is remarkable for its metaphor wherein Shakespeare calls Reason the physician to love which perhaps is the ultimate proof of his sonnets being metaphysical.

… My reason, the physician to my love,

Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,

Hath left me, and I desperate now approve

Desire is death, which physic did except.

Past cure I am, now reason is past care,

And frantic- mad with evermore unrest,

My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,

At random from the truth vainly expressed.

For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,

Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.

Reading of this sonnet completely baffled me to find out how the genius prepared the capsule for the reader to comprehend his polygonal ‘art of love and love of art’. By saying that his love is a disease which is further fed and nursed by love itself he speaks like an ardent lover ever in need of sexual pleasure. This passionate lover goes on to immediately become a conscious physician of himself. To warnthe lover that ‘Desire is Death’, he highlights the devouring nature of love in a single stroke illustrating the mastery of ‘more matter and less words’. Reason had forbidden him the desire of/to love, but he has passed the stage of cure and so eventually he enters into the area of madman-reminding us of ‘the lunatic the lover and the poet’, and also ofDr. Johnson’s remark; ‘Love is the wisdom of the fool and the folly of the wise.’

If this means lover’s thoughts be like the discourse of a madman, the question arising would be, can a madman have a discourse? If yes what sort of discourse? And the climax is that they are ‘at random from the truth vainly expressed.’ Is Shakespeare not referring to the truth that love is the ‘basic need’ as Hornby explains and it cannot be disregarded though it has the power to make you mad that wisely expresses the truth of life and the truth of art as in the final couplet of sonnet 147.

For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,

Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.

Sonnets 128 and 129 are fraught with jerky statements and puns that have lustful, lascivious and erotic connotations. Sonnet 144 has a hint to sexual intercourse. With these and many more examples that can yet be cited I am tempted to conclude:

Love is not love, if it unconsumed lies and

‘Criticism is too young to know what Shakespeare is.

References and works cited

Edwin Honing and Oscar Williams, (ed) The Major Metaphysical Poets of the Seventeenth Century, New York: Washington Square Press, 1969.

Helen Gardner, ed. The Metaphysical Poets, Great Britain: Penguing Books Ltd., (1957) rpt 1963.

Michael Best, ed. William Shakespeare on The Art Of Love, London: Duncan Baird Publishers, 2009.

Prashant Sinha and Mohini Khot (ed)Vintage Shakespeare new perspectives from India and abroad,Jaipur: Book Enclave, 2010.