It’s been a quiet month here at FP—I really ought to blog farther with Upton Sinclair, comment on the new Pulitzer winner (yet another book in the way of finishing my quest!), and of course share poetry more regularly. Among my many excuses (some of them valid) is the fact that we’ve learned we’re expecting a child, and the prospect of parenthood has consumed some time that would otherwise have been devoted to the blog. Exciting and busy times, as you can imagine! But it was William Shakespeare’s birthday this last week (we presume) and I can’t let it go by without a poetic nod to the Bard of Stratford—fittingly, of course, I’ll post his 2nd sonnet, with a few comments to follow, given that it follows along the lines of my news. All my best to everybody out there in the blogosphere: here’s Bill—
“When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tottered weed of small worth held.
Then, being asked where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say within thine own deep-sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserved thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer, ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine.
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.”
W. S. has a lot of famous lines, of course, and I couldn’t rank them if I tried, but this makes one of the volumes of his greatest hits, I think—it starts so nicely with a clear image that is both concrete (the weight of those winters, the furrows in the forehead) and yet abstract (winters don’t “besiege” anything, after all, and “beauty’s field” is a lovely turn of phrase but obvious metaphor: this isn’t about a farmer). Yet Shakespeare’s sonneteering—a word I’ve just invented—is, truth be told, not at the very top of his game in this one. It’s so straight-forward: unlike many of the best sonnets, #2 doesn’t shock us at the “turn” where the octet gives way to the sestet, nor does it say anything to us we might be shocked by. “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun” is a bold move, a poet who wants to startle us a little and see something new. This “forty winters” fellow is a bit simpler, a bit less artful.
But that’s also the poem’s strength, I think. It acknowledges age—not just in the fair youth being addressed, of course, but also implicitly in the speaker, who we can imagine is speaking from experience when he ponders deep-sunken eyes and tottered weeds. It sets aside self-regard. It’s one of the purest possible poetic ideas, I think—the reality that nothing physical about us lasts, and that we have therefore to invest ourselves in something else in order to be who we are. Billy tells us that this, in fact, is how to become young again, not by chasing some phantom of a youth that will not return (ah, Hollywood, how you need this verse), but by passing it on.
There’s a quiet bigotry here, of course, in the poem’s broad generalizations—it suggests pretty strongly that child-bearing and rearing are more or less the only paths to this kind of immortality, and it implies, I think, the idea that someone who chooses not to procreate is someone clinging to their “proud livery”. I think Will, if we could corner him tonight in some dim corner at the back of a Southwark pub, would acknowledge that there are plenty of other ways to invest in the future and accept our own mortality. So, while there’s a lovely literal message in this poem for a parent (or prospective parent) to take to heart, I feel like there’s a broader truth here for anyone to ponder. We need an answer, when time begins to lay us low—what did we make of all our beauty, and where now is the treasure of our salad days? It cannot be, and must not be, simply ourselves. To be human is to be more than that. It gives me something to think about today, in part as I begin to confront the reality of becoming a parent, and in part because I recognize that simply to bring a child into the world is not enough to “sum my count and make my old excuse”. Whatever I owe that child, and the future, that work is not ending—it is only begun.