The Bard Is Hard

Shakespeare's Sonnets, unlike the plays, were produced more for consumers of the written word than anything else, who were literate and could afford the leisure to ponder and re-read closely. Every translation into another language that I have ever looked at, no matter the language, tends to not so much "dumb down" the sonnets as tidy them up and teach them to act like respectable canonical entities, and avoid the "unseemly" as much as the opaque. (This is quite true, also, of my own attempts to translate some of the sonnets into French.)

Below is one of Shakespeare's sonnets with my commentary. It furnishes a sterling example of the challenges, and camouflaged pitfalls, that obtrude themselves upon the modern appreciator of the sonnets - which really are quite a different and even subversive beast from what more recent reception has hallucinated into them, and mentally excised from them.

Sonnet 15
William Shakespeare
Click to hear me recite the original in 16th century London English 

When I consider every thing that growes 
Holds in perfection but a little moment. 
That this huge stage presenteth nought but showes 
Whereon the Stars in secret influence comment, 

When I perceive that men as plants increase, 
Cheared and checkt even by the selfe-same skie: 
Vaunt in their youthfull sap, at height decrease, 
And weare their brave state out of memory,

Then the conceit of this inconstant stay, 
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight, 
Where wastfull time debateth with decay 
To change your day of youth to sullied night, 

   And all in war with Time for love of you 
   As he takes from you, I ingraft you new.


Here, though, let me try a commentary just for shifts and tickles to show how staggeringly much I think modern readers almost invariably miss even as they feel they understand, and also how hard it is, thanks to the upstanding Shakespearean tradition no less than inevitable Devouring Time, to really "know the sonnets."

L1: moment has been greatly semantically narrowed in modern English. One should read here tones not merely of temporality, but also of power, import, direction and force of movement. The etymological siblings momentum, momentous and even movement give some of the flavor.

L3: presenteth nought but shows: a play of polysemy. The phrase on its own suggests "displays nothing beyond what is apparent" where but at the time could take the force of modern except that which. Shows of course here are more directly metaphorical performances. The idea of the world as a stage, for all that Shakespeare is given singular credit for it, was in fact a commonplace of the Renaissance with long standing.

L4: Switching to the idea that stars both comment on and influence human goings on in indiscernible ways...

L5: Increase: mostly the denotative meaning has remained the same. But literary use in poetry of the period had connotations of growth and flourishing, as well as of reproduction (c.f. "from fairest creatures we desire increase")

L6: cheered: meant "encouraged, given confidence, heartened, urged on" checked "slowed, detained" (c.f. "sap check'd with frost") 

L7: vaunt when intransitive meant both "brag, boast, make a show of oneself" and "exult, rejoice in triumph" depending on context.

L8: brave at the time meant "superior, splendid, excellent" (c.f. Francis Bacon "Iron is a brave commodity where wood aboundeth." Shakespeare was, however, given to punning on this word with the still-present meaning of courage e.g. "Wear my dagger with the braver grace.") State: to be understood in the sense of "condition".
Wear here likely intended to be understood in both the sense of being clothed, and wearing away.

L9: Conceit "perception, poetic figment"

L11: Wasteful "ruinous" as well as "excessive."

Debateth here holds great polysemy in the English of the time, now irretrievable. The word has been semantically narrowed. It did have the meaning of "disagreement, argument" but not necessarily in a formalized or public way. Other meanings that have since been more totally lost from the word include: "Discussion, speak about" in a more dialectic sense and also "engage in physical combat" especially in the sense of resolving a disputed matter via trial by combat.

L12: ingraft: this is a loaded one. The general shape of the meaning is: to insert either an idea or an object, into someone or something else so that it grows as part of the mind or body it is inserted into. It has overtones in its usage not only of the grafting of horticulture, but also of "implanting" ideas into the mind of another. There is clear play on the alternate adjectival meaning of "deeply-rooted, engrained" (also spelled engraffed in this sense in our orthographically regularized editions c.f. King Lear "the imperfections of long-engraffed condition.")

There is also a sexual connotation here. Much of the sexuality of Shakespeare is camouflaged by traditional reading by misreadings, but the sonnets most especially were so disconcerting in their earliest reception because of their unorthodoxy, that as Shakespeare made his way into canonicity a great deal of effort had to be expended by guardians of the Straight and Narrow (in both senses of both words) to either squash scandalous readings that acknowledged what many lines appeared to imply, or else dismiss the Sonnets as so inferior to the plays as to not be worth bothering about. Before which time, the general silence about the sonnets and the occasional lengths made not to be too overt in admiring them, is truly deafening. More deafening even than some of the anonymous handwritten margin notes in some of the early surviving copies, attesting to shock at such "wretched Infidel Stuff" among other things.

In any case, graft was a common Elizabethan and Jacobean euphemism for a certain category of sexual naughtiness, a sense used by genre-writers of comedy including Shakespeare (in Shakespeare mostly allusively, by overt reference to other more botanical meanings, leaving the subtext for the audience's mental lexico-semantic machinery to cough up.) The general idea is an expression of sexuality with corruptive influence, such as sullying the natural innocence of youth by inserting one's...ahem...graft where it does not belong, or more commonly of having sex with another man's wife (particularly if there is a possibility of resulting bastardy.) It could mean simply what we mean by "to screw" but the idea of a kind of adulteration as in "your wife grafts with another man" is more common in surviving writers, with "grafting" the horns of a cuckold onto another man's head as a kind of folk-etymology. The word ingraft in proximity to "for love of you" in the context of the preceding lines is to my mind unmistakably written with either the intent or at least the anticipation of being read as evoking something just a bit naughty. On the Down Low, as we might say. Being on the D/L, of course it does not overtly state anything impious or improper. It is merely deafeningly loud innuendo of the kind that could be denied plausibly ("Oopse that didn't come out right. I didn't mean for it to sound like that") if need be, but which a Jacobean reader would have found about as subtle as Americans found the phrase "that woman" when used as a pet name for Monica Lewinsky. Even though lexical scholarship of Elizabethan usage has come to terms with some of the naughtiness in Shakespeare (and even in the sonnets) even today many commentators are beset with an immedicable inertia when it comes to accepting the import of the naughtier facets of Elizabethan language for so ostensibly elevated and sublime a thing as The Bard's Sugar'd Sonnets. Especially in relation to another man. And particularly in volumes where a cleaned up Shakespeare is in demand for e.g. high-school English classrooms. You know, to save the children. Or something. 

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