Adonis? Helen? Uggos!

Another sonnet I bookmarked as potential wedding fodder is #53:

What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since every one hath, every one, one shade,
And you, but one, can every shadow lend:
Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
Is poorly imitated after you;
On Helen’s cheek all art of beauty set,
And you in Grecian tires are painted new;
Speak of the spring and foison of the year,
The one doth shadow of your beauty show,
The other as your bounty doth appear,
And you in every blessed shape we know.
In all external grace you have some part,
But you like none, none you, for constant heart.

The bit in the beginning about shades and shadows might be a little over the head of many casual listeners (in really quick summary it seems to be saying “Everybody only gets one image, and yet somehow everybody else’s image seems to be just a reflection of you, so how come you get so many?”)

The middle part is a bit more clear and direct — describe Adonis (you know, a handsome dude) and you’ll find that you’re really describing the subject of the sonnet.  Likewise with Helen (also famous for being hot, you see) – paint a picture of her, and you’ll end up with a picture of Shakespeare’s beloved. If you want to get more symbolic let’s talk about springtime and bountiful harvests…but yet somehow we see an image of you there, too.  What’s up with that?  Everywhere we look, there you are.

It’s not until the last line that we get that little flip — everything *else* is just a shadow of *you*, but when it comes to your “constant heart”, you are unique.  Nobody ..ahem…holds a candle to you.    (Get it?  Candle? Shadow? :))

I can’t really see anything negative about this one, unless that last line is straight up sarcasm. 

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One thought on “Adonis? Helen? Uggos!

  1. I think your reading is a pretty good one, Duane. In the first four lines, Pooler notes that there is a pun on "shadow" and "shade," both meaning either blocking the suns rays or an image: "All men have one shadow each, in the first sense; you being only one can yet cast many shadows in the second sense; for every thing good and beautiful is either a representation of you or a symbol of your merits." I think you said that just about as well.

    You handled the middle section as well as any commentator I have read, if a bit more colloquially.

    Some editors have taken the couplet to mean the opposite of what it seems, mostly because of context–this sonnet occurs after some sonnets which chide the beloved for betrayal. However, it seems difficult to avoid the obvious reading (even though it requires the reader to understand a few words that are left out): "you [are] like none, none [are like] you for constant heart."

    I think you are safe enough with this one.

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