Undiscovered Favorites

Dr. Carl Atkins is the author of Shakespeare’s Sonnets: With Three Hundred Years of Commentary as well as a prolific commenter here at ShakespeareGeek, both while holding down a day job as a medical doctor. Instead of a typical author interview with press blurbs and bio questions we decided to do something different – Carl’s going to guest blog a series for us based on *your* questions. Context : Following up on our discussion about the possibly overrated Sonnet 116, I promised Dr. Atkins equal time to talk about favorite sonnets… As for favorite sonnets that deserve more popularity than they get, also difficult because there are so many. I am going to cheat because you asked for one and I am going to name two. It is not just that I can’t make up my mind (OK, it’s partly that) but because I have different types of favorite sonnets. And I am exhibiting great restraint in choosing only two types, mind you. The first is a very beautiful sonnet, number 52.  Here is the original printing, my glosses (mostly chosen from among other editors) and some of my commentary:

So am I as the rich whose blessed key,
Can bring him to his sweet up-locked treasure,
The which he will not ev’ry hower survay,
For blunting the fine point of seldome pleasure.
Therefore are feasts so sollemne and so rare,
Since sildom comming in the long yeare set,
Like stones of worth they thinly placed are,
Or captaine Jewells in the carconet.
So is the time that keepes you as my chest,
Or as the ward-robe which the robe doth hide,
To make some speciall instant speciall blest,
By new unfoulding his imprison’d pride.
Blessed are you whose worthinesse gives skope,
Being had to tryumph, being lackt to hope.  
4 For blunting for fear of blunting 5 sollemne formal 6 sildom rarely 8 Or that is to say; captaine chief; carconet jeweled collar 9 as like 12 his its

In this sonnet, Shakespeare vividly describes scenes of a gloating miser, an eager celebrant, a crafty jeweler, and a proud gentleman. In swift succession, he compares the beloved to a chest full of treasure, a joyous feast, a special jewel, and a fine garment. The last, seemingly the most trifling of the list, is presented with such delicious pleasure that it dwarfs the rest, unfolding its imprisoned pride with a wealth of specialness. And all through the poem, as Vendler notes, we find blessedness.
My second undiscovered favorite is a more restrained sonnet, number 107. I just love the way this sonnet sounds! Again, with original printing, my glosses, and some commentary:

Not mine owne feares, nor the prophetick soule,
Of the wide world, dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love controule,
Supposde as forfeit to a confin’d doome.
The mortall Moone hath her eclipse indur’de,
And the sad Augurs mock their owne presage,
Incertenties now crowne them-selves assur’de,
And peace proclaimes Olives of endlesse age.
Now with the drops of this most balmie time,
My love lookes fresh, and death to me subscribes,
Since spight of him Ile live in this poore rime,
While he insults ore dull and speachlesse tribes.
And thou in this shalt finde thy monument,
When tyrants crests and tombs of brasse are spent.
4 confin’d doome limited duration 6 sad Augurs prophets of disaster; presage predictions 7 Incertenties i.e., things thought to be uncertain 10 subscribessubmits 12 insults ore triumphs over; tribes multitudes

With a dramatic change in tone and style, this unconventional sonnet returns to the conventional theme of the ability of the poet’s verse to immortalize the beloved. Commentators have been so caught up in the meaning and allusions of this sonnet that they have failed to notice its most salient feature—the incredible beauty of its rhythm, so very different from any metrical variations we have seen so far in The Sonnets….
    The contrast between the beginning octet and the final sestet is arresting. The former is highly irregular and unusually rich with pyrrhics and spondees, while the latter is highly regular with only one initial trochee and one final spondee, both common variations in The Sonnets. Booth notes, “ . . . the first two quatrains have the kind of effect on a reader that prophecies have. They feel full of important and valuable meaning that seems potentially available to a reader but always remains just beyond his reach.” Or as Holmes puts it, “the far-stretching future . . . is reflected in such large, vague metaphors as are its only possible expression.” The mesmerizing meter in the octave enhances this vague feeling of unattainability—the iambic pentameter is as hard to find as the meaning, though inescapably present. The change with the sestet underscores the difference between the cosmic metaphor of the beginning of this sonnet and its narrowly personal ending, which focuses on what is important to the speaker and his beloved….
    Rollins notes that this sonnet “has been made to fit whatever theory each writer on the subject is addicted to. Personal and political references of all kinds have been detected, especially in forfeit to a confin’d doome, in the mortall Moone which (or who!) hath her eclipse indur’de, and in the peace proclaimed by Olives of endlesse age.”…
    Lever (1956, 267) takes a broader, more sensible view: “One thing is clear, that the sonnet is not a Commentary on the News, whether the news be the defeat of the Armada, the Queen’s survival of her grand climacteric, or the accession of King James. In the context of the group, it commemorates a moment of stillness when all the contradictions of life are suspended in the autumn glow of Love’s victory over Time.” About the Author This book brings together the scholarship of dozens of the most brilliant commentators who have written about Shakespeare’s Sonnets over the past three hundred years. This edition adds the significant work done by modern editors to the most important commentary culled from the two variorum editions of the last century. Atkins presents a straightforward edition without jargon with the simple goal of finding out how the poems work and how they may be interpreted. He is the first to collate the modern texts so that differences among them can be fully appreciated and compared. His discussion of meter and verse is more substantial than that of any other edition, adding particular dimension to this text. Those coming to "The Sonnets" for the first time and those seeking a fresh look at an old friend will equally find this edition scholastically rigorous and a pleasure to read. Carl D. Atkins is a practicing medical oncologist in New York. Got a question for the author? Send it in and we’ll see if we can get it in the queue!

13 thoughts on “Undiscovered Favorites

  1. Oh you are good. I'm definitely buying your book.

    I love this post. Favourite sonnets.

    52 and 107 exactly as you describe.

    For me 55 + 65 for being the same but different.

    81 is my all time favourite conceit: the poet finally depositing the words on your tongue.

    Basically i cannot choose for so much choice in different styles of delivery and argument.

    I like the No turnaround sonnets, especially the triplet stepping the 'No' from 1st to 2nd to 3rd quatrain: 123, 124, 125.

    Carl seeing as this is a sharing of knowledge situation, would you check out this link please?


    it's a recording of me doing the sonnets as a phonetic read. so don't expect too much interpretation.

    Obviously its crushed down from its original size but the recording is pretty good still.

    I'd love to hear your impression of it.


  2. Wiilaim S., you are a man after my own heart–not being able to choose for so much choice! Some interesting choices you have selected, though–you seem to favor the dramatic. And you read them beautifully! You are much too modest. I have only read about a third of the sonnets you recorded (a sonnet takes about 2 minutes to read, so all 154 will take me about 5 hours to listen to–and I will!) and you have done a terrific job! What do you mean "don't expect too much interpretation"?!? You have read The Sonnets guided by the original punctuation with a remarkable degree of understanding and sensitivity. SHAKESPEARE does the rest. I have found very few times so far where I even differ slightly as to scansion (I am at times more sensitive to the iambic pentameter and would choose an emphasis that gives an iamb rather than a trochee) and occasionally I wanted your pauses to be shorter. Rarely, a gloss from my book might have helped (in Sonnet 9 and elsewhere "look what" means "whatever"). But overall, listening to you read The Sonnets is SHEER PLEASURE! Thank you for sharing.

  3. Careful, Willshill, many a critic of Shakespeare's Sonnets has revealed more about himself than about The Sonnets in his critical writing.

  4. Rollins may be right about 107's subject malleability; I leave that to the expert.

    But the subject of 52 is, I think, even without a session on Freud's couch, unmistakable. I won't go into it– I mean…enumerate here (that's better). But suffice to say that it's "bejeweled" with alternate meaning words, "encircled" with references and their 'common usages' as well as their "unblunted" "finer points" ( I just can't seem to keep Sigmund at bay) 😉

    This, of course, is an outsider's 'nudge-nudge-wink-wink' viewpoint.
    None of that, taken seriously in the sonnet's context, would have been crassly intended — nor does it, in my mind, rob it of any of its sincere beauty.

  5. Scandalous!
    Ever since Alexander Pope bowdlerized the Bard it has become accepted and standard practice. Bollocks.

    Gosh and golly gee, what must they have thought of Eric Partridge when "Shakespeare's Bawdy" was first published in 1948 ? All the references I hinted at (in addition to those I didn't mention) can be found there.
    'Twas one of the books on the reading list at the Academy; along with Flatter and E.S. Brubaker "Shakespeare Aloud" (a great little book on scansion I forgot to mention earlier, by the way) Cicely Berry, John Barton, Sir Peter Hall, (both of whom recommend Partridge) and quite a few other 'respectable' folk.

  6. Dear carl,

    thanks very much for your reply. Yes i did concentrate on using Q1609 punctuation as a guide.

    i have found a 'mistake' in reading 129. But i'll correct that when i get back from this side of the pond. I'm in Toronto right now.

    can't wait to get your book and obviously would prefer a signed copy. Any way that can happen?

    The sonnets are freshly up and more tabs will be added as we go along.
    And average length for straight reading is about 1 min.

    the recording takes a total of about 2 hours 20 i think.


  7. Willshill: personally, I think Eric Partridge had entirely too much sex on his mind, which is exactly what I was getting at. If you find that Freudian analysis is an important part of your view of The Sonnets, perhaps it is because Freudian analysis is important to you, not because it is important to The Sonnets. This is not to say that there are no bawdy references in The Sonnets, nor that there are no Freudian interpretations to be found. I am merely saying that Shakespeare has an uncanny way of turning a critic into an interpreter more of himself than of the author.

  8. YLS: as long as you are correcting mistakes, you also have one in Sonnet 1 where you read "decrease" in line 3 instead of "decease." It is amazing to me how easy such mistakes are to make. I had to proofread my transcript of The Sonnets numerous times to correct errors. I even had to resort to reading them BACKWARDS to keep my brain from reading things that weren't there.
    I would be delighted to sign a copy of my book for you. Perhaps you would like to send it to my office and I could sign it and send it back to you:
    Dr. Carl Atkins
    69 Prospect Avenue
    Hudson, NY 12534

  9. Yes i couldn't help that one.

    you'll find a couple more like it throughout the recording.

    They are there for the judicious reader/listener.


  10. sorry if this is a repeat post, as the 1st attempt apparently didn't get through
    I had no intention of taking up this much space in your segment on the sonnets. Personally, I think the space better occupied by other subjects more interesting than the defense of one's personal character. But I somehow feel the need to apologize, for somehow feeling as though I have to. However, those who may interpret what comes as an apology (for anything other than the length of this explanation) will be sorely mistaken in their estimation.

    The Freudian comments were completely tongue in cheek.

    In no way do I think anything Shakespeare is at all 'Freudian'. In fact, I abhor the constant application, and the insistence that because someone developed an analytical theory and then labeled the ether regions of the mind as though they were actual corporeal entities; and, that they then that think everyone should blithely accept further 'diagnosis' based upon what amounts to the invented constructs of an almost completely conjectural idea. Never mind that Shakespeare knew nothing of Freud. Those who attempt to apply his theories on him–or me– are as backward as is their attempted application.

    So for me, sexual thoughts or references don't immediately equal Freudian guilt, any more than Hamlet equals Oedipus because he had issues with his mom. Anyway, Ophelia is his target when it comes to literal sexual repartee, better known to Shakespeare as 'country matters'.

    The knee-jerk impulse to shy away from subject matter which may make some uncomfortable is a dangerous tic. Dangerous because it can place serious developmental limitations on an ability to perceive truth. And I don't need to tell someone like you what that can mean in an educational setting.

    For instance, Mercutio hardly ever leaves off commenting in ribald hyperbole and metaphor. When I directed the play I had to sit down with a Masters student of theatre who had too little conception of the parry and riposte going on between he and Romeo for nearly three pages; that it was nothing but "can you top this next guttural comment?" Likewise, references made–and they are rife–in the Queen Mab speech can't be "interpreted away" as other than what they actually refer to. But, perhaps my Mercutio had only worked with a certain publisher's edition as an undergraduate. What would be non-stop annotations during this particular dialogue don't make it to the successive opposite and noticeably blank pages at all in their editions–they simply have no comment. Because to comment on what is literally on the page (in the form of indiscernible archaisms to the casual reader) would have to fill those pages with what is "un-acceptable" in their "estimation". So they leave them un-inked, 'un-blotched', 'un-fouled'–as it were–And poor reader un-aware and un-edified–in ANY way.

    When the comments become almost literal images, and begin to go on for more than a phrase, and start connecting and referencing and supporting one another thematically, it's time to sit up and take notice, whether it be a scene or a sonnet. Otherwise, the real energy osmotically transmitted from the true connection to the subject matter is lost. This doesn't mean the literalness of the reference has to be waved in the face of the hearer– NOT AT ALL. But the speaker loses big time if the truth of the inference is somehow watered-down or masked, more the pity if non-existent. As a result, the auditor loses whatever might be transmitted in related performance inspiration as well. (to be continued)

  11. (continued)
    I agree that Partridge may have overdone it. But I don't read so much 'Freudian', even in his case, as much as I sense an almost effigy-like representational metaphor in his inferences and images. And, like it or not, there are plenty of qualified and respected experts who will readily admit that he perceived many of those images because they were, many, many, times, undeniably, Shakespeare's double entendres.

    You don't have 700 groundlings habitually and religiously coming back to stand in the hot sun for hours using speeches about hearts and flowers as the bait.

    My research leads me to believe that the Elizabethans shied away not nearly as much as we have learned to do. Not if the Bishop of Winchester and his bevy of "Geese" are at all accurate representatives of their willingness to partake more openly and more often in the somewhat spicier aspects of their human condition. And not if we believe the speeches from the pulpits about the 'depravity' of the "sumptuous theatre houses". What else might those hypocritical dispensers of someone else's morality have been talking about? To them, a theatre was a classroom full of new 'swear-words'.

    Theirs was a literal society. They knew that they had not long to live, and the mental and spiritual was practically physical to them. The vocalization of thought and feeling, no matter the subject, given the opportunity, was, I believe, vital in their estimation. To limit that exercise would have been to ask them to die a little each time. I don't think they had that kind of time to waste; worrying about whom they might too much offend with an off-color joke.

    So IF: I have somehow become 'Interpreter of Myself' without having the foggiest notion that I've done so; If the above assessment, guided by what I have learned over many years about 'Interpreting Shakespeare', has been particularly "revealing" in some kind of decisively negative way–to anyone–about what the nature of my personal character might be; then so be it. However: Anything I might have 'revealed' here is not surreptitiously uncovered by them, like some guilty thing that slinks away, back into the darkness, while the all-knowing Exposè Police giggle amongst themselves. It comes from studying with some very erudite, aware, knowledgeable, talented, and well-respected experts on "The Wordies".
    And so, to Whom–Ever those "Divining Judges of My True Nature" might be: The FACT IS, that they can know me but little from what they read here. That is, unless they become less eager to arbitrarily determine who I might be, the Who based upon a single subject; said subject apparently more titillating to them than to the accused–as they must always be at searching for and finding their own guilt in someone who has none for which to apologize.

    'Twas ever thus. Sadly, sans Freud, sans All.

    "Go to, Ile no more on't, it hath made me mad." Ham. III, I

    With All Due Respect To You, Willshill

  12. Why apologize, Willshill? This is cyberspace! No trees have been felled. And I doubt that they have had to cart out a new server just to handle your post. And anyone who thinks there is something more worthy to read on this blog than your post is free to click "next."

    Please note that my comment about the need for critics of Shakespeare to be careful was not confined to you. It applies equally well to me. Anyone who reads my book will hopefully learn a great deal about The Sonnets, but he or she is likely to learn much more about me than about Shakespeare. Like the fact that I am a hopeless romantic. About which I, too, will not apologize.

    But I do not think we really have any serious difference of opinion. As with meter, these are subjective matters, and it is just a question of how much bawdy one sees in a particular circumstance. Or how Freudian analysis one wants to apply. No doubt, Freud's constructs were artificial, but they do provide a model which can, at times, be a useful framework for analyzing human behavior, whether that behavior occurred in 1900, 1999, or 1609. But even Freud is supposed to have said "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." (He smoked a lot of cigars.)Of course Mercutio's banter with Romeo had bawdy undertones. Equally clear, not ALL dialogue in Shakespeare has bawdy undertones. It is just a matter of perspective. I am sure there were communists in the entertainment industry in the US in the 1950's. I am equally sure there were not as many as Senator Joe McCarthy thought there were.

    As I have noted in other contexts, there are usually no right or wrong answers. No balck and white. Just varying shades of gray.

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