Wherefore 18?

Today I was watching a poetry reading and thinking, “If I ever got in front of a microphone to recite a sonnet, which one would I pick?”

17 is my goto answer because I read it to my wife at our wedding.  Which makes a nice romantic story but it’s not necessarily great for a big crowd.

130 is probably best for a laugh. But I don’t think I could play it for a laugh. I’d end up delivering a lesson on the bigger point.

The thing is, if you had to pick a sonnet that you assume everybody would recognize you’d pick … 18. Right? “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” is right up there with “Wherefore art thou Romeo” and “To be or not to be” in the Recognizable Shakespeare Canon.

What I got to wondering is … why? What’s so special about this one, anybody know? I googled around a bit and everybody says the same thing – “It’s beautiful. It’s an example of the form.” and a whole bunch of other stuff that could just as easily refer to #1 or #29 or pick your favorite.

Since the first 17 are generally regarded as the “procreation sonnets”, I wonder if there was a period in teaching this material that the powers that be said, “You know, we really don’t want to talk about that. So let’s skip those.”  Thus making 18 the first one. It’s not that hard to imagine. Once upon a time I learned that Julius Caesar is commonly taught in school not because it coincides with an ancient history curriculum, but because it’s got no sex in it.

Anybody know the actual answer?  I’m often downright hipster when it comes to 18 (“Oh, you know sonnet 18?  That’s so over. Sonnet 153 is where it’s really at.  You probably haven’t heard of it…”) so if there’s a story to go along with why people generally tend to know it, I’d love to spread the word.

 

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