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A Study of Shakespeare's 'Sonnet 85': Form and Technique vs. Sentiment / 詩論する詩についての試論:シェイクスピア『ソネット85番』について、詩の技法・形式対感情という側面から(英語)

Sonnet 85’: ‘My tongue-tied muse in manners holds her still’

William Shakespeare

 

My tongue-tied muse in manners holds her still,
While comments of your praise, richly compiled,
Reserve their character with golden quill
And precious phrase by all the muses filed.
I think good thoughts, whilst other write good words,
And like unlettered clerk still cry “Amen”
To every hymn that able spirit affords,
In polished form of well-refinèd pen.
Hearing you praised, I say “'Tis so, ’tis true,”
And to the most of praise add something more;
But that is in my thought, whose love to you,
Though words come hindmost, holds his rank before.
  Then others for the breath of words respect,
  Me for my dumb thoughts, speaking in effect.

 

   Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 85’ is inconsistent. This sonnet apparently advocates the superiority of ‘thoughts’ to ‘words’, saying, ‘Then others for the breath of words respect, / Me for my dumb thoughts, speaking in effect.’ (13-14). Here the couplet indicates clearly the binary opposition between ‘words’ and ‘thoughts’. Therefore, the fact that ‘thoughts [are] speaking in effect’ suggests that ‘words’ are not ‘speaking in effect’. The truth is, however, that the poet himself speaks ‘the breath of words’, which is crystallised as this poem. Moreover, though he says, ‘I think good thoughts whilst other write good words’ (5), his poem is undeniably written on paper before us readers. This self-contradiction makes the reader doubt the poet, from which ensues the reader’s scepticism on his superficial meaning. Indeed, the poet’s self-inconsistency seems to generate another: the superiority of ‘words’ to ‘thoughts’. In this paper, the relationship between ‘words’ and ‘thoughts’ is studied, paying attention to the inconsistency between form and content of the poem.
   Before further exploring doubleness of its meaning, it should be pointed out that ‘words’ and ‘thoughts’ in this poem correspond to form and technique, and sentiment respectively. As such expressions like ‘precious phrase by all the muses filed’ (4) and ‘with golden quill’ (3) imply, ‘words’ of other poets referred to in this poem are written in so polished language, which means it is different from our everyday speech. According to Russian Formalist Shklovsky, ‘[t]he technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar”’ (18). Polished language, then, is what makes objects “unfamiliar” to the reader, and therefore it makes poems poetic. Hence ‘words’ represent form and technique of poetry, or poetic language. On the other hand, ‘thoughts’ represent sentiment of the poet, such as ‘love’ (11). The binary opposition between ‘words’ and ‘thoughts’ is, accordingly, that between technique and sentiment.
   In superficial meaning, the poet is maintaining that sentiment is more profound than form and technique of poetry. He is criticising other poets the poems of whom are empty with lesser sentiment than his, as he alleges ‘[his] love … holds his rank before [all others]’ (11-12). He suggests, in the very expression ‘the breath of words’, the hollowness of their ‘words’, or poetic language. The reader can, indeed, find the poet’s insinuations against poetic language in distortion of rhythm and the metaphors. In lines 2 to 4, he writes,

While comments of your praise, richly compiled,
Reserve thy character with golden quill
And precious phrase by all the muses filed. (2-4)

Here the reader can find iamb twisted in ‘richly compiled’, to be dactyl. When read aloud, the phrase will be pronounced quickly, and the very word ‘richly’ will not be pronounced richly, or magnificently. The phrase sounds, therefore, ironical, implying that thought the ‘comments of your praise’ are luxurious, as words like ‘golden quill’ and ‘muses’ suggest, they are nothing but hollow flattery which do not reflect ‘thy character’. He in lines 6-8 uses ecclesiastical metaphors, likening himself to an ‘unlettered clerk’ and poems of other poets, ‘hymn’:

And like unlettered clerk still cry “Amen”
To every hymn that able spirit affords
In polished form of well-refined pen. (6-8)

   Since hymn is a religious song to praise the God, by analogy, poems of other poets are to praise the poet’s love. The metaphor, however, intimates that even the divinest poems cannot over-praise his lover, just as no hymn can hail the God enough. The poet, who is well aware of such a limit of poetic language, cannot but keep silent—of course, ironically it is the poet who tells the reader this. And by saying, ‘And to the most of praise add something more; / But that is in my thought’ (10-11), he is asserting that his ‘something more’, or sentiment, or love, is not translatable into ‘words’ intact. Therefore, to be true to his sentiment, ‘[his] tongue-tied muse in manners holds her still’ (1). All the same, no sentiment is transmittable without words. Hence, the poet’s dilemma. His agony is such that it is overflowing from the last line, in which the rhythm of sonnet (iambic pentameter) is twisted: ‘Me for my dumb thoughts, speaking in effect’ (14). He is as if praying aloud that his sentiment would transcend words. For him, a poet should not necessarily be eloquent, or skilled in form and technique of poetry, for poetic language is, after all, empty. The rhyming of ‘still’ and ‘quill’ seems to suggest that ostentatious praises are actually quiet and will not reach their lover. Rather, what matters is the sentiment, which may be lost when translated into poetic form and technique. The world of poets’ sentiment is, therefore, richer than that of form and technique of poetry. He, thus, seems to advocate the superiority of sentiment to form and technique.
   The poet, however, is lying. Although he writes, ‘My tongue-tied muse in manners holds her still’, he is undoubtedly writing a sonnet, —and in words ‘richly compiled’. Indeed, he employed, as discussed above, several techniques to criticise other poets, who, according to him, have more technique and lesser sentiment. His technique can also be seen in very the first line: My tongue-tied muse in manners holds her still. Here the alliteration of m, t and h sounds have high musicality. He is, then, not trustworthy, and it is unclear whether the poet is really thinking he is worse in technique than other poets. Anyway one thing is true. The poet himself is speaking in ‘the breath of words’, that is, form and technique. Then does this mean that the poet’s sentiment expressed in the form of poem is also empty?
This discrepancy between form and the (superficial) meaning is, again, a key to another meaning. But the superiority of sentiment to form and technique is now deconstructed. That is because although the poet insists upon the emptiness of the form and technique of poetry, he, in point of fact, wants his love and the reader to believe that his ‘words’, or his sentiments expressed in the form of sonnet are, at least, not empty. If he does not want that, he does not, in the first place, need to compose such a poem. The form and technique of poetry, therefore, is, albeit written negatively, what brings ‘Sonnet 85’ into existence. This suggests that the form and technique of poetry is, after all, what poetry is all about. All the sentimentalists are not poets. Then, does he mean substantially that form and technique of poetry is superior to sentiment of the poet? Or is he being deliberately obtuse in implying that they can be separated?
   This very idea which sustains that technique and form are the essence of poetry is, the idea dismissed by the poet himself in the superficial meaning. In this poem two completely contradictory opinions are expressed at the same time, and therefore both opinions on poetry cannot be adopted by the reader. ‘Sonnet 85’ puts, in this way, the reader into the labyrinth of form and technique vs. sentiment, and makes the reader think of a question: what is poetry?

 


Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. ‘Sonnet 85’: ‘My tongue-tied muse in manners hold her still’. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 9 th edn, Vol.B. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.
Shklovsky, Viktor. ‘Art as Technique’. Literary Theory, An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers , 1998. pp.17-23