I’ve been dipping into the Edmondson/Wells edition (from Cambridge) and am not sure how we would proceed. It’s All the Sonnets because it includes all the sonnets embedded in the plays, and its ambition is give an historical rendering of Sh’s use of the sonnet. It has a good intro and notes on each sonnet as well as a prose paraphrase of all the sonnets as an appendix. Ideally we’d each have that text. It divides up the 1609 edition into five sections and presents them in a proposed historical order. I haven’t read far enough into the intro to see what its argument is for that division and arrangement.


I’d be happy to go next to the sonnets. Do you think we need to work from the same text? If not, why don’t you suggest a handful (or a sequence) of sonnets that somehow can be discussed together. Or do you want to try to take on the entire sequence? In order to get a sense of the whole (patterns, sequences, rise-and-fall) we’d probably have to read them all. But to discuss in any detail we’d probably have to concentrate on a small number.


If you don’t want to acquire the edition, I could give you the divisions of 1609, and you could read in a 1609-ordered text what E/W present as the possible historical ordering. This would eliminate the sonnets in the plays of course. But ideally, as I say, we’d each have this edition. It is a handsome volume (and even has a gold ribbon to mark your place!).

We probably would want first to read one of the five sections they block out, but then concentrate on a small number of sonnets from it, commenting on the section, then choosing a handful of sonnets. Or how do you suggest we proceed? 


I have had a chance to read the introduction to All the Sonnets of Shakespeare [edited by Paul Edmondon and Stanley Wells, 2020] and to skim through the rest of the book. I thought the “news” was:

— S. embedded a lot of sonnets in his plays and they should be studied along with the 1609 volume (I am not yet persuaded that they are very interesting sonnets.)

— the biographical/autobiographical reading of the sonnets has been oversold (but E and W seem to buy into it part way)

— we’ve heard too  much about the “Friend,” the “Rival Poet,” and the “Dark Lady.”

— reading the sonnets chronologically will tell us something new about the poems (I don’t see that yet, since some of the best-known and best sonnets are early and some of the best-known and best ones are late).

— we should pay more attention to “pairs” and “mini-sequences,” and by the latter he really means sets of three or four (this seems to me worth pursuing)

Assuming we spend about as much time on the sonnets as we did on each play, we might divide the sonnets into, say, four or five groups. E and W divide them into seven groups. I’d be inclined to skip the first two and the last. I’d also be happy to look at the pairs and mini-sequences he flags,  some of them early and some of them late. 


I gather E. and W. have followed MacDonald Jackson in the chronology of 1609, based mainly on verbal clues. But as you say, there are best and best known sonnets in the early and late groups. And I agree that the sonnets found in the plays are generally less interesting, though the sonnets of LLL may be an exception in that they show Sh’s knowledge of and fascination with the sonnet tradition. In addition to the intro I’ve read the sections up to p. 82, which includes several multi-sonnet groupings. But these are generally “early” — pre-1594 — sonnets.

In reading pp. 55-81 it’s hard to dismiss altogether the autobiographical reading — mainly because of the recurrence of the Will/will sonnets and the way they seem to intermingle with the dark and ugly lady sonnets. I guess this is why E. and W. seem to buy partly into it.

I can suggest six or seven sonnets in that grouping that seem most interesting (pp. 56, 57, 60, 67, 70, 76, 81), but there are a number of “connected” sonnets that we could look at pp. 61-62, 63-64, 68-71, 78-79. But you may have a different group of “most interesting” — I may have a different group tomorrow — but these connections are the grouping in pp. 51-81.

Should we begin with some discussion of the sonnets we find most interesting in that pp. 55-8l grouping, or go right to the suggested connected sonnets? 

I’ve used page numbers since the 1609 numbers don’t correspond to the suggested chronology at all.  But clearly we can use 1609 numbers in our discussions if we want.


I have read the sonnets on pp. 55-81, which has prompted a few comments.

1. Although Shakespeare sometimes embedded sonnets in his plays, I am struck with how much more compressed the syntax is than in a play. This makes the sonnets denser. They give their meaning up less readily than do speeches in plays.

2. I was also interested to think about ways in which sonnets might be regarded as having “dramatic analogies” in the plays, e.g. #138 “When my love swears . . ., and Antony thinking about Cleopatra. It’s as if S. is working with the same complex idea in two different genres.

3. Although I agree with you that the sonnets in which S. puns on “will/Will” seem to ask to be read autobiographically, I usually had the sense in reading sonnets addressed to a beloved as exercises or as variations on Petrarchan themes., i.e., as highly conventional works, demonstrating that S. has mastered the form and can spin it in many different ways. The most interesting of these sonnets, in my view, continue to be the ones long called the “dark lady” poems, where S. works against Petrarchan conventions, not just when he rejects the standard comparison (e.g., in “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun . . .) but more interestingly when he reproaches the lady for lying or for being unfaithful (rather than simply being above him, distant/remote, standoffish, or “cruel,” as in many sonnets by other poets).

Even the “will” sonnets seem to be designed as virtuoso pieces, demonstrating how many times S. can work the word “will” into a single sonnet (13 times in one of them!).

4. I found that S. did not often take advantage of what is usually known as the “turn” in a sonnet — at line 9, after the second quatrain. Instead, he seems to prefer to make his “turn” or “reversal,” often marked by the word “yet,” in line 13 (e.g.,#127, 129, 130, 133, 134, 139, 144). Other sonneteers like to use the concluding couplet as a summing-up, but Shakespeare often uses it as a reversal.

5. The sonnets I found most interesting were ones that the editors call “meditations,” i.e. not addresses to a beloved but reflective pieces, as if the poet is talking to himself. Maybe they seem like soliloquies, and for that reason interest me more. And these turn out to be the sonnets that I have long paid more attention to and have long thought to be the “best” and the most characteristically “Shakespearean,” including 129 (“Th’expense of spirit . . .”), 138 (“When my love swears . . . .”), 144 (“Two loves I have . . .”), 146 (“Poor soul . . .”).

6. I did not discover many poems that I had not previously noticed. One exception is #148 (“O me, what eyes hath love put in my head”), which seems an ingenious “meditation” on the idea that love is blind. Structurally, it’s unusual in that the second quatrain ends with a comma, and a run-on line. And the couplet at the end does seem to be a “summary” or “conclusion.”

7. On the whole, I am not sure what the presentation of the poems in this order does to re-order our sense of the collection as a whole. Yes, it does make clear that S. has not written a “sonnet sequence,” in which one can trace a “plot” involving beloved, friend, and dark lady. And I was not previously aware that S. embedded so many sonnets in his plays, generally as a way of heightening or drawing attention to artifice, to the sonnets as performance pieces.


Shakespeare’s sonnets are made up of quatrains, usually closed at lines 4 and 8, often building in  a sequence (as in #64 and 65 and, as you say, in 73), with a “turn” at line 9 (as in #61 and 62), or sometimes at line 13 (as in #65) or even 14 (as in #66). The “turn” in #63 is less of a “turn” than a “summation.” (And it’s a little surprising that there is a run on line at the end of the first quatrain.) There’s a nice pun in 63, when the “lines” (wrinkles) on the beloved’s brow become the “lines” of verse.

In the well-known “When I have seen. . .” there’s a little surprise, I think, in  line 12: the one who will grow old is the beloved, not the speaker. This is one of the poems that the editors would label a “meditation,” but the term S uses is “ruminate,” presumably because it picks up the “r” in “ruin.” But is there a difference between rumination and “meditation,” the term S. uses in #65? The metaphor of “time’s chest” suggests that beauty belongs to time, and we just borrow or steal it. Does the word “miracle” in line 13 have a Roman Catholic resonance? There’s another pun in line 14: “my love” is both “my beloved” and “my love for my beloved.”

#66 is a daring list of “all these [things]” the poet is tired of, with ten consecutive lines beginning with “and.” The piling up of “ands” suggests both the poet’s virtuoso skill and the growing exasperation about one damn thing after another.

In #68, “outworn” (in the first line) suggests youthful, but in #64 is suggests “worn out.”

#71 and 72 are a pair of disingenuous addresses —  don’t mourn for me . . . don’t remember me — which in effect mean the opposite of that they say.

“That time of year” (#73) continues to seem one of the great ones. The sequence is easy to follow, but S knows how to disrupt it: “yellow leaves, or none, or few.” A  branch with just a few leaves on it seems more pitiful than a bare branch. Each of the quatrains ends in a preview of “death” — the “sweet birds” are now “late,” “Death’s second self,” “the death-bed.” There is perhaps a surprise in the couplet — “which thou must leave ere long” rather than “lose ere long.” The beloved might also grow old and die. (I think the editors are wrong to paraphrase the couplet as “might make you love  for me even stronger”: the declarative “makes thy love more strong” is stated  more decisively.

The editors rightly say that 73 and 74 are “syntactically related.” The “but” at the beginning of 74 is in effect a “turn.” And the couplet is another virtuoso display of “th” sounds: worth . . that. . . that . . that. . .this . . thee. #87 is a demonstration that S can write sonnets with feminine rhymes.

Is there something Ovidian about #88, with its series of combined quasi-opposites: merit/scorn, “against myself,” virtuous/forsworn, losing/win, injuries to myself, thee vantage/vantage me, right/wrong.

I agree with you that #90 is a powerful poem I had not much noticed before. Its intensity is signaled early, with “. . . now/ Now . . ..” And continued with other repetitions: if thou wilt leave me, do not leave me  .  .” (9), “first . . . worst” (12), “now seem woe/. . . not seem so.” Like Edgar in Lear, the poet thinks he can find comfort in being at the “worst.”

#94 is another powerful sonnet, and I agree with you that the sestet (last six lines) at first seems completely unrelated to the octave, and that the editorial comment is not very helpful. But I think we come to read the sestet as  a reply to the octave, though the turn, with “But,” does not come until line 11. Still, the qualities of self-control, impassiveness, holding back, and threatened “power” seem quite different from the sweetness and beauty of summer flowers. And what would it mean for the unmoved mover in the octave to meet with “infection: or to “fester”?

#94, 95, 96 make  a set of three sonnets about a beloved’s faults or defects. #100, 101, 102, and 103 are all addressed to the Muse. Is 103 a kind of answer to Sidney’s famous “Look in thy heart and write”? In this case, the implicit advice is to “look in your glass.” But S arranges things so that it is the beloved (rather than the poet) who is urged to look in his own glass. Is there a hinted rebuke of the beloved for his narcissistic self-absorption?


I wonder what you make of the large grouping of the “procreation sonnets.” In reading the grouping all at once, I find a kind of tedium in the repetition of the theme and a puzzlement about why they were composed. It’s as if they fulfill a patron’s commission as they turn over various conceits, mostly directed to emptiness and fullness, and seem finally, as a group, overly, curiously insistent. Sometimes the conceit is clever, as in “Music to hear,” but lacking an emotional engagement. That’s probably true also of “When I do count the clock,” which has a clarity in the succession of single line conceits. The final sonnet in the grouping, perhaps alone, has to my judgment a claim to the poetic level of the better sonnets, perhaps because it engages the claim of poetic celebration, but then demurs from that to claim the necessity of poetry’s vindication in “a child of yours.” Poetry needs procreation, and procreation needs poetry? I like the way the sonnet seems to empty the claim of verse at line 12, then expresses its argument in the couplet.

By comparison, “Shall I compare thee” seems to express a classic sort of comparison, all warmly in favor of the addressee’s beauty. And the turn at the third quatrain, “But thy eternal summer,” contrasts the actual summer of the comparison with the assertion of the metaphoric summer of the beloved’s beauty and seems, paradoxically, then to admit implicitly the loss in death — only to make the Horatian claim of the “eternal lines” of time reappearing in “this,” the otherwise eternal lines of the poem itself.

“A woman’s face” seems to engage specifically the sexual claim of the master-mistress and to dismiss it in the final line. There’s obviously an anti-feminist bias in ll. 3 through 5 (like Donne?), then the curious turn at l. 9, which leads to the slightly bawdy ending.

“So it is not with me” seems to pair with “Shall I compare thee” as a rumination on the sonnet tradition with the expected turn at l. 9 and the emphatic couplet.

The pair of insomnia sonnets, 27 and 28, differ from others in unrolling a meditation on wakefulness without an emphatic turn at the third quatrain. Instead, both bring in the beloved at l. 9 and suggest the meditation is directed as a message.

The final sonnet in the section, “When in disgrace,” uses the turn in the third quatrain as emphatically as any of the sonnets. It seems a personal meditation that turns outward to the beloved at that point. It’s distinguished by a very clear argument and straightforward language. I’m not sure why the editors don’t see it as related to 30, which follows it. Not the same emotional state perhaps, and an unfolding that saves the turn for the couplet, but a similar opening that suggests relation.


Since there are a lot of sonnets in the first group (pp. 126-55) and the second group (pp. 156-87), this will be Part 1 of a two-part reply. I’ll here address just the first group.

I agree with you in finding the “procreation sonnets” a little tiring. They all seem to be variations on a single theme, and after a short while I sense that I have read enough. They are all addressed to a young beloved who has not yet chosen to procreate. (Though I presume some sexual activity, so in biblical terms he/she is spilling/wasting seed.) And the reason for procreating is pretty much the same in each poem. The very idea of a procreation sonnet, addressed to somebody you are not going to procreate with, is a little odd. Maybe that’s part of the point, Shakespeare working a twist on what is customarily a “love poem.” Maybe somebody might argue that the poet is expressing a pure, disinterested love of the beloved, concerned not with himself and his own desires/needs but just with those of the beloved. But I don’t buy that. There seems to me something fundamentally insincere about the poems. The poet doesn’t really persuade me that he cares about the beloved having somebody else’s child. One interesting feature of these sonnets is that each contains a sting in the tail, some kind of warning or threat about what will happen if the beloved does not procreate: you’ll get old, you’ll die single, or unlooked on, your beauty won’t be “used” or will die with you.

Maybe Shakespeare, who wrote when sonnets were still pretty new in England, found readers who liked variations, and admired a poet who could say “the same thing” so many different ways. It makes me wonder about “sonnet sequences.” My own experience in reading “All the Sonnets of Shakespeare” is that a few at a time are enough. I cannot imagine reading through the entire sequence. And some are clearly better than others — they are the ones I will return to.

The most interesting of the group is “When I consider” (#15), which does not in fact seem like a persuasion to procreate. It is not procreation but the poet’s writing which will “engraft you new.” Curious idea that probably does not bear too much inspection. Grafting involves, as the note suggests, inserting some “graft” of new growth into an established tree. And the next sonnet, a continuation of #15 or perhaps a reply to it. The argument of the sonnet, that procreation is better than poetic (re-)creation, requires that the poet label his rhymes as “barren.” After hearing earlier claims that poetry confers immortality, I found this disingenuous. And the language of the couplet doesn’t bear too much inspection: it invites us to think too vividly about what “giving yourself away” and “sweet skill” means in the marriage bed.

I agree with you that #17 deserves attention.  As you say, the first 12 lines seem to dismiss the claims elsewhere made for poetry, only to reassert them in the final four syllables of line 14. Shakespeare is perhaps invited by the standard structure of a sonnet, and the expectation of some kind of “turn,” to introduce a reversal into his argument. Here, though, there are two reversals: the first introduced by the “But” at the beginning of line 14 — poetry won’t preserve you, but procreation will — and the second at the end of line 14: you will live in my poetry too. I think the editors in their concise description (“My poetry alone . . .”) smoothe out the reversals in the poem. The first three quatrains seem to me more ambiguous than the editors say. It’s not just that the poems might be misconstrued. It’s also that a sonneteer knowingly uses hyperbole, that both poet and beloved are perfectly aware of the difference between real and ideal lover, between heavenly and earthly faces.

The famous “Shall I compare thee . . . ” is deservedly famous. This poem displays full confidence in the power of verse to triumph over time. (Maybe that in itself is one of the main reasons that readers of verse respond to it, and other sonnets like it, so warmly — not for its art but for its argument.) But in fact there is plenty of art: the large-scale contrast between a typical English summer and “thy eternal summer” and the small-scale quasi-chiasmus in the last line (“lives this . . . this gives life”).

“Devouring time” (#19) seems overingenious, too shaped by too many turns. Do your worst, time (1st 2 quatrains); but don’t touch my beloved (3rd quatrain); oh, go ahead and take him too (line 13); but he’ll live in my verse. As in several other sonnets Shakespeare makes  no claims for his poetry until the last line. And that last line may contain an ambiguity of interest: is it the poet’s beloved or the poet’s “love” of the beloved  that will live ever young?

“A woman’s face” (#20) certainly trades with standard misogyny, and ends bawdily. Despite the numerous previous sonnets in which a male poet addresses a male lover, and devotes enough attention to his body that we are invited to imagine some kind of physical love, this poem assumes that any kind of sexual “pleasure” between men is impossible. Does the ending suggest that “love” is somehow nobler and purer than “pleasure”?

Between this poem and #29 I did not find any sonnets which really stopped me, except maybe for #23, in which Shakespeare appears to draw on his first-hand experience as an “actor on the stage.” “When in disgrace” (#29) deserves its fame. The syntax is notable. the editors suggest the poem consists of only one sentence, and I think there’s a good case for that. I had not noticed until this reading that the final word is kings-apostrophe — i.e., I scorn to change my state with kings’ state.


I found myself going through this section again. Some, maybe all, of the sonnets seem to compel rereading, probably because some of their arguments are surprising and in some cases paradoxical.

There’s only one “Horatian” sonnet, 65, and it’s not exactly Horatian in its claim — the love, rather than the poem will shine forth. It’s rather forceful in its rhetoric. I don’t hear a Catholic note in “miracle,” unlike the “bare-ruined choirs” of 73, just a chance for poetry’s claim and the paradox of black ink and bright love. 

67 and 68 seemed to me almost too rhetorical, maybe too strained. 69 and 70, another pair, want to run counter to sonnet traditions in their frank judgments. The paradox that 71 and 72 suggest, forget me while remembering I wrote this, becomes an effective argument that self abnegation can become its opposite.

I like the dramatic analogies the editors suggest for 75.

Going back to 94, I wonder if it’s meant to be in some relationship with 95, the latter possibly responding to the “base infection” in 94, and describing actions that are the opposite of the octet of 94.

The zig-zagging of 97 creates an effective sense of a psychological state; the line “Like widowed wombs after their lords’ decease” leads into orphans and unfathered fruit. And the birds may not be quite mute, but rather dull, and winter threatens. This becomes one of the memorable sonnets, I feel, and is effectively complemented by 98. By contrast, 99 may seem a bit overwrought (as well as “extra-lined”).

I like the four “muse” sonnets, but particularly 102, and the contrast of Philomel’s single song and the “wild music” of mid summer.

The next section is 60 pages long. Should we break it in two and go to 29 of 1609? We have the “procreation sonnets” 1 to 17, and a number of the best known sonnets.


In general I would judge this group of 34 1609 sonnets (excluding the ones from the play) as vindicating the idea of a chronological listing. They seem on the whole less dense and difficult in their language and clearer and more open in their arguments. And I think there are more of them that seemed “dramatic” in their presentation, that is, more openly directed to an addressee and suggesting an actual, rather than an interior, voice. But there are still many meditative sonnets. And we may encounter more of the “favorites,” the ones we feel we’ve always known.

We have nine groupings of two, three, and one of four sonnets that are thematically related.

Of the sonnets from the plays, the LLL sonnets seem rather parodic, jokes within the context of the play. The one in hexameters seems, no doubt by design, old fashioned; as I recall, hexameter was the fashion in the 1570s and ’80s. The dramatically enacted sonnet+ from R & J is clever and fun; I wonder if we recognize it as a sonnet if we’re just hearing it in the play without knowing it beforehand. Perhaps sharp-eared Elizabethans did.

A 1609 sonnet I had not remembered that impressed me was 90 (p. 112), which did seem to enact a strange dramatic moment, the speaker imagining a coming breach of love or friendship. 90 seems more immediate and clearly expressed than 89, which introduces the possibility of the breach. “Then” seems to imply the situation, perhaps from the previous sonnet, and “hate me when thou wilt, if ever, now” and the repetition of “now” in the next line portrays a troubled voice. The couplet doesn’t so much enact a turn as a justification for the plea and adds a sense of desperation.

I think we always love the way 73 unfolds, first a season (and within the season, a generation in “bare ruined choirs”), then a day, and then the shorter time of a fire (but with the expansion of “youth” and intrusion of “death-bed.” The following of 74 with its claim of memorial in the lines of verse is powerful, especially in the couplet.

I wonder what we make of 94, with its praise of a controlled personality, then the turn at line 9 to another idea that seems disconnected from the previous two couplets. The note’s “but this might eventually turn nasty” doesn’t really solve the mystery. And then, are we to imagine connection in 95, where we find the flower and canker image returned?

There are many more sonnets to comment on in this section, so let me turn this back to you for your favorites and discoveries.


Here are my comments on Sonnets 30-60 (pp. 156-187 in our edition).

On the whole, I did not find these to be a very interesting group of poems, and I did not find any to add to my list of favorites. (Several, including “Not marble . . .,” “Being your slave . . .,”, and especially “Like as the waves . . .” continue to be favorites.)

But I find “When to the sessions . . .,” well-known and often quoted, to be less good than I remembered. The legal metaphor (sessions. . . summon) in the first two lines is introduced but then not developed. And the sad memories of “things past” seem overdone: “sigh . . . woes .. . wail. . . weep . . . woe . . .moan . . . grieve . . . woe . . . woe. . . .moan.” When a poet uses “woe” four times in a short poem, is he possibly signaling that he is mocking himself? And are the editors right in suggesting that the poet recalls “absent friends and lovers”?

It’s clear, however, that the next sonnet (No. 31) does refer to “my lovers gone.” That surprised me: why should a lover refer, in a poem to his beloved, to his former lovers? Or is there an edge to the poem?

#32 seems disingenuous when the poet refers to his “poor rude lines.”

I was surprised that several lines in #35 do not seem to scan: “Authorizing thy trespass with compare” (line 6) and “Myself corrupting salving thy amiss” (line 7). Ditto in #36: “Though in our lives a separable spite” (line 6). Ditto in #39: I can’t get line 10 to make rhythmic sense. Back to #35, compare/are is not a very good  rhyme. And to make line 13 scan you have to say “AC-cess-O-ry.”

#38 has a nice chiasmus in the last line, but the poem, with its uncomplicated praise of the beloved, seems less engaging that sonnets with undertones, or mixed emotions, or reversals. I find #41 more interesting. Apparently both poet and his beloved have other lovers — indeed they each love the same woman. They have implicitly given each other “leave” to stray, but the poet turns out not to be happy about the results.

#40 seems like an ingenious exercise: how many times can you use the word “love” in fourteen lines? Answer: 10. #43 seems to be another exercise in repetition. “See,” “bright,” and “night” appear three times; “eyes” and “day” four times. And in three different lines the same word appears twice, and even butted up against itself: “shadow shadows,” “form form,” “see till I see,” and the final two syllables rhyme (thee/me).

A number of the sonnets make me think of Donne’s love poems, and seemed “metaphysical” in their ingenious comparisons, and the extended eye/heart dialogue in sonnets 46 and 47.

In sonnet 54 I stumbled in the last line, thinking “by verse” a  misprint for “my verse,” but found by checking another edition that it really is “by verse.”

The poems I have known and liked best still seem the best, though #55 seems now to fall off after the opening two lines. I like the way “Being your slave” (#57) could be read in an abject tone, or a sarcastic tone. I think the latter tone prevails, signaled by the opening phrase, the repetition of slave . . . servant . . .  sad slave, and of “nor dare I chide. . . Nor dare I question,” which serves in effect to chide and question (occupatio). “Like as the waves” is one of the first sonnets I memorized. I am now trying to account for my preference. I think it has to do with the vivid imagining of time’s movement — first as a series of minutes, then as a rising sun, then as a more violent transfixing, delving, feeding, and mowing. And the couplet seems nicely balanced: I take “to times in hope” to mean not that the poet is confident that his verse “shall stand” but that he hopes that it will.

I guess I was a pretty cranky reader of these sonnets. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of this group, and what you make of those that remain, nine from 1598-1600, 23 from 1600-09, and a handful from the plays.


I think you make a good point that some sonnets nominally addressed to a lover are more like meditations, or soliloquies, or maybe poems in which the speaker, alone, speaks out loud as if to a lover —  rehearsing what he might say if she were near. Not fully “dramatic,” in your terms. Maybe, in fact, that’s one of the ways in which Shakespeare modifies the sonnet tradition.

I’d say let’s go to p. 125. That’s 44 sonnets, including ten from the plays, including some famous ones: “When I have seen” (64), “Since brass, nor stone” (65). I should offer you the chance to go first this time. Unless you figure you have already taken your “turn.”


I was struck by the density of the language in several of the sonnets that meditate on betrayal or disloyalty, such that sometimes the prose paraphrase was useful, almost necessary, in untangling the argument. The sonnets sometimes seemed to be literally addressing the lover, but in fact were a meditation on the psychological quandary in which the speaker finds himself. I think of 137, 142, 149-150, in particular, but there are others.

Among this grouping of sonnets, there are rarely “dramatic” poems, in which the speaker seems to be directly addressing the addressee. Michael Drayton’s “Since there’s no help” is probably the classic example, and we know others of Sh’s that do something like this. We do have “How oft, when thou, my music, music play’st”, which does seem, rather cutely, to follow a dramatic  pattern, even waiting for the turn until the final couplet. But most don’t enact a literal drama.

As you suggest in 5) below, some of the meditative sonnets, soliloquy-like and so dramatic in a sense even though not enacting a drama, are the most striking. They differ from the meditations on betrayal in their force and clarity, “The expense of spirit,” “Two loves I have,” “Poor soul, center of my sinful earth.” In terms of sheer poetic power, I’d suggest that 129 (“The expense of spirit”) most reminds me of passages in the plays. The insistent listing of adjectives, the repetitions and turns, the mid-line contradictory turns, all suggest an actorly tone. In a way it seems to burst out of the sometimes tangled thoughts about sex and betrayal.

Surely there’s no “sonnet sequence” suggested in this ordering, but there are sequence-like moments, what the editors call syntactic pairings or triplings. It’s not clear to me what they mean by syntactic, but the sonnets seem to follow in theme and manner.

As for the conscientiousness of the sonnet tradition (and Petrarchan tradition), the recurring sonnets on darkness and deficit of physical attraction are interesting, as if the poet is suggesting knowledge of that tradition and is constrained to reject it. 130 is of course the most famous example, but the speaker of other sonnets seems almost tormented by it. And it seems to be interwoven in the sonnets that meditate on betrayal. 148, with its very odd turn at lines 8 and 9, seems an example of this.

What I end up thinking about this portion of the potential chronological ordering is that there’s something of a conflict in Shakespeare’s engagement with the tradition, perhaps a dissonance. He often uses the sonnet for poetic meditation that cuts against what sonnets usually do. I’m not sure if the chronological ordering prompts this, but these sonnets do seem to express a youngish consciousness that’s uncomfortable with what sonnets are supposed to do. So what we have is what you note in 1), the denser language, the tougher syntax that more rarely bursts out like 129.

The next section, 1594-95 is rather long. Shall we do pp. 82 to 105? Or do you want to go as far as the end of the section at p. 125? Either way is fine with me.


I agree this is a somewhat arid stretch. I think I like #30 better than you do. The repetitions of “grieve at grievances,” “from woe to woe” to “fore-bemoaned moan” seem to me effective. The three quatrains develop well the idea of loss and sadness, I feel. The turn of the couplet may not persuade, but is graceful. There may be some hint of self mockery in the repetition, but it’s slight. As for “absent friends and lovers” from the editor, I assume it’s the Elizabethan sense of “lovers” that’s meant, not our sense, but rather deep friendship. (“Lovers” is one of David Crystal’s Shakespearean “false friends,” I recall.)

But I can’t quite understand the full sense, in 31, of “Thou art the grave where buried love doth live, Hung with the trophies of my lovers gone, Who all their parts of me to thee did give.” Lover as grave?

I don’t believe 32 either. False modesty?

The four “closely related” sonnets 33 to 36 seem to portray a strangely strained relationship that is abit hard to make out. The verse does seem to require “authOR’izing”, which I think may have been an Elizabethan pronunciation, but I don’t find a problem with the following line. The line in the couplet, AC’cesSO’ry I’m guessing is an Elizabethan pronunciation. There are still, of course, a number of British word stresses that differ from ours, but according to David Crystal (Think on my Words) there were more in Elizabethan English. The line you mention (10) in 39 would scan if you emphasize — and stress — “thy. “

I find 40 fascinating in its pained emotional zigzagging. And the following two play similarly with the sense of betrayal, concluding in 42 with what seems the utterly ironic couplet. Each quatrain of 42 had described, with varying irony, the meaning of the betrayal, then lands, pained, on the couplet.

43 seems overly clever in its play with eyes, shadows, shade, day, and night, but perhaps amusing.

Line 9 of 44 may defeat any attempt at seeing the verse pattern, but is that the point? The two “syntactically related” sonnets may also seem Donne-like in their conceits. And as you suggest, also in 46 and 47.

The editors’ notes of sexual allusions or puns in 52 completely elude me. Maybe I should worry. Did the supposed sexual references jump out at you?

I wonder if 53 isn’t overwhelmed by its hyperbole. Or is the couplet a kind of plea in relation to the hyperbole? I wonder if it forms a sort of pair with 54, making the case of poetry’s place in asserting constancy. And it too seems to approach a “metaphysical” working out of a conceit.

I’m still persuaded by 55, and I particularly savor line 4 with its “unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.” Its language is wonderfully clear and emphatic. 

I’ll go with the sarcastic reading of 57, maybe especially following the editors’ suggestion of the analogy of Kate to Petruccio. The paired 58 may seem to take back, or deepen the sarcastic sense.

60 strikes me as a sort of model sonnet in its progression of images for time; the opening quatrain seems particularly effective. But finally it becomes rather commonplace in that progression and lands rather softly on the couplet.


Here are some reactions to this final section of our volume. There may be more to say about the sonnets from the plays, which I may get to.

I have to say the “rival poet(s)” sonnets leave me rather cold. They seem formulaic much of the time, as if the speaker is writing out of obligation, and their language is sometimes rather dense. I notice that 86 seems to be grist for the “School of Night” speculation (which has lost much credibility, except in fiction, in the last 40 or so years). But the reference to the “his spirit, by spirits taught to write” and “his compeers by night” is curious. And what’s meant by “that affable ghost/ Which nightly gulls him with intelligence”? I’m not sure if this lead to any identification. Sir Walter Raleigh?

104 stands out in its vivid images of time passing, going from winters undoing summer and springs turning to autumn, then April giving way to June. The apparent stillness of human beauty in relation to that and the admission of our deception leads to the leap to the age unbred and the melancholy that “beauty’s summer” of the addressee will be dead. The couplet in a sense undoes the opening line, with a sort of delicate force that vindicates poetic celebration.

In 106 “fairest wights” seems to evoke Spenser, and the following enumeration of “ladies dead and lovely knights” responds to that. The suggestion that all these were but anticipations of the present seems perhaps like Spenserian hyperbole, completed in the couplet.

107 seems to date itself in the mortal moon enduring her eclipse, but I’m not remembering when Queen Elizabeth was thought to have undergone some astrological crisis. It delicately links the beauty of the addressee with the fame of the poet in a sort of Horatian assertion of poetic endurance.

Of the four sonnets, 109-112, that describe some sort of crisis in the relationship, 110 “Alas, ’tis true” seems the most vivid and clear in its argument. “A motley to the view” seems to allude to theatricality. It’s hard to know quite what “These blenches gave my heart another youth” means. Lines 5-7 in the next sonnet also seems to gesture to the theater. I wonder what we can assume about the loved addressee and the apparent theater-bound speaker. Was the social distance such that even being an actor/theater-owner created the sense of betrayal and transgression? I can’t make out the syntax of l. 8 of 112; what to make of the “or”? Can you explain?

116, “Let me not” still seems to me one of the greatest of the sonnets, advancing an argument about love that expresses an ideal that seems to the speaker both right and unassailable. It also seems, almost uniquely, to suggest a dramatic moment, an intervention into an ongoing argument which had turned a bit cynical about the fleeting nature of human affections. It gains its strength from the clarity of the opening quatrain and the allusion to the words of the marriage rite, maybe a kind of fist on the table impatience in “Love is not love when it alters when it alteration finds .  . .” It then maintains that by the metaphors that follow, sea mark and fixed star. The reference to passing time and the damages of his bending sickle rather powerfully admit the ravages of age. The confident assertion of the couplet seems to put the speaker in an almost legal relation to his argument.

117 is a different matter, though it rests on a tone of apparent sincerity, as if a message of admitted apology in its straightforwardness. The turn at the end of the third quatrain and the couplet might not persuade, but do conclude with clarity.

The next two might seem a bit “metaphysical” in their worked-out conceit.

121 is strange, and the “dramatic analogy” the editors suggest doesn’t exactly reconcile the reader. And 125 may simply puzzle.

I’ll stop here and leave these last ones to you.

In general the sonnets seem rarely to venture a dramatic moment, like what I suggest for 116, but more often seem like a meditated message sent as a letter. But there’s no doubt more to say on this.


Like you, I find the “rival poet” sonnets relatively unengaging. One of them would be enough, but Shakespeare insists on writing nine of them. The variations aren’t particularly interesting, except perhaps 84, where the couplet chides the beloved for being too fond of praise.

Beginning with #104, the sonnets seem to change, and there is a  particularly strong patch — 104 through 107. In 104 Shakespeare does without the closed -quatrain structure. And the couplet, as you note, seems to concede that the beloved will not last through time.

105 seems to risk profanation. The poet insists his love is not “idolatry” but he then goes on to use language that is usually reserved for God: that he is always One, though he has many names, and then is “three . . . in one.” 106, which as you say seems to allude to a Spenserian world, also seems to invite us to think of the beloved as the prefiguration of a prophecy,” and as the object of “divining eyes.” While prophets look ahead to better days, the poet thinks the “present days are better than the past. And 107 continues to use millenarian language, though more obscurely — the “prophetic soul/ Of the wide world,”  the arrival of eternal “peace, ”  and the defeat of “death.” As I recall, some editors used to think that the eclipse of the mortal moon refers to Elizabeth surviving the climacteric of her 49th year in 1602.

111 must have struck Auden as important, since he borrows from it the title of one of his collections of essays, “The Dyer’s Hand.” My best guess about line 8 is that it says ‘there is nobody but you who can change my “steeled disposition,” whether for good or ill, (“right or wrong.” Maybe the “or. . . or” in  “or changes, right or wrong” is an early variant of ‘either . . . or” or “whether . . .  or not.”

116 is a great poem. I agree that it seems to counter some previous statement by someone who would admit impediments. I love the way the d-m-t of “admit” is echoed in “im-pedi-ments.” The repeated use of negatives is striking. I have always thought it was a kind of allusion to 2 Cor.

119 was of interest to William Trevor, who has  somebody memorize it in his story, “Attracta.”

I don’t find much remarkable in 122-26, though 122 does seem to call up the world of Hamlet. 123 admits time’s destructive power. The most it can claim is that the poet will be true — while he lives. 124 seems a variation of 116. Here again are the repeated negatives and the juridical language (calling witnesses). And the quasi-legal language continues in 125 (the suborned informer; impeached.) 126 is another sonnet conceding time’s power, and thus may be a kind of admission that the earlier sonnets about the immortality of art claimed too much.

I’d be willing to skip the final “sonnets” from the plays, but would also be happy to read what you think about them.


On the whole, I did not find that the sonnets “improved” by reading through them all chronologically. I did not change my mind much about the ones I want to return to. Many of them seemed, as you suggested, mere exercises. Or repeated variations on a theme, when a single sonnet or two might have been enough. Reading them in the order in which they were written didn’t seem to reveal much, except perhaps that the “later” ones showed Shakespeare readier to experiment with the form. And pretty much demolished any idea that they form a “sequence.” The “best” ones seemed to be scattered through the collection. I think the “best” were often what the editors called “meditations,” along with a few about poetry’s power over time nominally addressed to a beloved).