In defence of poesy 2011: William Shakespeare

April 13, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

These days, much poetry insists on looseness, on forms that allow for freedom of expression, rhythm, and meter: free verse, sound poetry, flarf, and so on. But traditional forms – villanelle, ghazal, glossa, and so on – remain intriguing, if only because their formal constraints imply a kind of poetic performance. Anyone who doubts how difficult it is to write a Shakespearean sonnet, for instance, should try it sometime. The form requires three quatrains and a final couplet, for a rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. Oh, and they have to be in iambic pentameter. Go.

When people think of Shakespeare’s sonnets, they tend to think of the pretty, romantic musings of Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) or Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments”). But Shakespeare’s imagination was incapable of being constrained: it was capable of both comedy and tragedy, high mindedness and low, love and death. I discovered his Sonnet 147 by way of Harold Bloom’s new book, The Anatomy of Influence. Bloom considers Shakespeare to be at the very centre of the English literary canon, and he makes a solid case for why this should be so, beginning with what he calls the “capaciousness” of Shakespeare’s imagination. Sonnet 147 is one of the darkest, creepiest love poems I’ve come across in recent memory. It made an immediate impression on me, and underscores the power of a contained, disciplined poetic form.

Sonnet 147

My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
Th’ uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed:
+++For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
+++Who are as black as hell, as dark as night.

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