Are the sonnets the key that Shakespeare used to ‘unlock his heart’? Is Venus and Adonis really ‘utterly aloof’ from his own feelings? Are these works really polar opposites?

At first glance, the two comments above, by Wordsworth and Coleridge respectively, appear to come from the school of the blindingly obvious; that establishment which brings us studies that show that insomniacs are generally more tired during the day than those who get a full eight hours sleep. The sonnets are poems of love, we might argue, and Venus and Adonis is a narrative work, – about love, certainly, but springing from the brain, not the heart. These two different genres, we would probably continue, are in themselves completely different and therefore justify completely different approaches: they may even demand them. But the school of the blindingly obvious may not always teach the right lessons, and conventional wisdom may be more conventional than wise. Analysis of the two works (for convenience, I refer to the sonnets as a single work) does not fully bear out either Wordsworth’s effusion, nor Coleridge’s complaint; the sonnets are certainly not so uninhibited and free from artifice as Wordsworth implies, nor is Venus and Adonis so divorced from Shakespeare’s self and feelings as Coleridge would have us believe – in fact there are many similarities in technique between these two works and there are numerous ideas and themes common to both works as well as to a number of Shakespeare’s dramas.

The idea that the sonnets are autobiographical, that in reading them one gets to know and understand Shakespeare, is one that has been embraced widely by critics, although it has, especially recently, been quite widely disputed, too. Of course, one cannot ignore that the genre itself calls for a certain sense of intimacy: as established in the 16th century, the English sonnet form didn’t just define the mechanical structure to be followed but also established a type of content and a mode of address, deriving in large part from Petrarch and the Italian 13th century tradition; a sonnet should be about love (sexual or otherwise), and addressed by the lover to the object of his affection. This being the case, the suspicion of autobiography is inevitable: declarations of love, done well, do quite naturally give the appearance of sincerity and self revelation; nontheless, there is no doubt that a number of very credible critics adhere to the view that the sequence is based in Shakespeare’s life: A.L Rowse says “they are not ‘literary’ sonnets, in the way that so many sonnet sequences were … They were intensely autobiographical.” (18), W.H. Auden marvels that, “What is astonishing about the Sonnets, especially when one remembers the age in which they were written, is the impression they make of naked autobiographical confession” and declares unequivocally "He wrote them, I am quite certain, as one writes a diary, for himself alone, with no thought of a public. When the sonnets are really obscure, they are obscure in the way that a diary can be, in which the writer does not bother to explain references which are obvious to him, but an outsider cannot know." (xxxix).

It’s a seductive idea, perhaps, that one can see into the private musings of an author – particularly one as revered as Shakespeare -- and the seeming unvarnished simplicity of language in some of his sonnets, particularly when compared with the more embellished offerings from other poets of the period such as Sidney or Spenser, does give some credence to the idea that the poet was writing for himself or on or other of two private correspondents, rather than a public audience. Sonnet 61, for instance, offers not divine imagery, no high-flown allusions, instead opening on a seeming recrimination – “I can’t sleep,” he says, in essence, “does that make you happy?”

Is it thy will thy image should keep open
My heavy eyelids to the weary night?
Dost thou desire my slumbers should be broken,
While shadows like to thee do mock my sight?
Is it thy spirit that thou send'st from thee
So far from home into my deeds to pry,
To find out shames and idle hours in me,
The scope and tenor of thy jealousy?

The shift in the third quatrain from this apparent reproach to a rather wry revelation about the actual source of the poets’ insomnia, which serves as a declaration of love and fidelity, progresses as naturally as any love letter, and maintains the direct tone, the honesty, the absence of grandiosity:

O, no! thy love, though much, is not so great:
It is my love that keeps mine eye awake;
Mine own true love that doth my rest defeat,
To play the watchman ever for thy sake:
For thee watch I whilst thou dost wake elsewhere,
From me far off, with others all too near.

It’s not at all hard to accept that a man might send this poem to a person he loves – it has, taken in its historical context, much the same sense of simple, unembellished conversation as William Carlos Williams’ This Is Just To Say – it’s the kind of thing one could easily imagine being passed in a note between lovers, and just as it pleases the reader to imagine a partner finding Williams’ poem fastened to the fridge, it is satisfying to visualise the recipient of the sonnet tucking it under their pillow with a smile.

The idea of confession and honesty is supported too by, for instance, Sonnet 141. Like most of the Dark Lady sonnets, it is not concerned with praising the loved one, but rather the opposite: with wondering how the speaker could love such a manifestly imperfect object. This incredulity is expressed in an unvarnished, and thereby heartfelt, manner

In faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes,
For they in thee a thousand errors note;
But 'tis my heart that loves what they despise,
Who in despite of view is pleased to dote;
Nor are mine ears with thy tongue's tune delighted,
Nor tender feeling, to base touches prone,
Nor taste, nor smell, desire to be invited
To any sensual feast with thee alone:

This brutally honest and unkind assessment of the Lady’s charms seems to lend strength to the argument that this is real: what lover would write so unflatteringly if it wasn’t? Sonnet 130 may, in the end, delight despite the underplaying of the lover’s charms – it would be hard to reproach someone who ends his list of unflattering comparisons And yet by heaven I think my love as rare, As any she belied with false compare. But that kind of loving twist is absent from this sonnet : the message here is the only reason I love you is because I can’t help myself:

But my five wits nor my five senses can
Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee,
Who leaves unswayed the likeness of a man,
Thy proud heart's slave and vassal wretch to be:

The poet in sonnet 141 sounds very like Mr Darcy declaring himself to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, and The Dark Lady could be excused if she replied to this sonnet in the same terms as Elizabeth to Darcy’s similarly brutal proposal:``I might as well enquire …. why, with so evident a design of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character?” (163). And if the poet finds that, as the final line says, “she that makes me sin awards me pain.” this seems a quite appropriate response on her part. All of these elements add a sense of verisimilitude to the poems, and thereby seem to support the autobiographical interpretation.

So, yes, it’s easy to see why so many critics might contend that the sonnets are primarily autobiographical, “verse letters”, as Edward Hubler suggests, “written to two people on the subject of the poet's relation to them”(9). And even if that correspondence may not always be easy to understand (T.S Eliot says that “this autobiography is written by a foreign man in a foreign tongue, which can never be translated” and Auden admits that the sonnets can be, “obscure in the way that a diary can be, in which the writer does not bother to explain references which are obvious to him, but an outsider cannot know”), Wordsworth’s suggestion that the sonnets were the key unlocking Shakespeare’s heart seems both supportable and intellectually attractive – the idea that we as readers are party to personal information is one that cannot help but appeal.

However, Hubler sounds a note of caution, which I’d like to expand on: “once we think of the sonnets as letters we tend to ascribe a literalness to them which it would be dangerous to take for granted, for whatever the sonnets may be, they are poems, and a poem is not necessarily the precise record of an actual happening”(9). And this is, of course, the crux. Art leads to artifice, and the sonnet, with its strict requirements of form is as artificial a means of expression as any. The arguments for believing Shakespeare’s sonnets autobiographical hinges on their apparent lack of artifice – their intensity, their simplicity, their nakedness. However, if we return to sonnet 141 and look past the apparent frankness, we find a carefully crafted poem, constructed very much in line with conventional structure of the time: the order in which Shakespeare dismisses the Lady’s appeal to his various senses follows the hierarchy of the senses set out by Aristotle and Augustine, which puts “noble” sight at the top, and the “baser” senses - taste, touch and smell - at the bottom. Furthermore the senses are then weighed against the five wits (common sense, imagination, fancy, judgment, memory) in a couplet that plays elegantly with the use of numbers in the verse. However plain and simple it might seem, this sonnet can hardly be called “artless”.

We could consider, too, sonnet 75, apparently an expression of sheer need:

Sometime all full with feasting on your sight,
And by and by clean starved for a look,
Possessing or pursuing no delight
Save what is had, or must from you be took.
Thus do I pine and surfeit day by day,
Or gluttoning on all, or all away.

This emotion is so real, the argument goes, that surely it must rise from a well-spring of reality, love so blatant must necessarily be a reflection of life, not a simulation of it. However, to transform this most artificial and convention bound poetic form into something as direct, urgent and passionate as Shakespeare does in this example speaks not of less art and more honesty but exactly the opposite: to achieve such simplicity and sincerity language needs careful and deliberate shaping; the appearance of effortlessness requires concentrated effort. Look at the use of alliteration in Full with feasting and posessing or pursuing , for instance, and consider the carefully maintained imagery of the loved one as sustenance for the lover’s soul – the artistry is quite evident.

Nor does Shakespeare seek to deny his artistry at any point. There is a recurring theme of the sonnets themselves being the means of conveying immortality on their subject, expressed most famously in sonnet 18:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall death brag thou wand'rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

While these themes and this careful artistry do not prevent the poems from being autobiographical, they must, at least, cast doubts upon how absolute a truth they represent. Hubler says “if we assume that through the recollection and in the act of composition the poet's emotion might have been transmuted into something which had not existed before, we cannot so readily take the step from poetry to biography.” (9) and, if one searches, one discovers that the poet explicitly says that such a transmutation does take place. Sonnet 54 concludes thus: "my verse distills your truth"; and distillation goes way beyond mere reportage of facts.

Everything about how Shakespeare uses language in the sonnets is focused on presenting a sense of openness and raw emotion, but that doesn’t in any way guarantee sincerity – after all, nobody would know better than Shakespeare, a dramatist, that, as Graucho Marx is often quoted as saying, “The key to success is sincerity - if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

So, if the sonnets are not so intimate and revealing as Wordsworth suggests, is Shakespeare truly as opaque and distant in Venus and Adonis as Coleridge would have us believe? We cannot, given the nature of the narrative poem, expect Shakespeare to be present as the passionate orator of the sonnets, but should we expect him to be – and is he – completely absent as a discernable presence ?

Venus and Adonis is different to the sonnets in ways that go well beyond genre. While there’s no proof that the sonnets were ever meant for a wider audience than those addressed (although the art behind them argues for it) the same cannot be said of Venus and Adonis. Hubler says that “Venus and Adonis is a conscious bid for literary reputation”(5) and certainly the fulsome dedication that opens the piece in which Shakespeare calls it “the first heir of my invention” indicates that he contrived it as a work of serious literature.

The artistry of Venus and Adonis, too, is front and centre – Shakepeare uses form and convention deliberately and emphatically to call attention to the craft of this work, in contrast to the studied and polished simplicity of the sonnets, and this is the element of the poem that modern critics most consistently comment upon, whether they like it or otherwise – and they often don’t. Pauline Kiernan provides a digest of some of these comments, including F.E. Halliday’s complaint that the poem is “rigid with rhetorical constructions and studded with compound and decorative epithets” making its diction ‘studiously artificial and “poetical”’ and Richard Wilbur’s more praising assessment that the piece is an “ostentatious poetical performance” - and that its ‘main and steadiest sources of pleasure’ are ‘its elaborate inventiveness, its rhetorical dexterity, its technical éclat”(476). Whether admired or abhorred, the conscious artistry of Venus and Adonis demands attention. There’s no ignoring the deliberate ‘poeticism’ in :

And now she beats her heart, whereat it groans,
That all the neighbour caves, as seeming troubled,
Make verbal repetition of her moans;
Passion on passion deeply is redoubled:
'Ay me!' she cries, and twenty times 'Woe, woe!'
And twenty echoes twenty times cry so.

for instance; we are, as readers, supposed to notice it, just as in the sonnets Shakespeare’s conscious intention is to have his readers disregard and look through the poetic artistry as if it is transparent and invisible, focusing instead on the emotion beneath.

But does this elaborate rhetoric actually obscure the poet, while the studied simplicity of the language in the sonnets reveals him? Not really, I’d argue. In Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare may not be present as actor, but he is manifestly there as director. As Nancy Lindheim says “he integrates comedy with tragedy, parody with straight representation, all the time manipulating our responses to Venus so that by the time she comes to fear and then know Adonis’s death, Shakespeare has moved us from ridicule to sympathy.” (191) and as Donald Watson identifies, (my italics), “Venus uses the conventional persuasions to love, Adonis rejects her with arguments from his moral “text”. A third voice is added through the narrator who modulates the “action” through the ironic and often cynical rhetoric of Ovidian detachment.”(34) That third voice is important in Venus and Adonis: Shakespeare is not hiding from us in the careful and elaborate artifice, but showing himself quite deliberately as puppet master, and asking his readers to appreciate how well he makes the dolls dance.

The author’s presence is evident in the themes of Venus and Adonis, which have connections to themes in both his plays and the sonnets. Look, for instance, at one example of Venus’ expression of desire for Adonis:

“I'll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer;
Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale:
Graze on my lips; and if those hills be dry,
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.”
Within this limit is relief enough,
Sweet bottom-grass and high delightful plain,
Round rising hillocks, brakes obscure and rough,
To shelter thee from tempest and from rain
Then be my deer, since I am such a park;
No dog shall rouse thee, though a thousand bark.”

Venus’ rhetoric here is the language of lust and Adonis reacts to it with disdain: an interchange that Shakespeare uses often in the plays – consider, for instance Parolles’ speech on the burden of virginity to Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well and Helena’s scornful rejection of his points.

Common also, throughout Shakespeare’s work, is some acceptance that lust is a facet of the larger beast ‘love’, even while lust condemned and the lustful are mocked. Using All’s Well That Ends Well as an example again, Helena wins Bertram’s acceptance and love through taking advantage of his lust for Diana, while in Venus and Adonis, the desire of the courser for the jennet illustrates how natural the lustful urge that Adonis resists is.

There is a complexity to the poem, too, that is all Shakespeare. Venus, though often comic, transcends ridicule to become tragic – “She’s love” Shakespeare says and, as Nancy Lindheim identifies,
“Venus is not love in the way the Neoplatonists conceive it, but in the contradictory way it is experienced. From this grows the emotional complexity the poem displays. Venus is – by turns and simultaneously – comic, pathetic, ridiculous, humiliated, exulting, self-deceiving, playful, devious aggressive, repulsive, sensitive to pain and helpless because all these possibilities are contained within the experience of love” (193)

In this complexity, perhaps, more than in anything else, Shakespeare is revealed and present – while the language of Venus and Adonis is mannered and artificial in a way that we don’t normally see in his dramatic work, or in the sonnets, the consummate craft is all his, and the layers of complexity in examining the nature of love, though different in style from the sonnets are not so different in nature.

Both Wordsworth and Coleridge’s judgments present elements of truth - but when it comes to the Sonnets and Venus and Adonis, neither, I think, encompass the entirety of that truth, the one discounting the Art behind the man's love lyrics, the other discounting the man behind the Art of the narrative.

Works Cited

Auden, W.H. "Introduction." Shakespeare, William. The Sonnets. New York: Signet Classic, 1964. xxxvii-xl.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London: T. Egerton, 1813.
Eliot, T.S. "The Problems of the Shakespeare Sonnets." Nation & Athenæum 12 February 1927: 666.
Hart, John. "Conflicting Monuments: Time, Beyond Time, and the Poetics of Shakespeare's Dramatic and Nondramatic Sonnets."
Moisan, Douglas Bruster. In the Company of Shakespeare: Essays on English Renaissance Literature in Honour of G. Blakemore Evans. Cranbury, NJ: Associated Univerity Presses, 2002. 177-209.
Hubler, Edward. The Sense of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952.
Kiernan, Pauline. "Death by Rhetorical Trope: Poetry Metamorphosed in Venus and Adonis and the Sonnets." Review of English Studies (1995): 475-501.
Lindheim, Nancy. "The Shakespearean Venus and Adonis." Shakespeare Quarterly (1986): 190-203.
Rowse, A.L. Shakespeare's Sonnets. London: McMillan, 1964.
Schiffer, James. Shakespeare's Sonnets. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000.
Shakespeare, William. The Sonnets. 1609.
—. Venus and Adonis. 1593.
Watson, Donald G. "The Contrarities of "Venus and Adonis"." Studies in Philology (1978): 32-63.
Williams, William Carlos. "This Is Just To Say." The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Vol. 1: 1909-1939. New York: New Directions Publishing, A. Walton Litz & Christopher McGowan. 372.

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