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Sonnet 56 by William Shakespeare

In anticipation of June's "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" event here at Writing & Ruminating, I thought we'd reprise our "Wednesdays with the Bard" feature. Today, it's Sonnet 56.

Sonnet 56
by William Shakespeare

Sweet love, renew thy force; be it not said
Thy edge should blunter be than appetite,
Which but today by feeding is allayed,
Tomorrow sharpened in his former might.
So, love, be thou; although today thou fill
Thy hungry eyes even till they wink with fullness,
Tomorrow see again, and do not kill
The spirit of love with a perpetual dullness.
Let this sad interim like the ocean be
Which parts the shore, where two contracted new
Come daily to the banks, that, when they see
Return of love, more blest may be the view;
    Else call it winter, which being full of care
    Makes summer's welcome thrice more wished, more rare.

Form: Shakespearean sonnet, meaning that it's written in iambic pentameter (5 iambs per line, taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM), with the following rhyme scheme: ABABCDCDEFEFGG. Note that Shakespeare has taken a bit of liberty in the lines ending with "fullness" and "dullness" (which would have been exact rhymes in his time - that's not the liberty taken). Both fullness and dullness consist of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one - something which is known as a "feminine ending", which is totally allowed in iambic ptenameter now and again, and which results in 11-syllable lines. Only if you count up pronounced syllables in those lines, you end up with 12 and 13 pronounced syllables, assuming you enunciate all of them. My guess is that the "even" in the "fullness" line is supposed to be elided to the poetic "e'en", which would take that one back down to a standard iambic-pentameter-with-feminine-ending length. The line ending with dullness is a bit trickier - if you say "spirit" quickly (with both syllables getting stressed), then count the "ual" of perpetual as a single slurred vowel sound rather than saying it "you - uhl", you end up at the iambic-pentameter-with-feminine-ending length as well. Tricky, but do-able. And then the penultimate line (Else call it winter, which, being full of care), which requires both syllables of winter to be stressed in order for the meter to work, but it's logical, so it works.

Analysis: In the first four lines, Shakespeare addresses love - but love as a notion or spirit or emotion. He implicitly compares love to appetite (for food), urging love to stay keener/sharper than the appetite for food, which is quickly satisfied today, returning again tomorrow. His analogy, therefore, is read by some people to be a comparison between lust (appetite for "love") and hunger (appetite for food).

In the second four lines, the "love" he addresses is a person (the Fair Youth). Shakespeare urges him not to get his head turned by others. He hopes that the Fair Youth will realize that his "hunger" will return tomorrow. The use of the word "dullness" is probably to indicate depression or apathy, and not, say, stupidity. And quite possibly to refer to lack of passion (in the sense of one's "sword" being dull). The poem is a wish that absence will make the heart grow fonder, essentially.

The volta or "turn", a characteristic element of any good sonnet, occurs in the next four lines, where Shakespeare turns his attention to his actual point: he and the Fair Youth, in love though they are, have been separated for a time. Although the precise circumstance is not clear - whether they are actually at some distance from one another, or are merely precluded from spending time together as they might wish - Shakespeare finds an analogy for their circumstance.

He refers to the physical separation of amorous young lovers separated by an ocean, waiting eagerly to see the other person once again. This particular set-up sounds like a reference to the story of Hero and Leander, which was one Shakespeare knew well and drew on when writing Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Here's the story, in a nutshell:

Hero was a lovely woman (and one of Aphrodite's priestesses) who lived on one side of a strait. Leander, her lover, lived on the other. At night, she'd put a lamp in the tower and he'd swim across to her. Things went beautifully well for a while, until the night that a storm came up and Hero's lamp went out and Leander drowned. In sorrow, Hero threw herself off her tower and died.

Given that Shakespeare referred to or drew from this story in at least three of his plays (and possibly more), and that it was a very popular story in Elizabethan times (Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and Sir Walter Raleigh all wrote about it as well), it's not a stretch to think this was an intentional reference in Shakespeare's sonnets. A possible inference to be drawn is that they need to be patient and wait out their separation so as not to end catastrophically. But perhaps I digress.

The final couplet "turns" the poem further still by introducing a new analogy: Think of our separation as winter, which is "full of care" in Shakespeare's poem - a time of isolation and introspection, perhaps? - making summer (or the lover's reunion) that much more wished-for, and that much more "rare" - a word that here means "marked by unusual quality, merit or appeal" rather than "seldom occurring". No matter what, this poem expresses hope that absence will managed to rekindle the strength of their love. If one subscribes to the interpretation that brings lust in at the start of this poem, it will be quite a reunion.

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