Monday, August 18, 2008

Courseblogging: Random Bullets o' Sonnets

I shall be blogging my Shakespeare class this semester. I think this is mostly for myself -- so that I have a few memoranda about what I thought about, what we talked about, what worked, and what didn't -- but if anyone else finds it helpful, great.

We're starting with a selection of sonnets. The sonnets always make me a little nervous; I'm not sure why, except lyric poetry in general makes me nervous. I like writing and talking about narrative. I'm not sure there is a narrative to the sonnets; if there is, it's a very weird and non-linear one. Because I am lazy like to maintain a very precise sense of literary decorum, this post will be equally non-linear.

-- Talking of narrative, I have been trying to make sense of Sonnet 146 ("Poor soul, thou center of my sinful earth") and why it is where it is in the sequence, assuming that the printer wasn't merely throwing sonnets in every which way, which he may well have been doing. I came up with a theory that I thought was rather cool: maybe Shakespeare wanted this very pious piece to go in the middle of all these increasingly embittered love sonnets, literally thrall to / lord of / foiled by the rebel powers that besiege the soul on all sides.

-- My students were not overly impressed with this theory. They kept wanting the soul to belong to the Dark Lady, or the speaker's friend, or anybody at all other than the speaker himself. This interpretation doesn't quite click, for me -- this particular poetic mode seems to call for introspection, rather than preachiness -- but I can't totally discount it.

-- Somebody suggested that the opening lines of Sonnet 135 ("Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will / And Will to boot, and Will in overplus") might refer, among other things, to penis size. The more I think about this possibility, the more I like it. I love having students with dirty minds. (Also, this group TOTALLY got Sonnet 20, which makes me happy. I wish we were reading more gender-bending stuff this semester -- we'll get to Merchant eventually, but the more I think about it, AYLI or Twelfth Night would be SUCH a good follow-up to the sonnets, and we're not reading either. Must remember this for next time.)

-- I have a professor in grad school who had a lot to say about linear and cyclical time in the sonnets, not all of which I remember, but I have to say that Sonnet 73 becomes a very different poem if you think about time as something cyclical, and the "leave" in the last line suddenly becomes "bring out in new leaves."

-- Back in college, I belonged to a very ineffectual Shakespeare society. As a Valentine's Day fundraiser, we decided that we would, for a small fee, deliver a rosebud and a handwritten sonnet to the purchaser's boyfriend or girlfriend. We started looking for suitable sonnets. "Let me not to the marriage of true minds," OK. After that, um... "My God!" said someone after half an hour. "All of these sound like they should come with black roses!"

I must tell this story to students more often. It always gets a laugh.

-- I'm using the Norton Shakespeare, about which I have mixed feelings, but one cool thing is that they do print alternative versions of a few sonnets from manuscripts and The Passionate Pilgrim. So we're reading some alternative sonnets for Wednesday. I'll see how it goes.

Next up: A Midsummer Night's Dream.


Bardiac said...

Wow, are you doing all of the sonnets? I've never been that... brave? crazy? filled with sonnet-tude?

But dang, when a sonnet works for a class, there's little better, isn't there? I love That time of year thou mayst in me behold... but why the beloved must leave?

Lea said...

Well, 153 and 154 would work as "You Might Want To Get An STI Test" sonnets, but that's not very romantic. Though it's in keeping with the increasingly-popular-and-hilarious abbreviation for Valentine's Day.

And "Will" in 135-6 is totally about penises.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Bardiac -- Nah, I'm doing some of the sonnets. Somewhat randomly chosen ones, at that.

Lea -- I think I have an idea for a new public health campaign! Um, one aimed at early modern lit geeks, who might not be the most high-risk group out there...

catkins said...

Is 146 religious, or is it just soul searching? Rather unnerving ending, isn't it?
I think there are lots of narratives in The Sonnets, and you are right, linearity in narrative was not a sixteenth century trait. The narratives should not be taken too literally, though. One must remember that ther are sonnets, not letters or diaries.
-Carl Atkins

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

I'd have to agree on the possibilty of "Will" being naughty. My Shakespearean pronunciation is rather pathetic compared to my middle english, but I wouldn't e surprised if it was possible to elide "quill" to sound like "will" - and "quill" is an appropriate phallic metaphor for Shakespeare if ever I saw one!

Yes, a dirty mind is an absolute must for interpreting Shakespeare. Sometimes he still manages to shock me.

I do have fond memories of an undergraduate course where our tutor insisted on each student memorising a sonnet every week, and before starting the tut proper we'd have a little sonnet-reading session. It led to some wonderful discussions, like a passionate debate about the possible meanings of "bare ruined quires/choirs"...

I envy you your class!

Fretful Porpentine said...

Hi, Catkins and Ceirseach! Nice to have some new readers (and, Ceirseach, I wish I had found your blog before teaching SGGK this time around!)

Renaissance Girl said...

"will" IS about penises. just ask stephen booth.

and as the blogosphere's self-proclaimed lyric girl, i just want to applaud you for doing the sonnets. i know there's a general resistance to poetry and it's probably largely because of the problem you were brave enough to mention: no narrative. but would it help you to think of the poem as making an argument rather than telling a story (though they do that too)? not that the words themselves, semantically, are arguing some agenda, but rather that the syntax and structure offer an argument--perhaps about representation (shakespeare's sonnets are big on that one) that the words supplement?

catkins said...

Stephen Booth forgot to mention that Martin Seymour-Smith noted that "penis" was one of the meanings of "will" in this sonnet years before he suggested it. Among the other meanings Seymour-Smith catalogs are: the name of the "friend" addressed in the sonnets, Shakespeare's own name, lust, "in a direct physical sense, applying to the Mistress, through a natural extension of its meaning of 'lust, sexual desire'" (see line 5).
And yes, the sonnets are often arguments, sometimes positing one and then refuting it in the same poem, a very Elizabethan technique.