Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Fools of Time: Shakespeare's 124th Sonnet

This is one of Shakespeare's least known, most obscure, most powerful poems:

If my dear love were but the child of state,
It might for Fortune's bastard be unfather'd,
As subject to Time's love or to Time's hate,
Weeds among weeds, or flowers with flowers gather'd.
No, it was builded far from accident;
It suffers not in smiling pomp, nor falls
Under the blow of thralled discontent,
Whereto the inviting time our fashion calls:
It fears not policy, that heretic,
Which works on leases of short number'd hours,
But all alone stands hugely politic,
That it nor grows with heat, nor drowns with showers.
To this I witness call the fools of time,
Which die for goodness, who have liv'd for crime.

Though obscure, difficult—just about impossible to paraphrase—Shakespeare's meaning is clear enough. Like his more well-known, 116th sonnet, "Let me not to the marriage of true minds . . . .", this is a poem about fidelity, integrity, truth, authenticity. The phrase "time's fool" in #116 becomes in #124, "the fools of time." Who are the fools of time? Time-servers, toadies, people who suck up to wealth, power, fame, celebrities: the permanent residents of Bunyan's and Thackeray's Vanity Fair.
"The sum of this sonnet," says Stephen Booth, "is so much greater than the sum of its parts that even the most scrupulously open-minded glosses on its particulars do very little to explain how it achieves its grandeur. The poem is as little influenced by the circumstances its particulars evoke as the speaker's love is said to be by the circumstances in which he loves." Booth's scrupulously open-minded glosses on this poem (Shakespeare's Sonnets, 1997) are worth reading. I like his concluding remark: "The poem present two evils, inconstancy and expediency. Any reading of the [last] couplet relates to both, but, unless one takes the practical way out by dismissing the problem, a reading of line 14 allows one neither to retain one's contempt for expediency without espousing an instance of inconstancy nor to retain contempt for inconstancy without espousing an instance of expediency." Thus the poem with sombre dignity teaches a bitter lesson: no one is innocent, we have all been unfaithful in some degree to someone or something, we all know what it means to take the easy, expedient way in preference to the right.

1 comment:

  1. Dario Calimani, Venice, ItalyNovember 27, 2010 at 2:07 PM

    116 is only apparently a Sonnet about "fidelity, integrity, truth, authenticity". Try and read it ironically, consider its structure and prosody and see that it is unusually full of enjambements. How come this is so? What is the 'formal' appearance of each line with regard to ita meaning?
    And youìll realise there is much ironical tone in it. A text, and a countertext.