I knocked over my wine, sending droplets on the opening lines of “Sonnet 15”:
When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment…
You can say that again. That was like 3 euros of wine.
A little bit splashed on the closing couplet of “Sonnet 14,” too:
Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.
Fortunately, I still had some left in the bottle.
Wine, check. I managed to spill very little on my text and none of myself. Shakespeare, check. Shirt and trousers, check. Priorities, people.
Then I checked around my seat. The entire side of the cabin liner below the porthole was purple. Thank God I had a window seat. You’d think Shakespeare’s Sonnets, compact and self-contained as they are, would be a great read for a flight. Wrong.
The couple seated to my left didn’t look up from the movie they were watching on a laptop, but the lady did twitch her nose and brow. I wonder if she was detecting notes of oak and black currant. A flight attendant walked by. I hunched over my tray table to hide my wine curtain and flagged her for a napkin. She signaled she’d be right back. The napkin never came.
Cabin liners, I’m sure, are designed to handle sonnet-induced spills.
I looked back at my seat mates. They were settled in. I looked at the wine, slowly dripping down the liner. The couple looked comfortable. They’d have to pause the film, take out their earbuds, close the laptop, close the tray table, unbuckle their seat belts, get up and out into the aisle, sit back down, wait to resume the movie until I returned from the bathroom, get back up and out and down, put down the tray table, open up the laptop, put their earbuds back in, and remember what was going on when they left off. Every little movement on an airplane sets off a small chain of readjustments. Every jostle a turbulence of inconvenience. Like changing a single word in a sonnet, disrupting the pentameter and toppling the rhyme scheme.
So I read few more poems, finished my wine, and waited until I actually had to go. Being considerate ends with the bladder.
The bathroom towels wiped up the wine well. Cabin liners, I’m sure, are designed to handle sonnet-induced spills. But it did have an ever-so-faint hue of violet.
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. (18.13-14)
Shakespeare immortalized the fair youth in his poetry, I on the walls of a Boeing 737.
You’d also think the Sonnets would be a romantic read for a weekend getaway with your wife in Barcelona. Not exactly.
Some “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” over sangria (18.1)? “O know, sweet love, I always write of you, / And you and love are still my argument” floating up with the dreamlike spires of La Sagrada Familia (76.9-10)? Maybe Javier Bardem will even appear at the dinner table and whisking you off into a sultry Spanish night with his voice like a buttery guitar: “Fair, kind, and true have often lived alone, / Which three till now never kept seat in one” (105.13-14).
Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which he capped with the poem A Lover’s Complaint, are difficult. You can’t just sip on them like a late-day caña or stroll their iambs like the winding corridors of the Gothic Quarter. You need a map for their tangled syntax. You need a translator for their dense metaphors. You have to read all the plaques to appreciate what you’re looking at in them.
Their language is hard. Their meaning is hard. Their repetition is hard (procreate, fair youth, already!). Their conception of love is hard.
Don’t get me wrong: Shakespeare accomplished incredible things with them. There’s the intense homosexual desire of the first 126 sonnets:
But since [nature] pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure. (20.13-14)
There’s moving and deeply human reflections on aging, on death:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sing. (73.1-4)
The pained justification of the youth’s love affairs:
These petty wrongs that liberty commits
When I am sometime absent from they heart… (41.1-2)
The pained view of women:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red. (130.1-2)
Considerations of the nature of poetry, of love, itself:
Yet do thy worst, old time; despite my wrong
My love shall in my verse ever live young (19.13-14).
The beautiful and masterful craft Shakespeare applies to build up such expansive ideas within the tiny, demanding confines of the sonnet form – in spite of any “tongue-tied muse” he alleges (85.1)
But I don’t recommend trying to read them all, all 154 of them, in one go. Rather, savor them.
Like tapas at an unassuming restaurant you discovered with your wife while wandering Barcelona’s narrow old streets, aglow with the laughter and warm lights of a balmy Friday night, when you’re slightly buzzed from the red wine you’re drinking while squeezed in a small table, almost rubbing elbows with a neighboring couple, the clinking of silverware and glasses punctuating the sizzle of cooking and conversation, as you’re forking up a bite of chipirones spritzed with just the right amount of lemon and your wife recites one, memorized long before you ever met her:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever fixèd mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring barque,
Whose worth’s unknown although his height be taken.
Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved. (116)