This Saturday is Shakespeare’s day: the day he died, and by counting roughly from his christening, the best estimate of his birthday — and so as I revisit the early years of the Parlando Project, it’s a good time to re-release my first performance of a work by Shakespeare. It’s one of his most famous sonnets, number 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
Short poems, and sonnets are short poems, can have a prismatic character: shifting light, new facets. As I wrote when I performed it back in 2017, I then mostly picked up on the boasting nature of it. While it starts off flattering the “fair youth,” all that lovely flash is really about Shakespeare the wordsmith and prolog to the final turn where the poet brags that he’s going to make the youth immortal with his “eternal lines.”
I concluded back then: “It’s not bragging if you can do it.” Immortal is a bit beyond guarantee, but a few centuries is practically close enough to settle that matter.
This morning as I thought again about Sonnet 18, I see another side. Since this is April Poetry Month, I’m perhaps led to think more distinctly about poetry’s evidence for the worth of poetry. Read in that frame, one can take the opening line as more than a rhetorical flourish. It’s asking a real question about the worth of metaphor, a prime component of poetry’s way of experiencing.
If it’s a real question, then it’s all but asking “What’s the worth of a poem?” The fancy language that completes the sonnet’s first 8 lines give some reasons just by being a word-music aria on beauty. Any IRL summer’s day varies, changes — often away from our desired day. It’s been a cold, dark April where I live. I look forward to May or better yet June, when it’s warm, when snow and ice isn’t plausible, when I can go with bare arms and legs into air without it carrying off my body’s warmth. But then comes a week or more of humid highs-in-the-90s weather, and I’ll want a crisp spring or fall day, even with some spitting rain.
The poem says the fair youth it addresses isn’t like those inconsistent days: they’re always temperate and sunny. I call BS. It’s not possible to know if Shakespeare’s sonnets are poetry as memoir, real events from his life captured in verse, or if they are characters and situations created by a wide-ranging dramatist — but here, as in some other “fair youth” sonnets, I see inequalities of class and caste being exhibited. Do newly beloveds seem perfect, always compatible? I’ll grant that. I’ve been in relationships with some pretty good human beings over the years, but as a short speech in verse, this rhetorical portrayal of the perfect fair youth who in power analysis seems to be of a higher social standing than Shakespeare and his family, is (in character or reality) pandering to vanity, and I would consider it a wink and a nod to those who’d share Shakespeare’s aspiring-to-be-middle-class background that “we all know this.”
There’s a visual pun in my “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” lyric video’s first dissolve.*
Have I spoiled this poem for those who have read it, or shared it, as a sincere poem of love? I hope not. But that’s the facet I see today of this famous sonnet — but I said above I was seeing Sonnet 18 as being about poetry’s worth. How’s that? First off, it gives pleasure. If the opening 8 lines flatter too much to make me read them without context, they are word-music. Sing me silly love songs! I think the poem’s conclusion to the opening question is “Yes! You should compare. Do make metaphors. Do sing word-music.” Some of these poems will be close-enough to be immortal. Some will be about as short-lived as the shortest relationship; some will have a combined readership of 1.5. Even if those poems are not immortal, the desire to make poetry and the hope of reading poetry with pleasure is immortal as “long as men (editorial comment: and women too you gender-exclusionist-pig Billy) can breathe or eyes can see.”
You can hear my 2017 performance three ways. There’s a new lyric video above, and for some of you an audio player gadget below. Just want to hear the audio of the performance but don’t see the player? This highlighted link will do that. Listening again to that performance recorded from the feeling of the poet bragging on his words, I think it also works to portray my feelings about the poem today.
*I value the audience this Project has: people like you who are interested in some pretty odd corners in a variety of poetry and a variety of music are rare. That’s not flattery, just fact. So, I have faith someone out there will laugh. The rest, forgive me the indulgence.