Shakespeare’s Sonnet 97 “How like a Winter hath my absence been”

What with Longfellow last time and Shakespeare this time, I’m thinking I’ll return soon to some of the more surreal and avant garde 20th century authors whose work has entered the public domain. That would be the New Year’s thing to do — but then once one penetrates the archaic language of this old sonnet, it gets plenty weird.

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How this poem looked in 1609. I note that most versions of this poem I find online replace the question marks in the opening sentences with exclamation points. I wonder why?

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How many come here, perhaps via a web search for help in figuring out what some hard-to-understand poem might be on about? Well, here’s the usual “homework helper” summary of Sonnet 97:

The clever bi-amorous poet character* in the sonnet starts out bewailing that it’s winter and he’s away from his beloved. But wait, a few lines in, it’s summer, or maybe autumn harvest time, but the poet started out talking as if it’s wintertime because he misses the beloved so much and that makes it seem as bad as winter.

There you go, a greeting-card worthy poem when reduced to that meaning: “Miss you so much, summer’s like winter because of that.”

But all that ignores the strangeness of it. Don’t put this in your school work if you have a conventional teacher only looking to see that you’ve taken the effort to decode Elizabethan English,**  but is it just possible that the poem is really written in wintertime, or that the portrayed states of winter and summer in this poem are not actual, look-at-the-calendar fact? ***

That supposition that this poem is actually set in summer (or maybe autumn) has to be vague, because the statements about seasons in the poem are spread between four seasons: winter, summer, harvest-time and then near-winter fall — but the actual imagery Shakespeare goes with is much more at pregnancy**** and birth, and he’s not subtle about it at all, working a number of angles on that idea, and with a specifically  patriarchal slant on pregnancy.

Here’s what he says about what his state and season is in this poem: “teeming” (breeding with no concern of to excess), “increase,” “bearing” (and wanton at that), “burthen” (an archaic term that puns on birth, and was used for cargo in a ship’s hold, which the poem notes is owned by the principle, the prime, of the shipping company who has in that way impregnated the cargo), and outright “wombs,” “issue” (a legal term for children), and “orphans” (children again, though patriarchally, orphans from loss of just the father) and “un-fathered fruit” (from what little I know of horticulture and pollination, possible — but in this context, more orphan or bastard status being inferred). Shakespeare doesn’t really care to nail down if it’s summer or harvest because it’s not a calendar season he’s depicting. He’s been impregnated, and magically given birth perhaps more than once from this impregnation.

Now in terms of gender fluidity (no snickering in the back row — and Ms. Rowling, no passing notes you can’t share with the rest of the class) this is outrageous imagery, and something that I’ve seen no other reading of the poem address, though it seems to me overt enough that someone must have noticed it.

What is his point? What’s he getting at? I think the “issue,” the “orphans,” are the poet’s poems, even including this sonnet itself. His beloved is absent, so he shouldn’t be productive (maybe even an undercurrent here of infidelity or artistic parthenogenesis) and at least for the purposes of this poem he is exaggerating the patriarchal attitude that the father (not our fecund womb-bearing poet) owns the children, or if there be “issue” that isn’t his, they aren’t worthy.

There’s also a potential class layer here too, isn’t there. If the “Fair Youth” addressed in this and other sonnets is indeed a titled patron, that purported “only begetter” may be a fancy whose sexual politics shouldn’t be overlooked.

In that reading, it may really be winter outside, as on this late December day in my state it certainly is. And there may be a longing for an absent beloved, but the poet is writing the winter, writing the separation, teeming. I think Shakespeare may be playing with that claim that poetry without a patriarchal father is a dull song and illegitimate. As for us, we should write down our dark verse on the pale leaves of winter, and may you find pleasure in your own ever-fleeting year!

To hear my musical performance of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 97, “How like a Winter hath my absence been,”   you can use the player gadget below or this highlighted hyperlink that will also play it.

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*Modern scholarship has generally come down on the side of thinking that Shakespeare’s sonnets are an invented work, using and playing changes on conventions of Renaissance sonnet topics and plot lines. But the desire to know “the real Shakespeare” still leads a great many to comment on what these poems, seemingly intimate and confessional, say about the person who wrote them. I’m going to write as if the poem is Shakespeare speaking as himself for simplicities sake, as writing “the character of the poet who is writing this poem” is too awkward to keep repeating.

**I wonder how many immigrant and Afro-American students realize that they have a possible advantage in appreciating and interpreting the archaic English of Shakespeare’s time in that they already have a contemporarily developed and working code-switch skill regarding language.

***When I first read this poem I thought of the Twilight Zone episode “The Midnight Sun”  in which (spoiler alert) two women are approaching death on an Earth that is growing ever hotter, only to have the twist ending be that it’s a near-death fantasy of our heroine on a planet that is instead growing ever colder.

****Human pregnancy having a 9 month term could account for some of the seasonal ambiguity and the poem not being clear about it being winter, summer, harvest mid-autumn or near winter/late fall.

Continuing the story of Minerva Jones: Doctor Meyers and Mrs. Meyers

These posts on Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology have run to the long side, so today I’ll be brief. I promised I’d tell you how the book of linked short epitaphs about a Midwestern town resolved the tale of Minerva Jones’ sexual assault.

Minerva Jones is possibly related to “Fiddler” Jones, the man who music had a hold of, and who the town wouldn’t let go of, for the joy of dancing to that music. She is the daughter of “Indignation” Jones, whose family including Minerva are jeered at for being poor and unkempt. Minerva is assaulted by a town rough, quite possibly one of the group that hoot at her because she is poor, not pretty, and yet she fancies herself “the village poetess.”

Music has utility, it’s entertainment, a movement in sound to dance with and loosen one cares. Poetry is pretension, it asks one to rise above everyday speech and outlook, and offends you when you don’t.

Sexual assault is often largely about power, not unbridled lust or desire, and this seems to be case here. Minerva’s rape is to teach her a lesson. No amount of understatement and fracturing of the story in Spoon River  can hide that this is one of the ugliest episodes in this book that contains full measures of hate, distrust, crooked deeds, hypocrisy, and crushed hopes.

So how does Masters’ resolve this story? Minerva’s epitaph has already alluded to her death, and Doctor Meyers is said to play a fateful part. You can read “Doctor Meyers”  here and his wife’s following epitaph here.

Masters, the lawyer/poet, wishes to prosecute this town’s crimes even further. Doctor Meyers tells us that he was a good man, maybe a touch proud of his good deeds and steadfast life as a father and husband, but that’s such a minor sin, and set out to set up his tragic fall. When Minerva comes to him after her rape the general reading of his poem/epitaph is that it’s for an abortion. It’s just slightly possible that the episode Doctor Meyers speaks of in his epitaph is her showing up at night right after the rape, injured from the assault. It’s even thinkable that she’s miscarrying a pregnancy when she arrives at his door.

Masters isn’t interested in making this clear. Doctor Meyers simply says Minerva Jones died that night she came to him “in her trouble.” In an odd fracturing of the story, in Minerva’s earlier-in-the-series epitaph we have a vivid two-line account of her going into shock from blood loss. Doctor Meyers’ account picks up intensity as he recounts what happens next. The town assumes his act was evil and criminal—the strongest evidence that what occurred that night was considered to be an abortion bolstered by the idea that “help her out” was a euphemism that would be understood as such by reader of the time.*  It’s slightly possible that he was presumed to be the rapist and then murderer of Minerva, or the father of the unborn child.**

I assume his “indicted me” is legally literal, but there’s no account of a trial, much less a verdict or sentence—and Masters the lawyer has lots  of trial and law stories in Spoon River.  Perhaps the “pneumonia finished me” event happened soon after the indictment and before any trial.***

Doctor Meyers and Mrs Meyer woodcuts from Spoon River Anthology

I don’t know if Masters had control over the line drawings/gravestone engravings used to illustrate Spoon River in the 1919 edition, but if he did, these may tell us how he viewed these two characters, or how the characters view themselves

 

Doctor Meyers says his wife died of a broken heart. Her epitaph follows his, and the divided heart seems to me to be between some existing love or duty to her husband and her strong sense of propriety and morality that largely blames the “fallen woman” for tempting her husband into something she assesses is against “law human and divine.” Her testimony more or less cinches the abortion assumption, at least in the mind of Mrs. Meyers. If the accused crime was that Doctor Meyers was the rapist and murderer of Minerva Jones, she wouldn’t also use the possible abortion euphemism  “he…tried to help her” in her epitaph. She ends her epitaph preaching that the rules of morality are absolute, an unfailing guide to avoidance of shame. In the context of the story, her view is that Minerva Jones, even if she had a pitiable soul,**** got what she deserved and her husband was justly accused. I won’t blame readers for thinking this a chilling statement of callousness, because it is. But Mrs. Meyers is the victim as well as part of the cause and maintenance of the town’s cruelty. It is at least slightly pitiable to hear her clutch at the protections of adherence to a strict and legalistic morality and probity that didn’t protect her from the town’s patriarchal prejudice nor Minerva Jones from her tragedy of a pretense to poetry and useless beauty.

Mrs. Meyers epitaph directly follows “Doctor Meyers,”  which is proceeded by Minerva Jones’ father’s (not presented here) which follows Minerva’s. “Butch” Weldy, the rapist/attacker’s follows “Mrs. Meyers,”  with Masters the lawyer giving us a black-humored joke that you can think of as the final resolution.*****  Masters wanted us to clearly follow this story in this order. Other stories and linkages in Spoon River are more separated. In general, reading the epitaphs has a certain likeness to an open-world video game, and in any order the mosaic of events remain the pieces of a Cubist jigsaw puzzle loose in the box.

I performed “Doctor Meyers”  and “Mrs. Meyers”  together for today. A mild finger malady was making it hard for me to play guitar this past weekend, so it’s mostly piano today, though I could work out a way to play electric bass for this short piece. The player is below.

 

 

 

*Much of the action in Spoon River  occurs in the later half of the 19th century, a period during which abortions were made illegal in much of the United States. Illinois law was early in this change, so it’s clear he could have been indicted on this in the legal sense that would have been clear to lawyer Masters.

**In another of the epitaphs tangled linkages, we learn that another townsperson Willie Metcalf is said by some to be Doctor Meyers illegitimate son. We aren’t told if that is cause or effect of the disgrace of Dr. Meyers. I can imagine an elaborate Serial-style podcast relitigating the entire Jones/Meyers/Weldy case.

***During the course of writing Spoon River,  Masters himself, likely weakened by stress and an unhappy life, was stricken with pneumonia and may have been close to death, so this choice for Doctor Meyers coupe de grace may have not been random. “Webster Ford,” the pseudonym that Spoon River  was first published under in serial form in Reedy’s Mirror,  gets an epitaph in Spoon River Anthology:  a longer, more hermetic and supernatural one than most of the book’s.

****Masters’ syntax in Mrs. Meyers epitaph is confusing, perhaps designedly so. Even with the semicolon separator, “The newspapers lied about him…” is linked in sentence with “That he was not at fault in Minerva’s fall….” The newspapers disgracing him were claiming the opposite, and the sentence seems to reflect Mrs. Meyers’ own ambivalence. Likewise, the sentence starting “Poor soul so sunk in sin he could not see” is ambivalent. I think she’s largely referring to Minerva, “poor” in her possessions of morality and wealth, though some read it as referring to her husband.

*****Read the book if you want to find out.