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Shakespeare's sonnet #18: Poetry of praise



Exaggerated comparisons are the staple of the modern media scene. A daily barrage of advertizing subjects us to hyperbole, hype, and often unbelievable claims on behalf of commerical products. Doctored, air-brushed, impossibly perfect, images stare at us from the covers of countless magazines. Politicians make promises that are obviously false.

It shouldn't be too large a step, then, to enter the world of the Renaissance and understand the exaggerated and elaborate comparisons by which poets used exaggeration and hyperbole to praise their supposed lovers, or what is known in literary jargon as the Petrarchan conceit. (This is what the medieval Italian poet, Petrarch, used in launching European lyric poetry.)

Can this type of exaggeration be adapted to a modern context?

Sonnets 2000 pursue the task, starting with autumn:

                    1.

Shall I compare you to an autumn mist?
You are more subtle and more sensuous.
Fall’s gross excess gluts even hedonist
Senses, proposing dose on overdose
Of apple, melon, pumpkin, mulberry,
As crop follows crop in grim profusion,
And predictable superfluity
Destroys desire in dull disillusion.
But your beguilements take me by surprise,
Deflecting calculations, on the run:
Curious moves that suddenly give rise
To meanings undreamt of by autumn’s sun,
Replacing my straight-line expectations
With your more sinuous incarnations.

            (from Sonnets 2000)

After the Fall, winter cannot be far behind:

                    2.

Shall I compare you to the winter’s snow?
You are more beauteous and enduring
The snowfall’s charm is but a passing show,
The smooth cool dunes too soon unalluring.
Unpleasant slush and mud mar pristine white
As snowplows carve their paths through virgin drifts,
And shoveled piles become an ugly sight,
And all degrades into defects and rifts.
But my love for you mends every flaw,
So investing you with pure perfection.
It cleanses taints, clears blemishes, and more,
Clothes you in robes of my predilection,
Thus enveloping you with such a glow,
Happily, your allure can only grow.

            (from Sonnets 2000)

And then spring must be just around the corner:

                    3.

Shall I compare you to the blooms of spring?
You are more charming and accessible
Shall I compare you to the blooms of spring?
You are more charming and accessible.
Tulips, imbued with their own beauty, bring
An indifference that is unbridgeable.
And azaleas flaunt their gorgeous hues,
Complete within themselves, their own affair;
And roses all their rosy charms effuse,
Exhaling spicy fragrance in the air.
But your enchanted spirit is not mute,
As cracks and quips and jests restore my mood,
And flirty humor does the world refute,
And change the way my pain and grief are viewed.
In contrast to the narcissism of flowers
You enthrall me with soul-restoring powers.

        (from Sonnets 2000)

And what about summer? Shakespeare's sonnet #18 promised to his lover an eternal summer that would never fade. But here we are, a mere four centuries later, and does anyone even know the name of the person to whom the sonnet was addressed, let alone celebrate that person's enduring fame. Shakespeare'poem is truly immortal, but what about the recipient? Let us therefore pause for a moment, and consider the plight of the recipient of sonnet #18.

                    4.

             To Henry Wriothesley,
        Third Earl of Southampton (1573-1624)

Shall I compare you to a summer’s day?
You were more lovely and more temperate,
He said, but many things that he would say
Were divertingly indeterminate.
Your poet friend wove elegant phrases,
But his talk of your eternal summer
Came from one of his make-believe phases,
The over-statement of a dazed lover.
Now death crows that you wander in his shade,
A nameless face in an ocean of souls.
Your poet said your fame would never fade,
But he was thinking more of his own goals:
Your wondrous summer was the occasion
To launch his own deathless reputation.

            (from Sonnets 2000)

References: See Stephen Denning, Sonnets 2000 (iUniverse, October 2000)

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