The Sonnet Project
To memorize all 154 of Shakespeare's Sonnets.
Explanation, exploration, critique, praise and damnation have collected around the sonnets like creatures around the corpse in Webster's Dirge.
Call for the robin-redbreast and the wren,
Since o'er shady groves they hover,
And with leaves and flowers do cover
The friendless bodies of unburied men.
Call unto his funeral dole
The ant, the field-mouse, and the mole,
To rear him hillocks that shall keep him warm,
And (when gay tombs are robb'd) sustain no harm;
But keep the wolf far thence, that 's foe to men,
For with his nails he'll dig them up again.
The wolves have dug them up and gnawed the bones into bathetic cliches and Hallmark sentiments. The challenge is to re-bury, re-cover, the vital presence of the sonnets - to pour blood and semen and sweat and tears over the bones and make them dance again. Memory feeds on lightning and storm, charged moments illumination where the language is burned into the tissues of the brain, where the poetry roars to life within the cage of words and rattles the bars to escape.
We remember best those experiences that balance life and death, that take the breath away with the precarious possibility that we might suddenly no longer be. Johnson once said, "when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." The question at hand is how a sonnet might do the same. How to focus one's gaze in order to penetrate through 14 lines, to breathe in the hot urgency and passion from over 400 years ago?
It is often been advised by Memory Masters to create outlandish and bizarre images and tableau to make mundane and ordinary elements more easily remembered. We are encouraged to use our imaginations to adorn the object to be placed in memory with naked women, pink elephants and chimpanzees driving hot-rods. There is an element of high kitsch here. If we take Kundera's assertion that "kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence." Therefore, to subject the genius of Shakespeare, the perennial newness and depth of his enormous, near limitless, imagination, to the sad bag of monkey driven clown car tricks is the vilest sort of kitsch.
Perhaps worse is to treat the sonnets with solemn reverence, Holy Relics enclosed in glass, adorned with the finest metals of scholarship and jewels of thought. The scene opens within the august sterility of an Apollonian Temple, cold and rigid teapot actors spouting lines that assemble like snoring elder statesmen in the antechamber of the ear. The language more desiccated than that of the Sybyl at Cumae. However, no less prophetic even for that. Such is the potency and enduring mystery of Shakespeare's words.
So then, how to proceed? Following Steiner's categories of difficulty, there is ample gloss to get through the contingent difficulties of "looking things up," defining strange words, unpacking odd phrases, consulting weird lexicons and tracing the astrological alignments of the stars. Four hundred years of linguistic hedges of have grown up around the beast that is English; this is expected.
Likewise, the modal difficulties, the "culture shock" is accessible. Elizabethan customs, Shakespearian biography (as scant as that may be), rich histories of the theater and drama, arcane and public, theories of authorship and dedication, conspiracies of court, elaborate tactical evasions designed to conceal the "true nature" of the sonnets; all of these are more than accessible. And all work well - as a choral mass at times - to open the pathways into the more interior aspects of the poetry.
The deliberate obscurities, tactical difficulties, are, necessarily, outside the range of what may be known with certainty about the sonnets. There is a sound and fury of conjecture. Every age finds its own reflection in the "Young Man," the "Dark Lady" and the "Rival Poets." Testament to the immense gravitational presence of Shakespeare is how these are now archetypal structures, having sunk down like titanic statues into the waters of our collective consciousness.
I believe it is here, in the dark waters around these submerged archetypes, that the most fertile images for memorization of the sonnets can be found. The intention is to bring to the surface the sublimated sexuality that bubbles through the sonnets in order to create a charged series of images that will energize the narrative into a new life.
As stated above, I do not presume to supplant Shakespeare's peerless imagery with some shoddy representative of my own. But I do intend to bring his imagery into high relief - bordering upon the pornographic. My sense of it is that Shakespeare would not have been entirely averse to this. I am no Freudian and agree wholeheartedly with Bloom that what we consider Freudian psychology is Shakesperian invention. But as the Freudian model serves to generate striking, memorable, imagery, I have no qualms of using it to my own ends.
Finally, and always, it is about memorizing the sonnets. It is about how I am best able to memorize the sonnets. But why?
The final category of difficulty is the ontological. Essential questions. The very existence, being, of the sonnets are in question here. Why were they created? For whom? Steiner states:
Because this type of difficulty implicates the functions of language and of the poem as a communicative performance, because it puts in question the existential suppositions that lie behind poetry as we have known it, I propose to call it ontological. Difficulties of this category cannot be looked up; they cannot be resolved by genuine readjustment or artifice of sensibility; they are not an intentional technique of retardation and creative uncertainty (though these may be their immediate effect). Ontological difficulties confront us with blank questions about the nature of human speech, about the status of significance, about the necessity and purpose of the construct which we have, with more or less rough and ready consensus, come to perceive as a poem.
By memorizing the sonnets, learning them "by heart," by acquiring the capacity to experience within yourself the generative conditions that produced the language - even in the most superficial act of mimesis - is to place your self into the mind of the creator. Borges' Pierre Menard is the extreme here. Still the argument is valid and to enter into the inner sanctum of poetic understanding, to have any hope of resolving the ontological difficulties of the sonnets, you must find a place for them to live within your own memory. Only there and then will the poetry attain a new life and begin to sing anew.
I will leave with two passages from Steiner:
It is not so much the poet who speaks, but language itself: die Sprache spricht. The authentic, immensely rare, poem is one in which 'the Being of language' finds unimpeded lodging, in which the poet is not a persona, a subjectivity 'ruling over language', but an 'openness to', a supreme listener to, the genius of speech. The result of such openness is not so much a text, but an 'act', an eventuation of Being and literal 'coming into Being'. [...]
We bear witness to its precarious possibility of existence in an 'open' space of collisions, of momentary fusions between word and referent. The operative metaphor may be that crucial to Mallarme's famous L'absente de tous bouquets, to the modem physicist's determination of 'the unperceived event' in the cloud-chamber, and to Heidegger's equivocation on the 'absence in presence' (the play on Ab- and Anwesen). ln each case the observable phenomenon - the text - is the inevitable betrayal, in both senses of the term, of an invisible logic.
The challenge and temptation with Shakespeare is the desire to say something new about him and the work. It is an Ecclesiatian problem: everything has been said already; there is little new under this Sun that hasn't been said by the great many talented and profound crew. We are left with the dubious prospect of combining critical elements in unthought of - and unlikely - combinations merely for the sake of novelty. Of reinterpreting Shakespeare in the narrowed light, manners and customs and theoretical frameworks, of our particular age. Or of simple subjective, biographic response, a self portrait in a Shakesperian mirror - the fault I am most guilty of.
In The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges’ Library of Babel, William Bloch assiduously and with great fascination, attempts to understand how many books are in The Library of Babel. Remarking upon one particular instance regarding the letters g and h alone, he writes:
Pursuing this notion to its conclusion, by considering the number of books consisting of a mere 16 occurrences of the letter h in an otherwise uniform desert of the letter g, we find there are
distinct books—about 3.7 × 1084 books—more than enough to fill three cubic universes. These books, droning wearily of g with a little respite provided only by the scant 16 instances of h, are not typographical phantasmagoria to inflame the imagination or addle the senses, and yet if they were all collected into a subsection of the Library, they would occupy a space greater than three times our known universe.
Finally, it would be a tedious, uninspired, but straightforward calculation to determine how big the Library needs be to hold the books in the hexagonal configurations described by Borges. Given the work we’ve just done, it should be clear that however the Library is constructed, any sort of ambulatory circumnavigation would be utterly impossible for a human being: a vigorous, long-lived librarian who managed to walk a little over 60 miles—about 100 kilometers—every day for 100 years would cover somewhat less distance than light travels in two minutes. To cross our universe, which is incomprehensibly dwarfed by the Library, light would need to travel for at least 15 billion years.
The number of books in the Library, although easily notated, is unimaginable
When I read biography, commentary, gloss, essay and critical studies of Shakespeare, I often sense the vast echoing halls of the Library of Babel forming around me. There is no end it it. Most of it is dross. Still, much of it is excellent. And a surprising lot of it are diamonds. Such is the power of Shakespeare to provoke and inspire other minds to great heights. This being said, Shakespeare encompasses it all within, is not surpassed or ever exceeded. The Work contains not only its world but all of the worlds of commentary upon it with no diminishment. Drop of ink in a ocean vaster and more profound than human imagining. Putting aside the genuine all too human complaint of how this can be so (but in no way denying that it is), there is no other author in whom the unimaginable plan of the Library of Babel is made more imaginable, conceivable, to our more diminished consciousness than Shakespeare. Yes, it seems that everything that can be said about him has. But this is only because everything can be said about Shakespeare and none of it, in human terms, will ever be final or complete. As the Hindu's know the Dream of Brahma is the Universe, we dream within Shakespeare - our self has been constructed within his language - and as we only have access to tools created, so to speak, within this dream, by using them to explore or even deconstruct the dream, we only end up more greatly affirming its reality.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves Combing the white hair of the waves blown back When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
- T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
What is to be bound tightly to the mast at the forefront of my mind here is my purpose: to memorize all 154 sonnets. And, as it is crucial to my project, to memorize them as closely accorded to their meaning as I am able. The beauty of this is that it gives me great latitude to use a wide variety of sources, images and analogy to assist in the memorization process.
As slight overture for beautiful quote from Michael Shoenfeldt that follows, the memory hungers for narrative, for story. We are evolutionarily most responsive to the sexual, salacious, the morbid, violent, bloody, bawdy, petty, jealous and humorous - there, in the humor and in what makes us human. All of it so, as it always is, in Shakespeare's mysterious Sonnets. As indicated above, there are difficulties. But they are easily surmountable as far as memorization is concerned. Once we are able to plug the sonnets in to the potent reserves of our psychic - psychological - energy, the language soon quickens the imagination to a brilliance beyond the resistive limits of its own steady filament.
It is typical of responses to the Sonnets in literary history that they supply the occasion on which two poets articulate and defend absolutely opposite poetic principles. Where Wordsworth assumes that the Sonnets were composed romantically, like his own verse, in a spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion, perhaps rhymed and ordered metrically in tranquillity, Browning counters that the poems were the product of a deliberate assumption of a dramatic role in a specific situation, much like the composition of drama, or of Browning’s own dramatic monologues.
However we read Shakespeare’s Sonnets, we must acknowledge the pull of both perspectives. We must also acknowledge some sense of the inevitable tension between the integrity of an individual poem and the narrative and thematic contexts in which it exists. Some readers want to read the Sonnets as a kind of flipbook with some pages missing; if one moves through them quickly enough, a story will emerge. Other readers, though, want to focus on the artifice of individual sonnets. When reading a sonnet sequence, there is an inexorable pull between the part and the whole, between the highly wrought quanta of lyric energy that is a sonnet and the loosely suggestive vectors of theme, imagery, and narrative that connect individual poems. Whether we base our interpretations on obvious biographical correlatives or not, we read the collection, and individual sonnets, by creating little narratives and dramas; whether we are conscious of it or not, these poems demand that we locate them amid an imagined conversation among four central players – the speaker, the young man, the rival poet, the dark lady. In these necessary acts of provisional explication, the subtle prejudices and covert presuppositions of a reader, or a culture, are inevitably writ large. A remarkable study in the seductive allure of inference and innuendo, the poems at once whet and frustrate our corollary drives for narrative shape and aesthetic closure.
Michael Schoenfeldt, The Sonnets,
The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare's Poetry
1. From fairest creatures we desire increase - ROSE
2. When forty winter shall beseige thy brow - TRENCH
3. Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest - GLASS
4. Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend - EXECUTOR
5. Those hours that with gentle work did frame - FRAME
6. Then let not winter's ragged hand deface - HAND
7. Lo, in the orient when the gracious light - SUN
8. Music to hear, why hear'st thou music sadly? - MUSIC
9. Is it for fear to wet a widow's eye - SHAME
10. For shame deny that thou bear'st love to any - HATE
Beauty's ROSE solitary in World War I muddy TRENCH. Reflecting in a GLASS the face of the EXECUTOR, Death, who admires the FRAME of bone, adjusts it with his HAND to catch the SUN. Suddenly, there is MUSIC that fills Death with SHAME and then, HATE.
11. As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou grow'st - SEAL
12. When I do count the clock that tells the time - TIME
13. Oh, that you were yourself! But, love, you are - FATHER
14. Not from the starts do I my judgement pluck - ASTRONOMY
15. When I consider everything that grows - STAGE
16. But wherefore do not you a mightier way - COUNTERFEIT
17. Who will believe my verse in time to come - TOMB
18. Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? - SUMMER
19. Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion's paws - PHOENIX
Death places his SEAL upon TIME, assuming the role of the FATHER of Time, showing meaning in the ASTRONOMY of the stars, the figures of which move upon the STAGE in a poor COUNTERFEIT of reality. Death places it all into a TOMB for the duration of the zero SUMMER until is reborn like the PHOENIX with a new FACE.
20. A woman's face, with Nature's own hand painted - FACE
21. So it is not with me as with that muse - MUSE
22. My glass shall not persuade me I am old - FURROWS
23. As an unperfect actor on the stage - ACTOR
24. Mine eye hath played the painter and hath steeled - EYE
25. Let those who are in favor with their stars - MARIGOLD
26. Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage - APPAREL
27. Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed - GEM
28. How can I return in happy plight - TORTURE
29. When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes - GATE
The MUSE writes character into the FURROWS that line the ACTOR's face whose EYE shines like a MARIGOLD in the sun. He dressed in new APPAREL placing a fine GEM on his lapel, a sign that he has endured the TORTURE at Heaven's GATE and has been able to translate the MOANs of God.
30. When to the sessions of sweet silent thought - MOAN
31. Thy bosom is endeared with all hearts - TROPHIES
32. If thou survive my well-contented day - BONES
33. Full many a glorious morning have I seen - ALCHEMY
34. Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day - PEARL
35. No more be grieved at that which thou hast done - THORN
36. Let me confess that we two must be twain - BLOTS
37. As a decrepit father takes delight - LAME
38. How can my muse want subject to invent - VULGAR
39. O how thy worth with manners may I sing - ABSENCE
40. Take all my loves, my love, yea take them all - LASCIVIOUS
41. Those pretty wrongs that liberty commits - RIOT
42. That thou hast her it is not all my grief - CROSS
43. When most I wink then do mine eyes best see - WINK
44. If the dull substance of my flesh were thought - FLESH
45. The other two, slight air, and purging fire - MELANCHOLY
46. Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war - WAR
47. Betwixt mine eye and heart a league is took - BANQUET
48. How careful was I when I took my way - TRIFLE
49. Against that time, if ever that time come - FROWN
The BLOODY SPUR kicked into the hide of the DULL BEARER, who follows, like a donkey with a carrot on a stick, a BLESSED KEY, which casts STRANGE SHADOWS, but is a STRANGE ORNAMENT of Beauty, hung around the neck of SLUTTISH TIME who charges with sorrow the SAD INTERIM of our lives, making us her SLAVE, even if this is an action GOD FORBID, knowing what happened to his FORMER CHILD.
50. How heavy do I journey on the way - BLOODY SPUR
51. Thus can my love excuse the slow offence - DULL BEARER
52. So am I as the rich, whose blessed key - BLESSED KEY
53. What is your substance, whereof are you made - STRANGE SHADOWS
54. O! how much more doth beauty beauteous seem - SWEET ORNAMENT
55. Not marble, nor the gilded monuments- SLUTTISH TIME
56. Sweet love, renew thy force; be it not said - SAD INTERIM
57. Being your slave what should I do but tend - SLAVE
58. That god forbid, that made me first your slave - GOD FORBID
59. If there be nothing new, but that which is- A FORMER CHILD
60. Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore - WAVES
61. Is it thy will, thy image should keep open
62. Sin of self-love possesseth all mine eye
63. Against my love shall be as I am now
64. When I have seen by Time's fell hand defaced
65. Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea
66. Tired with all these, for restful death I cry
67. Ah! wherefore with infection should he live
68. Thus is his cheek the map of days outworn
69. Those parts of thee that the world's eye doth view
70. That thou art blamed shall not be thy defect - CROW
71. No longer mourn for me when I am dead - SULLEN BELL
72. O! lest the world should task you to recite - RECITE
73. That time of year thou mayst in me behold - RUINED CHOIR
74. But be contented when that fell arrest
75. So are you to my thoughts as food to life
76. Why is my verse so barren of new pride
77. Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear
78. So oft have I invoked thee for my Muse
79. Whilst I alone did call upon thy aid
The CROW flies into the SULLEN BELL, ringing it, himself dazed, sitting in the tower he is tasked to RECITE the allegory of the RUINED CHOIR
80. O! how I faint when I of you do write
81. Or I shall live your epitaph to make - EPITAPH
82. I grant thou wert not married to my Muse
83. I never saw that you did painting need
84. Who is it that says most, which can say more
85. My tongue-tied Muse in manners holds her still
86. Was it the proud full sail of his great verse
87. Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing
88. When thou shalt be disposed to set me light
89. Say that thou didst forsake me for some fault
The CROSS is dragged behind the pale HORSE for MY TERM OF LIFE because I tasted EVE'S APPLE and now have the POWER TO HURT like the CANKER IN THE FRAGRANT ROSE which is shivering under the FINGER OF THE THRONED QUEEN who asks me what FREEZINGS HAVE I FELT now that HEAVY SATURN has condemned the FORWARD VIOLET.
90. Then hate me when thou wilt; if ever, now CROSS
91. Some glory in their birth, some in their skill HORSE
92. But do thy worst to steal thyself away TERM OF LIFE
93. So shall I live, supposing thou art true EVE'S APPLE
94. They that have power to hurt, and will do none POWER TO HURT
95. How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame CANKER IN THE FRAGRANT ROSE
96. Some say thy fault is youth, some wantonness FINGER OF THE THRONED QUEEN
97. How like a winter hath my absence been FREEZINGS HAVE I FELT
98. From you have I been absent in the spring HEAVY SATURN
99. The forward violet thus did I chide FORWARD VIOLET
100. Where art thou Muse that thou forget'st so long - CROOKED KNIFE
101. O truant Muse what shall be thy amends - GUILDED TOMB
102. My love is strengthened though more weak in seeming - PHILOMEL
103. Alack! what poverty my Muse brings forth - GLASS (MIRROR)
104. To me, fair friend, you never can be old - EYE EYE'D
105. Let not my love be called idolatry - IDOL
106. When in the chronicle of wasted time - CHRONICLE OF WASTED TIME
107. Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul - THINGS TO COME
108. What's in the brain that ink may character - INK
109. O! never say that I was false of heart - FLAME
A CROOKED KNIFE rests upon a sarcophagus in a GILDED TOMB upon which the Nightingale, PHILOMEL, sings into a GLASS (Mirror), her EYE EYE'D gargantuan as it stares at an IDOL placed on top of the CHRONICLE OF WASTED TIME which tells of THINGS TO COME, the INK written in blood which now erupts into FLAME which immolates the Jester's MOTLEY
Beauty's ROSE solitary in World War I muddy TRENCH. Reflecting in a GLASS the face of the EXECUTOR, Death, who admires the FRAME of bone, adjusts it with his HAND to catch the SUN. Suddenly, there is MUSIC that fills Death with SHAME and then, HATE. Death places his SEAL upon TIME, assuming the role of the FATHER of Time, showing meaning in the ASTRONOMY of the stars, the figures of which move upon the STAGE in a poor COUNTERFEIT of reality. Death places it all into a TOMB for the duration of the zero SUMMER until is reborn like the PHOENIX with a new FACE. The MUSE writes character into the FURROWS that line the ACTOR's face whose EYE shines like a MARIGOLD in the sun. He dressed in new APPAREL placing a fine GEM on his lapel, a sign that he has endured the TORTURE at Heaven's GATE and has been able to translate the MOANs of God.