Sonnet 65: ‘Paint it Black’ – Back to Black, on occasion of Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary

The Sonnets are Shakespeare condensed into small scale poetic form. Their performance space is not on the playhouse stage, but in the more expansive theatre of the mind, portable Shakespeare, therefore, for the modern bookreader, to be accessed anywhere and whenever. Compiled inside the covers of one book, the 154 poems, 14 lines each, provide a lyrical backdrop to Shakespeare’s theatre, a sort of engine room or microcosm of nuclear ideas that power the universe of the plays. Of course they also demand to be enjoyed in their own right. For, first and foremost, this is great poetry: something else Shakespeare, the playwright polymath, was exceptionally good at, even though various juries are still out whether all of The Sonnets are of equally high artistic quality. As is the case with numerous other aspects of Shakespeare’s work,The Sonnets carry some unanswered questions regarding sources, origins, authorship, publication, purpose, sexual orientation even, order of arrangement of the sequence and of individual poems in the collection, its dedication, addressees etc.. To pick out but one area: who, for example, was the dedicatee of the collection, the enigmatic ‘Mr W.H.’ (the most recent research-based claim suggests he was a friend of the author, a London publisher called William Holme), or, in another contentious area, who was the young man the first 126 sonnets are addressed to (was there even a physical role model, and what, if there was?); and who was the mysterious ‘Dark Lady’ of the last 28 ones? As first port of call, introducing some of the ins and outs of the text, W. H. Auden’s ‘Afterword’ to the Everyman’s Library edition may serve: a poet’s perspective on the poems…

The sonnet as a new poetic form originated in 13th century Italy. Its invention can be regarded as one of the most substantial literary achievements of early modern culture, with a first peak of artistic perfection in the Canzoniere of Petrarca (written between 1327 and 1368). In fact, it has been argued that the sonnet as an artistic landmark points to the beginning of the Renaissance as  such… Since then the form has enjoyed several high points along the way to later modern writing, Shakespeare’s collection of 1609 being one of them, of course; also, Elisabeth Barrett-Browning’s 1850 Sonnets from the Portuguese needs a mention, and, most recently, in 2015, Don Patterson’s excellent collection of  40 Sonnets. Almost everybody who was (and is) anybody in the world of poetic writing has at some stage used the sonnet. Its specific formal features demand of the poet a high degree of skill and good craftsmanship; it lends itself particularly well to the display of poetic virtuosity. You can make a good name for yourself, even aspire to enter into the afterlife of everlasting poetic fame, or become a Poet Laureate, if you manage to compose  decent sonnets. Contemporary likenesses convey Petrarch as the bearer of the laurel wreath, the ancient Apollonian crown for heroes and champion poets. The other reason is that owing to the peculiarities of its intricate structure and patterning, the Petrarchan sonnet and its Shakespearean modification have served as a model form for expressing complex  thoughts, sentiments and feelings: the sonnet is a modern poetic form because it allows particularly well for an expression of the issues that are on the modern mind.

The modernity of the sonnet as a form lies in the fact that it is eminently suitable to deal  with questions of conflicted human identity in an increasingly confusing world of post medieval secularisation, a world we are still living in today. The discourse-oriented, bipartite structure of the Italian sonnet (Octave – two Quatrains –  followed by Sestet – two Tercets) and the possibilities of fugue-like intertwining of rhymes (across the different intersections) allows for great flexibility in expressing condensed, complex ideas, often of an antithetical, or oxymoronic and paradoxical nature, and encourages the development of a complicated argument, that may extend from initial statement via discussion in the Octave down to a resolution at the end of the Sestet. Shakespeare modifies the Petrarchan model. Replacing the two-part structure (Octave and Sestet), he introduces three Quatrains and one final Couplet, which, it can be argued, even increases the sonnet’s propensity for intellectual disputation and the charting of thoughts as a ‘dialectical’ process, with negation, self-doubt, and contradiction as ingredient elements. Arguably, through its essentially tripartite structure (plus concluding couplet), the Shakespearean paradigm of the sonnet, even more so than the more binary-based Petrarchan, caters even better for the requirements of dynamically developing, modern thought and a fluid argumentation. Like most of his plays, Shakespeare’s sonnets use iambic pentameter, the metrical line that hides its own constructedness and aims at giving the illusion of life-like speech. It also brings The Sonnets in proximity to the plays in that it enhances the dramatic positioning of the ideas discussed in them. Their rhyme scheme mostly follows the pattern of abab cdcd efef gg.

Sonnet 65 is one of my favorites.



Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.


To me it stands out as one of the most radically modern of Shakespeares utterances, through its imagery, for a start, which seems to point forward as far ahead as Victorian Industrialisation and Darwinian Geology. But also through the depth of what is being discussed in it: at the root is a central question still asked in a similar way (and sometimes  answered), perhaps asked again for the first time in this radical way since Shakespeare’s days, in European art and thought around the middle of the 19th century and beyond. Art, poetry to be precise, holds out the faint hope of permanence and constancy in the face of the great ravisher Time who causes all human life and its products to be annihilated. The human counts for nothing in a world of raging natural devastation where even rocks erode over time, let alone brass and steel: hope against hope, the poet writes against the inevitability of natural decay, and perhaps there is a slim chance for poetic passion, codified in the black ink of the written text, to survive the tumult of destruction and shine through it.

The notion of transience of life is as widespread in the European literature of the Baroque as that of teatrum mundi  (‘All the Word’s a stage’, in the words of one of Shakespeare’s plays), both ideas feeding into the modern notion of tragic absurdity of life. Thus, as Walter Benjamin emphasised in his  study of Baroque tragedy, the literature of Shakespeare’s period paves the way into our own time. However, Sonnet 65 seems to me to go particularly deep in its modern concerns, perhaps further than other discussions of the matter in Shakespeare and other contemporary writers, such as Cervantes, Calderon or Grimmelshausen. This sonnet strikes me particularly through its visionary qualities, enhanced  by its peculiar network of metaphors, directly anticipating, down to the phrase almost, many later expressions of the same dilemma from poets and writers who were neck-deep embroiled in the battles for orientation and identity during Industrial Revolution and later Capitalism, the worst times of turmoil and change of the whole period. Marx, no poet, comes out with the stunning well-known poetic line, ‘All that is solid melts into air’ (1848), a fact, he maintains with the characteristic optimism of the early freedom fighter, that we can, waking up to realising our own situation, turn into our advantage. From Sonnet 65, links can be drawn to Darwin who propagates the notion of  ‘geological time’ in Origin of Species (1859); The sentence from the same source: ‘How fleeting are the wishes and efforts of man! how short his time! and consequently how poor will his products be, compared with those accumulated by nature during whole geological periods’, chimes with the sentiments of the Sonnet. It also anticipates late-19th century Aestheticism which, counteracting the pessimism of Darwin’s biological determinism, identifies a faculty in the make-up of the human that may provide a reason to live in a devastating world of destruction, by resisting ‘Nature, Red in tooth and claw’ (Tennyson’s phrase from In Memoriam, 1850). In the famous Conclusion to The Renaissance (1873) Walter Pater says that

‘we have an interval, and then our place knows no more. … Great passions may give us a quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which comes naturally to many of us. … Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.’

There is a variety of connections that can be made between Sonnet 65’s desperate vision of hope that art may resist the destruction of time to similar reflections in 19th century poetry. Canto V of Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850) echoes the Sonnet’s idea of fragile ink set against overwhelming devastation. Tennyson, who thinks of his own poems as ‘lullabies of pain’, holds that

But for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

In words, like weeds, I’ll wrap me o’er,
Like coarsest clothes against the cold:
But that large grief which these enfold
Is given in outline and no more.

If at all, it is only through art that the human has any significance, any distinct part to play in the grand scheme of things. In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65 the dim glow of the black ink of poetry is the only light source in a world of cosmic devastation and universal darkness. The same black sun of poetry shines from Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal (1857), and more, powerfully black even, from James Thomson’s City of Dreadful Night (1874). In an early poem called ‘Hap’ of 1866, Hardy calls Time a ‘purblind Doomster’: this is the major ingredient also in all of Hardy’s novels. Time in Hardy is the modern equivalent of ancient fate in a post-mythological and post-Christian age, the main agent (together with chance, or ‘Happenstance’ – the shortened title of the poem ‘Hap’) that turns human life into tragedy, even under the most modern of conditions.




King Lear at Manchester’s Royal Exchange

The Royal Exchange in Manchester has a reputation for staging Shakespeare plays in a way which demonstrates the Bard’s relevance to the now. Maxine Peake’s Hamlet in 2014 was a stunning example of relevant and inspiring Shakespeare. As the programme for Lear tells us, there are 3 productions being staged, in this 400th anniversary year of the playwright’s death, which cast black actors in lead roles: Don Warrington as Lear here, Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet at the RSC and Ray Fearon as Macbeth at the Globe.

While Don Warrington is clearly the star of this show, the whole cast are impressive. Warrington is an imposing actor, who gives great presence to Lear in all his manifestations: as patriarch, deluded parent, mad man, and tragic father-king. Special mention, however, must go to Miltos Yerolemou as Lear’s wise Fool and to Fraser Ayres for his terrifying Edmund. But it is unfair, I think, to pick anybody out. This production emphasises the humanity of the three tragic characters (Lear, Cordelia and Gloucester), rather than the politics of a state divided.

The Royal Exchange is a brilliant theatre. Playing in the round, with only the most essential of props (a throne for the king, a chair each for the sisters) creates a genuinely intimate experience of the play. We booked these tickets way in advance, and since opening the production has received rave reviews (“as close to definitive as can be”, according to the Guardian). As a result, tickets are hard to come by; but if you can get one it’ll be worth the struggle.


Staffs Uni paid for the tickets and the coach, while Manchester offered us different city experiences: some set off for a gallery, others to the shops, and some of us to the bohemian shabbiness of Affleck’s Palace. And for lunch: you cannot beat the Northern Soul grilled cheese café and their magnificent Philly cheese steak sandwich – probably the best outside of Philadelphia and one of Manchester’s coolest street food experiences.


Inside the building. Is it a theatre or a spaceship?

As an added bonus, Sally bumped in to and instantly recognised 2 of the actors (who played the Fool and Oswald) at ComicCon in Stoke the next day.


Visiting Lecturer, Jonathan Day, offers his thoughts on Coriolanus

My selection comes from Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy Coriolanus. Our hero is Caius Martius, who has earned his honorific title, ‘Coriolanus’, from his actions fighting the enemies of Rome, the Volsces, in their city of Corioli. Throughout the play Coriolanus has been a singular figure, in conflict with the public of Rome. Rejected from the city, Coriolanus turns on Rome and approaches the leader of the Volsces, Tullus Aufidius, and demands that Aufidius either kill him or use him to conquer Rome. Here is Aufidius’s response to that ultimatum:
I loved the maid I married; never man
Sigh’d truer breath; but that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing! more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold. Why, thou Mars! I tell thee,
We have a power on foot; and I had purpose
Once more to hew thy target from thy brawn,
Or lose mine arm fort: thou hast beat me out
Twelve several times, and I have nightly since
Dreamt of encounters ‘twixt thyself and me;
We have been down together in my sleep,
Unbuckling helms, fisting each other’s throat,
And waked half dead with nothing.

This is a play that has seemingly consistently triumphed traditional conservative Roman values. Coriolanus is the warrior who literally forms his identity through war (note the honorific name ‘Coriolanus’), who subjugates his own welfare to the good of Rome, the warrior who fights to honour his mother and wife and for a future for his son, and is undone by a spirit of resentment that rules amongst a faceless mob. Above all this, the play would seem to suggest the successful man is a figure of magnificent isolation.

Within thirteen remarkable lines however, Shakespeare deflates all of this. These lines demonstrate none of the martial restraint one might expect of a warrior leader; they are not end stopped, that is to say, they are examples of enjambment. Each line does not contain a single complete phrase or idea but runs on in a stream. The whole speech consists of only four sentences, one of which, ‘Why, thou Mars!’ serves to disrupt the hypnotic rhythm and prevent monotony. This speech is frankly, almost explicitly, homoerotic in the language of dancing hearts at the appearance of Coriolanus, unbuckled helms, being ‘down together’ and nocturnal ‘encounters’. Again, this stands against so much else in the play. Finally, Shakespeare’s language subverts the idea of singularity into duality and interrelationship. The final magnificent sentence has six self-references to ‘I’ or ‘me’, six references to ‘thou’ or ‘thee’ and two ‘we’s. This sheer bulk in such a short span of text, combined with the fluid lines, serves to confuse the issue; who or what is being discussed here? This is most clearly present in the final five lines, in which the subject of the sentence is Aufidius himself; due to the dream-like flow of the language, by the time we come to the conclusion, it seems as if the subject is the ‘we’ of ‘we have been down together’. It is is Aufidius’s dream, but it seems as if they are both dreamers and have somehow both ‘waked half dead with nothing’. Why half dead, and what was the ‘something’ they might have had?

At the conclusion of the play Coriolanus returns to his identity model of isolation and independence; before his death he proudly recalls his actions in Corioles and remarks ‘Alone, I did it’. In the section above however we see Shakespeare’s art. It is the characteristic ‘volta’ or turn, of the sonnet writ large; within a few trance-like lines Shakespeare challenges the seeming grounds of his whole play. In its own way, this passage is as daring as Puck’s suggestion at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that if we disliked the action, we should assume that we have been dreaming. Perhaps we ourselves might awaken half dead with nothing?

Lovers, Lunatics and Poets

The English lecturers have been picking their favourite speeches and sonnets to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Here, Mark Brown ponders the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


When most people think about A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they usually think of a tale of lovers wronged, true love realised, magical fairies and a man with the head of a donkey. And, on the whole, they would be right. Critics often focus on the carnivalesque aspects as rigid Athenian society is disrupted by a holiday to mark the Duke’s marriage and the magical effects of the countryside. They also focus on the conventions of romantic comedy, many of which still hold true for the Rom-Coms we see at the cinema. The romance is found in the characters of Hermia and Lysander, who are in love with each other. Hermia’s father, however, wants her to marry Demetrius (for reasons of wealth and power). Demetrius is loved by Helena, but he’s just not interested. If Hermia does not conform to her father’s wishes she can, according to the Athenian law of Theseus, be killed or banished. So, Hermia and Lysander flee to the forest, pursued by the jealous Demetrius and the besotted Helena. Here they encounter the fairies (with their magical royal equivalents of the Athenian elite, Oberon and Titania). After lots of misunderstandings caused by magic potions, love triumphs and all the right people marry each other for all the right reasons, and order is restored.

I find the play fascinating for its exploration of dream and how Shakespeare relates it closely to the magic of theatre. This speech, from Theseus near the end of the play, reflects back on the moment when the lovers are discovered waking from their enchantment in the forest when Demetrius says

It seems to me
That yet we sleep, we dream. (Act IV, Scene I)

The theme of dreams here is carried from the enchantment of the fairies in the wood, to their awakening and then back to Athens, where its effects will be felt in the re-ordering of chaotic marriage arrangements into an acceptable order and the re-establishment of both Egeus’ and Theseus’ patriarchal authority. But first Theseus reflects on the nature of the stories of enchanted woods and fairies. After describing ‘these antique fables’, he considers the role of the poet (and, hence, the playwright) in fashioning stories to speak to the interests and experiences of his audience:

The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. (Act V Scene I)


The poet’s pen, then, is what makes sense of a chaotic and incomprehensible world, which sometimes can only be explained by the actions of nature and magic. The writer is able to change the ‘airy nothing[s]’ of imagination into a recognisable world that will draw us in and persuade us, for the duration of the play, of the verisimilitude of the fictional world and the characters he has conjured by his own form of magic.


LONDONSTUDENTSecond and Third Year creative writing and screenwriting students (above with lecturer Margaret Leclere) were treated to a day in London last week to see the STATES OF MIND exhibition at The Welcome Trust. The exhibition explores phenomena such as somnambulism, synaesthesia, and disorders of memory and consciousness, and examines  ideas around the nature of consciousness, and in particular what can happen when our typical conscious experience is interrupted, damaged or undermined, from UFO sightings, to murder committed during sleepwalking, to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari…

We also explored their permanent collection which features art and artefacts, antique medical models, mummies, shrunken heads and other fascinating curiosities. Afterwards, students dispersed to The National Galleries, The British Library and the Southbank. Some of us explored the new Waterstone’s in Tottenham Court Road which also operates as a work station environment, as well as a bookshop. There’s a bar in the basement, a coffee shop on the top floor and work stations on all levels for visitors to work on their business briefings, novels or poems… A regular calendar of events is also a feature of the shop, not necessarily tethered to a book launch, so, for example, some creative writing students were advertising their evening of readings. Maybe we can do something similar, somewhere, soon! PH

Crime fiction and gender

We borrowed the film theatre once again for an English and Creative Writing private screening and the complete cinema experience, complete with free pop-corn (my pleasure). We watched One for the Money, the 2011 adaptation of the first Stephanie Plum novel, as part of the Crime Scene America module.

I think Rotten Tomatoes’ 1 star review of this jolly crime-romcom is a bit unfair. Along with a nice afternoon at the movies, we watched the movie for the way it adapts the detective-figure role for a female central character, explored notions of gender and racial representation, and the further development of the crime genre. We used Mulvey’s discussion of the gendered cinematic gaze to consider the extent to which this film challenges Hollywood’s patriarchal attitudes (it doesn’t!).

One for the Money