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How Shakespeare Manages Transience in Sonnets 12 and 18

How Shakespeare Manages Transience in Sonnets 12 and 18

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Joshua Wilson. Originally submitted for English at Harvard University, with lecturer Prof. James Simpson in the category of English Literature
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Joshua Wilson. Originally submitted for English at Harvard University, with lecturer Prof. James Simpson in the category of English Literature

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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10/27/2013

 
1Abstract: critics have neglected to compare Shakespeare’s Sonnets 12 and 18, and in so doingthey have failed to observe what various means Shakespeare deploys to manage the human and poetic problem of transience. This paper relates these sonnets by arguing that, in both,Shakespeare manages that problem by metaphorically identifying the act of poetic creation withthat of procreation, centrally deploying two imaginative means. First, in Sonnet 12, he asserts the power of memory over death, specifically memory as it’s embodied in poetry; and in Sonnet 18he uses self-reflexive techniques that point to his poem
qua
art, only to conclude that art iseternal, outside the compass of transience altogether. Second, in both sonnets, Shakespearedenigrates the eternal so that death becomes subject to itself, and therefore less terrifying tomortals. Such findings provide readers with a more comprehensive understanding of Shakespeare’s conception of poetry, more specifically of his conception of poetry as a means of self-immortalization.How Shakespeare Manages Transience in Sonnets 12 and 18In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 12, the speaker, reflecting on the passage of time and life’stransience, resigns himself to the conclusion that “nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can makedefense/ Save breed” (13-14). However, the speaker of Sonnet 18 concludes that the “fair[ness]”(10) of his subject (presumably the young man to whom Sonnets 1 through 126 are addressed)shall be “eternal…in eternal lines” (9-12). In other words, the speaker of Sonnet 18 concludesthat poetry
can
defend its subject’s beauty against “Time’s scythe.” If the act of poeticizing isn’tsynonymous with that of breeding, though, then the manifest content of Sonnet 18 contradictsthat of Sonnet 12; needless to say, it can’t be the case that nothing other than breeding can “makedefense” against transience and that something other than breeding can do so. So the question
 
2 becomes: are Sonnets 12 and 18 uttered by distinct speakers, or does one speaker change hismind on transience from Sonnet 12 to Sonnet 18, or is the contradiction somehow resolvable? Iwant to argue that in Sonnets 12 and 18 Shakespeare latently conceives of poeticizing as a kindof breeding, and so the contradiction identified above is indeed resolvable. After all, Sonnet 18does not so much “give life” to its subject’s beauty as it immortalizes itself, and if a closereading of the reflective strategies of Sonnet 12 is read in the context of Shakespeare’s poeticself-immortalization as a project, it becomes evident that Shakespeare more generally managestransience by immortalizing the mortal through the denigration of the eternal.Sonnet 18 proclaims its self-reflexivity in its first line: “Shall I compare thee to asummer’s day?” (1). Here the speaker makes explicit his poetic project of metaphorizing theyoung man’s beauty, of “compar[ing]” it to something, and what follows that declaration of  project may be read as a test of how fit “a summer’s day” is as a metaphorical vehicle for itstenor. However, comparative diction (e.g. “
more
lovely and
more
temperate [italics mine]”)immediately suggests that the subject of the sonnet is comparable only in degree to “a summer’sday,” not at all in kind, and that implicationally the speaker has exhausted his figurativeresources (2). The poetic mind can find no vehicle sufficient to the task of enacting its subject; itcannot out-trope itself, as it were. And so the speaker instead devalues his trope by unfavorablycomparing it to the young man with what Helen Vendler rightly calls “self-reflexive adjectives[“lovely” and “temperate”] for a wooing song” (120). While these “self-reflexive adjectives”seem to glorify the young man, they do not work to mimetically represent him. In fact, their self-reflexivity effectively draws us away from the young man altogether and draws us toward thegeneric conventions that architectonically govern his treatment in poetry and toward the poet
 
3administering that treatment. When we read about the young man’s beauty in Sonnet 18, we arereally reading about the poeticization of that beauty.Moreover, Shakespeare spends the first two quatrains of his sonnet not sowing the youngman in “eternal lines” as he claims but metaphorically critiquing the poetic value of his“summer’s day,” denigrating the metaphor. At the expense of learning about “the beloved’s formor height or hair or eyes or bearing…her character or mind,” we learn about summer’s poeticinadequacies (Boyd-White 142). Most centrally, Shakespeare personifies summer, whichconsequently becomes mortally transient as a lessee whose “lease hath all too short a date” (2).The metaphor here turns summer into a human actor subject to a quickly expiring contract, and,once the contract expires, summer will die and nature will be “untrimmed,” or “stripped of gayapparel” (Greenblatt and Logan 1063) like its “darling buds” (18.3). But what in Sonnet 18 is theimplied lessor to whom summer is bound? The lessor here, I think, is the “eye of heaven” (18.5),or the “sun,
ordainer of seasons
[italics mine]” (Vendler 120). But what is Shakespeare
doing 
bycreating a metaphorical lessee-lessor relationship? The conceit through which it’s imagined has avehicle that’s incongruous with its tenor—larger-than-life natural bodies become petty mortalsand cosmic phenomena become petty mortal dealings. Such an incongruity
1
again draws us awayfrom content and toward the conceit that treats it, toward the poet himself. The poet is reallyflaunting the power of his conceit to diminish the imaginative weight of the natural. Death shallnot brag (11), the speaker says, because “the poet shall brag” (Boyd-White 142) better in death’sstead.
1
Significantly, Shakespeare does not test the fitness of the lessee-lessor metaphor as he does the fitness of the“summer’s day” metaphor. His diminishment of the natural may therefore be read as less processed than histreatment of the young man, more whimsical, though to act on a whim when rendering the eternal transient is to besupremely audacious. That audacity is also self-reflexive. Testing conceits and inventing audacious conceits are bothstrategies that Shakespeare’s speaker uses to glorify not his subject but himself as a poet.

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