The Eternal Self in Shakespeare's Sonnets

By Madeline Clark

He who does not yet know the Shakespearean sonnets has before him an encounter with spacious thoughts that will profoundly stir his heart. As unpremeditated as the song of a bird, this matchless verse wells forth, now eloquent with human feeling, now adorned with the lyric beauty of universal nature, now appealing to the sense of truth and justice; but always with an undertone of something beyond and within the words that leaves the reader pondering. And if he is willing to keep on pondering over the space of a few weeks, months, or even years, he may in time come to identify himself with the "I" of the sonnets, and see himself in very truth as the archetypal man about whom the poet might have been writing.

For it cannot be said of these sonnets that "he who runs may read." Their import is often obscure and cannot be come at by means of the reasoning faculty alone. Perhaps, too, the heart is involved. Not the heart that is shallowly linked with the emotions, but the "great antique heart" of man that the old sages used to think of as the seat of the deeper aspects of the mind and, in fact, its guide and mentor.

Scholars have long been intrigued by the ambiguity of the sonnets, and have wanted to get at their essence; but most of them at first approach have been stopped dead in their tracks by the question: To whom were the poems addressed? For these beautiful odes were certainly dedicated to an admired object. So, as in the case of the famous (or infamous) Baconian controversy touching the identity of the poet himself, conflicting theories arose in regard to the object of the sonnets; the champions of the Earl of Southampton having a case as watertight as do the adherents of the Earl of Pembroke, to say nothing of the Dark Lady. While at first sight these speculations might seem superficial and relatively inessential, they may be so only because of the purely historical and mundane solutions offered. In reality, the question seems to this writer to be of first importance -- to be, in fact, a key to the philosophical and metaphysical interpretation of the sonnets themselves.

What is there in them for the one who is willing to plumb their depth? The hopes, despairs, and hidden struggles; the play of feeling and reflection on things seen and felt -- in short, it is what every human being is forever doing in his inmost thoughts and responses. It is this likeness to typically human experience that brings Shakespeare within reach of us all. Nothing, for example, could better express the familiar mood of self-discontent than the famous sonnet:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state, / And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, / And look upon myself, and curse my fate, / Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, / Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd, / Desiring this man's art and that man's scope, / With what I most enjoy contented least; / Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising, . . .

But at the close of the somber lines, light breaks through:

For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings. -- XXIX
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, / All losses are restored, and sorrows end. -- XXX

Who is the friend whose inner presence does all this?

The powerful sonnet CXXIX describes the yielding to temptation and the sickness of soul that it leaves in its wake:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is Just in action; . . .

and concludes:

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well / To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

Yet in taking note of the homespun quality that makes the lines a very part of our own thought, we still sense the mystery, the allegory hidden there. It is as if a bright thread of wisdom were shot through the familiar fabric, now giving forth a gleam, anon disappearing where the mind cannot follow.

This inscrutable quality in the poetry is acknowledged by several writers as if with gratitude that Shakespeare did not sit down to his writing table, square his elbows, and set out to give us his message in so many words, thus creating neat dogmas that are already dead when let loose upon the world. In The Mutual Flame, Professor G. Wilson Knight, commenting upon one of the great sonnets (CVII) says: "True, no one knows what it means, but in that very vagueness lies much of its appeal, the sense we receive of great issues." This "vagueness" is in keeping with the impression that the poet is said to have made even upon some of his contemporaries, that he was a man curiously apart, "shy of involvement in the world," as Anthony Burgess expresses it in The Listener of April 23, 1964. And V. S. Pritchett, in his contribution to the symposium in the same issue, remarks: "he is like one of ourselves, but infinitely wiser, speaking to us directly about our own experience."

The mood of speculation still prevails. All the while, the real intent of the sonnets eludes the scholars. But there is one minor school that asks: Need the sonnets have been addressed to any human individual? They point to their universal quality and hold that the sonnets are purely allegorical. The truth seems to be that each one who reads Shakespeare should study the poems for himself. Whether or not Shakespeare was writing of his own inner life, he was certainly delineating the subjective experience of Everyman in his struggling human aspect.

The earlier sonnets, apparently addressed to a golden and promising youth, leave us with a solemn sense of the importance of distilling from our lives something of essential value while we live, rather than to die leaving no "progeny" -- i.e., no worthwhile accomplishment for the general good or for the perpetuation of our own individual character, a basis for future good fortune, strength, and growth. Yet what future could possibly be meant here, if death is the end to all? The explanation seems to lie in sonnet LIX, which presupposes a former as well as a future life:

If there be nothing new, but that which is / Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled, / Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss / The second burthen of a former child! / O! that record could with a backward look, / Even of five hundred courses of the sun, / Show me your image in some antique book, / Since mind at first in character was done. / That I might see what the old world could say / To this composed wonder of your frame, / Whether we are mended, or whether better they, / Or whether revolution be the same.

This is the citation from Shakespeare that anthologists of reincarnation use; but there are at least seven other sonnets that have veiled hints of the doctrine. This human entity of whom he writes, this plodder along the way, is old, was old even in antiquity, and will prevail into the years of posterity, a word much used in the sonnets. It may be for this reason that Shakespeare has so many allusions to time, its passage, and what it does to us; its relation to "endless age" and, by implication, immortality. The theme of antiquity and futurity existing as one is found in several sonnets, along with the idea of the eternity of nature, of the cosmos, and of man.

These projections of thought bring us close to the concepts of Giordano Bruno, following Pythagoras: of the broad sweep of cycles, of the world itself as a living being ensouled by the Divine; man and atom, and all other entities, existing only as parts of the One Life. This has led modern students to wonder whether there could have been a meeting between Shakespeare and Bruno during the year or two that Bruno spent in England (1583-5), discussing his Pythagorean views of the spiritual universe with learned men at Oxford University and with cultured men (there is a difference) such as Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Thomas Walsingham, John Florio, and others -- the circle who are said to have belonged to Sir Walter Raleigh's "School of Night." It was with the latter group that Giordano met acceptance of his doctrines: the Oxford professors were for the most part too far entrenched in theology to see anything but heresy in these bold ideas.

There are those who deny that Shakespeare could have met Bruno, as the poet did not come up to London until Bruno had left England. Two answers suggest themselves: Shakespeare was -- must have been -- a familiar in the circle which included Sidney and Florio and Raleigh and so could have been present during one or more of the Pythagorean discussions inspired by Bruno. Secondly, would he not have received intimations of these concepts from the same source as Bruno? Not from books, necessarily, either. Certain it is that several eminent commentators during the Shakespeare Year (1964) came to the realization that within the somewhat cryptic lines of the sonnets and other poems, as well as passages in the dramas, are echoes of a cosmic philosophy which envisions the metaphysical nature of man as a part of the universe.

Man himself, therefore, has an individual identity in his deepest aspect: "I am that I am" affirms this realization in spite of any untoward appearances; and in the same way the loved one who is addressed: "you alone are you." Yet, in instance after instance, the "I" of the sonnets affirms that "I" and "thou" are one:

O! how thy worth with manners may I sing, / When thou art all the better part of me? -- XXIX
My spirit is thine, the better part of me. -- LXXIV

and again:

For all that beauty that doth cover thee / Is but the seemly raiment of my heart, / Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me: . . . -- XXII

These often touching dedicatory lines express the boundless reverence for and gratitude towards what could not be other than the inner companion of every human being -- call it conscience, the guardian angel, the inner monitor, or the divine self of the world. This everpresent "other self" seems to be only at times a friendly and sustaining support (in the sonnets and in life). At others it is a silent monitor, receding when the lesser self becomes wayward and untrue, and withdrawing altogether for indeterminate periods when for too long it has been neglected by its pupil, the human "I":

Alas! 'tis true I have gone here and there, / And made myself a motley to the view, / Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear, / Made old offences of affections new. . . . -- CX

This and other sonnets in a similar vein could mean a humble return to the great central loyalty after a period of inattentiveness, or trifling, or following meaner pursuits. It is, he admits, really the lesser "I" that has lost sight of the august and patient Self: but in this chastened mood he can say:

O! give thyself the thanks, if aught in me / Worthy perusal stand against thy sight; . . . -- XXXVIII

In The Mutual Flame Knight pays this tribute to the inner man: "every person or thing in Shakespeare is expressed as a being of eternal rights: the soul-life of each is touched, and the rest follows; . . . every least person . . . enjoys this royalty . . . shares in the elixir, is known by the atman, or divine spark within." And he continues, quoting from sonnet CXIV:

"Creating every bad a perfect best": what more perfect description could you find to characterise Shakespeare's human delineation, surveying, as it does, both good and evil with inhuman clarity and charity, as though from a consciousness itself looking down on them from some eternal dimension?

The quality of the sonnets is such that every critic who tries to evaluate their content can see only what he is capable of seeing, and no more. And those who see moral perversion, or a completely conventional association of the poet with this or that nobleman of the day, simply reveal their own level of consciousness. If anyone has gone deeper and penetrated beneath the surface, he has found an unnameable something that invokes intuitions, suggestions that cannot harden into opinions, intimations rather than statements. The content of the sonnets is a thing you cannot be dogmatic about. Moreover, no allegory can be pulled to pieces and examined in every part for symbolic meanings; just as the lines cannot be dissected in a minute search for clues. The rich imagery, the incomparable language, adorn and complement the truth they body forth. No matter what the mental pattern of a civilization may be and its sophistication, the inner interplay of light and dark, which is the individual's struggle towards the realization of what has been called "the soul's intention," must go on. Ben Jonson proved himself for once a seer when he wrote of his friend: "He was not of an age, but for all time."

(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 1982. Copyright © 1982 by Theosophical University Press)

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