Sonnets for Advent 22: Sonnet 102

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Although Sonnet 102 is highly lyrical it is ostensibly about lyrical restraint. The poet must be careful not to write too much in praise of the beloved, since ‘sweets grown common lose their dear delight.’ But it’s the memory of their love when new that carries the reader through the central section, and here the expression of that love is compared to a nightingale.

Well Shakespeare knew the innate violence of such an image. In book four of Ovid’s Metamorphoses Philomel is raped by King Tereus who then cuts out her tongue to prevent her from telling anyone (Shakespeare’s Lavinia in Titus Andronicus suffers a similar fate at the hands of two princes). In Ovid, Philomel is later turned into a nightingale.

In Sonnet 102 Shakespeare powerfully evokes the nightingale as something synonymous with the poetic line itself, perhaps suggesting an imagined female voice as the speaker of this poem and one whose present lyricism seems to reclaim the Classical space inhabited by the traumatised Philomel. However violent the myth, the love is somehow enraptured by the nightingale’s mournful hymns, hushing the night.

Sonnet 102 is here read by Professor Carol Rutter of the University of Warwick.

My love is strengthened, though more weak in seeming;
I love not less, though less the show appear;
That love is merchandized, whose rich esteeming,
The owner’s tongue doth publish every where.
Our love was new, and then but in the spring,
When I was wont to greet it with my lays;
As Philomel in summer’s front doth sing,
And stops his pipe in growth of riper days:
Not that the summer is less pleasant now
Than when her mournful hymns did hush the night,
But that wild music burthens every bough,
And sweets grown common lose their dear delight.
Therefore like her, I sometime hold my tongue:
Because I would not dull you with my song.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Paul Edmondson

    Many thanks, Bruce, for this and your other comments on these Sonnets for Advent. It’s deeply satisfying to relate them to the plays, isn’t it?

  • Bruce Leyland

    Thank you for your profound and insightful observations of Sonnet 102.

    Indeed, I think we can be more precise concerning the intention of this poem, which I believe is central to the whole sonnet sequence. As you’ve noted, the poem alludes to the brutal rape of Philomel. It is Ovid’s re-telling of this story that is explicitly referenced in Titus
    Andronicus. Ovid’s retelling was known to Shakespeare through Golding’s translation of 1567.

    “The tip of Philomelaas tongue did wriggle to and fro,
    And nearer to hir mistresseward in dying still did go.”

    Philomela’s tongue was excised to silence her.

    Shakespeare introduces the image of the tongue in line 4 –

    “The owners tongue doth publish everywhere”,

    In the second quatrain, Shakespeare directly locates this tongue within the Philomel myth. In the final summary couplet, with the bitterest of irony, Shakespeare likens the addressee to the mutilating rapist of the Ovid myth. The poet is left “holding” his tongue –

    “And so like her I sometime hold my tongue,
    Because I would not dull you with my songe.”

    We should note that “to dull” also means “to blunt”. What Shakespeare seems to be saying is that he, like Philomela, has been forcibly and brutally silenced.

    If this poem-as-code reading seems fanciful, there are two further observations that support this. The first is that the Philomel story is unusual – probably unique – in classical mythology, in that it relies on a code. Philomela is able to break her silence with a code woven into fabric. The Philomel character in Titus writes the names of her rapists in the dust using a staff as her writing instrument. It may be noteworthy that the instrument of
    creativity that Prospero breaks is also a staff.

    However, the real complement to the Philomel code in Titus, is in fact a poem-as-code. Titus uses Horace’s Ode 1.22 as a coded message to the oblivious rapists.

    Young LUCIUS [Aside] That you are both decipher’d, that’s the news,
    For villains mark’d with rape.

    When the rapists fail to understand the lines of Horace that Lucius delivers, in another forehead-smacking aside, Aaron helps us to grasp the coded significance of the poem.

    “Now, what a thing it is to be an ass!
    Here’s no sound jest! the old man hath found their guilt;
    And sends them weapons wrapped about with lines,
    That wound, beyond their feeling, to the quick.”

    In Sonnet 102, by invoking the bitterest image of the Philomel myth, Shakespeare sends us lines that wound beyond our feeling… to the quick.

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