Poem of the week: Sonnet 105 by William Shakespeare

In this meditative poem, it feels as if the poet is addressing himself rather than flourishing words for a beloved

Sonnet 105

Let not my love be called idolatry,

Nor my beloved as an idol show,

Since all alike my songs and praises be

To one, of one, still such, and ever so.

Kind is my love today, tomorrow kind,

Still constant in a wondrous excellence;

Therefore my verse, to constancy confined,
One thing expressing, leaves out difference.

Fair, kind, and true is all my argument,

Fair, kind, and true, varying to other words;

And in this change is my invention spent,

Three themes in one, which wondrous scope affords.

Fair, kind, and true have often lived alone,

Which three till now never kept seat in one.

Sonnet 105 seems to me a particularly meditative one, voiced as if the poet were speaking to himself rather than delivering the fine flourishes and figures of the lover’s address to his beloved. We don’t know who, if anyone, has previously denounced his love for the “fair youth” as “idolatry”: perhaps it’s simply his own self-criticism he’s challenging. Prompted by the admission that “all alike my songs and praises be / To one, of one, still such, and ever so”, he sets out to go beyond this verbal “constancy” and investigate the essential qualities of love. The liturgical sounding repetition and rhythm of line four (almost on the verge of a prayer-book parody) readies us for the idea of a trinity of virtues, which will become “all my argument” (and, in the closing couplet, perhaps a bit of virtue-bragging).

It has been argued that the poem’s voice is ironical. That’s possible, but the verse somehow lacks the gulped-back energy of irony. The diction isn’t dull, but it deliberately refrains from fireworks. The qualifier in line 10, “Fair, kind, and true, varying to other words”, possibly pushes the balance the other way, towards irony (as, too, might the phrase “wondrous excellence”) but equally plausibly it simply remarks that the poet has a variety of means for expressing the same sentiment. The ethical triad of “fair, kind, and true” is plainly stated, and un-showily reiterated: there seems little reason in such circumstances to disconnect it from ethical sincerity.

Many commentators have notice the triad’s relation to the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity and some have read the loaded words “idolatry” and “idol” as signifiers of Catholicism. Such conflation helped outlaw Catholicism as heresy at the time, and usually represented a wilful misunderstanding of the purposes of iconography. Would Shakespeare align himself with such cheap reductionism as to display his loyalty to the Protestant Queen? And should we then go on and take the Trinity as the antithesis of “idolatry”? Belief in the Holy Trinity isn’t confined to Protestantism.

I’m far more drawn to the idea that Shakespeare, despite the symbolism of the Trinity, attempts a definition of secular love in Sonnet 105. It’s a project explored during the mid-1590s in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Frank Kermode, in in his book Shakespeare’s Language, draws attention to the frequency of the words “dote” and “dotage” in the play. In its late 16th-century meaning, to dote on someone was to be infatuated by them, and the play’s chief purpose is to demonstrate that mature love is something different. As Helena says in Act 1, Scene 1, “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, / And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.”

In the context of Helena’s ill-conceived desire for the unresponsive Demetrius, Kermode writes, “The emphasis is always on the eye as the source of love. Or, rather, of doting: Helena ‘dotes, devotedly dotes, dotes in idolatry’”. This analysis sheds a different light on the plea in Sonnet 105, “Let not my love be called idolatry” suggesting that idolatry is not simply statue-worship, supposed or actual, but to the reduction of a person to an object. The second line supports the theme of deceptive superficial vision in the final verb: “Nor my beloved as an idol show.”

Shakespeare’s argument is for intelligent love. If, in this context, “fair” means “just”, justice, properly enacted, depends on reason: it’s an eminently thought-filled concept. Kindness, though typically accompanied by more feeling than fairness, may depend on the control of personal emotion in favour of empathy with someone else. Constancy – the real-life kind – might require the most self-discipline of all. I think Shakespeare is trying to say that he has thought out his love for “the fair youth” on these terms: it’s not mere excitement, nor blind worship, nor even, simply, “wondrous” poetry. It’s a conscientiously studied vocation.

• The text used here has modernised spelling.


Carol Rumens

The GuardianTramp

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