Sonnet 37: made lame by Fortune's dearest spite

As a decrepit father takes delight To see his active child do deeds of youth, So I, made lame by fortune's dearest spite, Take all my comfort of thy worth and truth. For whether beauty, birth, or wealth, or wit, Or any of these all, or all, or more, Entitled in thy parts do crowned sit, I make my love engrafted to this store: So then I am not lame, poor, nor despised, Whilst that this shadow doth such substance give That I in thy abundance am sufficed And by a part of all thy glory live. Look what is best, that best I wish in thee: This wish I have; then ten times happy me!

William Shakespeare

Sonnet 37: made lame by Fortune's dearest spite (3) (2013-01-25)

January 2013

Nonso Anozie reading this sonnet

In the drama of the sonnets sequence, this poem sounds like an attempt to distance oneself from the trappings of romantic infatuation and return to a calmer, more altruistic, nearly paternal love of the early sonnets; but now unconditional, without any requests or indictments: Whatever my own state and whatever you think of me (if anything at all), I am really ten times happy, insofar as you are happy.

Commentators of Shakespeare's sonnets seem to converge on the idea that this is a (relatively) lame sonnet. Helen Vendler notes that "(t)he vacuity of some lines, together with repetitiveness of the argument, makes this a sonnet hard to explain except as an early, unengaged effort or one constructed on the basis of a game I have not succeeded in finding" (p. 195). There are, indeed, hardly even traces of Shakespeare's usual complexity, conflicting metaphors, self-contradictory conceits: the argument of the sonnet is being repeated again, and again, and again, almost like a mantra, unchallenged by alternative points of view. In this sense, the sonnet is simpler, more wholesome as it were, which doesn't look like a good recipe for interesting poetry.

Don Paterson in the Touchpress edition goes on and on about the unforgivable unstressed "a" in the beginning of the very first line (as though it were the only time Shakespeare plays on breaking his iambic pentameter). Personally, I believe Shakespeare could afford some lameness of verse in order to enact being made lame by fortune's dearest spite... The poem hobbles, as it were, on the second syllable, mimicking the "real" state of the speaker. Arguably, of course, it might also be an enactment of some early, Renaissance, version of "positive thinking", or an attempt thereof; quite fitting in the midst of a personal tragedy, isn't it? All in all, taken as a stand-alone poem, it might not be the best of Shakespeare's sonnets, but in the context of the dramatic sequence, its straightforward simplicity becomes strangely significant in itself.

In my own story of engagement with Shakespeare's sonnets, I took all this as a momentary relief, a palpable decrease in nearly unbearable responsibility; a welcome leeway in how to compose and construct the painting. Its subject matter indirectly derives from the only formal game Helen Vendler did succeed in finding: it has to do with the the multitude of th's in the poem, as though thou of the sonnets has finally engaged in replicating himself, as he was repeatedly implored to do at the beginning of the sequence. The self-comparison with a father, as well as the motive of ten times, also link this sonnet to the earlier ones; most specifically, to Sonnet 6. Hence, my subject matter also returns to the floral arrangements from the beginning of the series.

I did maintain the poem's central contrast, the contrast between the glory and happiness of its addressee and the dark world inhabited by its speaker. And yet, the painting's essence is anchored in this line:

Whilst that this shadow doth such substance give

The line introduces the motive of "role reversal" between shadow and substance, a motive to which Shakespeare would return later in the sequence. This role reversal, shadows giving substance (and not vice versa, as commonly assumed), might seem paradoxical to anyone, but not to a painter: nobody, I believe, is as urgently aware of the fundamental truth of this idea than painters. There is no way to create substance in a painting (in other words, to model a form) without shadows; that's why impressionists often had to sacrifice form on the altar of depicting light. The painting plays with this concept by contrasting its light, impressionistic area (almost a painting-in-painting) with the darker, more three-dimensional one, its foregrounded "frame": in the former, shadowless shapes dissolve into light; in the latter, overstressed shadows nearly break the picture plane.

Intentionally simplistic as it is, there is yet a bit more to the painting than a stylistic commentary on the role of shadows in creating substance. Note the eighth line of the sonnet:

I make my love engrafted to this store

As noted by Stephen Booth (p. 195), there are two meanings in this line:

  1. "I fuse myself to (and thus draw strength from) your abundance of virtues";
  2. "I add my love to your store of valuable things".

And, as is often the case with Shakespeare's sonnets, the reader isn't really invited to choose one "correct" meaning; rather, both meanings are intended at the same time. So what, then, is the relationship between the contrasting areas of the painting? Does the one filled with shadows frame the lighter one and thus adds to its abundance of brightness? Or does it derive its substance, and its strength, from this source of light within the painting? What is the focal area here and what is the background?

There are two versions of this painting here, and both are intended, whichever will be foregrounded by your mood and lighting conditions...