That makes them all the more remarkable. For, let's not forget, as late as 1960 Penguin Books was tried for obscenity when it published Lady Chatterley's Lover in Britain.
Shakespeare's sonnets, on the other hand, have been appearing in popular anthologies like Palgrave's Golden Treasury since the 19th century. Book 1, containing poems selected by Palgrave himself in 1861, included Sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day") and Sonnet 73 ("That time of year thou mayst in me behold"). Both are addressed to a young man. No doubt they are beautiful poems. Sonnet 18 especially.
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
The poet praises the incomparable beauty of the person he is addressing who, he says, will be immortalized by his verse. But he doesn't say who he is speaking to — whether it's a man or a woman.
He is equally vague in Sonnet 116, my favourite.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Shakespeare waxes eloquent on the constancy of true love, but doesn't seem to be speaking to anyone in particular. For all intents and purposes, it could be a soliloquy on love.
But we do know it's meant for a young man because that's what the critics say: Sonnets 1 to 126 are addressed to a youth and the rest – 127 to 154 – to the so-called Dark Lady of the Sonnets.
The crowd favourites are the sonnets to the youth. They are the ones more likely to be found in anthologies.
I quoted my favourites, which are remarkably reticent.
But there are others openly addressed to a young man. For example, Sonnet 126, which mourns the passing of time, beauty and life:
O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
Dost hold Time's fickle glass, his sickle, hour;
Who hast by waning grown, and therein show'st
Thy lovers withering as thy sweet self grow'st;
If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,
As thou goest onwards, still will pluck thee back,
She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill
May time disgrace and wretched minutes kill.
Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure!
She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure:
Her audit, though delay'd, answer'd must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.
Shakespeare both idolized and idealized the youth. He praised the beauty of his face – and usually stopped there. There may or may not be sexual connotations. Take Sonnet 73, for example. Is the poet lamenting the fact that he is growing old, or is there something more to it?
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
Shakespeare is much more explicit in his sonnets to the Dark Lady. She is not idealized like the youth. He hates himself for his obsession with her. For it's lust, not love, he says in Sonnet 129.
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow'd bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
It's a powerful poem, and found in anthologies too, but it's the very opposite of those addressed to the youth.
The sonnets to the Dark Lady are not about courtly love. The poet is not blind to her faults but he can't get over her, as Sonnet 130 makes painfully clear.
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
The opening line, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun", inspired the title of Anthony Burgess' novel about Shakespeare, Nothing Like The Sun.
Why did Shakespeare idealize the youth but not the Dark Lady?
Why did he leave his wife his second best bed?
Let's not jump to conclusions here.
Remember the charming heroines of Shakespeare's romantic comedies — Rosalind in As You Like It, Viola in Twelfth Night.
But they do have a disconcerting habit of disguising themselves as young men.
Is it because that was convenient for the actors? Women in Shakespeare's time were played by boy actors. Or has it something to do with Shakespeare himself?
Your call. As you like it. please.