O! that you were your self; but, love, you are
No longer yours, than you your self here live:
Against this coming end you should prepare,
And your sweet semblance to some other give:
So should that beauty which you hold in lease
Find no determination; then you were
Yourself again, after yourself's decease,
When your sweet issue your sweet form should bear.
Who lets so fair a house fall to decay,
Which husbandry in honour might uphold,
Against the stormy gusts of winter's day
And barren rage of death's eternal cold?
O! none but unthrifts. Dear my love, you know,
You had a father: let your son say so.
This is the first sonnet of the sequence in which a fresh note of love and devotion is sounded. The previous sonnets seem to be more abstract in their recommendations, as if there were a certain delight to be obtained in proving an argument, even though it may not be an entirely judicious one. But now the theme becomes more personal. The biting winter wind threatens to destroy not only the young man and all his beauty, but also the young man who is loved by one other, the poet, this living being who sings of him, and who would be heartbroken to witness the threatened ravages that time will hasten to commit upon him.
The opening of the sonnet is conversational, as if taking up a point that was discussed the previous day. 'Would that it were true, as you claimed yesterday evening, that you could be yourself forever, untouched, unblemished, unadulterated, your very essence preserved for all eternity.' There is an element of refutation present, as also with the following sonnet, although to a lesser extent, 'Not from the stars do I my judgement pluck'. Perhaps it is this conversational tone which contributes to the sense of intimacy which pervades this sonnet, as if we had been let into the inner sanctum of friends who surround this young man, or perhaps the note of intimacy is attributable much more to the two declarations of love, at the beginning and end of the poem, which enclose it as it were in an ambience of warmth and protection. There is a softness of touch and emotion which the previous sonnets, with their formal declarations of what is due to society, do not quite convey. Here it is as if we are reading something that is akin to a private letter, something perhaps into which we do not have an absolute right to intrude.
Yet these sonnets were public compositions, as far as we know. For even if we could find historically that Thomas Thorpe had in some underhand way acquired the poems, and that he was thus just one more of the 'injurious imposters' of whom Heminges and Condell spoke, the careful arrangement and sequencing of the sonnets bespeaks an ordering hand and a presupposition that others, apart from the original dedicatees, must at some time be expected to read them.
There is therefore an inherent contradiction in the sonnets, that they are essentially private poems, to be read by one beloved person only, but yet they have also a public persona, in which that love is declared aloud to the wide world. But then that is perhaps precisely what love is like - an essentially private experience which is at the same time so bounteously overflowing that it must tell all its secrets to all who will listen. That this particular sonnet exemplifies this contradiction and tension is no doubt a matter of judgement rather than fact. And certainly there are others which pick up the contradiction even more directly, as in 111.
What I note however in this sonnet is the directness of the expression of love, something which occurs here for the first time. The simplicity and nakedness of it stands out, far more so than the change of use from thou to you, which has been noted by commentators. As also do other declarations later in the series, such as 'for I love you so' of 71, and 'thou, (all they), hast all the all of me' 31. Certainly no one would pretend that 'Dear my love' or the other phrases which declare the poet's love directly are anything but commonplaces. But that is precisely why they are so striking, for in the midst of all the surrounding richness they cannot do anything else but stand out boldly, 'like captain jewels in the carcanet'. They draw attention to themselves for what they are, the simple unadorned truth, as distinct from the rest, which is the mere product of a poet's rage, the hammering on an anvil, the platitudinous beauty of compliment.
Whether we should attach importance to the fact that this first unadorned statement of love occurs in line 13 of sonnet 13 it is impossible to say with certainty, but given the Elizabethans' passion for critical numbers, it is probable that something lies concealed. Its significance lies perhaps in a hidden ironical reference to being unlucky in love, in that the love which promised so much, even a beauteous day which made the lover travel forth without his cloak, turned black so swiftly, and that he who had so much to give renounced his gift, making it null and void. The love which 'bears it out even to the edge of doom' has a canker in it which the ensuing sonnets will reveal. This is not the light hearted world of love and pairing which we meet in Midsummer Night's Dream, where lovers expect to be star crossed, but are happy in the end. It is instead a deeply painful and much darker world of passion and disappointment, of festering wounds and flowers that rot, of forgetfulness, of betrayals, and of mortality. Indeed it has its moments of great beauty, where the human spirit, and love, are triumphant, and I would not wish to belittle those moments. Love does triumph over adversity. But it is in the exploration of the deeper levels of the human psyche, where the perils and the reefs lie, that these poems have their greatest sublimity. In reading them one feels that one has been given once more the chance to witness a voyage of the human spirit which has no ending, and this is what it truly means
to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel'st it cold.