The wish of overcoming mortality and gaining eternity is as old as the awareness of death. Many cultures and times have tried to succeed in this by various methods. Some built their dead enormous graves and buried their entire homes with them to guarantee a comfortable afterlife. Others mummified their corpses so that they might life forever. There is no religion that does not know the thought of afterlife, eternity or rebirth – be it the antique underworld Hades surrounded by the river Styx, the ancestor worship of many natural religions, the Buddhist belief of rebirth and incarnation or the Christian idea of eternal life in heaven or hell.
Besides the religious belief, however, there was another way for gaining eternity, especially in the upper classes of cultural western societies. They meant to gain eternity by creating something – a painting, sculpture or poem – that will last for centuries, perhaps for ever, and thus reminding the posterity of it’s creator. Some, however, used this method not for themselves but for others. They eternalised another person through their work of art for instance by praising the beauty or the virtues of a beloved or honoured person in verse. The main literal convention for doing so was the poem. Being a very common and possibly the greatest form for a love poem it is not surprising that the motive of giving immortality to the beauty of the beloved person is a very current motive in the sonnet, especially the Renaissance sonnet sequences. One of the greatest sonneteers in the English language, however, is one mostly known as the writer of plays like ‘Hamlet’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘King Lear’ and many, many others: William Shakespeare.
When Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence was first published in 1609 this literary form was already very established. In fact it was already quite out of fashion by this time. Several sequences have been published previously with great success, for instance Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella in 1591 and Daniel’s Delia in 1592. The form Shakespeare used in his sequence, with only a few exceptions, is the English one: four stanzas of three quatrains and a final couplet composed in iambic pentameter with the rhyme scheme being abab cdcd efef gg. This form has later been named after William Shakespeare, although he did not invent it.
The sequence contains 154 sonnets that have probably been written over several years from which the first 126 are assumed to be addressed to a young man, today known as the ‘Fair Youth’. The poems 127 to 152 are addressed to or are about a woman with black hair and dark features, today referred to as the ‘Dark Lady’. This classification is, however, questionable as the sex of the addressee is not clear in every case. The last two poems of the sequence are very allegorical and refer to two Greek poems.
The first 17 sonnets deal with the future ageing and death of the ‘Fair Youth’ and urge him to marry and have children so that his beauty will live on in his offspring. But with sonnet XVIII the lyrical I makes clear that he loves the young man. The following poems are of a very romantic tone dealing with the relationship of the poet and the addressee and the sonneteers jealousy about a rivalling poet the friend pays more and more attention to. The poems to the ‘Dark Lady’ deal with the sonneteers love for her and suggest that the lyrical I and the addressee have a affair. There are some poems expressing that the affair came to an end after the Lady’s and the Youth’s infidelity. It is open to debate whether the ‘Dark Lady’ and the ‘Fair Youth’ were mere fiction or real persons and, if they really did life, who they were.
The range of feelings expressed in the poems addressing them is extraordinary wide. It contains everything from amazing joy to endless despair. And although Shakespeare’s sonnets deal with the love of the lyrical I, Love never enters the stage in any form of personification. The beloved is not an angelically, unreachable Lady inspiring the loving poet to great, unearthly verses, but a dark, betraying, sexually experienced woman or a young man, whether the poets love for him is platonic or homosexual. Furthermore Shakespeare’s poems introduce a range of topics that are very abnormal for this literary convention, such as politics, human evils and the openly talking about sex.
Despite this differences towards the sequences of other sonneteers, Shakespeare still absorbs some very common themes. One of these is the topic of immortalising the beloved trough the poem. This motive appears several times in Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence.
The motive of immortality trough poetry was already a very common one when Shakespeare adopted it, especially in the French and Italien1 sonnet sequences of his forerunners. Its origin lies in the classic Greek poetry. There were basically two variants of the topic: those were the poet wanted to achieve eternity for himself and those were the poem was meant to immortalise somebody else. In Pindar’s odes, however, where this motive is very frequently used for the first time, this two forms can’t actually be separated. The first roman poet to use this motive in his poetry was Horace. To him it was a very important fact that lyrical, and only lyrical poetry is able to immortalise both the poet and the person the poem deals with. In many of his odes he deals with the motive itself to make clear that he is able and willing to make all posterity remember the great deeds and virtues of Lollius, the person he, besides some others, choose first to immortalise. But whom ever the roman poets selected to gain eternity for they always made clear that they had reasons for doing so such as great public virtues or heroic deeds. The promise of immortality to a person that is not of public but merely of private interest to the poet, a friend or the beloved, can very seldom be found in the classic poetry, with perhaps the only exception being Sappho. (Leishman 27 – 30)
Petrarch on the other hand, the poet who influenced all renaissance sonneteers the most, uses the motive of immortality only seldom in his sonnets to Laura. The topic can be found, however, in many sonnets the poet wrote besides his great sequence. The reason for this might be that he thought to immortalise himself rather trough his Latin poetry than through his Italian and that his feelings to Laura which dominate the sequence are of great, true love, far from achieving fame or boasting. (Leishman 44f)
About 200 years later Ronsard wrote many sonnets in the French language. He used the motive, however, in difference to Petrarch very frequently and especially in a very arrogant way speaking of his poetry and his own immortality rather than of that of his beloved and thus renewing a somehow Horatian tone.
In difference to the Italian and French sonneteers who used the motive of immortality very often the topic was not too popular within Shakespeare’s English predecessors. It appears merely in some of Spenser’s sonnets in Amoretti and in Daniel’s Delia. Few other treatments of the topic can be found in Constable’s Diana and Drayton’s Ideas Mirrour. (Leishman 70) These few poets who actually used the motive invented nothing really new. There can be found anything within their poems from the heroic tone of Horace or Ovid, praising both their own poetry and ability and the virtues of another person, to Petrarch’s humility and loving dedication to a friend or the boasting and bragging of Ronsard.
It is not clear whether Shakespeare took the theme directly from sources like Horace or Ovid, or indirectly from other sonneteers like Spenser or Daniel. Anyway the topic was used in many renaissance poems, English as well as French and Italian ones in many variations. But besides the already mentioned differences in tone and especially in the person the immortality is gained for, there are some clear differences within the design of the topic. Cleas Schaar distinguishes three main forms of the motive. The variant Ovid and Horace used in their works is the one Schaar calls the ‘verse-monument’ topos. The poet is certain that he will be immortal as his work will be everlasting and read by his posterity and thus keep the poet as well as the person it is talking of forever in the mind of humanity and thus alive. This topic is mostly designed through metaphors of monuments. On the one hand those of stone and iron that will get destructed once and on the other hand of the verse as a monument that will last forever. This design was not only fashionable in the classical texts but also in renaissance poetry.
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- Overcoming Mortality Motive Eternity Immortality Shakespeare’s Sonnets