Two Sonnets

I was set a little test by University College London as part of my application to do their 'Shakespeare through history' masters course, and I remain strangely proud of what I came up with. I found out today that I didn't meet the conditions for getting my place, so I thought I'd post what I wrote for the challenge as a farewell to one possible future me that will no longer exist. For better or worse. Hopefully better...

Compare and contrast these two poems by Shakespeare. You should spend no longer than one hour on this exercise.

These are the poems:

As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put besides his part;
Or some fierce thing, replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s right,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharged with burden of mine own love’s might:
O let my books be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more expressed:
O learn to read what silent love hath writ!
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

If thou survive my well-contented day,
When that churl death my bones with dust shall cover,
And shalt by fortune once more re-survey
These poor rude lines of thy deceased lover:
Compare them with the bett’ring of the time,
And though they be outstripped by every pen,
Reserve them for my love, not for their rhyme,
Exceeded by the height of happier men.
O then vouchsafe me but this loving thought:
‘Had my friend’s Muse grown with this growing age,
A dearer birth than this his love had brought,
To march in ranks of better equipage:
But since he died and poets better prove,
Theirs for their style I’ll read, his for his love.’

And this is my commentary:

The first sonnet begins with two similes: an actor with stage-fright and a 'fierce thing' who has a heart attack. The next four lines relate these two images to the poet's experience. He cannot articulate his feelings with the 'perfect ceremony' they deserve. With no outlet, those feelings oppress and depress him.

The safety vent is writing. Books can be eloquent where tongues are not. To underline the point, the twelfth line is jumbled by an unnecessary 'more', and its final word 'expressed' rhymes imperfectly with line ten's 'breast'.

But the closing couplet seems (to me) to push the solution further than just writing. The poet yearns for his love to 'hear with eyes' -- to listen to what his 'speaking breast' is saying directly. Words capture emotions only imperfectly, and love is bigger than that. Love's fine wit -- its purest expression -- is non-verbal. True lovers do not NEED words.

The second sonnet shares the first's preoccupation with the limits of writing. In a 'happier' future, the value ('dearer') and style ('equipage') of literature will be greater and better than the poet's 'poor rude lines'. But the substance underlying the poet's offerings will remain, at least for the person they are offered to.

The trick in the first sonnet is employed again -- the rhyme on the final couplet ('prove' and 'love') is imperfect, and the final line's flow is broken by a comma. The sonnet is decomposing before us. It will decay, like the poet's corpse, with time. But its fading beauty can serve as a memento for the love it commemorates. Again, words capture emotions imperfectly. But this sonnet goes on to say that words -- all artistry/art -- can serve as a symbol for what we have experienced. Art can endure longer than our physical selves, but even it, eventually, proves mortal.

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