Sonnets for Advent 14: Sonnet 53

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More shadows… This time ‘millions of strange shadows’, a phrase which always evokes for me the kind of dapply sunshine one encounters on an English country road in summer. Here it seems as though the poet is fascinated by the lover’s appearance, and cannot account for it, ‘what is your substance, whereof are you made’?

The addressee is then compared to the most beautiful man who has ever lived, Adonis, and to the most beautiful woman who has ever lived, Helen. Both of these figures of antiquity do not come close, though, to the beauty of the person to whom this sonnet is addressed. Even the natural world itself – the spring and and all its promise of fruit – doesn’t measure up the appearance of the lover. Every beautiful thing that can be seen shares something with the lover, and to crown it all is the lover’s constancy of heart.

Except, except… There is something brittle in the way the lover inspires a virtual, a ‘counterfeit’ Adonis; there is something fake about the make-up, the ‘art’, on Helen’s cheek. Remember, ‘shadow’ also meant actor, so perhaps there is theatre at the heart of this sonnet, too, a make-believe world, the presence of which gently questions the truthfulness of the lover’s apparently constant heart.

Today’s reader is Sandy Holt, Arts Editor of The Stratford-upon-Avon Herald.

Sonnet 53
What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since every one hath, every one, one shade,
And you, but one, can every shadow lend.
Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
Is poorly imitated after you.
On Helen’s cheek all art of beauty set,
And you in Grecian tires are painted new.
Speak of the spring and foison of the year:
The one doth shadow of your beauty show,
The other as your bounty doth appear;
And you in every blessed shape we know.
In all external grace you have some part,
But you like none, none you, for constant heart.

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Listen to the same sonnet being read by a student at the University of Tubingen by clicking here.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson

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