There’s no disputing these lines as boasts of literary prowess. The sonnets are monuments; they’ll outlast us all. But are they truly personalized? Who is “thee”?
Scholars have never identified the “Fair Youth” Shakespeare celebrated; he may have been a lover, friend, patron, or fantasy. Two earls, William Herbert and Henry Wriothesley, are leading suspects, but no one has clinched the case for either, and both are unknown outside of English departments.
Of course, the sonnets promise to keep alive a spirit, not a name. But who is the Youth in spirit? We learn little about his temperament, his quirks, the mind behind the handsome face. Despite all the flattering tributes, he eludes us—as does that other specter of the sonnets, the “Dark Lady.” In what sense, then, does the poet give them life? More convincing is the claim, in Sonnet LV, that “your praise shall still find room / Even in the eyes of all posterity”—emphasis mine, praise Shakespeare’s.
Like so many love poems before and since, the sonnets whisper, “I’m gonna make you a star, kid.” So why do we remember only the starmaker? Whose fame are we really talking about here?
“How I envy the novelist!” Sylvia Plath wrote in her 1962 essay “A Comparison,” without mentioning that she was turning into one herself. The previous summer, she had finished her first, headlong draft of The Bell Jar, which she would publish (under the alter ego Victoria Lucas) in the winter of ’63. The private agonies she poured into that novel are well known, but her essay reveals the artistic impulse behind her foray into fiction. Casting the novelist as a spoiled rival, she exclaims:
To her, this fortunate one, what is there that isn’t relevant! [In a novel] old shoes can be used, doorknobs, air letters, flannel nightgowns, cathedrals, nail varnish, jet planes, rose arbors and budgerigars; little mannerisms … any weird or warty or fine or despicable thing. Not to mention emotions, motivations—those rumbling, thunderous shapes.
The surprise comes in that last sentence. Yes, novels accommodate more lavish variety and miscellaneous detail, but aren’t emotions just as “relevant” to poems? Plath seems to mean that poets can’t depict emotion with the novel’s sprawling complexity; working on smaller canvases, they’re confined to fewer and proportionately broader brushstrokes.
Emotions, motivations, accessories, “little mannerisms”—these are the things characters are made of. One of Plath’s implicit fears is that poetry lacks what E. M. Forster called “round characters”: three-dimensional human presences. Where the novel gives people “leisure to grow and alter before our eyes,” poems restrict them to stagy lyric moments, discarding much of their everyday baggage in the process. Plath confesses with regret: “I have never put a toothbrush in a poem.”
In fact, these general distinctions have stark, specific relevance to Plath’s own work. In Ariel, emotions are not just broad but operatic. People are more than types; they’re mythic heroes and monsters. Her father is a Fascist; her mother is Medusa; Ted Hughes, her wayward husband and fellow poet, is a vampire (in “Daddy”); she herself is the avenging “Lady Lazarus.” It’s brilliant psychodrama, but it helps explain why Plath sought refuge in the novel. As the poems’ hellish atmosphere thickens, it kills off large tracts of normal human experience. Vampires don’t even use toothbrushes. Neither do resurrected spirits who “eat men like air.”
Hughes’s own portrayal of the marriage, the 1998 collection Birthday Letters, demonstrates Plath’s point from another angle. The best Hughes poems are as efficiently compact as a naturalist’s rucksack, but Hughes fills this late volume with so many “poetical toothbrushes”—so much descriptive trivia, labored psychologizing, and embroidery on Plath’s myths—that it bulges and drags. (Do we need to know the prices of both the “walnut desk” and the “Victorian chair” in the home he shared with Plath? Does having her stamp on her father’s coffin “like Rumpelstiltskin” add anything to the original image in “Daddy”?) For all his earnest effort, Hughes never evokes Plath as sharply as he’d described a hawk some forty years earlier: “There is no sophistry in my body, / My manners are tearing off heads.”
And so this great literary power couple—in life, a notoriously charismatic pair—leaves us feeling that their poems never quite captured each other. To view their marriage in three dimensions we need to consult Plath’s overflowing journals, or the endless biographies for which their fans continue to thirst. Partly this is due to their particular sensibilities and Plath’s early death. But I’m tempted, like Plath, to seek part of the reason in poetry itself.
There are always motives for discretion in writing about a lover. Sometimes, too, there’s a coy thrill in opening the curtain only halfway. When Robert Browning, at the end of Men and Women, drops his dramatis personae and addresses his poet-wife directly, he delights in the true selves they’ve concealed from the reading public:
God be thanked, the meanest of His creaturesBoasts two soul-sides, one to face the world with,One to show a woman when he loves her.… but think of you, Love!This to you—yourself my moon of poets!Ah, but that’s the world’s side, there’s the wonder,Thus they see you, praise you, think they know you!
But coyness isn’t the exclusive province of poets, and discretion isn’t the heart of the Shakespearean promise. The promise is to “give life to thee.” Why, then, does poetry so rarely capture a lover in three dimensions?
Plath would blame space constraints (“so little room! So little time!”), but these can’t be the whole story. Average poem length aside, nothing prevents a poetry collection from covering as much ground as a novel.
A likelier culprit is the lyric genre, which has dominated English poetry at least since the Romantics. More than narrative, lyric encourages a fixed inward gaze. Critic Heather Dubrow sums up the usual divide in The Challenges of Orpheus: “lyric is static and narrative committed to change, lyric is internalized whereas narrative evokes an externally realized situation, lyric attempts to impede the forward thrust of narrative, and so on.” This chimes with Plath’s point about people “grow[ing] and alter[ing]” in novels but not in poems. Dubrow goes on to argue, however, that these distinctions are flimsy and that Modernism made a virtue of ignoring them.
If Joyce and Woolf could import lyric techniques wholesale into the novel, nothing prevents poets from accomplishing the reverse. And, in fact, recent decades have seen a minor vogue for “verse novels,” including such distinguished love-and-heartbreak sagas as Robert Lowell’s The Dolphin, Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red and The Beauty of the Husband, and Louise Glück’s Meadowlands. Each of these books offers an original fusion of narrative and lyric. Their other merits aside, those that venture farthest outside the lyric “I”—especially Thomas and Beulah and Autobiography—seem to me most successful in creating full-fledged characters. (Dove’s chronicle of a marriage, loosely based on her grandparents’, has been staged as an opera; Carson’s Geryon and Herakles won enough fans that she revived them in a sort of sequel.) By contrast, Lowell’s deeply personal Dolphin, which caused a scandal by quoting from his ex-wife’s letters, seems to chafe against the lyric’s limits in representing others’ perspectives. (I suspect Lowell shared Plath’s novelist envy: “The ideal modern form seems to be the novel,” he once mused.)
In any case, projects like these remain anomalies. If I started listing novels that plumb the depths of their authors’ marriages, I could fill this whole essay. Yet when you look at the great sequences of English love poetry, you find that they overwhelmingly portray wanting or missing, not shared experience. In other words, they thrive on isolation.
The “wanting” group, of which Sappho is the godmother, includes everything from Petrarch’s and Shakespeare’s sonnets to Dickinson’s lovelorn ballads to Yeats’s lifelong poetic courtship of Maud Gonne. The “missing” group includes breakup sequences (as in Ariel) and countless studies in grief: I think immediately of Thomas Hardy’s elegies for his wife Emma, Jack Gilbert’s for Michiko Nogami, Donald Hall’s for Jane Kenyon (Without, The Painted Bed), and Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s for Robert Nozick (Heavenly Questions). Karen Green’s recent Bough Down (a collection of prose poems centered on the suicide of her husband, David Foster Wallace) falls into the same category, as does that Victorian epic of sorrow, Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H.
These disparate works share a tendency to foreground the poet’s emotions while lending the beloved—the distant or departed one—a tinge of unreality. David Foster Wallace’s famous claim that “every love story is a ghost story” seems to me even truer of poetry than fiction. Petrarch projects his fantasies onto a woman he barely knows. Dickinson’s “Master” goes virtually undescribed and remains unidentified (candidates include her sister-in-law, a minister, and God). Yeats’s love poems are one of the great literary labors ever devoted to a single person; they’re also a profound evasion. His Gonne is Helen of Troy, the spirit of Ireland, an embodiment of radicalism, or simply the Unattainable—but rarely the busy, idealistic woman we meet in her correspondence.
Elegiac sequences are even more apt to turn lovers into phantoms, conjured only through a few devastating details: Arthur Hallam’s “hand that can be clasp’d no more” (In Memoriam), Emma Hardy’s “original air-blue dress” (“The Voice”), the long black hair Gilbert finds in the dirt (“Married”). Hall weaves the voice of his late wife, Jane Kenyon, in with his own, but his most powerful tributes to her, such as “Kill the Day,” are terrifyingly lonely:
When she died, at first an outline of absence defined
the presence that disappeared. He yowled for the body
he could no longer reach out to touch in bed on waking.
He yowled for her silver thimble. He yowled when the dog
brought him a white slipper that smelled of her still.
In the second summer, her pheromones diminished.
The negative space of her body dwindled as she receded…
And yet these visceral traces, however “diminished,” announce what Hall’s insistent negations ironically affirm: the staying power of the departed.
In his prose “Appreciation” of Hall, Louis Begley says of the short, erotic poems mixed into the Kenyon cycle: “They are not about Kenyon, which magnifies their effect.” I see what he means, but I can’t quite agree with the first half of this, just as I’d hesitate to claim full-stop that the elegies are about her. So much of their impact derives from trapping us inside Hall’s mind, where Kenyon is both constant absence and constant presence. The love lyric is diabolically good at springing traps like these.
Temperament might be a factor: poetry is a solitary art, and its icons have inspired jokes about self-absorption since Wordsworth and the “egotistical sublime.” But even a “people poet” like Frank O’Hara—famed for gregariousness, loyalty, and warmth—turns love on the page into an oddly one-sided affair.
How much do we learn about the exalted “You” in “Having a Coke With You”? Comically little: he’s wearing an orange shirt, and he likes yogurt. As for his chemistry with O’Hara,
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles
Like a tree breathing through its spectacles, this clears nothing up. So it goes with O’Hara: he fills his poems with friends, lovers, love interests—the roles blur together—yet he rarely enters their heads or describes them to the point where they upstage him. (“You” was the dancer Vincent Warren, who also inspired numerous other O’Hara love lyrics; but this fact tends to get lost in the poems’ giddy jumble of names, sights, and happenings.)
Look closely at O’Hara’s definition of “Personism,” the movement that started as a joke with Amiri Baraka but that is now beloved in its own right: “It does not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it! ... It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.” The poem gets the best of this three-way; it’s a close intermediary, not closeness itself.
Still, “intimacy” isn’t really banished: “persons” are vital to the action, and the fun. For O’Hara, just getting someone on the page is a joyous gesture, a benediction to be conferred far and wide. In that sense, most of his Lunch Poems are authentic love poems. And knowing how hard it is—how exposing—to write anything at all about our close attachments, we might bring some of his generosity to our judgments of love poetry in general. We might even turn Plath’s envy of novelists on its ear.
When you want or miss someone badly, the world contracts. Everything that isn’t the loved one irritates you with its irrelevance. The plot arc of your life coils into a vicious loop. Here is Hall again:
There is nothing so selfish as misery nor so boring,and depression is devoted only to its own practice.Mourning resembles melancholia precisely exceptthat melancholy adds self-loathing to stuporous sorrow. …
The grim truth of these lines contains one saving glimmer of contradiction. Hall’s “selfish” misery has found an outlet: poetry. True, it’s a small and tightly focused outlet—but at this stage of grief, anything more would seem almost profane.
For writers struggling in these waters, even the handiest narrative tools—plot, setting, characterization—can feel like dead weight. The lyric allows us to grab them only as needed, or ditch them altogether. Along with relief there can be a purity to this unburdening.
In “Left Behind,” her fine essay on the poetry of grief, Joy Katz celebrates poems that “open up the isolating process of mourning” by “translat[ing] sorrow through poetic form.” She means primarily that such poems refuse false epiphanies and closure, but she also touches on the way they resist fully characterizing the dead. She praises, for example, a Mary Szybist poem in which a ghostly girl “hovers in the uncomfortable place between metaphor and reality.”
This description fits nearly all the lovers, living and dead, in the sequences I’ve mentioned. In another Anne Carson book, her critical study Eros the Bittersweet, she proposes that “Eros… folds the beloved object out of sight into a mystery, into a blind point where it can float known and unknown.” Death enforces a more extreme version of the same separation. The lyric reflects this—and reflects the mystery back onto the lyric “I.”
The sonnets may seem like the closest thing we have to unfiltered Shakespeare, but they’re maddeningly short on autobiographical specifics. No one has ever disproved the theory that they’re all an artifice, another masquerade to join his suite of plays. Similarly, Dickinson mythologizes herself along with the “You” she “cannot live with,” spinning a Calvinist, yet blasphemous narrative of savior and saved. Hall in “Kill the Day” distances himself into a case study, recording his psychological flux with unbearable precision while noting biography only in shorthand. In Section LXIX of In Memoriam, Tennyson dreams an allegorical angel who may or may not be the transformed Arthur Hallam:
… I found an angel of the night;The voice was low, the look was bright;He look’d upon my crown and smiled:He reach’d the glory of a hand,That seem’d to touch it into leaf:The voice was not the voice of grief,The words were hard to understand.
Notice that the visitation turns Tennyson himself into a crowned, prophetic witness.
Such guises might wear out over the course of a realist novel, but in the lyric they open a broad space for reader projection. (What lover has ever struggled to “identify with” a Shakespearean sonnet?) They also capture the self-estrangement of infatuation and grief—the sense that all of this is happening to someone else; that the dead will soon return or the desired accept us, relieving us of the burdens of role-playing. At the same time, they provide their authors a brief respite from the burden of the self. (Recall T. S. Eliot’s line in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” about art as an escape from “personality and emotions”—at least for those who “know what it means to want to escape from these things.”)
The resulting poems may not eliminate pain, but they can, in a real sense, transcend it. Despite my nagging curiosity, I’m satisfied in the end by the way Shakespeare’s sonnets anonymize their subjects—by the way they float free of any context at all. Scholars aren’t sure Shakespeare ever intended them to be published, let alone dedicated to a particular lover. Forged in the full heat of want, they became the most casual of monuments.
Austin Allen’s first poetry collection, Pleasures of the Game (Waywiser Press), won the 2016 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. His poems and essays have appeared widely. He lives and teaches in Cincinnati.