"Shake hands forever, cancel all our vows"
|As part of my new determination to read sonnets naively, for affective dynamics I find compelling (without any intention of historicizing them), I want to offer Sonnet 61 from Michael Drayton’s Idea – which I gather is a revision of the earlier Idea’s Mirror, though my lack of knowledge about sonnets means that I know nothing about the differences between these two books. You see that this is also part of my new determination to read obscure or relatively obscure sonnet sequences -- though this particular sonnet appears to be the most-anthologized poem from the sequence.|
Since there’s no help, come, let us kiss and part;
Nay, I have done, you get no more of me,
And I am glad, yea glad with all my heart
That thus so cleanly I myself can free.
Shake hands forever, cancel all our vows,
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seen in either of our brows,
That we one jot of former love retain.
Now at the last gasp of Love’s latest breath,
When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lise,
When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And Innocence is closing up his eyes;
Now if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
From death to life thou mightst him yet recover.
He’s clearly breaking the promise of Sonnet 1 that “No farfetched sigh shall ever wound my breast, / Love from mine eye a tear shall never wring” – though in fairness, that sonnet does end up promising variety as the mode for this sequence, and so “all humors” naturally find their place somewhere here, presumably including love. “A libertine, fantastically I sing,” he tells us: he will be faithful to no one subject. That opening sonnet basically tries to sever this sequence from all expectations carried by the genre, so that it would become possible to write about anything, in a sonnet. I haven’t read enough of the poems to know how close Drayton comes to achieving that goal. But Sonnet 61 seems to mark a kind of lapse back into the story of unrequitedness – assuming the deathbed rescue he imagines in the sestet will not, in fact, take place. So, in an odd way, in Sonnet 61 Drayton is unfaithful to the expectations he sets up, precisely by being faithful to the expectations of sonnetteering. He violates the form by being faithful to it – despite all expectations. This seems to be a lapse that is constantly occuring, in Idea: the sequence keeps falling back into the postures that it began by repudiating.
I assume that this apparent duplicity is really the result of the revision process: that Idea's Mirror, published 1594, is more of a standard sonnet sequence, which Drayton tries to make into something very different in Idea, published 1619 -- but that the older book keeps peeking through the newer one. I haven't done the work to ascertain this. But however it came about, the result is an interestingly "libertine" text.
Sonnet 61 has clearly also inspired countless love-addled adolescents to sing emo songs that imagine meeting the ex after the relationship has died.
I kind of like this rhetoric of “faith,” to talk about form. Jameson calls genre a “contract” between author and audience; but contracts can be broken, promises aren’t necessarily fulfilled. To talk about that in terms of faith means that we can talk about the form of the sonnet sequence in the language of the sequence – longing, hope, betrayal, unfulfillment.