Last week I wrote about idolatry. This week I learned it.
Driving to work, I quite often see someone singing at the wheel. If it’s a man, Nessun Dorma; a woman: I Will Survive.
In my case, I’m not singing (the mouth moves in a different way), I’m talking. I’m talking through a sonnet, line by line.
It can be dangerous. I think I have the whole sonnet safely heart-stowed, and then I acquire a snag round line 7 and I can’t bear it. The card with the sonnet is on the seat next to me. I could pick it up while driving, glance at it and ease my pain. Quite often I pull in: it’s safer.
Eventually I don’t have to stop because the poem is safe in head and heart, for a while at least.
Poet Ruth Pitter lost her sight in the last years of her life, but in her sightless nineties she could still recall swathes of poetry. I’ve always envied this. My mother, too, had a remarkable memory for the words of poems and songs. In my case, I have to work at it. I remember lines and snatches effortlessly, but the whole thing requires extended exercise.
But it is hugely satisfying. I have no idea why I’m not learning one all the time. Don Paterson famously says a poem is “a little machine for remembering itself”. He says this, I think, in more than one place but certainly in the introduction to his Faber book of 101 Sonnets. Why do I remember Paterson’s phrase? Because it’s so neat and so true of formal poems. The clicks and hinges, the tucking into place of phrase and cadence – these are all about meaning and memory.
I don’t think sound is everything in poetry, but it’s a great deal. Last week I believed I had examined #105, ‘Let not my love be called idolatry’ minutely. When I came to learn it by saying it over and over aloud, first I began to pay close attention to the repetitions. Because repetitions, in learning by heart, can both help and hinder. Obviously, in the idolatry sonnet ‘Fair, kind and true’ comes in three times, each time at the start of the line. Three words, three times.
The repetition I hadn’t fully clocked was ‘wondrous’ which comes in twice (‘still’ comes in twice too). Here’s the sonnet so you can see what I mean as I talk it through.
Let not my love be called idolatry,
Nor my beloved as an idol show,
Since all alike my songs and praises be
To one, of one, still such, and ever so.
Kind is my love to-day, to-morrow kind,
Still constant in a wondrous excellence;
Therefore my verse to constancy confined,
One thing expressing, leaves out difference.
Fair, kind, and true, is all my argument,
Fair, kind, and true, varying to other words;
And in this change is my invention spent,
Three themes in one, which wondrous scope affords.
Fair, kind, and true, have often lived alone,
Which three till now, never kept seat in one.
It’s only when you say the word ‘wondrous’ aloud (or only in my case) that you hear the ‘one’ inside it and therefore hear what the word is doing. You also hear the inner rhyme, like the Ariston and on and on advert: ‘Still constant in a wondrous excellence; / Therefore my verse to constancy confined, / One thing expressing’.
On and on. It’s in ‘invention’ too and ‘song’. It’s the last word of the whole poem: the high point. You, WS is saying, are The One. If this isn’t idolatry, what is? But in this poem, idolatry is dismissed as a matter of multiple idols, whereas true love is ‘three themes in one’. It’s another bit of blasphemous trickery – using the terms of ‘true religion’ to describe human love.
But Shakespeare doesn’t care. He’s creating a little machine for remembering itself, and it does. I thought at first the weak phrase was ‘varying to other words’. It doesn’t seem very memorable. It almost seems to cancel out the uniqueness of ‘Fair, kind and true’. If these are the only themes, why talk about varying them?
All Shakespeare’s sonnets have inner connections: often the logic and the syntax is as neat as the sound. Here ‘varying to other words’ connects directly to ‘And in this change’. I wondered (sorry about the pun) last week whether ‘change’ could have had a currency connection in Elizabethan England. I think it must have done. ‘And in this change’ must link back to ‘varying’ and link forward to ‘invention spent’, and further forward to the ‘wondrous scope’ that this ‘affords’. It may be that ‘scope’ shadow-rhyming with ‘Pope’ is going too far. Nevertheless, it forms another link in my memory chain.
Memorising is very odd. Certain lines and phrases are like safe havens or ‘barleys’ as we used to say at school (which may be a corruption of ‘parleys’). You arrive at them with relief: they ‘click’ more easily and resolutely than the rest. For me, it’s ‘Therefore my verse to constancy confined’. I love that phrase. I like the way ‘Therefore’ lodges neatly, and its logical link to ‘argument’. I savour the alliteration of ‘to constancy confined’ and the pun on ‘constancy’ as faithfulness but also simply Ariston and on and on.
And I adore ‘Which three, till now, never kept seat in one’. For some reason the ‘Which’ is particularly satisfying to me. Again, it’s a hinge, it points back nicely but it somehow helps to stack ‘three’ against ‘one’ at the other end of the line, while ‘never’ breaks the iambic pattern so thoroughly, so pleasurably, with such an irrevocable surge towards the resonant ONE at the end.
It is unforgivable to go on and on and on about one sonnet over two blog weeks. But learning it by heart changes everything. I still think the rehearsal of idolatry and Catholics and the Book of Common Prayer is interesting, but nothing compared to the hinges and clicks, the soundscape of the sonnet.
For example, why is it easy to remember line five? ‘Kind is my love today, tomorrow kind’? The word ‘Kind’ hasn’t featured in the first four lines. I think it’s because of ‘all alike my songs and praises be’, a lovely phrase in itself. The sound in ‘alike’ is picked up in ‘Kind’, and so it fits. It all fits.
Shakespeare is astonishing. It was when I began to memorise parts of plays at school that I realized something extraordinary was going on. It is still happening. So this week, I also memorized #30 ‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought’. Much of that was on the train, so more difficult. However, there is a particular pleasure in bits of Shakespeare that have found their way to being famous in other context – in this case ‘remembrance of things past’.
And although I could write about #30 too from now till lunchtime, especially about the way the currency metaphor connects the entire sonnet from the (debtors’) court ‘sessions’ in line one to the ‘losses are restored’ in line 14, I’ll just note I was surprised that ‘moan’ in line 8 preceded ‘fore-bemoanèd moan’ in line 11. It occurred to me that I’d got the first ‘moan’ wrong. I thought it might have been ‘mourn th’expense of many a vanished sight’. (Shakespeare does use ‘mourn’: it’s in #71 ‘No longer mourn for me when I am dead’.)
But no, ‘moan’ is correct. And of course it is correct. Because the ‘fore-bemoanèd moan’ not only refers to past griefs, but also to the ‘moan’ earlier in the poem – and, even more importantly, a key word in the poem is ‘woe’. The most difficult line to say is: ‘And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste’, but it introduces the key sound ‘oh oh oh’, ‘old woes’. Hence the absolute necessity of ‘moan’, which will also echo in ‘flow’ and then another ‘woe’ and then ‘heavily from woe to woe tell o’er’. The whole poem is a symphony of lamentation, until the final couplet, which is suddenly (perhaps too suddenly) upbeat. The sonnet’s full of ‘w’ consonants too” when, woe, waste, weep, wail, drown, new, which, while, sorrow. Favourite haven phrases? ‘Love’s long since cancelled woe’.
This week I’m going to learn ‘My own heart let me more have pity on’. Gerard Manley Hopkins is harder than Shakespeare because the expression is so very compressed, but ‘thirst’s all-in-all in all a world of wet’ is not only irresistible, it’s suited to our current climate and it is now on a BardCard, just the right size for learning.
Please drive carefully.