Sunday, June 5, 2011

Cold and Unmoved - Shakespeare Sonnet 94

Parallels in Sonnet 94

This analysis is abridged to about half its full length.

                   Sonnet 94    

     They that have power to hurt, and will do none,
     That do not do the thing, they most do show,
     Who moving others, are themselves as stone,
     Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
     They rightly do inherit heaven's graces,
     And husband nature's riches from expense,
     They are the lords and owners of their faces,
     Others, but stewards of their excellence:
     The summer's flower is to the summer sweet,
     Though to it self, it only live and die,
     But if that flower with base infection meet,
     The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
         For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds,
         Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds.

Cockburn's comments: This enigmatic sonnet seems to have baffled commentators, perhaps more than any other. This sonnet makes two statements about human goodness: (1) A good person will exercise icy self-control and refrain from hurting others; (2) If a good person turns rotten, he will be worse (or at least seem worse) than someone who was bad all along.

(note: here Cockburn discusses whether the sonnet concerned the "fair youth". He shows inconsistencies with that argument and concludes that "It is far more likely that No. 94 is not about the Youth at all. The poem is neither addressed to him, nor speaks of him in the third person". Cockburn suggests that this sonnet MAY be the sonnet that Bacon wrote for the Queen. Bacon had written:

"About the middle of the Michaelmas term her Majesty had a purpose to dine at my lodge at Twickenham Park, at which time I had (though I profess myself not to be a poet) prepared a sonnet directly tending and alluding to draw on her Majesty's reconcilement to my Lord (The Earl of Essex prior to his aborted coup)". 

If my surmise is correct, Bacon in the sonnet is urging the Queen to refrain from using her power to hurt Essex, despite her apparent intention to hurt him. "Influencing others, but herself uninfluenced, rock-like, of independent judgment, her own mistress" is presumably how the Queen liked to see herself. It was certainly how Bacon saw her.

One of the things which has been thought most puzzling about Sonnet 94 is the words "unmoved, cold" in line 4. Many commentators have refused to believe that Shake-Speare intended to extol being "unmoved, cold" as a virtue. Not so the Penguin editor of the Sonnets (1986), who paraphrases L1. 3-4 as "Such people, moving others emotionally while remaining detached, are as cold as the proverbial stone - a frequent image in Shakespeare of unrelenting indifference". But the editor, like almost everyone else, has misunderstood what Shake-Speare meant by "unmoved, cold". How could Shake-Speare have extolled "unrelenting indifference" as a virtue which would help one to inherit Heaven's graces? In truth, he was using the words "unmoved, cold" as Bacon used them, to mean "free from passion". Regarding the use of "cold", Bacon had written of Lord Burleigh "...out of the greatness of his experience and wisdom and out of the coldness of his nature hath qualified generally all hard and extreme courses". On the hypothesis that Sonnet 94 was Bacon's sonnet to the Queen, that is exactly what Shake-Speare was urging the Queen to do -- to show "coldness of nature" and qualify all hard and extreme courses against Essex.

For Bacon's use of the word "unmoved" one goes first to a letter of advice, drafted by Bacon, which Essex sent in his own name to the young Earl of Rutland who was about to travel. The letter says "Health consisteth in an unmovable constancy and a freedom from passions which are indeed the sickness of the mind". Bacon's use of the word 'Constancy' as the foundation of virtue had this same meaning of 'free from passions'. One finds echoes of this in other Shake-Speare texts. In Henry V, 2.2.132-4 "Free from gross passions or of mirth or anger / Constant in spirit, not swerving with the blood". In Hamlet 3.2.71-2 "Give me that man that is not passion's slave". In Measure For Measure 3.2.219-20 "It is virtuous to be constant in any undertaking". Though 'constant' isn't in Sonnet 94, the other two words "unmoved" and "cold" do.

And when one finds them both used in an unusual sense which has nonplussed commentators, but is the sense in which Bacon used them, that must surely tell in favor of his authorship of this sonnet.

In addition, there are a half dozen other little language echoes in this sonnet to a letter Bacon wrote to the Queen at about the same time that Bacon had said he wrote the sonnet to the Queen reconciling her with Essex. But it would take about another page to post them here so I'll leave them out, except for the following:

After Essex's abortive rebellion on 8 February 1601, Bacon tells us that he "did both commend her Majesty's mercy terming it to her an excellent balm that did continually distil from her sovereign hands". This echoes the lines from The Merchant of Venice 4.1.180-1 "the quality of mercy is not strained; it droppeth as the gentle rain from Heaven".

Cockburn concludes with "Whether or not Sonnet 94 is Bacon's sonnet to the Queen, the unusual use of "cold" and "unmoved" and the other parallels I have mentioned afford strong evidence that Bacon was the sonnet's author.

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