Immortal Beloved

On the missing persons of love poetry.
by Austin Allen

Immortalizing the beloved is supposed to be one of the poet's supreme powers. What journal-toting teenager hasn't tried to wield it? Shakespeare himself claims in his sonnets:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. (XVIII)

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear'd with sluttish time. (LV)

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?

Read the full essay on the Poetry Foundation website.

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