In 1609, a new book hit the stands in early modern England—a new book by one of the most popular writers of the day. Typically, this would be a recipe for a surefire hit, J.K Rowling-style. But in the case of William Shakespeare's book of 154 Sonnets, however, the roll-out seems to have been something of a flop: the Sonnets were only printed once during Shakespeare's lifetime, and they weren't reprinted until 1640, 24 years after Shakespeare's death.
If Shakespeare had a literary agent, you can bet he was immediately dashing off text-messages (to be delivered by carrier pigeon, of course) demanding to know what happened. But who's to blame? A bad marketing campaign? Maybe. After all, it is always difficult to achieve crossover success in a different genre from the one that made you famous. In the case of Shakespeare, our man was best known as the author of brilliant and wildly popular plays, so maybe his audience just wasn't ready to accept him purely as a poet.
But can this be the whole story? We're not convinced.
In fact, it isn't all that clear that Shakespeare was even trying to achieve this crossover success. For a long time, many scholars have assumed that the Sonnets were originally published in a bootleg edition—in other words, that Shakespeare never intended to print them, and never would have, if an unscrupulous publisher hadn't gotten the jump on him and doled them out like so much pulp. Of course, there are some who argue that Shakespeare did mean to publish them, but the case is far from closed.
Which brings us to the real question: why wouldn't Shakespeare have wanted to publish these poems? The main reason scholars point to is that many of the poems seem very personal. Sonnets 1-126 explore a complicated and ambiguous relationship between the speaker and another young man. Then you've got Sonnets 127-154 which explore an equally complicated and ambiguous relationship between the speaker and a woman whom scholars refer to as the "Dark Lady." The general aura of mystery surrounding these three characters (the Speaker, the Young Man, and the Dark Lady) has made scholars think that maybe Shakespeare originally circulated handwritten copies of the poems among a small circle of friends who might be a little less judgy than the masses. This circle of friends might have known the back story, and they might not have needed everything spelled out for them.
Of course, none of this answers an even bigger question: if the Sonnets are so secretive and mysterious, and weren't even popular in their own day, why do we bother reading them now? Wait—scrap that—if they're so mysterious, why did they go on to become the most popular book of love poetry of all time?
Shmoop thinks the answer is actually pretty simple: we (and this means you, too) don't need to have everything spelled out for us either. At the end of the day, the names of the people involved (if they ever even existed) don't matter. What does matter is the way in which the poet conveys emotions through language. When it comes to these skills, Sonnet 60, a poem about the destructive effect of time, and how human beings attempt to confront it, is one of the best.
Why Should I Care?
The modern world has given all kinds of awesomeness. It's also given us an incredible variety of ways to waste time. Social networking sites, file sharing, video posting, texting… really, the list is all but endless.
With all this information coming at us from left, right, and center, it has become incredibly easy to have those moments of sudden terror when you realize that an hour, or two hours, or maybe even a whole day has gone by and all you've done is watched Dancing With the Stars clips on YouTube. (Not that Shmoop would know what that's like, or anything.) And unlike a text message that remains sitting in your cell-phone's memory once you've pressed the Send button, the minutes you kiss goodbye don't stick around, and they certainly don't come back.
But here's the funny part: do you really think that people only started wasting time in the new millennium? Hardly. Even back in the less technologically hectic times of Shakespeare's England, people still experienced horror at the relentless rat race.
In fact, given all the disease, famine and warfare, in those days, thoughts about death were probably even more common in the minds of Elizabethan men and women than they are for people today. Then, as now, the promise of an afterlife provided religious believers with a powerful sense of meaning to confront the challenges of day-to-day life. Then, as now, there were many people who did not adhere to such belief-systems, and had to find their own ways of coping. We have no way of knowing what Shakespeare himself thought about these matters. The speaker of Sonnet 60, however, definitely sides with those who don't see the ravages of time as providing any cause for hope. Nope. Time is pretty much an all-around bummer.
So, what does he do? Does he just curl up into a little ball and wait for the inevitable? No, Shakespeare tells us in Line 14, he's going to take a stand—or, rather, his "verse" will take a stand. By writing poetry, the speaker hopes to make something that will withstand—for a while at least—the ravages of time, and keep the memory of the person he loves alive.
But did we really have to wait until Line 14 to learn that? Of course not. The whole poem is Shakespeare's response to time, his way of opposing, confronting, fighting tooth and nail against time with all the scrappy gumption he can muster, and you get ringside seats. With this poem in your pocket, you'll have one more weapon to strengthen your mind against the "whips and scorns of time" (as Shakespeare puts it in Hamlet). Trust us: give it a read. It won't be time wasted.