William Shakespeare's sonnets are love poems to two different people: the beautiful man and the dark lady.
"Dark lady" is a phrase he uses in various senses, in the sense of dark hair and in the sense of she didn't do what he wanted. She dumped him for another man. He didn't like it. The poems about her are about that.
The majority of the sonnets, the ones at the beginning of the collection are to the beautiful man. Shakespeare does use the phrase "dark lady." He never says in his sonnets "beautiful man," just like that. He goes on about how beautiful is the person he's writing the poem to and it's clear that it's a man. It was take a great deal of hard work and determination to avoid the obvious to not get that it is a man that is being spoken to. At some times in the history of these poems, that strong will to deny the obvious has been there, but no more.
It's difficult to get a feeling for what the dark lady was like because he's so angry at her. It is very high quality enraged at being dropped writing.
The beautiful man it's a little easier to get a feel for. He's beautiful. I think he's an idiot and so rich and good-looking that it doesn't matter.
The feeling of the guy who gets all this gorgeously written praise is such that I find it hard to believe that he would read all these dozens of poems written to him. I'm not sure he'd get through one. He feels like he's not much of a reader.
Plus, in Shakespeare's opening sonnets to the man he repeatedly says words to this effect: "You are beautiful. As you age, you will lose your beauty. Therefore, you should get married soon so you can pass on your great beauty to children."
Huh? It's abject, all things considered. And it's telling a beautiful guy who maybe that is all he has going for him that he'll lose his beauty.
It doesn't seem like the way to the man's heart.
And for us, it doesn't matter. The man's beauty helped Shakespeare love him, and loving him helped him write. He could take sentiments important and not unusual like this:
Just know you're alive makes me feel better.
Even when by many scorecards things are tough, knowing you exist makes everything seem great.
and he could write them better than most of us, as in Sonnet 29, which starts"When in disgrace with fortune and mens' eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state. . ." and goes on beweeping it for a while and then thinks the loved and
". . .thy sweet remembered such wealth brings That then I scorn to change my state with kings."
Sonnets, poems of fourteen lines, were invented by the beauty people, the Italians, as part of the whole Renaissance of waking up and doing art more about people and people and not just people and God.
Sonnets the way Shakespeare did them have a certain content pattern where six transforms eight and the last two lines shimmer and glow.
In a Shakespeare sonnet, the first eight lines of the fourteen set up the situation. This is the way it is, well-observed. In the last six lines, the way it is is transformed--the sun comes out, or rain falls. A common life moment where everything that seemed so very the way it was changes, just like that. The last two lines of the last six lines, the last two lines of the poem, ideally should be a strong "I get it" moment. Getting it good, or getting it bad, the last two lines should bring great focus to the new transformed way it is.
"When in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven's gate
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings."
--William Shakespeare, Sonnet 29
People who are dealt the great talent card and have the space and persistence to play it can do transformation across time. They can say, write, paint the eight--that's the way it is-- and change with the six and the two--that's the way it has become, and that noticing and change can travel across time.
Anyone can do that kind of noticing and change locally now and then. The advantage any given person has is being the only one in exactly that time and place. So if you notice well how very eight it is and feel how six it might become and make that real with the good timing that crowns the change with a focussed two, you're greater than the greatest artist who is not present in that moment, because you are there.
Sonnet professionals call the first eight lines the octet. They call the last six lines the sestet. The last two lines of the sestet and of the whole sonnet they call the couplet.
It's a good trick, a sonnet, to do a set-up for, as per the rules, eight lines, to shift, by rule, for six lines and to have the last two lines be somehow even more different. All this content stuff happening while following the other rules. Each line must go "ba-BOOM" five times. Not accented syllable followed by accented syllable is called an iamb. Each line of an English, or Shakespearean sonnet must be iambic pentameter.
And the ends of the lines have to rhyme in a certain pattern, which every sonnet of this kind has.
Shakespeare by making up this variation of the rules on what the Italians invents gave people years later ways to take about life and what is and isn't expected. To shift expectations like life does only inside rules we the humans made up. Like in the Sonnet to Hope by Miss Helen Maria Williams, who hoped, or not, from 1780 to 1823.
"O ever skill'd to wear the form we love!
To bid the shapes of fear and grief depart;
Come, gentle Hope! with one gay smile remove
The lasting sadness of an aching heart.
Thy voice, benign enchantress! let me hear;
Say that for me some pleasures yet shall bloom,
That Fancy's radiance, Friendship's precious tear,
Shall soften, or shall chase, misfortun's gloom.
But come not glowing in the dazzling ray,
Which once with dear illusions charm'd the eye;
O! strew no more, sweet flatterer! on my way
The flowers I fondly thought too bright to die;
Visions less fair will soothe my pensive breast,
That asks not happiness, but longs for rest.
--Miss Helen Maria Williams, printed in the anthology "The Female Poets of Great Britain," edited by Frederic Bowton. First printed 1853, reprinted and introduced by Marilyn William and published by the Wayne State University Press in 1981.
Give me a break, and please make it be not too interesting.
That's the kind of break Harriet Vane often thought she wanted. A not too exiting life with well-structured, intellectually engrossing work. No intense personal relationships.
Harriet Vane is a fictional character who has much in common with her creator, Dorothy L. Sayers. They are both detective novelists, which is probably not the destiny they expected when they spent their young years immersed in Shakespeare, reading and declaiming Shakespeare so often that they automatically had yards of Shakespeare memorized and used many short Shakespeare references in what was, for them ordinary conversation.
When Harriet Vane is thinking about how she just wants to rest, she just naturally expresses that by writing the octet of a Shakespearean sonnet, that says, in iambic pentameter, that she wants a quiet still place to live in.
Then she gets stuck (writing the octet in Sayers' detective novel "Gaudy Night." She can't think of the transformation of the next six lines because she doesn't want them. She thinks she doesn't want transformation.
She's hanging out at her old college at Oxford partly to help them solve a mystery. Who is writing nasty, borderline obscene notes and letters to people in the college? Who is doing nasty pranks?
Evidence to day indicates it is a faculty member--very bad news. Sayers makes the reputation of higher education for women a very important thing in this novel written in the 1930's. If the news of the notes and pranks reaches the press, it will reinforce the idea that university education makes women unbalanced and nuts. That they should learn a few simple thing and take care of the husband and kids.
So Harriet Vane is partly trying to find out who is being weird to prevent public scandal. And she is partly thinking about living a purely academic life to retreat from the pain of personal relationships.