As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put besides his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart.
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharged with burthen of mine own love’s might.
O, let my books be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast;
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more express’d.
O, learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

This was the first of the Sonnets I ever memorized, chosen only because of the easy rhymes and how simple the writing is. That’s also why I picked it for my first bit-o-writing here, because of how emblematic that simplicity is of all the rest of them.

My theory is that one of the main reasons the Sonnets endure is how universal and uncomplicated they are. The emotions come in single-file, without tricky wordplay or double meanings or heavy symbols. All of those things are awesome, of course — the pleasure and the challenge of poetry often comes in the rereading and the teasing out what’s going on. I think the Sonnets just take away the challenge part and tell you directly.

In this case, the thing of it is how he just can’t get the words out — in person, anyway, which is when the words need to come out. He can’t express his love to the beloved so the following hope is that she’ll figure it out on her own, by reading his writings, those “dumb presagers of my speaking breast” that tell it so much better than he could anyway, “more than that tongue that more hath more express’d.” This is the Sonnet for anyone who ever wrote a song about the one you love instead of asking them if they want to hang out over the weekend. It’s the love note written but never delivered.

But the charm of 23 is that it doesn’t even have that adolescent frustration so it manages to be sweet. After all, “Hey, you up for coffee on Saturday?” doesn’t express this love either — all spoken words are failing here. And keeping all of that in, to himself, like a weighty secret, causes all kinds of ruckus of the soul — the day carries on without him being there for it. So the thing that weakens the heart, that makes him feel not quite himself, isn’t the absence of the beloved but the inability to say what he feels to her in a way that captures it rightly.

I guess you could read tragedy into 23 but that ignores its playfulness. Is it tragic or is it just true?

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