"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Shakespeare’s Sonnets (2)–Older Men And Younger Women

I have written before about my rediscovery of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and remarked that after reading them I knew I had to take a completely new look at his plays.  There is nothing of the playwright’s cynicism about love and marriage in the Sonnets which are intimate, revealing, and passionate.

Most of the sonnets are written about the older poet’s love for a youth many years his junior.  Like Shakespeare, most older men who have had a much younger lover understand how it is unique, special, and transformative. An older man can never return to love with a woman his own age without thinking of age, aging, and death itself.  No matter how much we may love our partner of decades, we can only see her wrinkles, feel the roughness of her dry skin, and notice the tiredness in her eyes.  The terrible paradox of love with a younger woman is that while the affair lasts, we are young again; and when it is over we feel far older than we really are.

Shakespeare was in love with or at least infatuated with a young noble many years his junior, and most of the Sonnets are about this love.  Sonnet 22 is perhaps the most complex of the early series, the ‘point of no return’ as some critics have noted.  Here Shakespeare speaks of how the love between him and and his younger lover suspends time and age.

My glass shall not persuade me I am old,
So long as youth and thou are of one date;
But when in thee time's furrows I behold,
Then look I death my days should expiate.
For all that beauty that doth cover thee,
Is but the seemly raiment of my heart,
Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me:
How can I then be elder than thou art?
O! therefore, love, be of thyself so wary
As I, not for myself, but for thee will;
Bearing thy heart, which I will keep so chary
As tender nurse her babe from faring ill.
  Presume not on thy heart when mine is slain,
  Thou gav'st me thine not to give back again.

The mirror can never persuade the poet that he is old when he is in love with a younger man.  The two lovers for a short time are of the same age. In a magical moment of suspended time for a brief, instantaneous, and evanescent moment, time for an older man and his youthful lover ceases to exist. 

All of us wonder at times who belongs to the face in the mirror. Our interior selves are no different than they ever were we feel; but when we see a face “Beated and chopp'd with tann'd antiquity” (Sonnet 62) we are shocked and turn away. When we men love a much younger woman, we do not see that old face, but a youthful one.  The suspension of disbelief is complete.

“How can I then be elder than thou art?”, Shakespeare writes, when his love and that of his younger lover are in perfect harmony.  Time is suspended.

Even in the poet’s total submission to this love, he cannot ignore the demands of reason, experience, and reality.  “But when in thee time's furrows I behold, Then look I death my days should expiate”.  When he first sees signs of aging on his lover’s face, all illusions of his own youth disappear.  The moment of temporal equality is gone.

The poem ends romantically – given their entwined hearts, says the poet to his lover, do not expect that your heart will remain whole when I die.  The real importance of the poem, however, is Shakespeare’s understanding of the unique, philosophical nature of a December-May love.

All of the first 17 sonnets are about the importance of progeny – only if one leaves a living legacy behind is one’s life validated.  Compared with Sonnet 22, these pleadings are academic and intellectual.  Shakespeare writes about his lover’s beauty in the abstract – a quality which have been given to him by Nature to safeguard and in time to pass on to subsequent generations.  Not to do so is fatally narcissistic, and worse a profligate waste of a God-given gift.  In Sonnet 22, however, Shakespeare has given up any pretense of objectivity rational consideration.  The one, true, exhilarating, incomparable moment of life is when all superficial temporal trappings disappear and only two souls remain. In all the sonnets prior to this one, the poet exhorts the youth to do his duty, to pass on his beauty to the ages; to fulfill the destiny for which he has been ordained.  Now, at this point of no return, he drops all objective pretense and focuses on the personal and the intimate.

In the recent movie The Human Stain, an older man has an affair with a much younger woman.  Although there is no way that a relationship between a tenured professor and a janitor can possibly succeed, he cannot be dissuaded.  “She is not my first love nor my best love”, the professor says, “but she surely is my last love”; and in that revealing statement he affirms the rejuvenating and life-affirming love that can only exist between an older man and a younger woman.

Not only Phillip Roth but John Updike celebrated such late life relationships.  In Rabbit At Rest, Rabbit has a brief affair with his son’s young wife.  It just happened, says Rabbit, and the encounter is not as loaded with meaning as it is for Roth or Shakespeare; but it still is a reaffirmation of the vital male spirit in him.  His life has been a predictably unhappy one.  From a high-school basketball star he has become a car salesman, married to an unhappy, but survivalist woman, and saddled with a ne’er-do-well son.  He is addled with hardened arteries, knows he has not long to live, and making love to Nelson’s young wife is, like for all older men, one more finger in the dike; one more feint to deceive the Grim Reaper.

Sonnet 22 is one of my favorites because Shakespeare has abandoned this very removed and literary perspective on his love. Duty, responsibility, natural honor and obligation to beauty and art are put aside in favor of a physical and emotional commitment – a commitment which is not only a personal fulfillment of a passionate love; but a revitalization, and a defiant retort to death.

1 comment:

  1. If you or someone else you know is hooked up in an age gap relationship where there is a great difference between the ages of the two then here are some tips for making the age gap relationship blissful. Read more young women older men stories at http://earnthenecklace.com

    ReplyDelete