It may be a day late to pin this recommendation to the 450th anniversary of the birth and death of William Shakespeare, but I still can think of no better way to mark the end of National Poetry Month than to pause and take note of some of the (in my mind) greatest poems of all time: the Shakespearean Sonnets (okay, so National Poetry Month is an American designation, but let’s not quibble, shall we?).
It wasn’t until I was assigned one of the “lesser” sonnets (or at least lesser known) in a collegiate English course and forced to write a paper sans footnotes and filled with my original interpretation of the meaning and purpose of the work as expressed through the language, that I truly glimpsed the Bard’s genius. I had struggled with the paper for weeks, and on the eve of the deadline for submission, in the final hours of pulling an all-nighter, I despaired of having a workable paper to present to a professor I both admired and feared. But suddenly, after a dose of No-Doze and numerous cups of coffee, at 4:00 am, when my reason was parsed away and all I had left was raw emotion, I read the sonnet out loud for the umpteenth time and had my eureka moment when “how it spoke to me” became clear. In a tiny study carrel in a dormitory stairwell, I furiously typed what I have come to think of as my shining undergraduate effort, one that I am still proud to claim. The sonnet was No. 54, and from that day on, I have loved Shakespeare’s sonnets with a passion undiminished through the years.
O! how much more doth beauty beauteous seem
By that sweet ornament which truth doth give.
The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour, which doth in it live.
The canker blooms have full as deep a dye
As the perfumed tincture of the roses,
Hang on such thorns, and play as wantonly
When summer’s breath their masked buds discloses:
But, for their virtue only is their show,
They live unwoo’d, and unrespected fade;
Die to themselves. Sweet roses do not so;
Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made:
And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth,
When that shall vade, my verse distills your truth.
Shakespeare’s sonnets. In my mind, some of the greatest poetry of all time. I could not recommend any collection of poetry with any higher regard than I do these.