Melancholy in Shakespeare’s Sonnets
She dwells with Beauty-Beauty that must die,
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
-John Keats, Ode on Melancholy
Contrary to the familiar notion, true melancholy, as Keats notes in his ‘Ode on Melancholy’, is not to be found in any of the sad or ugly things-Wolf’s bane’, ‘nightshade’, ‘yew-berries, ‘the beetle’, ‘the death-moth’ etc. True melancholy is the ache at the heart of felicity. It results from the contemplation of beautiful things and an experience of joy or pleasure. In other words, the feelings of the transitoriness of beautiful things give rise to a feeling of melancholy. The same is true of Shakespeare who in his sonnets besides ‘summon(ing) up remembrance of things past/…sigh(ing) the lack of many a thing’ he ‘sought’ (Sonnet 30), avers ‘That time will come and take my love away. (Sonnet 64)
In Sonnet 18, the melancholy strain wells out from the transient nature of human and natural life, from the reflection that
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d
Even the beauties of nature are sadly transient. The ‘darling buds of May’ are blown down by violent winds. Summer with all its loveliness and comfortable weather is too short-termed:
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed
Sonnet 64, another saddest sonnet of Shakespeare dwells on the transience of all earthly things which produces the feeling of melancholy. Everything, however mighty great or beautiful, is subjected to the insidious depredations of Time: “Time’s fell hand defaced/ The rich proud cost of outworn buried age.” Time has consumed expensive monuments, sky kissing buildings, ever-lasting brass, caused “interchange of state” (i.e. alternation or vicissitude of condition) and brought to decay such an impersonal thing as the state (political order) itself. What the worst injury Time does to man is that it does not spare love:
That time will come and take my love away.
This thought depresses the poet most:
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fear to lose.
The melancholic strain in sonnet 65 wells out from the poet’s contemplation of the transience of all earthly things due to the ravages of time. Nothing can hold out against the mighty onslaught of time. Thus, mortality(Time) ‘over sways (devours) brass eternal, lofty towers, firm soil, boundless sea, ‘rocks impregnable’, strong gates of iron, let alone such weak things as human beauty and sweet summer winds.
Sonnet 73, is intensely charged with melancholy produced by Shakespeare’s reflections on the transitoriness of human life wrought by the ravages of time. It is due to the ceaseless operations of Time, that man goes through the inevitable process of growth, maturity, and decay through childhood, manhood, old age, and death. The images of a bare ruined autumnal and wintry tree standing like a skeleton, of the glimmering twilight turning into a black light, and of a dying heart where umbers lie on the top of the ashes (of the poet’s youth) overpower our mind with a melancholy feeling.
The strain of melancholy marks sonnet 137. But the melancholic strain here is not the product of the pot’s sense of the mutability and transience of human life (except love) as in sonnets 18,64,65,73 but of his sense of the captivity in the prison of the Dark Lady’s sex. He has no illusion about her; he is all aware of her foul soul and foul body. Still, he cannot estrange himself from the clutch of her sex. The note of melancholy wells out of this helplessness.
In sonnet 138, melancholy proceeds not from the transiency of earthly things, but from the poet’s sense of guilt generated by the mutually dependent self-deception by which he pretends that his mistress is chaste, faithful, and constant and she pretends that he is young physically and sexually.
‘Love,’ says Rosalind in As You Like It (Act II, Scene II), is merely a madness and, I tell you, deserves as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do.…’ ‘By heaven,’ says Biron in Love’s Labour’s Lost (Act IV, Scene III), I do love: and it hath taught me…to be melancholy.’ Coupled with the poet’s reflection that human life is all too transient, that ‘everything that grows/ Holds in perfection but a little moment;/ That this huge stage presenteth naught but shows’ (Sonnet 15), this was the case with Shakespeare himself and he makes this clear, as shown earlier, in the Dark Lady sonnets. One word more, it will not be an exaggeration to proclaim in the passing that the melancholy strain has much to do with the sonnets’ continuous appeal down the ages, for, to quote Shelley, ‘Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought’. Will Durant aptly puts it, ‘He (Shakespeare) became through despair the greatest poet of all.’