A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Poem of the Day: William Shakespeare

Sonnet XXX

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought 
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, 
And with old woes new wail my dear Time's waste. 
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow, 
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night, 
And weep afresh love's long since canceled woe, 
And moan th' expense of many a vanished sight;
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone, 
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er 
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan, 
Which I new pay as if not paid before. 
   But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, 
   All losses are restored and sorrows end.
-- William Shakespeare

Not my favorite Shakespeare sonnet. It's one of those in which the final couplet too abruptly cancels out the rest of the poem. Still, it's full of wonderful soundplay, from the sibilants of the opening lines (sessions ... sweet silent ... summon ... remembrance ... things past) to the grieving open vowels of the later lines (moan ... foregone ... woe ... woe ... o'er ... fore-bemoanèd moan ... before). 

But I really chose this one because of remembrance of things Proust. This was the sonnet that Scott Moncrief chose to allude to when he went to translate the title À la recherche du temps perdu. Or rather, to mistranslate it. For Shakespeare is writing about what Proust called "voluntary memory" -- the effort to summon up things past -- whereas Proust is equally concerned with "involuntary memory," the way the past looms up unbidden when invoked by some sensory nexus -- a smell, a taste, a sound. True, Proust's narrator goes "in search of lost time" (the currently preferred translation of the title), but he succeeds only when conditions (most famously, the taste of a cookie crumb in a spoonful of tea) favor it. 

Still, you can see how the sonnet might have appealed to Scott Moncrief, for not only is "remembrance of things past" a classier sounding title in English than "in search of lost time," the sonnet itself is concerned with many of the things that troubled Proust's narrator: dead friends, old lovers, obliterated landmarks. But Proust's novel doesn't have a tacked-on couplet or coda to cancel out the sadness of those memories.  

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