Incense in Sense: Magical and Dramatic Creation in the Sonnets
Critics have tended to approach the Sonnets as exercises of wit or, more commonly, as parts of a more or less autobiographical drama. In the latter view the poems represent experiences of love: "The interplay of mixed feelings in the sonnets on the woman, on time and poetry, and on the rival poet, are conflicts understood and expressed with a confident wit." The same critic detects a failure to understand mixed feelings in the poems to the youth, so that "when Shakespeare thus unlocks his heart, it is to reveal its stores in disarray. In only a few of the poems to the youth are these stored experiences ordered into a work of art." From this standpoint the Sonnets present characters and, latently at least, a plot. As in drama there are emotions and motives to explore, and relationships to fathom.1
At first glance this view of the Sonnets in no way accords with the account of them I have offered so far. Where I have shown the poet striving to create an incantatory transcendence, this view perceives the poet unlocking his heart "to reveal its stores in disarray." Where we have felt it necessary to regard certain sonnets as creative acts, this view takes them to be aesthetic artifacts, accounts of passionate experience, an order of information. In what follows I wish to demonstrate that both of these viewpoints are appropriate to the Sonnets.
The poet's magic, I have been saying, depends on a verbal strategy. He sets about rationally confounding rationality by emphasizing,