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Featured Poem: Sonnet 14 by William Shakespeare

Written by Lisa Spurgin, 27th June 2011

The stars have many different uses, some of which we’ve touched upon thanks to the stargazing of Katherine Mansfield and Robert Browning respectively. Mansfield illustrated the diversionary quality of stars; the capacity of them to amuse and leave awe-struck not just a small child, but indeed anyone of any age. Taking a different tack, Browning’s forging of a close connection with a specific star provided him – and us as readers – with points of inspiration, direction; even going so far as opening up new ways of seeing, thinking and feeling. Browning’s ode to ‘his star’ introduced the notion of influence, and in particular the acute power it can have when we focus intently and believe so strongly in something; or someone, as Browning was most likely replacing a literal star for a person. But the metaphor does hold some weight when unravelled and taken back to its origins; there are those who hold the belief that the actual stars above have a direct influence on their lives, albeit in a less cooperative way than Browning talks about.

Advocates of astrology might argue that everything – from happiness, love, luck and wealth, right down to what colour you paint your bedroom or what shoes you wear (perhaps even what poem appears here…?) – is written in the stars. And by no means is it a modern phenomenon; the snippets of predictions and personalised - at least in twelve different variations - prophecies that appear in various publications have developed from techniques first used by the Babylonians in the 4th century BC, when it really was a case of interpreting whether certain ‘omens’ were good or bad by taking a look towards the sky. Even if things have advanced somewhat, many doubts and questions frequently arise about the validity of using starsigns as a science – putting the two together in a mere sentence is enough to start raising eyebrows, such is the ‘Marmite’ nature of the astrological art. Whether you’re a casual reader of horoscopes, a faithful follower or consider it pure hokum (of which, if that’s the case, the next bit won’t matter to you one jot), the question is: how much influence is considered reasonable? It’s all well and good having a glance and briefly identifying with some crumb of (perhaps coincidental) knowledge on any given day, but to let it rule your life completely and obey to every letter and finest detail – surely that is taking things a little too far? That would go for anything, not just a fascination with astrological forecasts but making your judgements on something which is without a great deal of founding seems strange…or maybe it is just the opposite; there could be a lot to be said for believing in fate (that’s another story for another time….).

The stars and planets have been used many literary texts; great authors such as Chaucer, Milton, Sydney and Donne are amongst those who have explored and utilised the astrological, so perhaps there could be something in these type of stars after all…? In particular, Shakespeare could be singled out for special reference to astrology, in plays such as All’s Well That Ends Well – whereby Helena, the heroine of the piece, is well versed in astrological knowledge. Though it was especially popular at the time and a belief in astrology is construed as positive (as is the case with Helena), not that much is known about Shakespeare’s own personal stance on the subject; although a possible conclusion could be drawn from the importance so oft placed on harmony and balance in his works, of which an alignment of the stars and astrology is but one symbol. In this sonnet however, you’d be forgiven for thinking that maybe Shakespeare wasn’t all that impressed; for it is ‘not from the stars do I my judgment pluck’ but instead the ‘constant stars’ of the eyes of his addressee. Rather than a love sonnet (though it could be construed as such), this is one of the ‘procreation sonnets’ – suggesting that predicting the future through the stars isn’t much good if there is no successor available to inherent it.

Sonnet 14

Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;
And yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons' quality;
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well,
By oft predict that I in heaven find:
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert;
Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
Thy end is truth's and beauty's doom and date.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

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