Notes on Set X (Sonnets127-140): My Mistress’ Eyes
introducing the infamous Dark Lady or Perverse Mistress, texts
in Sets X and XI add new challenges and a puzzling dominant “character”
(often prefigured earlier) to Q’s implicit dramatic interrelationships
among poet/persona, friend/auditor, and “mistress”—the
last a witty perversion of several centuries’ worth of idealized
females who were good at making the poems of European males drip in drool.
While various hints in the Runes point to wife Anne, daughter Susanna,
Mistress Alchemy, or even granddaughter Elizabeth as prototype(s) for
this odd “female”—and while there may even have been
some other “real” Dark Lady—the Mistress, I’m
sure, is essentially figurative, a conceit for Will’s own torturous
contrivances, for the poems themselves and especially the “peer-verse”
Runes: The Mistress is Q’s Mysteries. Such overlaid coterie puns
as “ms(s.),” “mystery sighs,” “ms. duress,”
“ms. distress,” “ms. dress,” “misty heiress,”
and “mystery see ye” help in some measure to decode Will’s
cryptic assertions, heavy with “her” voice. The “mysteries,”
too, are in part the poet’s guttural and suppressed vocabulary,
which we have to work hard to make audible. Link:
Index to Subtextual Terms.
proving any theory about Q seems elusive, readers who
broach the late Q poems reading “mistress” as “Q texts”
will see how such a coterie insight opens up meaning and veers all the
Q texts nearer sense. Commentaries (below) show some ways the Mistress/Mysteries
conceit works in given cases—and Sonnets 127ff. can hereafter
be similarly reconstrued at will.
variants of Sonnets 138 (in this set) and 144 (in Set XI) had appeared
in 1599 in The Passionate Pilgrim (cf. Booth 476) and because
these two texts thread across the horizontal warp of both sets, it seems
likely that Sets X and XI were unitary products of the 1590s, originating
as entertainment for Southampton’s circle and others, the same “sugared
sonnets” that we know were circulating “among [Will’s]
private friends” before 1598 (cf. Harrison 1032).
1606-09 when, I deduce, Will reworked these two sets to cap his
Megasonnet scheme (Link: How
Will Wrote the Runes), he had come to make them serve the cycle as
a perverse “vertical” couplet—a close that seemed, in
his numbers box diagram, to “walk upon the ground” on two
stemmy legs (cf. Sonnet 130.12) while showing a substantive “turn,”
as a closing couplet might in a single text.
these couplet sets served in their new Q setting was to mask the homophile
odor of the overt Sonnets (so unconventional for being love poems written
mostly to a man) with good-old-boy misogyny and winking innuendoes about
some shared, down-and-dirty mistress.
antithesis of light and lyric beauty, Will’s Mistress inhabits
a siren’s world of darkness and is medial between poet and auditor.
She is “that art that makes my heart to groan,” wounding both
poet and auditor (cf. Sonnet 133.1-2). She is, or can be, “made,”
though punningly she is also often a “hymn.” As a shared romancer,
she toys with both Will’s and the friend’s affections, mistreats
both by being temperamental and nearly impenetrable, and effectively holds
both their futures and reputations in her manipulative hands. She is a
creature of black (ink), though “in the old days” color would
have been the norm; she is “c[o]unted”—fair
or not—as women are (cf. Sonnet 127.1). Her voice is a “wiry
concord that confounds the ear” (Sonnet 128.4). She is “ablest
in proof and proofed, and very wo-” (Sonnet 129.11). Her “‘I’s”
are nothing like the sun” (Sonnet 130.1), for printed “I’s”
are straight and black, while the sun is round and bright (like an “O”).
(Will’s gendered ambiguity about phallic “I’s”
and pudendal “O’s” always defies reducibility.) Will’s
“mystery sighs are nothing like this: One,” for everything
in Q is multiple.
few details from particular texts may show how Will’s puns,
especially about writing and printing, typically conflate “ms(s).”
and “Mistress.” In Rune 135, “my Mysteries’ [printed]
‘I’s’ are rune-black” (1). “Two be
so tickled they would change their state” (2) may (despite
OED) allude to printing and the shift of “state” from ms.
to book. “Made” (3) puns on “maid” while combining
ideas of “madness” and “craftiness” that are echoed
in “ravin[g]” (1) and madde (14). The “speaking”
mistress is a product of the “[ink]well” (4, cf. 13). Will’s
“heart / art” is to be imprisioned in “thy steel bosom’s
word/ward”—suggesting “pen” and printing apparatus.
“Water” (9) suggests ink, and “raine” puns again
on “rune.” “Number” (10) can mean “verse
text.” Line 11 puns “my art [merd], th’ ink(y) thought,
a several plot,” suggesting divergent “story lines.”
“Unjust” (12) varies what may be a printing term (cf. “justified
text”) to suggest “irregular.” “Well” (13),
a pudendal play befitting a “mistress,” puns on “inkwell.”
And “Dis-pair” (14) puns on “separate two [texts]”
and "hellish pair” (since Dis is the capital of Dante’s
Hell). The “she-knot” (12) of the text, then, is the “mistress”
text herself, crazy mystery-sighs with ink-black “I’s,”
a creature merging in Will’s mind with the auditor/muse’s
own features (6). The line-pun “Then in thin, umber [black lines]
let me pass untold [i.e., unrecognized, metrically uncounted]” (10)
restates the phrase “my Mysteries’ ‘I’s’
are raven black” (1).
137—however one “ill-wrests the text—offers
another specific example of rampant Mistress/Mysteries puns: The creature
of 1-4 works best as an analogue and conceit for the text itself, which
is both appealing and “not [created] fair” (1). Line 2 suggests
perusing something on the page; “In proof” (3) suggests “in
print”; and “ill-wresting” (14) suggests wrongly interpreting
(OED). By reconstructing the sequestered part of the poet’s project,
one of the “mysteries,” the auditor can “add to thy
Will” (9), but if no champion embraces and “takes hold”
(10), the work may be illusory (11). Puns such as “Whore keeps me”
(7) and the ambiguous "she" (13) also suggest the perverse text.
The last line puns, “Now this ill-wresting, world [or, ‘wrong
interpretation whirled’]: Is G-rown [the G-line, the archaic ‘ge-’
in ‘gerowned’] forbade?” Such “row” plays
echo the one in the famous line “My Mistress, when she walks, treads
on the G-row end [i.e., end of line 7],” “…on thick
rune (rown/round),” and “…on the ground [as in ‘ground
bass,’ a running continuo line undergirding a melody]” (cf.
X shows other features besides the “new” Mistress.
Substantively, it houses the infamous Will-punning sonnets (Nos. 135-136),
two texts that cut across the 14 runes, initiating their playful sestets.
Some details are more technical or pictographic. The set’s last
line, e.g., “goes wide” into the blank space at bottom right,
punning “Be arty, nice, straight (Burden aye is straight), though
th’ web, rude art (our ode-art), goes wide” (Sonnet 140.14).
As if to balance this righthand deviancy, one “Anne” line
“goes wide” to the left, concurrent with the puns
“Anne did hence this slander ascertain…” and “Eying,
did Hen see this slander?” (Sonnet 131.14).
acrostics insistent on the spread spell out IHTM (suggesting
“Item”) and WIT, while interwoven verticals generate
TT, TBTB (suggesting “To be, to be”), and MSW
(suggesting “Ms. 10,” “Set 10,” reinforced with
IO in Sonnets 136-139). The horizontal string IH TM TT B SWIT…
(see the acrostic wit in Rune 127) suggests “Aye Tom, T.T.,
be Swede (sweet)….” The ending …I TWOB suggests
“Eye 2 up,” “Eye top,” “I tup.” The
strings TW, TIO, TW all encode “two,” pointing
inscrutably to various dualities in Q including the paired Sets X and
XI, functioning coordinately.