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The Perils of Perfectionism Part 3: Sonnets 116 and 30

Shyria Shah: Too much Perfectionism?

In Part 1 of this series, I discussed the untimely death of Shyria Shah, the Nepali-Canadian woman who died descending Mount Everest. In Part 2, I posted a video of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the body-builder turned politician. He disparaged poetry in a speech inaugurating his think tank at the University of Southern California.

In this, Part 3, I’d like to take an applied approach to poetry. I’m going to look at Shakespeare’s Sonnets 116 and 30 and illustrate why they are useful prompts for self-reflection. In keeping with the larger theme of this series, I’m also going to show how poetry can help us understand why some individuals pursue excellence to the point where it becomes life-threatening.

Here’s Sonnet 116:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove;
O no! It is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

This sonnet begins with a phrase reminiscent of marriage vows: Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments. Much has been made of this line, particularly in discussions about Shakespeare’s sexuality. While this may be a call to arms in support of same-sex unions, I think it equally possible that Shakespeare was making an argument for more openness in relationships generally, urging fellow Elizabethans of all classes to mingle. The marriage of true minds, then, would be the only criterion that mattered: as long as lovers felt they’d found their soulmates, onlookers would not be allowed to admit impediments, would not be allowed to stand in the way.

The patrician tone of the sonnet is established at the beginning and what follows is a measured and formal dissertation on what love is and is not:

Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove;

Shakespeare is saying here that genuine love does not change when a partner changes. The most obvious changes occur when a partner becomes ill or simply ages. There are other kinds of change, of course. A partner can change his or her mind about a relationship; he or she can fall in love with someone else.

However, the consistency of the love Shakespeare describes in 116 is a lofty ideal untouched by predatory instincts of possessiveness: it’s the kind of love couples may strive for in intimate relationships; nevertheless, few, as we all know, actually achieve it.

In the next line, he speaks of a remover, a remover who has proved a puckish character over the centuries: he, she or it resists easy definition, refuses to be pinned down. However, I believe this cosmic being, endowed with the capacity to remove things — like bad habits or thoughts perhaps — is surely an expression of Shakespeare’s concept of God.

Shakespeare was a Catholic at a time when being one wasn’t advisable and talking about an almighty of any sort was dangerous. By the time he was a young man, for example, priests had gone into hiding, Catholic churches had been stripped of their relics, and beautiful frescoes and murals, depicting biblical stories favoured by Catholics, had been painted over. This all happened so that a newer and simpler religion, one that allowed divorce, could be ushered in by Elizabeth’s father, Henry the 8th.

This was a religion the intellectually gifted Elizabeth saw fit to protect in ways both rational and violent, a fact that Shakespeare, with his own gifted view of the world, would have experienced directly. So this remover character — that being without a source — represents a generic deity individuals could call upon when a partner or child was in need of edification of the behavioural sort. The remover, it can be reasonably argued, is religion itself, especially religion used in the service of bending another to our will.

Other writers have written about the same oppressions. Kate Chopin, in her oft-anthologized “Story of an Hour,” perhaps says it best:

There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination.

Louise, the “her” in this excerpt, has just been liberated from marriage by the death of her apparently kind husband. She dies, however, when she realizes this information is wrong. He walks through the door; she expires. In accordance with the Victorian values of Chopin’s time, Louise’s death is put down to the shock, to the “joy that kills.” Only we, the readers, know that this interpretation of events is perversely and (almost) comically wrong. Louise’s freedom has been cruelly taken from her — in the space of an hour — and that is the real cause of her demise.

So why am I discussing cosmic characters and untimely deaths? It’s because both Shakespeare and Chopin are writing against what each saw as the tyranny of social control. They are positing arguments for individual freedom and against social conformity, whether that conformity is enforced via religion or cultural value systems. What they are really doing, I believe, is urging us to know ourselves and to use self-knowledge to love ourselves. Shakespeare’s reference to true minds, minds enriched by self-knowledge, makes this clear.

And this is where I return to the subject of Mount Everest and that extreme sport of competitive body building, a sport that kick-started Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career.

I wonder if Shyria Shah had a concept of self-love that didn’t include the necessity of conquering Mount Everest. I wonder if the woman in this picture, her jaw squared by steroids, has a concept of self-love that doesn’t involve taking harmful drugs and distorting her body. I wonder where these women got their oversized ideas about perfection; when and how they came to believe that risks to their health were less important than achieving their physical ideals.

This is going to sound unbelievable to the Schwarzeneggers and Everest-mongers of this world, but studying Shakespeare might help. Reading sonnets about despair — one driving force behind the quest for perfection — might help women like Shah and this body-builder understand that accomplishments like the ones they’re after often aren’t enough to banish self-doubt. It might help them to understand that despair is an aspect of life better experienced than driven underground, better experienced than hidden beneath layers of down-filled clothing or grotesquely developed muscle.

Here’s a sonnet about despair, Sonnet 30:

Kate Chopin

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 cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned 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.

Here is a narrator enumerating his miseries: He doesn’t have all the material things he wants, he’s unhappy because he’s wasted time on useless pursuits, he has friends and lovers he misses because they’ve died. Worst of all, he’s feeling these losses as if they’ve just happened. What pulls him out of his despair? But if the while I think on thee, dear friend / All losses are restored and sorrows end. He’s not thinking about climbing Mount Everest; he’s not thinking about bulking up; he’s thinking about a friend he loves.

It’s this reflective action of thinking our grief through, of accepting life as it is, that is expressed so unsparingly and lyrically here. This is what poetry does: it explains our lives to us in ways our mothers, our friends, self-help books and visits to the gym just cannot. It lets us know others have felt what we’ve felt and it tells us this in the most beautiful and moving ways possible. It fills the crevices between big ideas and hovers over nuances too subtle to be discovered on a therapist’s couch. And it does all these things without the saccharine excesses of a Hollywood movie or the mind-numbing lyrics of a J-Lo song.

Poetry doesn’t want us to reject ourselves; it just wants us to listen and be still.

Tags: Shakespeare, Sonnet 116, Sonnet 30, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Perfectionism


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