November 2, 2012

All Souls Day

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Every year on November 2, I create an altar of pictures and memorabilia of family and friends who have died, many of whom I wrote about in my book, 99 Girdles on the Wall:My parents, my Aunt Frances,  Meghan, Dennis, Hazel, John.  I sit at the piano and sing two songs during this week of Dias de los Muertos: Schubert’s “Litanei” and Richard Strauss’ “Allerseelen.”  The songs usually start me crying, but more importantly, they involve me in remembering.

This year I am adding to the ritual.  Into this dark quarter of the year have come Shakespeare and Sonnet 18, which begins “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” My former student, Jocelyn, who recently had a part in an episode of The Middle (, chose to read it at her grandmother’s funeral.  Her mother Nina (rhymes with Dinah) asked me–now that I am a Shakespeare devotee–what I thought about this sonnet as a funeral piece:


Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,

Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,

When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


I might begin by saying that people write books and papers and get into vicious arguments about who Shakespeare addressed his sonnets to but I don’t particularly care.  What matters to me is to find something compelling or something that will make me laugh.  This sonnet begins like a comic bit.  Too, too Oscar Wilde, don’t you know? Shall I compare thee to, oh, I don’t know, a piece of toast, a glass of wine?  How about a summer’s day?  So it starts out lightly.

Shakespeare immediately begins to list all the ways his loved one cannot be compared to a summer’s day: more lovely, more temperate, and besides there are storms in summer.  Then after all that, summer is short, sometimes it’s too hot, and sometimes the sun doesn’t shine at all. So far I don’t see where he’s going with this, especially when he says, “thy eternal summer shall not fade.”

Here’s why Death won’t be bragging about having Shakespeare’s loved one wandering around his premises:

 When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

 English major alert, others can skip this paragraph: There’s a technical problem to be solved in the sonnet: how does this person line up with a summer’s day.  Shakespeare solves the puzzle of the sonnet with words, and at the same time he acknowledges the power of words with a nod to his own ability with language.

What I take from the last two lines has to do with memory and language.  Sonnet 18 is just a bunch of words on a page.  It only has meaning when a human being takes it up and reads it and is moved by it.  The meaning we take from the sonnet keeps it alive.  Remembering those people in my life who have died keeps them alive.  What I remember of them is what remains alive.  As long as I breathe, as long as I can see, the people on my All Souls altar remain with me.








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