Shake hands forever, cancel all our vows
Peregrine, a regular reader of this blog, asked me to write something about the sonnet, “Shake hands forever” by Michael Drayton (Sonnet 61 from his “Idea”). Here is the poem, and my responses below.
SINCE there’s no help, come let us kiss and part;
Nay, I have done, you get no more of me,
And I am glad, yea glad with all my heart
That thus so cleanly I myself can free;
Shake hands forever, cancel all our vows,
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.
Now at the last gasp of Love’s latest breath,
When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,
When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And Innocence is closing up his eyes,
Now if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
From death to life thou mightst him yet recover.
I am no authority on this poem, so what follows is essentially a personal response, plus a bit of teasing at the sonnet form.
The speaker is addressing a lover of some sort as their relationship comes to an end. It’s noticeable that he takes at least three attitudes towards this “you.” The first is resignation, suggesting something external has come between them. “Since there’s no help” implies a level of resignation at the situation. But even on the next line, the tone darkens to something more bitter. It seems he can’t believe his luck to have got out of this: “glad with all my heart / That thus so cleanly I myself can free.” This make the three lines beginning with “And when we meet” so ambiguous. Is the speaker back to attitude one, and piously advising his once-lover how to best cope with their mutual loss, or is he still in attitude two, in which case he may be saying something like, “Don’t ever embarrass me in public.”
The trick of this poem is that the turn is so dramatic. At first, it seems like we are reading not a love poem but an anti-love poem, a break up sonnet, but then the turn, coming as is traditional on line nine, introduces a third attitude, one that comes with a completely different language. On line nine, the poem personifies the love and its end for four lines, and then, in the final couplet, suddenly introduces a new idea: that the lover can reawaken things between them, if she so desires. Suddenly it seems that she, not he, is in the driving seat of the break up, and this gives lie to the poem’s first half. These two might be about to “shake hands forever,” and end things, or “shake hands forever,” and fall in love again. As this essay suggests, the speaker has tried to play it cool, then cold, but then, seeing that his lady is not taking the bait (even though she seemed to be taking it after line one, when he rebuffed her), is now trying desperately to get her to react by pleading. His language, so business-like and everyday in the opening octave, seems now like it was a front to hide his real emotions, which come flooding out in the sestet and its lavish capitalised personifications. He meant to write / perform an untraditional sonnet, both in topic (the end of love) and in tone, suppressing the old language of devotion and appeal, but tradition and feeling come roaring back in line nine, right at the moment in the sonnet where we would expect it. Tradition usurps the writer, despite his best intentions.
One might question whether Drayton completely succeeds with these radical changes of tone; whether the poem is completely comprehensible on first time reading with its repeated and rapid un-transitioned changes in attitude. The reader may end up as bewildered as the imagined mistress, seeing the speaker take so many different stances in fourteen lines, wondering what the whole thing was actually about. And yet, the changes in the poem show so painfully the foolishness of ever saying, “Shake hands forever,” of believing oneself above or beyond a past love affair, because at any moment old desires may spring up afresh, perhaps as echoes of the old love itself, or instead like unfamiliar, strangely shaped flowers with no apparent connection to the past, new obsessions that have been forming themselves in silence, making their demands heard only when the once loved one reappears.