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.

4 thoughts on “Shake hands forever, cancel all our vows

  1. I think the speaker is male and really does not mean it. He is trying to convince himself and her that the best thing for them to do is break off the romance and meet and marry others. He may be a second or third son with no prospects and she is a girl without a dowery so they would be penniless if they married. He still loves her but thinks if they see each other in their small community they should not acknowledge their love affair. It would be too painful for both of them. What do U think of this thought?

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  2. I also feel that the speaker is male, though re-reading the poem, there’s no definite evidence. I like your reading of the poem: I don’t know if there is a social aspect to it (i.e. a lack of prospects is derailing their romance), and maybe the other poems in Drayton’s sonnet sequence (“Idea”) would clear that up. I notice that the four lines beginning “Now at the last gasp” are very intellectual, very deliberately “poetic” and of the genre of courtly love, which makes this feel like the speaker is of relatively high social standing. Which is interesting (I was thinking about this after I posted it):

    If we see this as courtly love poem, or an anti-courtly love poem, one of the conventions of courtly love, as I understand it, is that the man pursues and the woman delays. The stereotypical subject of a courtly love poem was meant to be a somewhat mysterious, changeable woman. Here, however, it is the speaker who is mysterious, hiding his true feelings, changing his attitude and demands. The woman seems the constant one, while he seems to be acting the part of the beloved, not the lover.

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  3. Mr. Wallace: The speaker says “since there’s no help” … don’t U think it may mean that he has sought some kind of way to continue his romance with this young lady but none was forthcoming so he wants to kiss her one last time and then they should hide their true feelings. It must have been a serious romance since he mentions cancelling all their vows. I think they thought they could defy convention and marry and be together but he realizes that it is impossible. Like most other Americans I am watching Downton Abbey on PBS and understand that daughters have to find suitable spouses, males have to inherit, etc. English novels also point out how parents have to find suitable mates for daughters and a famiy with a number of daughters was pitied. I read someplace that if a Duchess had a dozen daughters she had to keep procreating until she provided a male heir. Don’t U think primogeniture could have entered into this love affair? I think it was a genuine love affair and not just friends with benefits.

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  4. Intriguing, gentlemen. I hear a woman’s voice (perhaps it is easy to read oneself into so finely turned a poem?). Having little or no context for Drayton (save the generalist’s knowledge of the Elizabethan era), this poem feels incredibly modern to me. It seems simply to capture, in full orchestra, those crashing waves of emotion one endures at the end of love. Forbearance. Reserve. Well-wishing. Overwrought statements of finality. A promise to bury any doubt that “this is for the best.” I’d say you know by line 6 – “And when we meet at any time again” – that she (he) is far from over the affair. Only someone still in love concerns themselves in the wistful imagining of meeting someone on the street again. Bitter ex-lovers do all they can to avoid it. The lover has told her it will never work, and she’s putting a brave face on things, showing how utterly reasonable she will be, but one tiny sign and she’d come rushing back again.

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