This is what contemplation of one small poem leads you to.

Last week I put a set of smallish poems, mostly sonnets, onto cards (they can be found in the HappenStance shop). These cards are the right size for someone like me to carry round with them. I like to learn sonnets: I love the feeling of getting inside their size and shape and workings. In particular, I have lived much of my life (like many readers) with some of Shakespeare’s sonnets as close friends.

For the cards, I chose a couple by Shakespeare that I didn’t know so well. One of these was 105: ‘Let not my love be called idolatry’. And since I printed it and have kept it beside it me, it’s been going round and round in my head: the peculiar almost-rhyme between “Let not my” and “idolatry” has been working on me, for a start. But so have other things.

My students, in college, are studying the Scottish and English Reformation, the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism in the Christian faith that led to many horrible deaths. And of course, in Shakespeare’s England, with a Protestant Queen, succeeded by a Protestant King, the Catholics were the underdogs. Criticism leveled at them could be amusing; it could also be a grave matter.

Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, came from an openly Catholic family. And what did people say about Catholics in or around 1609 when the Sonnets were published? They were castigated, among other things, for their ceremonies, their vestments,  their rituals: all this was ‘idolatry’. Praying to a little figure of the Virgin Mary was tantamount to heresy (from a Protestant point of view).

In the 1552 Prayer Book (which was not only familiar to most people in Shakespeare’s day whether or not they could read, but also the text I myself knew inside out in the 1960s, four hundred years later), there is a grim little service titled ‘A Comminacion Agaynste Synners’, to be chanted after the Litany, with responses from the assembled congregation.

The Litany is relevant here too, not just because the word ‘litany’ is commonly used today (and often by poets) but because the sense has been partly lost. Sitting through the litany in church was boring, but less boring than some services because at the end of each piece chanted by the officiating minister, you got to echo in the manner of a Greek chorus. The incantation of some of those rolling lines was pleasurable. For example:

Priest: O holy, blessed and glorious Trinitie, three persones and one God : have mercy upon us miserable synners.

Response: O holy, blessed, and glorious Trinitie, three persons and one God : have mercie upon us miserable synners.

You can see how powerful this rhetoric is, how enormously evocative, how the chanting (like the crowd chanting at a football match) can capture everyone into one common mind. And in a minute I’ll talk about the way it seeps into Shakespeare’s sonnet. But not yet.

First I want to return to that Comminacion or, in modern spelling, Commination. It is a fearsome word. It comes from the Latin ‘comminari’, to threaten with force (‘minatory’, meaning ‘threatening’, carries the same sense). But ‘commination’ is the force threatened by a god. In Christian terms, it was associated with divine threats against sinners, and in particular, their recital in front of a congregation (who joined in, as proof of their assent). Here’s a bit from the 1552 Book of Common Prayer:

CURSED is the man that maketh any carved or molten Image, an abhominacion to the Lorde, the worke of the handes of the craftes manne, and putteth it in a secrete place to worshyp it.

And the people shall aunswere and saye,

In fact, both Catholics and Protestants were opposed to ‘idolatry’. It’s in the Bible: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” The issue between Catholics and Protestants, in this as in much else, was of interpretation.

And what did Shakespeare do with it all? He played with the idea: he bounced it through this sonnet as lightly as if nobody had ever died for their faith, as if martyrs were a thing of the past. And yet in 1570, when he was nearly six years old, a ruling from the Papacy excommunicated the English Queen (Elizabeth I) for her stubborn Protestantism and invited all Roman Catholics to rebel against her rule. A year later, Elizabeth brought in legislation making Roman Catholicism treasonable. If you were Roman Catholic, Jesuit or harboured a Catholic priest you could pay the standard price for treason, namely execution. How? A matter of being hanged, drawn and quartered.

Of course, if you were quietly Catholic and didn’t threaten any monarchs with political plotting, you were more or less okay. When James came to the English throne in 1603, things eased up a bit. But in 1606, Shakespeare’s fellow playwright Ben Johnson was summoned with his wife before the authorities because of their alleged failure to take communion in the Church of England. They were not executed. . . .

Back to my sonnet: Shakespeare worships his loved one, no question. He plays with the idea of idolatry and shrugs it off with a counter-gambit, also flirting with the concept of religious faith: “all like my songs and praises be, / To one, of one, still such, and ever so”. He has only one God, so it’s all right. But hey – his god is his loved-one. Not only that, he gives him three-in-one status: “Fair, kind and true, is all my argument, / Fair, kind and true, varying to other words”.

He goes further. Fair, kind and true, he says is “Three themes in one”, just like (in the 1552 Prayer Book quoted earlier) the “blessed and glorious Trinitie, three persones and one God”.

Shakespeare clearly doesn’t think he’s about to get hauled in for blasphemy. His wit, his confidence, his slant references – all indicate how safe he thinks he is. But he plays with the fire of the times, no doubt. His concluding couplet talks about his beloved as if he is something dramatically elevated and – yes – godlike:

Fair, kind, and true have often lived alone,
Which three, till now, never kept seat in one.

I like many things about this sonnet. I had never thought of it before as courting controversy – but now I see it does that too. What most appealed to me was the odd plainness. The three high praises are in monosyllabic adjectives: fair, kind, true. These are not in themselves particularly interesting words, though the vowel change between them is attractive. When he repeats the trilogy (three times), he repeats the words in the same order, so a sense of liturgical chanting starts to gather force. The increasingly familiar vowels ring out in the same order, each ending on ‘true’ (with its shadow-rhyme of ‘you’ perhaps). “In this change is my invention spent”, he says as the vowels ring out from one to the next, one to the next.

And the sonnet ends on “one”, which echoes “constant” and “constancy” and “wondrous”, as well as its near-rhyme “alone”. And the last line goes back to the negative of the first but it’s a positive negative: “Which three, till now, never kept seat in one”. Feel the oomph on the “never”, the only word with two syllables in a run of simple monosyllables, and its distant pairing with the earlier “ever so”.

Helen Vendler, in The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, says Shakespeare was also invoking “the Platonic Triad (the Beautiful, the Good, the True}” and deliberately opposing it to the Christian Trinity. I hadn’t thought of Plato, but yes.

And the mind goes on working on these 14 lines, this little card, on the idea that his invention is all “spent” on those three words but this “affords” great scope – juggling with financial imagery too. Did people give “change” in cash terms in Elizabethan England? I don’t know. There were no banknotes, only coins, so our concept of ‘change’ as coinage or loose change can’t have existed then. At least I don’t think so. I must stop thinking about this. I haven’t even learned the sonnet by heart yet.

I am, however, clearly guilty of bardolatry, as identified by George Bernard Shaw. But I don’t care.

Special offer: for anyone ordering a pack of the new BardCards from the shop, I’ll throw in an extra Shakespeare (on idolatry). That person would have to be something of a bardolater themselves to have read to the end of this long blog.