I’ve always found the idea rather sad: commissioning a portrait, getting a wonder made by the right painter, having it admired and treasured through the centuries, ending in some world-renown gallery… as a masterpiece of the author – with the sitter unknown, and not terribly important, either.

Well, do you know what the saddest portrait of unknown is to me? Not a painting, but a word-portrait: the Fair Youth of the Sonnets…

No, really. Think of Sonnet 55:

Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme,
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
’Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
    So, till the Judgement that yourself arise,
    You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.
And Sonnet 81:
Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten;
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read,
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
You still shall live (such virtue hath my pen)
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

Is it so glaringly obvious that the Poet has in mind the immortality of his own lines, rather than the Fair Youth’s, or do we think it because we know how it all turned out? The more I read and re-read the Sonnets, the less I think it’s really just hindsight – but nonetheless. Imagine being a very young man, and being promised eternity in the eyes of people yet to be, beyond all change and ruin, on and on and on to the end of days… To be promised all of this in beautiful poetry. Doesn’t it give you the shivers? Show me the boy (or girl) who wouldn’t be dazzled into believing it.

At the very least, even the most pragmatic and level-headed of youths must have believed to have nabbed the “right” poet, and secured a portrait for the centuries? And yet… four hundred years later, the Poet’s name (or at least the author’s) is common and beloved knowledge, among the most celebrated in the history of literature – but who the Fair Youth was we don’t know anymore.

Well, in fairness, we don’t know all that much about the whole of the Sonnets: when were they written exactly? Why? In what order? Who commissioned them? Are they really one sequence? Do they really tell the tale they seem to tell? Just how autobiographical are they? How much of William Shakespeare from Stratford is in the Poet? Who are the others? Is the Dark Lady Emilia Bassano? Mary Fitton? Rosa/Aline Daniels? Is the Rival Poet Marlowe, Chapman, Barnfield, Barnes?

We don’t know. We don’t know anymore – or, perhaps, we don’t know yet…

But then, the Dark Lady, the Rival Poet – the Poet never promised eternity to them. He offered it to the Fair Youth – but his name, too, is lost in the folds of time, just in the way the Sonnets were to prevent.  Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton? William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, the mysterious young actor Willie Hughes? Whoever the beautiful, arrogant and disloyal boy was, the Sonnets are a nameless grave to him. Portrait of Unkown Man, indeed. And not a flattering one: a heartless, shallow man, ready to betray his friend/lover/poet in every possible way… Not that the Poet is a terribly flattering self-portrait, either – supposing it is a self-portrait at all. We’re never sure we can take at face value the wonderful, unreasonable, and sometimes whiny narrating I – but still: they can exact the most protracted, most cruel revenges, these poets!