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The Study of a Poem

There are two basic ways to approach a poem, just as there is with any work of art. The work can be taken on its face value, examined textually and/or structurally and expected to stand on its own, or the work can be examined in terms of external matters such as the life of the artist. It is certainly true that the artist draws on his or her own life, which if nothing else is a formative experience that determines how the individual thinks and thus how the individual shapes his or her work. At the same time, it is also true that connections made between the work of art and the life of the artist are not sufficient to determine whether that work is valuable or not. An approach using aspects of the artist's life, such as psychoanalytic criticism, is difficult with a poet like William Shakespeare, for his life is not known in any great detail. Some critics in effect psychoanalyze the poet in terms of imagery in the poetry, as can be seen when Philip Edwards considers thematic elements in sonnets written for the so-called Dark Lady, the presumed recipient of a sequence of poems (Edwards 17-32).

Raymond Macdonald Alden links the sonnets to a tradition in poetry, the English sonnet as written by Sidney and Daniel and the use of the conceit as a linguistic image carried through the poem. Shakespeare used the conceit, but it was not as central or essential as it was in the poetry of Sidney (Alden 105). The conceit for Shakespeare is often less concrete and centers more on virtues, states, or values to be prized.

In one of the "Dark Lady" sonnets, Shakespeare develops a cause-and-effect relationship between love and truth that is not as clear-cut as it might seem. For one thing, the lovers are free with what the truth really is. There is an objective truth, and there is the truth of love. The lovers know the objective truth, but they agree to lie.

The speaker makes this clear in the beginning:


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