Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets are in a hidden relationship with the 150 Psalms of the Bible.
His Sonnet 1 speaks with Psalm 1, Sonnet 2 with Psalm 2, and so on. (Sonnet 151 is responding to Psalm 151 of the Greek Septuagint; Psalm 151 does not appear in the Hebrew Scriptures, but is found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.) Sonnets 152-154 are doing something different.
This is a shocking discovery that will entirely change our understanding of the Sonnets.
This essay is the first in a series of essays that presents this discovery.
Shakespeare’s dramas have been well received around the world.
Yet the Sonnets have had a somewhat different history of reception than the dramas. The Sonnets have been a mystery.
It is not easy to understand the Sonnets. Maybe no one has understood them comprehensively yet. Many people have become familiar with a few of the Sonnets, but have not undertaken a study of the book as a unit, as a whole (although scholars and poets certainly have known and scrutinized all 154). Nor is it easy to enter into, to comprehend, what is the framework(s), the context(s), the horizon(s), the world(s) of the Sonnets. Nor has the identity of the Young Man who appears prominently in the first 126 Sonnets been definitively proven. Nor do we know who the Dark Lady is, who appears in Sonnet 127 and the following Sonnets (she may appear in some of the earlier Sonnets too). Nor do we know to whom the Sonnets are addressed, or the identity of “Mr. W.H.” who appears in the dedication of the volume.
The Sonnets were published in 1609, as a collection of 154 sonnets. There are 150 Psalms in the Bible. As mentioned above, the Sonnets are in a parallel dialogue with the Psalms. Sonnet 1 speaks with Psalm 1, Sonnet 2 dialogues with Psalm 2, Sonnet 3 with Psalm 3, and so on to Sonnet 150.
This facet of the Sonnets has remained entirely secret.
At least one Shakespeare writer, however, has made a discovery in this realm. In Psalms and Sonnets: 146 and 147, Fred Blick, a retired Solicitor of the UK Supreme Court, demonstrates that Sonnets 146 and 147 are each in dialogue with the Psalms of the same number. (Blick, Fred. “Psalms and Sonnets: 146 and 147,” The Upstart Crow, vol. XXIII (2003): 91-103. Accessed January 29, 2016, http://www.clemson.edu/cedp/press/crow/htm/archives/PDFs/vol-23.pdf.)
Yet there is far more than this parallel dialogue happening between the Sonnets and the Psalms. Likewise, there is more happening between the Sonnets and the entire Bible.
First, let us review another hidden mystery. Shakespeare is not the first writer to undertake a hidden dialogue with the Psalms. Many others have written their works according to this hidden dialogue.
Discovering an Unknown Tradition of Mystical Knowledge
In the first 1.5 millennia there were many theological writers who wrote their works both 1) in numbered sequences, and 2) in dialogue, hidden, with the 150 Psalms. The recently-discovered Gospel of Thomas does this, as do Evagrius Ponticus (an early monk of Egypt) and the much later Gregory Palamas. Gregory was a monk of Mount Athos in Greece, and became the Archbishop of Thessaloniki. Evagrius and Gregory are both saints in Orthodox Christianity.
Evagrius has a book called 153 Chapters on Prayer, which contains a running, hidden, dialogue with the 150 Psalms. Evagrius mildly jokes that his choice of “153” is from the 153 great fish that Peter and his friends catch in John 21. But that is a rhetorical feint, to hide what he is really doing. (Incidently, Peter’s 153 fish is one of many places in the New Testament that reveal conscious knowledge of the Mystical Psalm Structures, which will be explained below.)
Gregory Palamas has a book called 150 Chapters, which also is in dialogue, hidden, with the 150 Psalms. These “chapters” of Evagrius and Gregory are short paragraphs, and both books are slim. Often, there is humor in the dialogue they are having with the Psalter (Book of Psalms). Both of these works are also in the Philokalia, which is a wonderful collection of spiritual writings of Orthodox Christianity.
Additionally, many Christian authors in the Eastern Mediterranean wrote their theological treatises in the form of “centuries,” works that have 100 sentences or short paragraphs. These authors often make a series of consecutive “centuries.” Some of these authors also are writing in sequential hidden communication with the Book of Psalms.
Among all these theological authors, perhaps Gregory Palamas’ 150 Chapters is the most clear and brilliant example of this conversation between the Psalter and a later theological author. A brief introduction to this work, and a chart that shows the parallel connections between his chapters the Psalms, is at this link: https://www.academia.edu/20805095/Gregory_Palamas_150_Chapters_Parallel_Dialogue_with_the_150_Psalms_of_the_Psalter
But at some point, a new genre of writing took up this secret conversation with the Psalms, and this hidden stream of deep Biblical commentary switched river-beds.
A Newer (Secret) Tradition of Mystical Knowledge: Poetry
Petrarch was some years younger than Palamas, and their lives overlapped. Petrarch, the founder of the sonnet form, wrote hundreds of sonnets in Italian. He, too, is writing his sonnets in secret sequential communication with the Psalms.
(Having made these discoveries in recent months, I have not yet been able to inquire if Petrarch’s peers also knew about this hidden tradition, and whether or not Petrarch was the originator of this tradition among the Poets.)
The Sonnet form eventually arrived in England, as did the secret tradition of the parallel dialogue with the Book of Psalms. Many of the English sonneteers knew of this hidden tradition, and employed it themselves. These English sonneteers who knew include: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Donne, Lady Mary Wroth, Edmund Spenser, and William Drummond, who all have parallel dialogues with the Psalms, hiddenly. Their sonnets appear in numbered sequences.
Later sonnet writers, such as Pablo Neruda in Spanish, and Ranier Maria Rilke in German, also dialogue with the Psalms in this hidden manner.
Poets Writing in More Modern Forms:
Owen Dodson is a poet, playwright, novelist, and actor of the Harlem Renaissance. He knows of the Psalm Structures, as seen in his collection of poetry, Powerful Long Ladder. He makes daring innovations of the Psalm Structures (to be discussed below) as he makes statements demanding racial equality. His poetry is strong and forceful.
Wallace Stevens’ hidden conversations with the Psalms can be found in every collection within The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, which contains much of his poetry.
After Shakespeare, I know of no other poet who says so much, with such artistic freedom, in dialogue with the Psalms (However, in all fairness to Petrarch, I have not been able to read all of his poems, especially in the Italian, yet).
(A note: In Stevens’ poems there sometimes appear words or attitudes that seem to be racist, or that belittle ethnic groups. But I think, and hope, that this is not the case. Stevens is a keen social critic. He is speaking of mindsets of his era in these statements, and holding them up to be examined in the light of day. For example, in The Blue Guitar, he wants to get everything prejudiced and weak out of the human soul, and to strengthen it.)
Maya Angelou knows. And God placed into her more-than-capable hands the task of making a potent poetic statement about the Book of Revelation and the Mystical Psalms Ladder. (A forthcoming essay will describe this.)
There could be many other poets who know of these realities.
Questions abound: How did these poets learn of the Mystical Psalm Structures?
Mystical Realities Hidden in the Bible
There are divine realities hidden in the Bible.
The Book of Psalms contains mystical structures. An introduction to these Mystical Psalm Structures can be found here:
Shakespeare also knows of these Mystical Psalm Structures.
Future conversations about Shakespeare will need to address the Book of Psalms and the Mystical Psalm Structures. With this new hermeneutical lens in place, I have begun rereading his dramas, and all that I have read thus far have references to the Mystical Psalm Structures. In one play, a character is carrying a concealed rope ladder. This ladder will facilitate a meeting with a woman placed on high. One of the mystical structures in the Bible is the Psalms Ladder, which has many themes regarding the Feminine.
At this point I must ask the reader to bear with me. This essay is presenting much new knowledge about several large topics.
All of these topics are connected.
Just a bit of familiarity with them will give you some good initial understanding of these mystical realities.
Initial Lessons-Learned from these Mystical Realities
These discoveries are joyful.
They promise good things in our Human future, here on Earth. Some initial truths gleaned from these realities:
-God loves us all. Each human person is beloved to God.
-God desires our evolution, our growth (As individuals and as a human community). Part of this is that God desires our growth of compassion for all other people, just as God loves us. We show this love by, for example, helping all people, including the poor, toward happier lives. Sharing. Choosing to think of others, and to care for others. We are also learning to care for our one environment, our shared home, the Earth. What is the Earth like?
These things are very positive news, for all of us.
William Shakespeare and the Psalter of Fire
Like the Psalter (Book of Psalms), Shakespeare’s Sonnets are a unified group, a whole, a unit. We might consider the Sonnets to be his Psalter of Fire.
The Sonnets are about many things.
Will’s Own Story, Limned in the Sonnets
Everything that I shall say about Shakespeare’s work and the Bible can be definitively, easily proven. Once one sees it, it’s obvious.
Yet an area that remains mysterious is Will’s own life story. However, here in the Sonnets he may have given us much information about major events, falls, recovery, and growth that are parts of his life.
Shakespeare knew anger, and he knew anger at God. The Psalms themselves call God a drunken warrior who missed the battle, or a shepherd who lets his sheep be gathered and taken by the enemy. By saying such things, the Psalms are capable of transforming the anger we humans have into tremendous spiritual capacity.
Shakespeare knew hurt in his early life, as one of the following essays shall discuss. It was a long and difficult recovery for him, but he made it.
Shakespeare’s abuse and recovery is one of several storylines woven into the Sonnets.
Other storylines of the Sonnets include the life of David, as well as the grand arc of human evolution. Another theme is the slow, often painful, development of relations between women and men, including the achievement of human integration, to echo a concept of Jung. This is taken up in the forthcoming The Red Line of Hope, a rough draft of which is available here:
Shakespeare has a mature relationship with God. At least in certain aspects of his writing, he was directed by the Holy Spirit. He even may have been a more active worker with the Holy Spirit.
This essay is the first of a series. In these essays, I shall present quick descriptions of the chapters of a forthcoming book, William Shakespeare and the Psalter of Fire. Here is a preview of how the essays shall present the chapters of that book:
Chapter 1 This chapter has two parts. One compares individual Psalms and Sonnets of the same number. The second compares groups of Psalms and Sonnets. This chapter demonstrates convincingly that the Psalms are entirely connected with the Sonnets.
Chapter 2 “The Mystical Psalm Structures and the Sonnets”; this chapter will show how the Mystical Psalm Structures are present throughout the Sonnets.
Chapter 3 This structure will present a hidden chiastic structure of many of the Sonnets. This hidden chiastic structure is based upon the Mystical Psalm Structures.
Chapter 4 “The David Story”; this chapter shows how the Biblical story of David is woven throughout the Sonnets.
Chapter 5 The Red Line of Hope. This chapter presents the hidden theme of the integration of the Feminine in humanity, a theme that runs through the entire Bible, from first page to last. The very plan, the structural order of Shakespeare’s Sonnets reflects this hidden Biblical fact.
Chapter 6 “The Will Story”; Chapter 4 discusses the story of David as Shakespeare presents it, hiddenly, in the Sonnets. This chapter shows how Shakespeare weaves the story of his own life into the Sonnets, as briefly discussed above. There are resonances between David’s and Shakespeare’s lives.
Chapter 7 Evolution. Towards a Humanity of Love. This chapter discusses more of what the Sonnets are about, and what they are leading us towards.
At this time I must complete two books that are more Scriptural and prior to this work on Shakespeare. Also, these works will make the later forthcoming book about Shakespeare much more comprehensible. However, I do not wish to suppress this vital material in the time before I can develop it into a book, and so humbly offer it for your reading in the upcoming days and weeks. I welcome your thoughts, criticism, and suggestions, and hope that your comments will help the initial version of the published book to be better.
An Example of How these Discoveries Better Parse the Sonnets;
Sonnet 1 and Psalm 1
Using the hermeneutic (interpretive) lenses briefly described in the 7 chapter previews above, let us consider Sonnet 1, in relationship with Psalm 1:
From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease, [“decease” is correct, not “decrease”]
His tender heir might bear his memory; [which Solomon, not Absalom, does]
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes, [Bible mentions David’s eyes]
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou, that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring, [2 Sam 11 has David’s famous springtime]
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding [means miserly greediness].
Pity the world, or else this glutton be:
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.
And here is a version of Psalm 1:
Blessed the man [human person]
Who does not walk in the advice of the wicked,
Or take the path of sinners,
Or sit in the seat of scorners [those who abuse the great gift of speech].
Rather, his delight [like “desire”] is in the law (Torah) of the Lord,
And on his law (Torah) he meditates/thinks/wrestles day and night.
He is like a tree [why a tree?]
Planted/ transplanted by streams of water,
Yielding its fruit in due season/at the proper time,
And its leaves do not wither.
Everything he does shall prosper.
Not so the wicked, not so.
They are like the chaff that the wind (Holy Spirit) drives away.
The wicked will not stand at the judgment,
Nor sinners in the gathering of the righteous.
For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
But the way of the wicked will perish.
Psalm 1 mentions the Torah, and so the Psalter instantly lends itself to intertextuality.
“Torah” here can mean the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses, the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). Many Jewish people elevate the Torah above all other books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament).
“Torah” can also mean one’s learning, one’s relationship, with God. This may involve direct teaching from the Holy Spirit. To this kind of learning, the Book of Psalms may lend itself to us in numerous ways. All Christian religious are very familiar with the Psalms. The Psalter can be divided into 5 books, as the Pentateuch (Torah) is. The doxologies that close the first 4 books of the Psalter can be found after Psalms 41, 72, 89, and 106.
Sonnet 1 does not mention “Torah,” but it cites the Torah. It says “creatures” and “increase,” which are vital terms from Genesis.
In The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Helen Vendler begins her discussion of Sonnet 1 with this sentence: “When God saw his creatures, he commanded them to increase and multiply.” [Helen Vendler, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard, 1999), 46.]
Again, the first verse of the Sonnets:
“From fairest creatures we desire increase,”
Shakespeare is certainly talking about how people live on through their children, a central theme of the first 17 sonnets.
However, he is also talking about passion and lust, which, for humans, is often connected with this process of procreation.
In other words, men desire fairest creatures so that their rose (also a phallic symbol) might never die, might never wilt. Sexual love/conquest can be satisfying and/or beautiful. (A flower can be a feminine symbol too, and it can represent a poem.)
Sometimes things devolve, especially in tough situations.
If Shakespeare was abused as a child, and it seems he was, then the “fairest creatures,” words 2 and 3 of the entire book, are already talking about the horrific abuse of children, to which no region of the world has thus far been safeguarded. A large part of Shakespeare’s Sonnets speak of the mental and emotional terrors that automatically follow upon such abuse, in the life of the victim. So the first line of the Sonnets is also talking about the contorted emotions and twisted passions that can root in the soul. As I hope to show, Shakespeare found his way back to health, love, and community, and became a lover of humanity, thus fulfilling the happier meaning of this line, and himself helped bring 3 children into the world. I also hope to show that he was saved by a woman, whose name might be Anne Hathaway, his wife, the Dark Lady.
Thus, in the first 6 words of the book, Shakespeare takes up the astounding beauty and possibility of Creation, which then crashes to the pavement and is dashed to pieces in the Fall, and then is lovingly gathered and reinspired to make Creation better than it could have been conceived to be. In John’s Gospel, the author says that “all things” are made through the Logos/Jesus. In the Apocalypse (which simply means the “Uncovering”), Jesus says that he makes all things new.
Shakespeare found this out in his own life.
His Sonnets tell the story.
Psalm 1 has its own reference to Genesis, with the amazing fruit tree at the center of the Psalm (the first poem of Pablo Neruda’s collections sometimes feature fruit trees). But Sonnet 1 instead takes up a different plant, the rose, whose fruit is a flower. Flowers are important in the Sonnets, and shall play a surprising role.
Sonnet 1 and the Interwoven Menorahs:
One of the Mystical Psalm Structures is a pair of Intertwined Menorahs (9 branches each, as with Hanukah menorahs), which shall be discussed in Chapter 2. The Interwoven Menorahs represent conjugal happiness, the birth of children, and the family. They also represent society in meaningful happiness, such as the Globe Theater knew many times. (Jesus’ first real words in the Bible are the Beatitudes, which re-present the Interwoven Menorahs.) The “Interwovenness” of the Menorahs is also connected with the intertextuality of God’s words and human words, which spread and leap and cling like vines to all people and societies, uniting us.
Hanukah, the Festival of Lights, celebrates the rededication of the temple; but as Humanity is the true temple, the Mystical Menorahs celebrate the spiritual awakening of Humanity, and the recognizing of a global heart, a global soul.
Verse 2 of Sonnet 1 already has a third reference to the Mystical Menorahs.
When Shakespeare says in Verse 2, “That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,” he is borrowing a line from Theodor de Bry’s Emblemata Nobilitati et Vulgo, “That beauty’s rose might never die.” Shakespeare takes the tetrameter line and inserts a word, “thereby.” [For this gem I am grateful to the Folger Library’s edition of the Sonnets. Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. LaMar, eds., Shakespeare’s Sonnets (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), 1.]
This shows early in the book that Shakespeare considers himself a child of the poets who have gone before him, whose work is nourishing his work.
Will’s addition of two syllables certainly extends the line from 8 syllables to 10, proper iambic pentameter. Shakespeare, that immortal wag, is ever bragging, and is here one-upping it over de Bry, in good sport.
But it does something else.
The Mystical Menorahs of the Psalms take the 7-branch menorah that was always in the old stone temple, and it extends the branches to 9! This is important, and shall be discussed in Chapter 2. The growth of the menorah represents children, human evolution, and the joining of plural cultures and societies, ultimately, everyone. God loves all people and has no favorites. The earliest menorahs represent also the tree of life in the garden.
The “thereby” also powerfully connects with the last two sonnets, 153 and 154, where the Love god Cupid also has a brand, which could be the shamash, a menorah’s lighting rod, to Dian’s maid’s waiting menorah. (The shamash is usually the central, and movable, candle in the menorah, and lights the other candles.)
One of the things Cupid represents here is a more divinized humanity, and a humanity that is more about love and knowledge, and less about war, fear, and greed.
The menorahs appear again in Verse 6: “Feedst thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel.” The most ancient menorahs were not candles, but had oil lamps, fueled with olive oil.
And there are more Menorah connections. As many know, the first 17 sonnets are called the “Procreation Sonnets,” because they seem to be trying to convince a young man to start a family.
Family, and the raising of children, is a central theme of the Interwoven Menorahs. So if the young man fails to procreate, the menorahs won’t have a chance to blossom. Vendler states, “When two incompatible categories are combined in the same metaphor—“a candle which refuses to bud forth”—we say we have mixed metaphor, a catachresis, a figure which vigorously calls attention to itself.” (Vendler, op. cit., 48.) Shakespeare is using the Intertwined Menorahs to urge the young man to begin a family, telling him it’s a divine, mystical mandate.
The Bible’s David:
We don’t know if David actually existed. But he is such an important person in the Bible, and Shakespeare considers him perhaps his closest friend. He is the fabled author of the Psalms, appears in many Psalms, and is mentioned as the author in the superscriptions of almost half the Psalms.
David’s “bright eyes” are mentioned by Shakespeare immediately, to begin the Sonnets. David is omnipresent in the Sonnets. He dances throughout Sonnet 1, where he is one of the “fairest creatures,” he has a “tender heir,” his “bright eyes” are marveled at, he’s “too cruel,” he’s the “world’s fresh ornament,” he’s the “tender churl,” and there is crucial mention of “the gaudy spring” of 2 Samuel 11, which is the dramatic pivot of David’s life and of our human evolution.
The first words of the concluding couplet are “Pity the world.”
The themes of mercy, and of the growth of Love among an evolving Humanity, are central to the Sonnets.
The next essay compares individual Psalms and Sonnets, as well as particular groups and themes of Psalms and Sonnets.
Copyright © 2016 Richard Murray