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Shakespeare's Sonnets.

"With this key Shakespeare unlocked his heart" Wordsworth famously declared in the sonnet "Scorn not the sonnet;" to which Browning replied, no less famously, "If so, the less Shakespeare he!" Indeed, if Shakespeare did offer us such a key, it has proved to be extraordinarily badly cut. Probably no part of the Shakespearean canon has attracted a greater amount of nonsensical and ill-founded commentary than that which appeared in a Quarto of 1609 as SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS. Never before imprinted (hereafter Q). So intractable have these poems proved that they only now appear in the Arden edition, Katherine Duncan-Jones having taken over from the original editor, the late Winifred Nowottny. Not that other editions have been scarce, the most notable of the last twenty years being those of Stephen Booth (1977), John Kerrigan (1986), and G. Blakemore Evans (1996). Helen Vendler, meanwhile, has produced not so much an edition--although she usefully reproduces a facsimile of Q together with a modern-spelling version--as a sustained critical meditation on the sequence. She and Duncan-Jones have been aware of one another's work, and the books are valuably complementary.

To begin with, the scholarly minutiae: among the "sugred Sonnets" which, according to Francis Meres in 1598, were then circulating among Shakespeare's "private friends" were two (now 138 and 144) which appeared in the collection The Passionate Pilgrim (1599) "by W. Shakespeare"--a misleading attribution by the printer, William Jaggard. Jaggard, according to Thomas Heywood, incurred Shakespeare's displeasure so much that Shakespeare "since, to do himself right, hath published them in his own name." This means, Duncan-Jones argues, that Shakespeare sold the poems to the printer of Q, Thomas Thorpe, with the title under which they appeared. Some, therefore, had existed in 1598 (not necessarily just the two published by Jaggard); some may be identified with "sonnetes by W.S." (if that is Shakespeare, and we don't know that it is) which were registered in 1600. The bulk of them, however, were probably composed while the theaters were closed due to plague in 1603-4 and 1608-9, and almost certainly they were revised at different stages before Q. Stylometric tests purporting to separate "early" from "late" sonnets on the basis of vocabulary have been overconfident, since Shakespeare's vocabulary in non-dramatic poetry does not always overlap with his vocabulary in plays, and since the Q version of any one poem may be the result of several strata of revision. Some sonnets are more datable than others (for instance, as Duncan-Jones and Vendler concede, Andrew Gurr has made an attractive case for placing 145, with its pun on "Hathaway" in 1582, while 123, 124, and 125 all seem to postdate 1600), but precise discrimination is impossible.

It has always hitherto been assumed that Q was unauthorized, but Duncan-Jones believes (and Vendler concurs) that the arrangement was a perfectly regular one, Shakespeare offering the poems to Thorpe because the latter had an established reputation as an accurate printer of authorized texts by Jonson, Chapman, and Marston. Q is more carefully printed than is commonly allowed (for example, it reproduces the brackets around the deliberately omitted couplet in 126, on which both Duncan-Jones and Vendler have excellent comments) and may derive from holograph copy or corrected scribal transcript.

If we accept an authorized printing, it follows that the order in which the poems were printed was the order in which they were intended to be read, and both Duncan-Jones and Vendler show that the placing, and grouping, of individual sonnets (e.g., 66, 108, 126, 144) often has numerological significance which is lost if they are rearranged. The first hundred and twenty-six are addressed to a young man, commonly identified with "the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets, Mr W.H." to whom Thorpe, apparently on Shakespeare's behalf, dedicated the volume. The last twenty-eight, which display what Duncan-Jones sees as flagrantly insulting misogyny, are addressed to a woman. The identity of both--assuming, perhaps wrongly, that they had "real-life" identities--has been a vexed question and a confounded nuisance. Taking a minority view, Duncan-Jones believes William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke--rather than Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, dedicatee of The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis--to be the "lovely boy" (the phrase is from sonnet 126), and she doubts whether the Dark Lady can be identified at all. It was certainly not Mary Fitton, she thinks, or the late A. L. Rowse's Emilia Lanyer (one can hear Rowse, wherever he may be, exasperatedly fluting "Third-rate minds!" at this very moment).

Personally, I have never been able to work up much interest in these biographical questions, believing them to be so insoluble as to make all speculation unprofitable. Nor do I find the matter of Shakespeare's sexuality titillating. John Kerrigan, in his edition of the sonnets, quotes Coleridge's "A great mind must be androgynous." I am willing to believe that Shakespeare was emotionally, perhaps physically, attracted to young men, or to one particular young man. Such a supposition is not new, and must be shocking only to those who suppose that human sexuality is a far tidier business than it usually turns out to be. There is no evidence that he ever went to bed with another man, and no evidence in the Sonnets that he wanted to; his plea is rather that the young man should go to bed with a woman, in order to perpetuate his beauty by producing (male) children. Press reports of Duncan-Jones's edition, along the lines of "Dark Lady was Shakespeare's boyfriend" were predictably vulgar, indeed ridiculous if you do a little arithmetic. Duncan-Jones doubts Southampton's candidacy as the "lovely boy" partly on the grounds that he would have been thirty-five in 1609; but William Herbert would have been twenty-nine, and William Shakespeare forty-five. The "young man" sonnets are full of anguish at the ravages of time; they are intensely painful, and deeply sad. Nothing could be further from a proposal for a liberated romp.

Duncan-Jones's would-be bold claim that the sonnets' "homoeroticism is here confronted positively, and is newly contextualized within the powerfully `homosocial' world of James I's court" turns out to be largely politically correct verbiage. All it amounts to, really, is that William Herbert once kissed James in public. This required some pluck, given that monarch's cavalier approach to hygiene, but it is a bit much to deduce from it Herbert's "enthusiastic participation in the homosocial familiarities of James and his minions" What does "homosocial" mean, anyway? One would have thought the court of Henry VIII was pretty much a male preserve, but no one has outed Wyatt or Surrey yet, as far as I know. Herbert was indeed reluctant to marry (a situation which is the subject of sonnets 1 to 17), but he had had a number of affairs--in fact he had made Mary Fitton pregnant--while Shakespeare, let us not forget, was a married man with children. How far does a double life have to go before it simply resolves itself into a single one?

It can scarcely be doubted that homosexual poets existed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but homosexual poetry hardly exists at all. There's Marlowe, of course: Duncan-Jones quotes no less an authority than Dr. Rowse as stating, in conversation with her, that he (i.e., Marlowe) was "a raving homo." Otherwise, the only example that is ever produced is Richard Barnfield (1574-1626), author of Cynthia (1595), the one sonnet sequence apart from Shakespeare's which is addressed to a young man. Duncan-Jones drags Barnfield from his well-deserved oblivion. It is, admittedly, mildly interesting that two poems by Barnfield appeared in The Passionate Pilgrim, and that Cynthia has a commendatory poem by a certain T.T., who may be Thomas Thorpe. But to argue for a "connection" with Shakespeare on these grounds is flimsy in the extreme. His sonnets remain in this, as in so much else, an enigma. It is not just that we lack evidence; we can scarcely recover the mentalite with which to evaluate such evidence as we have.

Helen Vendler's book is weighty--she provides a critical essay on each sonnet, sometimes with diagrams. Where Duncan-Jones's notes often do not, although they easily could, fill the page facing the sonnet they annotate, Vendler has more space and crams it. Vendler's approach is richer, more generous, than Duncan-Jones's, whose commentary can be terse, and, in comparison with John Kerrigan's, uninformative. Vendler, however, justly criticizes Kerrigan's "restricted criterion of lyric value--chiefly, that metaphor is necessary for a good poem" (compare them on 105), while Vendler herself is very good on sonnets (such as 9, 81, and 134) which are never going to be anthology pieces. Since, however, a reasonable test of a critic is whether he or she can find anything fresh to say about a poem everyone agrees is of the first rank, I propose to compare Duncan-Jones and Vendler on 73, which I shall therefore quote in full:
 That time of year thou mayst in me behold
 When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
 Upon these boughs which shake against
 the cold,
 Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet
 birds sang.
 In me thou seest the twilight of such day
 As after sunset fadeth in the west,
 Which by and by black night doth take away,
 Death's second self that seals up all in rest.
 In me thou seest the glowing of such fire
 That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
 As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
 Consumed with that which it was
 nourished by.
 This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love
 more strong,
 To love that well which thou must leave
 ere long.


This is Vendler's modernized text. It differs from Duncan-Jones's in some accidentals: Vendler omits Q's comma at the end of line 1, Duncan-Jones preserves it; Vendler's comma after "few" in line 2 is not in Q and Duncan-Jones does not insert one; Duncan-Jones prints semicolons at the end of lines 4, 8, and 12 where Vendler keeps Q's full stops; Duncan-Jones keeps Q's comma after "death-bed" (which she prints as "deathbed" Q as "death bed") in line n; Duncan-Jones keeps Q's comma after "well" in the last line. I am generally in favor of preserving the punctuation of Elizabethan verse where it can be supposed to be authorial, on the grounds that, with its rhetorical rather than grammatical function, it is a guide to reading out loud. In line 4 both editors accept John Benson's clearly correct emendation, made in 1640, of Q's "Bare rn'wd quiers," although only Duncan-Jones justifies it, also noting, as William Empson did long ago, its evocation of "visual recollections of chancels of abbeys left desolate by Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries."

Duncan-Jones's headnote reads: "This sonnet explores the young man's perception of the poet's decrepitude through a series of images of decay, concluding that this strengthens, or should strengthen, his love." The imagery brings together the autumn of life, the skeletal boughs which are also Shakespeare's bald head, the approach of twilight ("Shakespeare's only use of the word" Duncan-Jones notes, and Vendler observes the temporal correspondence between this period of the day and that of autumn in the year), sleep as a rehearsal for death, and the self-destructive maturing of the body. The couplet establishes both the fidelity of the young man in returning the affection, and the imperative need for him to do so. Duncan-Jones, like Vendler, observes "leave" in the last line echoing "leaves" in line 2, but, again like her, glosses simply as "be separated from." (Neither considers a more beautiful possibility, that the youth's love may, indeed "must" rejuvenate the older man, causing him once more to be a "leaved" tree.)

Against Duncan-Jones's austere explication, Vendler is energetic, exploring the tropes of season, day, and fire--the first two linear models of the aging process, the third adopting a "stratified verticality" the fire lying upon its own memorial ashes. Here the speaker is no longer a denuded tree, a ruined building, or a dwindling light, but is himself "glowing." The third quatrain for Vendler thus retorts upon its predecessors: "Once it is admitted that youth wanes, it is clear that the only locus of true life is the present, which can now truthfully be called by a positive name." "Rough winds" and "black night" the destructive forces of the octave, are exposed as mere scapegoats: "one dies simply of having lived." This is a more searching, and subtle, account than Duncan-Jones offers, and fairly reflects the differences between the critics.

Vendler's commentary has its drawbacks. Her stylistic touch is uncertain (the quotations just given exhibit both clumsy jargon and a certain sober grace), and her penchant for diagrams, while making for clarity, lays her open to charges of an arid approach. Still, a sonnet, being such a limited form, allows the poet scope for minute architectural detail; perhaps Shakespeare did use the equivalent of graph paper and compasses. Vendler is certainly right that a sentimental belief in the lyrical muse will not long survive a determined attempt to sort out the syntax and grammar of the more challenging poems.

When all reservations have been made about these books, they must be allowed to be far preferable to much contemporary criticism about the sonnets. In the most recent example to come my way, Paul Innes's Shakespeare and the English Renaissance Sonnet: Verses of Feigning Love (St. Martin's Press, 1997), sonnet 73 is mentioned in support of the assertion that
 the transcendental cannot be reached by a sonnet, and a collection of
 sonnets, that are so wrapped up in the conditions of their production. This
 is why the addressor occupies a divided subject position: he recognizes
 that his position is constructed within ideology.


By comparison with this ugly, grey, sub-industrial Critspeak, drained of all humanity, Duncan-Jones and Vendler are a vital refreshment.

Like Kerrigan, but unlike Vendler, Duncan-Jones prints "A Lover's Complaint" as an essential pendant to the sonnet sequence in a tradition established by Samuel Daniel's Delia [...] with the Complaint of Rosamund (1592) and acknowledged by Shakespeare in the complaint inserted into The Rape of Lucrece. A narrative poem in rhyme royal with a female speaker, "A Lover's Complaint" seems to have been written after 1600, when the sonnets were still evolving toward their final form, and it dramatizes a parallel situation of emotional enslavement to a fair youth whose rejection only heightens his would-be partner's ardor. "This book of sonnets" Duncan-Jones concludes, "turns out to be a book of lies and lying. It explores the negative equation according to which love is blind and poets are liars: love poets, therefore, can tell nothing but lies. Yet there is no escape from these lies." Even less reason, then, to hope for finality in establishing the biographical background of such poetry. The "T" of the sonnets may be fictive, a persona whose relationship with Mr. W.S. is as elusive as the relationship of either of them to Mr. W.H.

We are left, it appears, much where we began, with layer upon layer of images. Matthew Arnold expressed a still widespread frustration in his own sonnet to Shakespeare:
 Others abide our question. Thou art free.
 We ask and ask--thou smilest and art still ...


Some people feel driven to try to "solve" the sonnets as though they were crossword puzzles--to recover "the real Shakespeare." The lengths to which this obsession can go were demonstrated some while back when New Scientist announced that Lilian Schwartz, a scientist with Bell Laboratories, had definitive evidence that the Droeshout portrait of Shakespeare in the First Folio, whose Gioconda-like expression probably prompted Arnold's observation, was modeled on contemporary portraits of Elizabeth I. Was the Queen thus revealed, it was feverishly asked, as patron, collaborator in, or even author of Shakespeare's plays? Such questions seem to be altogether too timid. Perhaps she was the Dark Lady, and the Lovely Boy in drag to boot. Why not? The capacity of Shakespeare's life to attract bizarre speculations seems unlimited.

As a kind of "Complaint" to this review, let me cite a new book by Fr. Peter Milward, S.J., The Catholicism of Shakespeare's Plays, which makes a spectacularly bad defense of a view which, if true (and I believe it is true), is crucially important: that Shakespeare lived and died a Catholic. If you assume that the plays contain topical allegory, he assures us, "it is surprising how everything seems to fall into place." Indeed it is, for it turns out that those in the know can see that the plays are littered with references to the State persecution of Catholics, priests, but especially Jesuits. As Fr. Milward's book is not, I understand, scheduled for publication in America, I must pass on, as too good to miss, his explanation of why Polonius is a lampoon of William Cecil, Lord Burghley:
 The very name of Burghley seems to be echoed in the Latin form of Polonius,
 if disguised by the proximity of Poland to Denmark--while the change from B
 to P might be explained by a Welsh pronunciation (such as the dramatist
 parodies in Welsh characters like Fluellen in Henry V and Sir Hugh Evans in
 The Merry Wives).


Feste's discourse on Pigrogromitus and the Vapians passing the equinoctial of Queubus pales beside the glorious lunacy of this. Neither Duncan-Jones nor Vendler have found specifically Catholic or Jesuit touches in the Sonnets, but anything may happen if Fr. Milward ever looks into them.

Paul Dean is the head of the English Department at Portsmouth Grammar School, Portsmouth, England.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Dean, Paul
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1998
Words:2916
Previous Article:The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets.
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