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Shakespeare's sonnets by

Don Paterson
Shakespeare's sonnets are synonymous
with courtly romance, but in fact many are
about something quite different. Some are
intense expressions of gay desire, others
testaments to misogyny. Wary of academic
criticism, Don Paterson tries to get back to
what the poet was actually saying
Don Paterson

The Guardian, Saturday 16 October 2010

Detail of a painting of Shakespeare, claimed in 2009 to be the only authentic
image made during his life, dating from about 1610 but since questioned.
Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
The problem with reading Shakespeare's sonnets is the
sonnets themselves, by which I mean their reputation.
Much in the same way as it's almost impossible to see the
Mona Lisa as anything but a parody of itself, or hear
Satie's Trois Gymnopedies without the feeling that
someone's trying to sell you something a bar of
chocolate perhaps it's initially hard to get close to the
sonnets, locked as they are in the carapace of their own
proverbialism. "A Shakespeare sonnet" is almost as much
a synonym for "love poem" as "Mona Lisa" is for "beautiful
woman". When something becomes proverbial, it almost
disappears; and worse, we're allowed to think we know it
when we really don't.
. Reading Shakespeare's Sonnets: A New Commentary
. by Don Paterson
.
. Buy the book
The sonnets are close to being one such cultural cipher. If
you'd asked me a year ago, I'd have been breezily confident
that I knew a fair number of them reasonably well, and
had a few by heart. Then there was the literary dinner
party. A hideously exposed bluff prompted me to re-
examine my avowed familiarity. (Lesson: only bluff at
parties where you can immediately walk to another,
darker, part of the room so you're not obliged to remain
in your seat, blushing through the cheese course.)
At least I wasn't alone. Twain's definition of the classic,
"something that everybody wants to have read and nobody
wants to read" is well known, but I might also add, less
memorably, that a classic is a book you can safely avoid
reading, because no one else will admit they haven't either.
I took a straw poll. Everyone said they loved the sonnets,
all right; but they all named the same 10 poems. And some
of those were pretty bad. The deadly boring Sonnet 12
came up a lot: "When I do count the clock that tells the
time, And see the brave day sunk in hideous night", as did,
inevitably, Sonnet 130: "My mistress' eyes are nothing like
the sun; / Coral is far more red, than her lips red: / If snow
be white, why then her breasts are dun; If hairs be wires,
black wires grow on her head . . . " The latter is a none-too-
clever piece of misogynist junk, a litany of barely-disguised
disgust masquerading as poem in praise of "real" earthly
womanhood; the problem is that after enumerating her
apparently infinite faults, Shakespeare almost fails to
remember to pay the poor woman any kind of compliment
at all. Its reputation seems to have been made by the fact
that someone decided it would be fun to teach to
schoolchildren.
Others, such as the devastatingly insightful Sonnet 118:
"Like as, to make our appetite more keen, / With eager
compounds we our palate urge . . ." and the mad Hindu
asceticism of Sonnet 146: "And Death once dead, there's
no more dying then . . ." barely rated a mention.
Even more distressingly, more than one perfectly well-
read individual remarked: "Many of them are addressed to
a man, I believe," as if the information had only recently
come to light through ingenious advances in 21st-century
cryptography.
So I started to make a list of questions: were the 10 poems
that everyone quoted the best 10? Do the sonnets contain
what we believe them to contain? Are they still useful to
us? Do these poems still move us, speak to us, enlighten
us? Is their reputation as a lovers' handbook deserved, or
have they simply hitched a ride on the back of the plays?
First, a word about the sonnets themselves. They consist of
154 poems first published in 1609 as Shake-speares
Sonnets. Never before imprinted. They can be neatly
divided into three main groups. The first is a run of 17
poems, which all embroider the same theme; with two or
three exceptions, they are so dull it's a wonder anyone ever
reads any further. These are the so-called "procreation
sonnets", in which Shakespeare urges an unnamed young
man to marry and reproduce, so his beauty will survive. I
agree with William Boyd (who scripted a marvellous piece
of free speculation for the BBC called A Waste of Shame)
that they read a lot like a commission, and could well have
been paid for by the Young Man's mother, perturbed by
his Lack of Interest in the Opposite Sex.
The second is a sequence of 108 poems addressed,
apparently, to the same Young Man. In gut-wrenching,
febrile, tormented detail, they chart the whole narrative of
a love affair. Then we have a strange 12-line poem, whose
"absent couplet" seems to invoke the absent couple, and
symbolise the end of the affair. Then we have 28 poems
addressed to a mistress, the so-called "Dark Lady" (the
number 28 might echo the menses, which would fit with
the poems' barely disguised obsession with the
uncleanliness of women's bodies), and then a bizarre pair
of poems to close with.
It's still controversial as to whether the original Quarto
edition was authorised by Shakespeare, but I fall very
strongly into the "there's absolutely no way he didn't
authorise them" camp. The sequence has been ordered in
a meticulously careful, sensitive and playful way that can
only indicate the author's hand. (My reasoning is simple:
publishers care, and editors care, but none of them care
that much.) The sonnets seem to have been composed
between 1582 and their date of publication, 1609
between Shakespeare's 18th and 45th birthdays. I know:
this is a useless piece of information. However the 1582
date refers to an isolated piece of juvenilia. Sonnet 145 is a
sonnet so bad that only the likely youth of its author can
be offered up as an excuse, while the so-called "dating
sonnets" seem to imply that the larger part of the project
was likely over some time before 1609. Sonnet 107, for
one, seems heavily nailed to James I's coronation. Most
folk still argue that the poems were written in a six- or
seven-year span in the mid-1590s. Indeed, Francis Meres
refers to them in 1598: "The witty soul of Ovid lives in
mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare, witness his
Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugar'd sonnets among
his private friends . . . ", but I'm suspicious of the claim
that they were all composed in this period.
What we do know is that the sonnets were part of an
extraordinary fashion for sonnet-cycles in the 1590s.
These were wildly competitive affairs. The bar had been
set high by Sir Philip Sidney with the 108 sonnets of
Astrophil and Stella, which had been in private circulation
from the early 1580s. A poet would be judged on more
than the length of his sequence, of course, but size still
counted for a lot, and padding was rife.
After the "boring procreation sonnets", things look up at
Sonnet 18, with the wonderful "Shall I compare thee to a
summer's day?" In this poem, the subject shifts seamlessly
and movingly from: "You're lovely, and must breed so that
the world is never denied your beauty," to "You're lovely!
And to hell with breeding the power of my own verse will
keep your beauty immortal." Shakespeare is now openly in
love with the young man, and the next 108 sonnets are
given over to an account of their affair's progress, although
the jury's out as to whether it's always the same man being
addressed. I still have no settled opinion on the matter,
but the poems do seem to have a clear dramatic narrative.
However, the question: "was Shakespeare gay?" strikes me
as so daft as to be barely worth answering. Of course he
was. Arguably he was bisexual, of sorts, but his heart was
never on his straight side. Now is not the time to rehearse
them all, but the arguments against his homosexuality are
complex and sophistical, and often take convenient and
homophobic advantage of the sonnets' built-in
interpretative slippage which Shakespeare himself
would have needed for what we would now call "plausible
deniability", should anyone have felt inclined to cry
sodomy.
The argument in favour is simple. First, falling in love with
other men is often a good indication of homosexuality;
and second, as much as I love some of my male friends,
I'm never going to write 126 poems for them, even the
dead ones. Third, read the poems, then tell me these are
"pure expressions of love for a male friend" and keep a
straight face. This is a crazy, all-consuming, feverish and
sweaty love; love, in all its uncut, full-strength intensity;
an adolescent love. The reader's thrill lies in hearing this
adolescent love articulated by a hyper-literate thirty-
something. Usually these kids can't speak. The effect is
extraordinary: they are not poems that are much use when
we're actually in love, I'd suggest; but when we read them,
they are so visceral in their invocation of that mad,
obsessive, sleepless place that we can again feel, as CK
Williams said, "the old heart stamping in its stall".
But do these poems still speak to us of love in the same
way? An honest answer to: "What are these poems to us
now?" soon becomes: "What are these poems to me now?"
since I can't speak for anyone else. In the end, putting
together a guide to the sonnets, I decided I'd write it in the
form of a diary. That's to say I read the sonnets as you
would any other book, fitting them round my work routine
and domestic obligations. So rather than lock myself in the
library for six months, I wrote my commentaries on the
poems while awake, bored, half-asleep, full of cold, drunk,
exhausted, serene, smart, befuddled and stupid. I wrote on
the train, in bed, in the bath and in my lunch-break; I
wrote them while I was fed up marking papers, or stuck on
Bioshock on the Playstation, while I was watching the
bairns, Family Guy or the view out of the window.
The idea was to find a way of giving the sonnets more of a
direct and personal reading than they usually receive. This
requires making a firm distinction between two kinds of
reading. Most literary criticism, whether academic or
journalistic, is ideally geared up for "secondary reading"
by which I mean all that stuff that requires us to generate
some kind of secondary text a commentary, an exegesis,
a review and so on. By contrast, a primary reading doesn't
have to articulate its findings. It engages with the poem
directly, as a piece of trustworthy human discourse
which doesn't sound too revolutionary, but the truth is
that many readers don't feel like that about poetry any
more, and often start with: "But what does it all mean?" on
the assumption that "that's how you read poetry".
But that isn't the kind of the first reading most poems
hoped they were going to get. The poem has much more
direct designs on us. Its plan was to make us weep or
change our opinion of something forever. The sonnets are
no different, but currently give the appearance of being
approachable only via a scholarly commentary. As, in one
sense, they are: the truth is that unless you have the OED
by heart, or are channelling Sir Philip Sidney, you're likely
to miss half the poem.
At least half of Shakespeare's allusions are unfamiliar, and
many senses, puns and proverbial usages have been
completely lost. (For example: knowing that "he praises
who wishes to sell" was proverbial, or that "hell" was
Elizabethan slang for "vagina" really can make the
difference between getting a poem all right and getting it
all wrong.) We need a native guide, and it's then that we
turn gratefully as I did, again and again to the critics
Katherine Duncan-Jones, Colin Burrow, John Kerrigan
and the divine vivisectionist himself, Stephen Booth. But
what sometimes gets lost in their brilliant textual analyses
is the poem itself.
Direct readings are a bit different. They give us three
things, I think: what the poem is saying; what the poem is
saying about us; and what the poem is saying about the
author. We can usually get all this without generating a
secondary text, through the simple act of rereading
rereading being what is most distinct about the act of
reading poetry, and the reason poetry books are so thin.
We don't read poems as machines reading the productions
of other machines; we naturally posit a vulnerable and
fallible human hand behind them. Indeed we do this as
instinctively as we meet the eyes of a stranger when they
walk into the room; not to do so strikes me as perverse,
and denies a sound human instinct. Why should we
approach the sonnets any differently?
Many people's "close reading" model was largely inherited
from the New Criticism, which railed against the so-called
"intentional and affective fallacies" (basically what the
author intended by the poem, and how you personally
respond to it; why these are "fallacies" is lost on me), and
proposed that the poem had to be read on its own terms,
and in its own context, alone. We can still feel as if the
author's state of mind and our own feelings about the
poem are somehow beyond the critical pale. But I just
don't see why. Sure: all such talk is speculative and
subjective. But worthless? Surely not.
I also wanted to try to bring a bit of sanity to the
discussion of how Shakespeare wrote these crazy poems in
the first place. The main motivation here was reading
Helen Vendler's brilliant and infuriating The Art of
Shakespeare's Sonnets. As a critic, Vendler has led me
through the thickets like a bemused and grateful child for
years now, but I've had growing misgivings over her
critical method, and her Shakespeare book was where I
finally lost it. (Twice I found myself on my hands and
knees, taping the book back together after it had bounced
off the wall.)
I wanted to say something to counteract the perception of
Shakespeare's compositional method as a kind of lyric
soduku, and put in a word for the kind of glorious, messy
procedure I'm quite certain it was, whatever the crystalline
and symmetrical beauty of the final results. Like most
poets, Shakespeare uses the poem as way of working out
what he's thinking, not as a means of reporting that
thought. Often he'll start with nothing more than a
hangover, a fever and a bad night spent being tormented
by the spectre of his absent lover. Then he'll use the sonnet
as a way of making sense of it all a way, first, to extract a
logic from pain, and then a comfort from that logic,
however warped it might be. Form, in other words, allows
him to draw some assuagement from the very source of
the agony itself.
So I decided to try to honour this sense of free play by
taking as different an approach as the individual poem
might itself prompt. Sonnet 109, for example, is a patently
disingenuous excuse offered for Shakespeare's negligence
of his lover, and I made a parallel translation from bullshit
into English.
Other commentaries look at Elizabethan numerology, or
whatever mad little aspect of Shakespeare's ars poetica
caught my eye. The black mass of Sonnet 129: "The
expense of spirit in a waste of shame/ Is lust in action . . ."
ends in a discussion of the neuroscience of poet-coital
tristesse.
Others in the Dark Lady sequence speculate as to where
Shakespeare's disgust of women's bodies might have
originated. My not-very-original theory is that he was
forced to construe his homosexual love as wholly pure,
meaning simply that his lust ended up channelled toward
the sex he wasn't actually attracted to.
It's here we see the horrible symmetry of the sexual logic
of sonnets, a kind of little chiasmus with a half-twist: with
the Young Man he's in the grip of a pure love, but stalked
by the presence of lust; with the Dark Lady he's in the grip
of a pure lust, but stalked by the absence of love.
Elsewhere, I got stuck into the kind of "idiot's work" that
WH Auden tried to warn us off: that of trying to establish
the identity of the sonnets' dramatis personae. The trouble
is that it's impossible to read the sonnets without
speculating on identities. We're often simply invited to by
Shakespeare's shameless hook-baiting, his cryptic clues
placed there only to pique our interest. As to whether the
Young Man was Henry Wriothesley or William Herbert, I
have nothing to contribute but even more confusion than
there was before. The Dark Lady is, I think, utterly
unknowable not least because Shakespeare uses her as
more of a cipher, a focal point for his self-hating-fuelled
misogyny.
I do think of this as the most oddly impressive aspect of
the sonnets. The Dark Lady poems are mostly horrible,
and those that aren't are bad. Yet the plays abound with
depictions of strong women women of real agency,
wisdom, power and character. Shakespeare seems to have
regarded his own perspective as being as unreliable as
anyone else's, and less suppressed his own ego than
"vanished" it, clearing the way for an apparently infinite
capacity for human empathy. There is no one saint,
monster, sage or fool that he couldn't ventriloquise; but
to do so he had to remove himself wholly from the picture.
This strikes me as a psychological miracle.
One of my more original (or most likely wrong)
contributions to all this idiotic speculation came through a
bit of amateur sleuth-work in Sonnet 86, the most famous
of the "rival poet" sonnets. Here, Shakespeare accuses
another poet of ruining his own work: "Was it his spirit, by
spirits taught to write / Above a mortal pitch, that struck
me dead?" No. It's not this guy's skill that bothers him; it's
the fact that his beloved's lovely face was filling up his
lines. There's a universal law that states that poets can't
share muses; there's also another one that says they often
have to. Too many poets, too few muses. For Shakespeare,
the prospect of hot-musing was deeply repugnant.
However, in the middle of this poem, we find strange lines
that many commentators pass over in silence: "No, neither
he, nor his compeers by night / Giving him aid, my verse
astonished. / He, nor that affable familiar ghost / Which
nightly gulls him with intelligence, / As victors of my
silence cannot boast . . . " Who is that affable familiar
ghost? Well, the rival poet is often assumed to be George
Chapman, of "Chapman's Homer" fame. I feel this must be
right. There's far too much corroborating evidence in the
poem, which I won't go into here, but Chapman had
dedicated poems to Wriothesley, still our best contender
for the Young Man's identity, and was known to have
boasted that the ghost of Homer himself had helped him
with his translation of The Iliad. However, what will have
stuck in Shakespeare's craw even more was that Chapman
finished off Christopher Marlowe's poem "Hero and
Leander" doubtless boasting again of Marlowe's own
supernatural aid.
This must have driven him crazy. Kit Marlowe and
Shakespeare were friends, literary rivals, drinking
buddies, likely collaborators; and as identically matched,
world-beating talents and almost exact coevals, the two
will have identified deeply with each another. "Familiar" is
the key word here. (Affable is just a heartbreaking touch.)
Not only was Marlowe a ghost one meaning of the word
familiar he was also "familiar" in the senses of close,
often-encountered, recently-dead and "on a family
footing". He's even present in the very consonants of the
word. Marlowe, we think, worked as a secret agent or
"intelligencer" in the proto-secret service that Francis
Walsingham set up for Elizabeth I, and in all likelihood
conducted espionage abroad. Surely this would have come
out over a pint of ale or six? Nothing, surely, would have
delighted Shakespeare more than the thought of the ghost
of Marlowe gulling the proud Chapman with false
intelligence, and it will have offered him some comfort in
his fight for the muse of Wriothesley. And there I rest my
shaky and conveniently mutually supportive case.
But how has the little sonnet managed to honour
Shakespeare's huge boast of the immortality of his own
verse? I've long been convinced that if you could somehow
snap your fingers and destroy every sonnet on the planet,
and wipe every sonnet from every human mind, it would
reappear in almost exactly the same form by teatime
tomorrow.
Here is not the place to elaborate, but suffice to say that
the square of the sonnet exists for reasons which are
almost all direct consequences of natural law,
physiological and neurological imperatives, and the grain
and structure of the language itself. Or to put it another
way: if human poetic speech is breath and language is
soapy water, sonnets are just the bubbles you get. Sonnets
express a characteristic shape of human thought, and are,
after a bit of practice, very easy to write. Badly. (No one
ever blew into language and got a sestina or a villanelle
one reason I hate the damn things, two or three by
Elizabeth Bishop and Auden apart. Carol Ann Duffy once
wrote an absolutely perfect squib called "Fuckinelle", with
the repeated lines "The poet has tried to write villanelle; /
He's very pleased. The audience can tell . . . " after which
the form should have been officially banned.)
Shakespeare modernised the form of the sonnet, and
transformed it from a stylised, courtly love shtick to a
fluent and flexible form that could turn itself to any
subject. This isn't to diminish the contribution of his
forebears and contemporaries; but what distinguished
Shakespeare from someone like, say, Sir John Davies, was
the maturity of his means. None of this was accomplished
by flailing "innovation", and this, I think, is the real poetic
miracle of the sonnets.
His strategy was twofold. First, he realised that human
love was the one theme capacious enough to encompass
every other these are also poems about death, sex,
politics, sin, time and space and he needn't stray from its
centre. Second, he did this with a minimum of experiment,
writing the form into transparency, until it became as
effortless as breathing. In other words, he converted the
rules of the sonnet to motor skills. The form was then
freed from its own expectations, and able to engage with
any idea or theme where it might identify the motif of its
little golden square. But without Shakespeare's genius to
show the way, I doubt it would ever have found itself so
liberated.