October 18, 2010 § Leave a comment
- 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
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.
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.