Extinguishing Shakespeare’s Sonnets

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Thursday 4 November sees the publication of Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary by multi-prize-winning Scottish poet Don Paterson. It is handsomely presented by Faber and Faber and will attract a great deal of attention.

As I settled down to read it I became more and more frustrated by its tone of voice, the assumptions Paterson is making about the Sonnets, and the kinds of comments he is inviting us to engage with. Without doubt, this is one of the most self-indulgent studies of the Sonnets I’ve ever seen (and they have certainly inspired many shelves of misguided criticism over the centuries). Paterson is a poet first and foremost. It would have been far better for him to write a series of poems in response to Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

His starting point is unfortunate, as he seems to thinks most of them are overrated. Paterson extinguishes (or at least deflates) many of the poems: ‘This isn’t a great poem’ (Sonnet 2); ‘Another dull one’ (Sonnet 10); ‘Not much to see here, folks’ (Sonnet 41); ‘I’d cheerfully send this one into the unanthologised dark‘ (Sonnet 68); ‘Oh enough already’ (Sonnet 72); ‘Let it go, man’ (Sonnet 80); ‘This is pretty dull stuff’ (Sonnet 98), ‘Pretty average effort, really’ (Sonnet 111), ‘a cheap trick’ (Sonnet 130); and ‘very little interest for the contemporary reader’ (Sonnet 144). He dismisses Sonnets 27 and 29 (which have meant a lot to readers over the centuries) as ‘two duffers’ (p. 86) and suggests that Sonnet 30 (which he calls ‘facile’) would be better without its final couplet. This is the sonnet which ends:

‘But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored, and sorrows end.’

But the whole point of this couplet is to turn us away from the poet’s morose self-reflections, and to admit a ‘thee’, a ‘dear friend’ who rescues the poet from isolation.

There are too many facetious asides: ‘the poem is nothing to shout about’ (Sonnet 17), ‘this conceit looks like a ten-car pile-up’ (Sonnet 52) and, worse, ‘given how dodgy it was, running it on to the menu from my local Chinese takeaway is going to improve it’ (Sonnet 98 when followed by Sonnet 99). Why produce a five-hundred page commentary on Shakespeare’s Sonnets if you don’t actually like most of them? Or perhaps Paterson thinks he is presenting something more like John Ruskin’s love-hate account of Venice, confining our appreciation to his taste?

Part of Paterson’s problem is his fatal assumption that the Sonnets are autobiographical and are printed in a discernible, narrative sequence. He (mis)reads them as true expressions of love, rather than as highly artificially shaped poems about love. This leads him to paraphrase nearly all of them which, as a poet himself, he knows is surely the kiss of death to any poem.

In its more positive moments, Paterson’s account is not without occasional flashes of insight. Of Sonnet 129 (‘Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame’), for example, he comments ‘in the syntax of its disgusted litany, it sounds to me like George Herbert’s “Prayer”, only read backwards in a mirror.’ Occasionally, he demonstrates his specialist interest in poetry but sometimes through jargon. I suspect I won’t be alone in finding some of this unintelligible.

His commentary is larded with slang and asides to popular culture. This could be finely employed, but he lets it run away with him. At worst this takes us into some sweeping generalizations. At one point during his commentary on Sonnet 35 he divides up male sexuality into heterosexual and homosexual and generalises about how people of different sexualities understand the relationship between love and sex (p. 107). Elsewhere, in the context of sexual frustration and Sonnet 129, he says that ‘many priests [in the Roman Catholic Church] signed up because they were career paedophiles’ (p. 390). Such jibes do not sit easily in a commentary on Shakespeare, or indeed anywhere.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets deserve far better treatment than this (an index, bibliography, a few notes, and a list of further reading would have been nice, too).

This book ought to be a cause for celebration: a brand new reading of some of the greatest poems by a much-lauded contemporary poet.

The party will have to go with a swing without me.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • http://twitter.com/Mr_Gnome Mr_Gnome

    Passionate, loopy, intriguing, enlightening – we LOVE DP’s new book. And we love the sonnets a wee bit more as result. Plenty to disagree with, and an ego the size of The Globe, but a great read. Hurrah!

  • Guest

    I think it is interesting that Paterson took this on and gives the reader a contemporary poet’s view. I’ve not read the book but have read his commentary about it..and it seems he is trying to bring them into the light and our of stuffy academic closets. I look forward to reading the book. And I also look forward to his next collection of poems.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TIXT6IP5TPICIDPS7ERSFRLYGI Andrew

    haven’t read Don Paterson’s book but, like Christian, I read his Guardian article, which is online here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/oct/16/shakespeare-sonnets-don-paterson

    Unlike Christian I found it fascinating. Paterson obviously loves the sonnets and by exploring and sharing his own highly subjective and personal response to them he invites the reader to have their own. I do a lot of Shakespeare schools workshops and the whole aim of our work is to provoke and validate the students’ response to and interpretation of the text. In my experience, a blanket: ‘it’s all Shakespeare so it’s all great’ approach carries with it the implication that if you, the casual reader or theatre-goer, don’t get it then the fault is yours. But to be able to admit, ‘you know what, I just don’t get this one’ opens the door to ‘but I absolutely LOVE that one!’

    And sorry Paul, but somewhere inside me lurks the feeling that anyone who pisses off an academic that much must be doing something right!

  • http://sonnet.iloveshakespeare.com will

    How disappointing! Still I will read it.

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