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Dazzling puzzles

Halfway through his new book about Shakespeare’s sonnets, Don Paterson quotes W.H. Auden. Auden was one of Shakespeare’s great commentators and he firmly warned against reading the sonnets as simple statements. ‘It is also nonsensical,’ Auden wrote, ‘to waste time trying to identify characters. It is an idiot’s job, pointless and uninteresting.’

27 November 2010

12:00 AM

27 November 2010

12:00 AM

Reading Shakespeare's Sonnets Don Paterson

Faber, pp.500, 17.99

Halfway through his new book about Shakespeare’s sonnets, Don Paterson quotes W.H. Auden. Auden was one of Shakespeare’s great commentators and he firmly warned against reading the sonnets as simple statements. ‘It is also nonsensical,’ Auden wrote, ‘to waste time trying to identify characters. It is an idiot’s job, pointless and uninteresting.’

Halfway through his new book about Shakespeare’s sonnets, Don Paterson quotes W.H. Auden. Auden was one of Shakespeare’s great commentators and he firmly warned against reading the sonnets as simple statements. ‘It is also nonsensical,’ Auden wrote, ‘to waste time trying to identify characters. It is an idiot’s job, pointless and uninteresting.’

Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets are dazzling puzzles, rich and strange, and they have often been met with manic speculation in the place of reasoned literary criticism. Critics have sought to explain who the Dark Lady is, and who these apparent love poems are addressed to; they have mined the sonnets for proof of Shakespeare’s homosexuality.


Paterson’s book sensibly insists that these are foremost poems, and the strongest parts of his commentary are those in which he unpacks the poetic tricks and styles used by Shakespeare. He has a refreshingly commonsense tone. Some of the sonnets are among the finest poems in the English language; others, as Paterson convincingly argues, are almost deliberately strained and obscure.

The problem is that having quoted Auden, Paterson continues, ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ and proceeds to do precisely that which Auden advised against. Based upon a string of strained premises, he identifies one character addressed by Shakespeare as George Chapman, most famous for his translation of the Iliad, and then argues that Chapman is haunted by the ghost of Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s influential predecessor.

He goes on to claim that the sonnets as a whole are directly addressed to Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton. At best, this is a childlike move — why bother to quote Auden only to dismiss him? — and at worst, it is the kind of self-indulgent affront to the reader that marks much of Paterson’s book. He shows off, by alluding to another commentator on the sonnets; and then laughs off the idea that anyone else might have done this better than he has. He presents dull, redundant ideas as radical innovations. He is, in the nicest possible terms, tone-deaf.

Paterson is best known as a poet, and he brings with him a practical sense that these sonnets are work: he is attuned to their mechanics, and it is refreshing to be reminded that reading poems does not have to be a fussy or academic pursuit. ‘Poetry demands of us a personal response,’ he insists, and he certainly gives us this. ‘I love that,’ he writes, in his discussion of sonnet 30, and there are nice touches in his readings: in the famous sonnet 18, for example, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’, he notes, ‘The vowels are fat, which inflates the line, but also carefully varied, which means it’s great fun to wrap your mouth around.’ At the end of this book, he includes two useful short essays, one on meter and the other on the history of the sonnet form.

Paterson appears to enjoy his own voice considerably more than he likes the sonnets. On sonnet 9, he writes, ‘Oh man, this is rubbish’; on sonnet 37, ‘this sonnet’s batteries are dead’; on sonnet 41, ‘Not much to see here, folks’. Even the ones he admires, he tends to reduce to a banal paraphrase. On the opening lines of sonnet 2, for example: ‘When forty winters shall besiege thy brow/ And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field’ are rendered as: ‘When you’re old and look like a train-wreck,’ and surely far more is lost than is gained in this version. His book has already generated some minor debate, when the Guardian published an extract in which Paterson claimed that the sonnets prove Shakespeare’s homosexuality (or as he puts it, ‘Oh come on, people. The guy’s in love with a bloke’). This is neither a new idea, nor an interesting one.

Whenever faced with a profitable ambiguity, Paterson chooses just one reading, and in doing so, he is directly opposed to the most incisive of all readers of the sonnets, Stephen Booth. Booth’s commentary, published in 1977, draws out the steady, playful magic of these poems: he calls this the ‘eventfulness’ of Shakespeare’s language, and this is the fun that Paterson misses. ‘Love is not love/ Which alters when it alteration finds,/ Or bends with the remover to remove,’ Shakespeare writes, in sonnet 116, and here is a lovely, self-contradictory redundancy (‘Love is not love’). ‘One could demonstrate that it is just so much bombast,’ writes Booth in his commentary: ‘but, having done so, one would only have to reread the poem to be again moved by it and convinced of its greatness.’ This is how the sonnets should be read: with care and attention and pleasure.


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