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Shakespearean lore and order

A new anthology displays Shakespeare’s engagement with the sonnet form across his career, but at a high cost

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

As Buck Mulligan says in Ulysses, “Shakespeare is the happy hunting ground of all minds that have lost their balance.” The authorship question and the biographical speculations surrounding Shakespeare’s religion are perennial instances of this, never it seems finally to be eradicated. But the collection of 155 poems (154 sonnets and “A Lover’s Complaint”) published in 1609 as Shake-Speare’s Sonnets has also stimulated more than their fair share of rational wobbling.

Who were the Friend, the Rival Poet, the Dark Lady? These questions are whirlpools in which whole careers have been lost, melancholy tributes to the power of these poems to blur our sense of what is life and what is art, of what is evidence and what is wishful thinking.

All the Sonnets of Shakespeare
Edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells
Cambridge University Press, £12.99

We can see the siren-power of the Sonnets in the sometimes strange role these poems have played in actual lives, particularly towards the end of the nineteenth century, when the bafflement (Hazlitt: “I can make neither head nor tail of it”) and contempt (Wordsworth: “abominably harsh, obscure, and worthless”) they had provoked in well-informed and otherwise sensitive readers earlier in the century had yielded to fascination.

For instance, Friedrich Gundolf used his translations of the sonnets as proxy billets doux sent to Stefan George in 1899. The intertext with the Sonnets was not perhaps inappropriate, given how their intense relationship would later crash and burn over the younger man’s marriage to Elisabeth Salomon.

The sonic and verbal patterning in the 1609 volume is destroyed by a chronological ordering

Gundolf would go on to write Shakespeare: Sein Wesen und Werk (1928), one of the high-water marks of Bardo-lunacy, in which the Sonnets occupied a cardinal position (similar perhaps to the part they had played in Gundolf’s own life) as the verbal trace of an erotic breakthrough that paved the way for Shakespeare’s emergence as, improbably enough, a Nietzschean Übermensch, liberated from the fetters of a mundane morality. Shakespeare’s later life of retirement in Stratford, as a bürgerlich landlord and commodity speculator, can only have been very deep cover.

But it is Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Mr W. H. (1889) which offers the most shrewd tribute to the dangerous allure of these poems. For Wilde’s short story is both an example of the Sonnets’ power to fascinate and an astute anatomising of that power. Cyril Graham’s theory that the dedicatee of the 1609 Sonnets, “Mr. W. H.”, the “onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets”, was the boy-actor Willie Hughes takes such possession of his mind that he has a portrait forged to clinch his argument and persuade his more sceptical friend George Erskine of the truth of his theory.

When Erskine discovers the fraud the two men quarrel and Graham shoots himself, not out of shame but rather to demonstrate his faith in his interpretation and to offer his life as “a sacrifice to the secret of the Sonnets”. Graham leaves the forged portrait of Willie Hughes, now splashed with some of his own blood, to Erskine, who in his turn succumbs to the poison of the theory.

After his own death from consumption Erskine leaves the portrait to the narrator of the story — a perilous bequest! Wilde’s imagination, of course, ran much on the power of portraits. Here, the feigned image of the boy-actor connotes the way the Sonnets can fatally corrupt our understanding both of what literary evidence is, and of the arguments literary evidence can support.

There is no shortage of editions of the 1609 Sonnets. Highlights are the excellent scholarly editions from Oxford by Colin Burrow and from Arden by Katherine Duncan-Jones, and the rather more idiosyncratic but occasionally brilliant edition with elaborate commentary by Helen Vendler from Harvard. Edmondson and Wells have attempted something different in All the Sonnets of Shakespeare.

In the first place, they have added to the poems published in the 1609 volume by including sonnets and sonnet-like poems drawn from the plays to create an anthology in which Shakespeare’s engagement with the form of the sonnet across his career is displayed. Second, they have arranged this now enlarged corpus of poetry in what they take to be the chronological order of composition. The result of these two decisions is that the Sonnets of 1609 are now rearranged and juxtaposed with new poetic bedfellows.

The anthology’s conjectural chronology disrupts the orthodox order, producing a new impression, but at a high price

It is an interesting and fruitful idea to create an edition which allows the reader to review Shakespeare’s fascination with the sonnet form, not just in the sonnets properly so called of 1609, but also those moments in the plays when characters speak in sonnets or declaim sonnets to one another. As Wells and Edmondson say: “This particular form of verse was an inspiration to Shakespeare for around three decades, and he used it to great effect and for a variety of purposes. His plays echo with his sonnets; his sonnets echo with his plays.”

But what these juxtapositions often show is that Shakespeare does very distinctive things with the sonnet form in the poems collected in the 1609 volume, and so the separate identity of that collection is paradoxically reinforced by its dispersal in this new Cambridge edition.

The consequences of chronological reordering, particularly when the chronology is in many instances impossible securely to ascertain, are yet more mixed. Wells and Edmondson’s reordering of the sonnets means that the order supporting the old orthodoxy, that the first 126 sonnets refer to the Friend, and the succeeding sonnets to the Dark Lady, is destroyed, for the simple reason that conjectural chronology disrupts that order.

This certainly produces a new impression, but at a high price, particularly if it is true that the 1609 order was settled by Shakespeare himself. (That said, however, we should note that the second, 1640 edition of the sonnets also departed from the order of the 1609 volume, so the practice of shuffling these poems, revived in this new Cambridge edition, also began very early in the history of the Sonnets. The 1609 order had to wait until 1711 and Lintot’s edition to be revived.)

If the order of the sonnets in the 1609 quarto was indeed determined by Shakespeare, what might be the cost of departing from it and instead pursuing a conjectural chronological ordering? The later sub-sequence running from 127 to 152 contains what appear to be some of the earliest poems. So to print chronologically not only departs from, but perhaps goes so far as to invert, the order of the 1609 volume.

And as Colin Burrow has noted, “Despite what appears to have been a very extended genesis, and whether or not the poems in it were revised, the sequence as it is printed in Q does have some fixed points which indicate that the order in which the poems appear had been carefully considered, at least in the part of the sequence up to 126.”

Uprooted from the poetic soil in which Shakespeare carefully arranged them, these poems cannot but be impoverished

The sonic and verbal patterning in the 1609 volume which links at least some of the sonnets to their immediate neighbours is destroyed by a chronological ordering. Uprooted from the poetic soil in which Shakespeare seems carefully to have arranged them, these poems cannot but be impoverished. So the price of chronological ordering seems high, and the payoff rather small (since the same information could have been supplied in an appendix listing the poems in the conjectural chronological order).

“With this key,” said Wordsworth, “Shakespeare unlocked his heart.” Whatever we may think about the wisdom of such biographical speculations, it is clear that they cannot be easily pursued in this new Cambridge edition.

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