This edition of the sonnets is a heroic enterprise. Facsimiles of the 154 poems from the 1609 Quarto, printed opposite tactfully modernized versions, are followed by 403 densely packed pages of “analytic commentary.” The amount of attention that has been given to Shakespeare’s slim volume is staggering. Hyder Rollins assembled all the commentary and theories up through the early 1940s in his huge Variorum Edition; Since then, editions and “solutions to the riddle of the sonnets” have continued to appear at a rate almost equaling studies of Hamlet. Professor Stephen Booth knows all this commentary, and credits appropriately glosses proposed since Rollins. But for the most part he is going it alone, determined to do justice to all that is going on in these poems.
He has two goals in view. One is to put “a reader in command of as much of the mental furniture of the poet’s contemporaries as we can discover and recondition.” He does this superbly: his annotation does far more than any previous edition to show the fantastically rich way that Shakespeare exploits the verbal resources of his culture.
His other goal is to show that the sonnets themselves are mind-boggling. And that it is their great virtue to be so. Most of the poems, in his view, are “satisfying to read, unsatisfying to think about, and likely to evoke critical analyses that satisfy only by making the poem satisfying to think about.” His preface acknowledges William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity as pioneering his kind of “pluralistically committed” commentary. In exhibiting possible meanings of “So should the lines of life that life repair” of Sonnet 16, where Shakespeare urges the young man to beget a child “Much liker than your painted counterfeit,” Booth acknowledges that it was Empson who “in effect pointed out that all the suggested glosses for [‘lines of life’] are right.”
Booth is concerned to analyze the processes by which
the relevant meanings of Shakespeare’s words and phrases and the contexts they bring with them combine, intertwine, fuse, and conflict in the potentially dizzying complexity from which a reader’s sense of straightforward simplicity emerges. It is the complexity, I think, that gives the sonnets what critics of eras less ambitious than this one for the clinical precision of natural science called the magic of the sonnets, the sense they give of effortless control of the uncontrollable.
He out-Empsons Empson in doing justice to the wall-eyed openness of Shakespeare’s supremely wandering mind. But his reference to “clinical precision” is apt: he operates on the sonnets in a white coat. He has a fine anatomical mastery of the “corporeality” achieved by their language, to use Sigurd Burckhardt’s word. But he excludes consideration of the relationship between the sonnets and Shakespeare as a man writing them out of human situations, a man using poetry to relate himself to a well-born young man and a promiscuous mistress. He is concerned only with Shakespeare as the fabulous …