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Full to Overflowing’

Shakespeare’s Sonnets

edited with analytic commentary by Stephen Booth
Yale University Press, 578 pp., $25.00

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;1 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.2 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 artificer.

This focus gives his commentary its unprecedented virtues, which I shall try to suggest by necessarily inadequate illustrations. And it permits him to turn his back on the quagmire of biographical speculations. In an acerb appendix on “Facts and Theories,” he deals summarily with “the expeditions to find ‘Mr. W.H.’ and ‘The Rival Poet,’ and the games of pin the tail on ‘The Dark Lady.’ ” We can grant him that they have probably all been failures (and mostly bores). But it is one thing to read the sonnets by thinking you have discovered their “story” (like so many—most vociferously A.L. Rowse) or making it up (like Oscar Wilde), another thing to read them with awareness of what they themselves convey about the use Shakespeare is making of them, enigmatic as this use often is. To retell a poem as a personal “story” is to substitute the story for the action of the poetry, which is what matters. But the action of the poetry can be properly understood, I think, only by recognizing that it is working to transform or cope with “situations and relationships which,” as J.B. Leishman put it, “cannot have been invented, if for no other reason than that they have been left so tantalizingly obscure.”3

We do not know the persons involved, but we can experience the gestures made toward them, and something of the roots of feeling in a particular temperament implied by the gestures. That they are gestures toward others means, I think, that the persons addressed cannot have been, as Booth suggests, literary creations. This is less obvious in the triumphantly generous poems where there is no resistance to the process of poetic transformation—as in Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”—than in those many less anthologized sonnets of desperate self-abnegation, complaint, or veiled remonstrance.

Empson, in Some Versions of Pastoral, dealt with the tensions that almost pull apart Sonnet 94 as the “Twist of Heroic-Pastoral Ideas in Shakespeare into Ironical Acceptance of Aristocracy.”4 In what seems to me the finest sonnet criticism of the century, he did not hesitate to consider how the forces of Shakespeare’s personality and of his society shape the ambiguities of the poetry. Booth, by contrast with his great predecessor in ambiguities, austerely abjures any reference to things outside the house of language; he predicates everything from words on the page—with a wonderful command of pages, in Shakespeare and around him in his period. This method goes with a conviction that (to caricature it) “the greatest poetry is the most baffling.” Like Touchstone’s notion that “the truest poetry is the most feigning,” there is much to be said for Booth’s view; but it is not the whole truth.

Booth’s first manifesto was An Essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale, 1969), where he developed the rationale of the present edition. There he argued that the unparalleled concentration of multiple, incommensurate patterns in the sonnets “gives the whole sequence an illogically powerful aura of coherence,” but frustrates any effort to comprehend the whole. We can only apprehend what the poetry is doing by attending to specific organizations of “unity in division, likeness in difference,” moment by moment, poem by poem. To say what the poetry means in other words than its own must by-pass or violate it. Interpretations by other critics, even including Empson’s of Sonnet 94, are brought in to show how any “critical performance” falsifies the complexity of a sonnet’s performance.

Both the Essay and the new edition contribute wonderfully to one’s awareness of fabulous poetic organization. No serious reader of the sonnets will want to do without Booth’s edition (which is too modest in neglecting to refer its reader to the also very valuable commentary in the Essay). Booth regularly adds to (and often corrects) one’s experience of each poem. But there is some indecisiveness, or again, silence, on how one is to understand the rich interplay of meanings displayed, how one is to put them together. This failure, I think, results partly from Booth’s refusal to consider the poems’ relationship to the situations implicit in them.

At times Booth insists that a “sense of straightforward simplicity emerges” from the sonnets, a sense “of effortless control of the uncontrollable.” But there are many sonnets where the effort at control is a central part of the effect. Booth also says that they are “uneasy” poems, without confronting his inconsistency. One chapter of the Essay finds the distinctive quality of the “uneasy” poems to be that they make us experience paradox. In our period, when much contemporary art is designed to fly apart in your face, a good deal of criticism has been praising the great art of the past for coming apart at the seams when you look hard at it. Booth has a very modern eye for what might fly apart in the sonnets, but gives an inadequate account of their coherence.

Neglecting the human gestures in the poems, gestures that must reflect actual, if sometimes obscure, personal relationships, he fails to reckon adequately with the problem of their often hard to settle tone. That there is an uncertainty about the tone of many of them is evident from the different ways that competent readers have taken them. And the tone we hear in a sonnet can change as we read those around it. “Tone conveys the attitude of the speaker toward what he is saying,” the manuals of New Criticism told us, thereby neatly separating a “speaker,” a dramatized presence, from a poet who mimes him. In Shakespeare’s sonnets, this distinction frequently breaks down; it is this that gives them much of their “uneasy” quality. I believe we must read Shakespeare along with Shakespeare dramatizing shakespeare, seeing both in an often uncertain interplay.

Booth has an excursus “On the special grandeur of the best sonnets” centered on Sonnet 116 (printed opposite), “the most universally admired” of all the sonnets, which involves this problem of tone. I can illustrate something at least of the richness of his commentary from his annotation of Sonnet 116, and then take up the issue about tone.

In his notes on the first two lines Booth stresses a strong specific echo of the marriage service: “I require and charge you (as you will answer at the dreadful day of judgment, when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed) that if either of you do know any impediment why ye may not be lawfully joined together in matrimony, that ye confess it.” Let me not is glossed:

May I never. (The tone is that of a vow, but the imperative use of Let also suggests prayerful beseeching and gives the poem psalm-like overtones; compare Psalms 31:17-18: “Let me not be confounded, o Lord: for I have called upon thee: let the wicked be put to confusion, & to silence in the grave / Let the lying lippes be made dumme…”).

Booth returns us to the marriage service in commenting that in line 12, one of the meanings of to the edge of doom is doomsday, “the dreadful day of judgment.” Only one of the meanings: Booth also brings in at line 12 “to love and to cherish, till death us depart,” from further on in the old service, where the pun in “depart” (stronger than the modern “us do part”) makes “the moment of death” one suggestion in to the edge of doom. He continues: “for doom meaning ‘death,’ see 14.14 and the proverb ‘Death’s day is doomsday’ [Tilley, D161].”

This illustration can suggest how handsomely the references to other works pay off by being brought into the poem’s action. But in the most challenging aspect of his account of the “grandeur” of the poem Booth explores meanings that could undercut or contradict its sweeping affirmation. Let can mean “stop” as well as “allow” (illustrations from Hamlet and from marginal glosses to the Geneva text of Psalms 115); Admit as “allow to enter” is countered by the potential meaning of impediments as “things that prevent entrance.” “O no” might be “O know [that]”—a parishioner’s “prefatory exclamation introducing an impediment” to the marriage. Finally, Booth sees an “undercurrent of frivolous sexual suggestiveness…veering off toward puerile joking about temporary…impotence…;quatrain 2, for instance, is always ready to turn into a grotesquely abstruse pun on ‘polestar.’ “

  1. 1

    A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: The Sonnets, edited by Hyder Rollins, two vols. (Philadelphia 1944).

  2. 2

    In Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton University Press, 1968), Chapter 2, “The Poet as Fool and Priest.”

  3. 3

    Themes and Variations in Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Humanities Press, 1961), p.11.

  4. 4

    London 1935, Chapter 3.

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