I love a good Shakespeare Association of America seminar, and the one in Vancouver in 2015 giving rise to this collection of essays must have been very good, indeed, since the volume’s diverse offerings are so intelligent, original and well written. Building on the established work on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the contributors offer fresh readings characterized by both illuminating contextualizations and formally alert interpretations of specific poems. Crawforth and Scott-Baumann edited an earlier volume, On Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A Poet’s Celebration (2016), which is full of new poems inspired by the sequence. On Shakespeare’s Sonnets and The Sonnets stand as a diptych of contemporary response, poetic and critical, to Shakespeare as a lyric poet, and I could not recommend the two books more highly. The editors offer their own understanding of their sub-title, The State of Play: ‘The essays … explore what these poems mean to us now, and how the diversity of current critical approaches can develop our understanding of them by further building upon [the] unbroken tradition of reading, both professional and personal’ (p. 1). The readings are respectful of the good work that has been done on the poems, even as they explore new topics or old topics in a new way. After their introduction and before Heather Dubrow’s meta-critical afterward locating the essays within the critical traditions of study of Shakespeare’s poems and plays, the editors have arranged the bounty here in three parts, defined by past, present and future: ‘Our three sections deal with the history, early modern context and posthumous life of the sonnets’ (p. 8). Allow me to review the offerings in each section, then examine one representative offering by a lesser-established Shakespearean to reveal the state of play on Shakespeare as a lyric poet. Part I, ‘The Sonnets and History’, provides four essays: Cathy Shrank’s ‘Promising Eternity in the 1609 Quarto’; Lynne Magnusson’s ‘Thomas Thorpe’s Shakespeare: “The Only Begetter”’; Kristine Johanson’s ‘“Our brains beguiled”: Ecclesiastes and Sonnet 59’s Poetics of Temporal Instability’; and John Roe’s ‘Unfulfilled Imperatives in Shakespeare’s Sonnets’. Shrank takes up the topic of memory in an astute reading of 126, distinguishing between two activities of memory—memorializing another or remembering another—and shows that the project of immortalizing the fair youth has obscured how often the speaker is attempting to remember him. Magnusson interprets the paratext of Thorpe’s dedication to an emended ‘Mr. W.[S]’ as a piece of epideictic rhetoric in imitation of The Book of Common Prayer, Shakespeare’s own sonnets and the social conventions of greeting. And Roe explores the grammatical feature of the imperative in soundings of 18, 73, 90 and 120—with a foray into Petrarch’s Canzoniere 248—to argue that such imperatives remain ‘unfulfilled’. All three essays are strong, especially Magnusson’s, but it is Johanson’s essay that promises a new direction. The turn to theological context in Shakespeare Studies is often more interested in theological idea than biblical text, but the English Bible remained throughout Shakespeare’s career a ‘literary’ influence, and Johanson offers a fascinating reading of 59 by comparing it to Henry Lok’s version of Ecclesiastes, arguing that, while Lok offers a reassuring reproduction of the biblical text’s confirmation of providential stability in time—‘Maybe’, I would say, since Ecclesiastes is darker than that—Shakespeare’s poem ‘reject[s] commonplace biblical ideas’ (p. 63), including the ‘surety’ of Ecclesiastes: ‘Such [a] shift crucially announces that beloved’s singularity by attaching to him discourses originally associated with the soul’s salvation through abnegation of the ephemeral’ (p. 62). Johanson is not only doing source study—O, my—but ‘biblical source study’, but less of this has been done than people realize. There is no book-length study on Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the English Bible, for example, even though Lisa Frienkel has prepared the way and the sequence is full of significant biblical allusion, as Booth points out so often in his edition and commentary. Part II, ‘The Sonnets in Context’, provides another four essays: Colin Burrow’s ‘Shakespeare’s Sonnets as Event’; Ann Thompson’s ‘A Lingering Farewell: Sonnet 87’; J. K. Barret’s ‘Enduring “Injurious Time”: Alternatives to Immortality and Proleptic Loss in Shakespeare’s Sonnets’; and Shankar Raman’s ‘“Thou single wilt prove none”: Counting, Succession and Identity in Shakespeare’s Sonnets’. Burrow understands ‘event’ not as closed biographical action represented within the poems, but as open, future use beyond control, and provides a refreshing critique of speech act theory for understanding lyric poetry in readings of 81 and 107. Thompson offers formal observations—on metaphor, rhyme and ambiguity—to read 87 not as bidding farewell, but as anticipating doing so. Raman uses early modern mathematics and music—‘numbers’, that is—to examine Finemanesque topics of identity of self and other in readings of 2 and 8. These three essays are illuminating, especially Burrow’s, but Barret’s essay shows how promising it is when a critic takes up an old topic—here, time—in a new way in her readings of 145, 49, 64 and 90. In response to interpretations relying on tropes of immortality or grief, she examines other temporal concerns—often revealed in the grammar and logic of the poem’s predications and propositions—especially the art that frees not so much the poem or the beloved from time, but the poet: ‘the language of the sonnets introduces even more expansive temporal horizons for verse than immortality’ (p. 154). The art of grammar is back, and it leads to exhilarating readings. It is remarkable how much has been done with Shakespeare’s rhetoric yet how little with either his grammar (Jonathan Hope is almost alone, I think) or his logic. There is so much more work to be done on Shakespeare’s art of grammar, and I know of no book-length treatment of the art of logic in Shakespeare—plays or sonnets. Part III, ‘Afterlives of the Sonnets’, also has four essays: Matthew Harrison’s ‘Desire is Pattern’; Jonathan F. S. Post’s ‘Regifting Some Shakespeare Sonnets of Late’; Reiko Oya’s ‘The Scar on the Face: Ted Hughes Reads Shakespeare’s Sonnets’; and Daniel Moss’s ‘Shakespeare’s Sonnets in the Undergraduate Classroom’. Harrison examines rearrangements of the sonnets from Benson in the seventeenth-century to digital humanists today and introduces us to ‘weird reading’. Post analyses contemporary poets composing under the influence of the sonnets: Alice Fulton, Wendy Cope, Carol Ann Duffy, Jan Bervin and Don Paterson (to whose commentary on the sonnets Post alerts Shakespeareans, as well). Moss explores pedagogy and the poems in introductory courses on poetry and those on Shakespeare’s plays. The essays are fascinating, and Post’s reading of Fulton’s ‘Peroral’ is the highlight of the book for me. But Oya’s essay shows how significantly one can study the reception of Shakespeare’s Sonnets to illuminate other poets in her examination of Ted Hughes’ idiosyncratic relationship with Shakespeare (plays and poems), proving the centrality of that relationship to his Birthday Letters. Shakespeare gave him an experience and a vocabulary of suffering to write about Sylvia Plath so long after her suicide: ‘More than three decades after Plath’s suicide, Hughes was finally able to “sing about her” … by aggressively asserting his simplicity, vulnerability and nakedness in an echo of the Shakespeare whom he believed lay behind the sonnets’ (p. 246). We need more work like Oya’s disclosing the poets and poetry born of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. One refreshing characteristic of the essays, which Dubrow notes, is a return to formal interest. (Cue potted history of New Criticism’s waxing and waning.) The poems are always here remembered as poetry. So it is only just—and moving—that the book is dedicated to a Shakespearean who did so much to attend to Shakespeare as a language artist, without ever losing sight of cultural context or theatrical performance—Russ McDonald, whose recent death is a loss to Shakespeare Studies. I imagine him sitting in on this seminar in Vancouver in 2015, delighting in the earlier versions of these essays being presented and discussed. He would have admired the book, a gift worthy of its dedicatee. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press 2018; all rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 17, 2018
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