William Shakespeare: The Sonnets and ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ 
edited by John Kerrigan.
Viking, 458 pp., £14.95, September 1986, 0 670 81466 0
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illiustration of dedication of the sonnets

Not many stories about Shakespeare that are either credible or interesting survived the poet: but one can be found in an additional note to Aubrey’s Brief Lives, which recalls him as ‘the more to be admired q[uia] he was not a company keeper, lived in Shoreditch, wouldn’t be debauched, and if invited to, writ: he was in pain.’ This sounds true in more than one way; perhaps Shakespeare did suffer from headaches as well as high principles and good manners. But what makes the anecdote memorable is that it so nicely sums up a writer’s struggle against another kind of takeover bid: that made by the ‘Society’ of readers and of criticism. He needs to be read, but read on his own terms. Shakespeare said in the Sonnets: ‘Noe, I am that I am.’

The Sonnets are in themselves a monument to that struggle, a battle both lost and won. The attempt to make Shakespeare a ‘company keeper’ even conditioned their first appearance. In 1609, late in the dramatist’s career, a small volume called ‘SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS’ came into print, with a dedicatory page so curious that it has been used, from at least the earlier 19th century, to throw light on poems found obscure or simply not read for a hundred years or more before that. Victorian readers in practice resolved the difficulties they met by taking the dedication to indicate a simple human drama narrated in the Sonnets and involving two personalities as well as the poet’s: the ‘fair young man’ and the ‘dark lady’. For a very long time – this approach still dominates at least the more conservative or biographical criticism – the Sonnets have been read as telling some kind of love story, the objects a man and a woman (Sonnets 1-126, 127-152): and the far more important figure of the man is to be met in that ‘Mr. W.H.’ whom most commentators take to be addressed in the dedication as the ‘ONLIE.BEGETTER.’ of these poems.

In the later 1860s a French librarian, M. Philarète Chasles, published in the Athenaeum an observation largely dismissed at the time and only very occasionally glanced at since. I hadn’t myself heard of him when some years ago I pleasedly ‘discovered’ what I only later found this almost-forgotten foreign scholar had propounded a century earlier. And Shakespeare’s biographer, Samuel Schoenbaum, even now refers to him in a footnote as ‘a singularly gullible gentleman’, and to his suggestion as ‘this tormented reading’. What Chasles tried to point out in 1867 was that the Sonnets volume begins with what is recognisably a lapidary or monumental inscription.

Some of what Chasles proposed about the dedication is wrong – he couldn’t get clear of the whole ‘fair young man’ imbroglio, and insisted on seeing the book as dedicated to Southampton. All the same, he looked at the page in front of him with aesthetic intelligence. Curiously, many commentators on the Sonnets, a work perhaps more intensely debated than anything else Shakespeare wrote, have pondered the complications of the dedication without mentioning a simple fact. Every word in it is separated from every other by full stops. Roman inscriptions divided their close-packed words just so. When this literal habit is added to the visual form of the dedication – shaped seemingly with a conscious attempt at pattern, even perhaps intending the design of a Classical urn – then it becomes clear that the maker of this dedication has a perfectly definite purpose. He has worked in ambitious deference to a fashion then beginning to hold its own in the visual arts of Renaissance Europe.

What Chasles couldn’t do was to make complete sense of what he saw. If this is easier now, the reason must be partly the help more recently given by such learned work on the art of inscriptions as John Sparrow’s, whose Visible Words, Line upon Line and Lapidaria are gratefully quoted in this and the following paragraph. For some three hundred years after the mid-15th century, a new art born in Italy swept Europe, accompanying the greater visual arts. Sculptors, painters and then printers started to imitate Roman stonecutters, ‘never surpassed for the beauty of their lettering’. Simple paragraphing gave way to a new and distinctive lineation, ‘a significant text and a spatial representation of that text appropriate to its meaning’ (a form most readily called to mind now by good Augustan tombstones, suitably the relic of the art that has proved most enduring in England). Latin was par excellence the language of inscriptions because of its linguistic character, its inflected flexibility, its freedom from ‘articles and particles’. Inscriptions are laconic; and during the Renaissance the new art forged had a ‘calculated and felicitous ambiguity’.


This ambiguity is important, for – calculated if not felicitous – it underlies the difficulty for centuries found in the Sonnets’ dedication. For English is, as Sparrow says, not at all a lapidary language. Mr W.H. and T.T. were trying clumsily to do with it what more brilliant if small-scale artists had done in this Latin inscription of 1592 on the fifth bell in the Chapel Tower of Winchester College:


This says: ‘Bell-notes are prayers from earth to heaven as well as blessings descending to earth from the skies.’ The finest inscriptions of the time (some of the best are gathered into the Lapidaria, volumes printed with great beauty by Stanley Morison) work with this grace and wit, minute yet monumental. Carefully central or final in climax, a single verb or pregnant noun will so govern contrasting predicates as to reflect the tragi-comedy of the human condition. Thus Robert Burton (‘Democritus Junior’), the sad creator of the great Anatomy of Melancholy, is commemorated (1639) in the Cathedral at Christ Church, Oxford:

                HIC JACET

I follow here Sparrow’s slightly improved and cleaned-up version: the original at Christ Church punctuates exactly like the Sonnets’ dedication, but with commas between the words instead of full stops. The play of wit is obvious either way: the intellectual withdraws from the social (‘known to few’) to make possible his own work (‘unknown to fewer’); and ‘withdrawal’ itself, in more senses than one, may be the source and condition of that melancholia which gave Burton his great Anatomy while destroying the man himself.

The dedicatory inscription of Q (as the 1609 Quarto edition of the Sonnets is known to scholars) lacks this learned or clerical economy. But its careful structure, which perhaps aspires to resemble an urn (another form of Renaissance wit – ‘figured’ writing) seems thus to attempt a classic statement. Linguistically, it falls between two stools, trying to add to the word-order of a Classical Latin sentence the syntactic ambiguity of a later age of inscription. The first half up to ‘WISHETH’ mimics in English Latin word-order: ‘Mr W.H. wishes to the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets all happiness and that eternity he, our ever-living poet, has himself promised (to another and to himself)’ is what it means. This solemn pastiche is then confounded by the bringing into play of the (in this case disruptive) bifocal verb of inscriptions. Having concluded one period, ‘WISHETH’ has to generate a second, in order to work – in theory – like ‘AUDITE’ and ‘DEDIT’ above. Not only Mr W.H. WISHETH but also and equally WISHETH T.T. the well-wishing adventurer.

The inventor of this artlessly artful device had, I would suggest, a motive beyond the saving of type and ink. And the clue to it lies in the first words of the inscription, that ‘ONLIE. BEGETTER.’ which has only begotten so much and such vexed discussion for upwards of two centuries. If academic studies of Q sometimes seem low in their appreciation of the aesthetic, they are hardly readier with the theological. Editors and commentators have with extraordinary frequency pronounced ‘beget’ in this context to mean ‘get’, ‘procure’, or ‘inspire’. But this simple word had for Elizabethans the straightforward sense it still has for us. To beget is literally to father, and metaphorically to give life. For the English Renaissance mind there was only one ‘ONLIE.BEGETTER.’: God, the Father and Maker of all things, who as the First Person of the Trinity ‘only begot’ (all alone, uniquely and for ever) the Second Person, God’s Son Jesus Christ who was the ‘only-begotten of the Father’. And it is this same God the Father who, as Jarweh of the Old Testament, defined himself by saying: ‘I am that I am.’

In their verbally-reciprocal sentence Mr W.H. and T.T. are dedicating their book with, literally, the greatest possible placatory deference (even if with also a little friendly humour). The dedicatee, the divine father who begot these ensuing sonnets on his Muse, can only conceivably be Shakespeare – the Sonnets are, after all, like children, called ‘SHAKE-SPEARES’. As the (again, literally) middle-man Mr W.H. and the publisher T.T. (whom we know to be Thomas Thorpe) render back to the poet ‘that eternity promised by our ever-living poet’ himself, so do the inscriptional lineation and syntax work to involve the three men in a three-in-one, one-in-three pattern of mutual good. The dedicatory inscription is, in short, one of those now quite dead Trinitarian conceits or devices that haunt the art of the English Renaissance even in stone: Trinitarian (three-sided) houses were then designed and built, like Triangular Lodge, erected at Rushton, Northamptonshire, in 1594-7, with over the doorway the text: ‘TRES TESTIMONIUM DANT.’ The builder, not very surprisingly, was named Tresham.

Tresham, a converted Catholic, was putting up a brave show. The intentions of Mr W.H. and T.T. can similarly be guessed at. The very difficult doctrine of the Trinity clearly fulfils a distinct purpose in theological terms: it locates at the heart of Christianity a God creative and loving, and always in process of giving life. As such, the figure can be used for saying something about the peculiar conditions, at once private and public, of literary creativity. The middle-man Mr W.H. and the publisher T.T. are selling a nice idea about literature. And they are manifestly selling it too (and first) to their First Person, the writer himself: the dedication says winsomely that, to the withdrawn poet, the publisher and the sales manager (if that is what the Holy Ghost is) are vital to the whole business of creativity. This is why the language of the inscription pleadingly and seductively interpenetrates itself, three-in-one and one-in-three: Shakespeare is given what he gives, ‘that eternity promised by our ever-living poet’ – and what keeps him ever-living is his publisher and his middle-man.

From this dedication two conclusions can be drawn. Both are important, yet the two are in a kind of opposition to each other. The first is simple. Shakespeare cannot have consented to the publication of the Sonnets. They are unauthorised or ‘pirated’ (not a rare circumstance several centuries before the Copyright Act). The dedication is meaningless except from its function of earnest rhetorical persuasion: the poet is being soothed and talked round. As I write, the most recent number of a Sunday newspaper magazine quotes a fashion designer whose sketchbook, published without his knowledge, was then dedicated to him: ‘You cannot dedicate a book to somebody who did the book. I am a little annoyed.’ Somebody clearly expected Shakespeare to be more than a little annoyed. But the obviousness of the poet’s reluctance has to be balanced against the second conclusion: these are no ordinary pirates.

Discussion of the Sonnets is difficult because the grounds of argument have become so confused. Belief that the edition is unauthorised has in the past been firmly linked with, or has even derived from, disapprobation of the text – a reaction often, in my view, dependent on actual dislike, not of the work of the compositors, but of the poems themselves. This is a subject I shall return to. For the moment it can be said that it is possible to believe the Sonnets to be unauthorised and yet to find Q basically a very good text: sensitively printed, close to the author’s own manuscripts which were evidently, even if in the form of a transcript, the copy for this edition. These pirates have therefore some degree of surprising authority. And this is a conclusion supported by the dedication itself. In literary terms, it’s no good (Shakespeare could never have had a hand in its dinky muddled pretentiousness), yet all the same it has its ‘idea’.

In other dedications Thomas Thorpe, who was a literate man, shows something of the same ambition, the same nerve, the same boisterous self-confidence. But the Sonnets inscription has more than this to provoke thought. Either T.T. or Mr W.H. is in some sense so much in touch with Shakespeare’s work as to seem to be in touch with Shakespeare too. The ‘ONLIE.BEGETTER.’ is a case in point. Somebody here seems to know enough about Shakespeare’s poetry to suggest a respectable acquaintance with his mind. In 1609 one of the dramatist’s most recent successes had been Pericles. In its ravishing last act a father embraces a long-lost daughter, calling her ‘Thou that begets him that did thee beget’: and the use of the word at this intense moment reflects exactly the double, literal and metaphorical use of the verb in the dedication, as Marina brings back to life, and to truer life, the man who fathered her.

More is at issue than a simple verbal echo: the moment in Pericles focuses a huge complex of themes and feelings that hold together Shakespeare’s career, just as the late Romances are a development of startling originality that looks straight back to the father-mother-child romance of the early comedy, The Comedy of Errors. Whenever the Sonnets were written (still an unsolved matter), some story of ‘ONLIE.BEGETTING.’, of the creativity of love and poetry, seems to hold together their development too. It will be noted that the line from Pericles manages, with an extreme lack of perversity, to make male and female roles fluid and reversible, as the girl-child fathers her own father. From the first the Sonnets are fascinated by the fruitfulness of similar transformations.

The first lines of the first Sonnet printed in Q contain the phrase ‘tender heire’:

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauties Rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heire might beare his memory ...

So the 1609 Sonnets volume opens, with the first of 18 poems always described as a Renaissance persuasion to marry, written by an older man to a younger, with feelings that gradually deepen from the courteous to the passionate. Because the phrase ‘tender chorle’ (i.e. churl) later occurs in this one, the subject addressed probably does, if necessary, have to be imagined a man. Yet ‘beare his memory’ has an odd sound of pregnancy, as if the ‘tender heire’ – always thought of as the male subject’s imagined son – were, in fact, a woman. And in Cymbeline, which was possibly first performed just when Q appeared, a phrase curiously similar to ‘tender heire’ proves to be a woman and a princess:

The peece of tender Ayre, thy vertuous Daughter,
Which we call Mollis Aer, and Mollis Aer
We terme it Mulier; which Mulier I divine
Is this most constant wife ...

At this moment of Cymbeline, of course, the ‘constant wife’ Imogen is a ‘tender heire’ – so disguised as a boy that her father King Cymbeline doesn’t recognise her. The disguising stage-conventions of the time (boys playing girls dressed as boys) join Elizabethan word-play and false etymologies to help Shakespeare work out stories of love’s endurance in which gender comes to seem not primarily important – less ultimate than the qualities that make men and women together human. The Sonnets too confuse identities and categories for their own purposes. Sonnet 8 goes so far as to confuse commentators too, so much does Shakespeare want a perhaps unworkable image of the family as music:

Marke how one string sweet husband to an other,
Strikes each in each by mutuall ordering;
Resembling sier, and child, and happy mother,
Who all in one, one pleasing note do sing ...

Father, mother and child become as much alike as strings, as one as harmony. Despite all his incomparable realism, his respect for human identities, Shakespeare’s mind in the Sonnets restlessly dissolves genders and generations. The innocent and archaic triad of father, mother, child seems to mutate into another three, that of ‘friend’, ‘mistress’ and ‘poet’, and that in its turn darkens through alienation and betrayal to become the cruel Trinity of Sonnet 42:

If I loose thee, my losse is my loves gaine,
And loosing her, my friend hath found that losse,
Both find each other, and I loose both twaine,
And both for my sake lay me on this crosse.

Genders and roles not only mutate, all being among the ‘millions of strange shaddowes’ thrown by the light of love; they may flow into one and become the mockingly fused ‘Master Mistres of my passion’ – a character perhaps remembered when Viola in Twelfth Night speaks of ‘my master’s mistress’, being herself a member of that impossible creation, a pair of boy-girl identical twins: and identical twins and the master-mistress may be only two different ‘strange shadows’ of that ancient myth of the androgyne which helped the Renaissance poet to think about love. Twins and a ‘Master Mistres’; father, mother and child; friend, mistress and poet; I and she and you – all characters that grow back into the ‘I’ of the Sonnets, the dedicators’ ‘ONLIE. BEGETTER’.

Mr W.H. and T.T. are between them good enough literary critics, who know (or seem to know) a respectable amount about these astonishingly peopled poems, and the way that they finally resolve to a creative and haunted solitude. The curious unauthorised authority of these publishers of the Sonnets is worth stressing. To know that Shakespeare himself did not publish these poems may make a difference to how we think of them, or may at least confirm how we do think of them. But there is another reason. To go further and – as with the poems themselves – play the game of identities is, practically speaking, not necessary: yet, as with many games, not to play seems craven. And a little reflection on this unauthorised authority makes the identity of Mr W.H. – as indeed of the ‘fair young man’ and the ‘dark lady’ – seem clear. If the Quarto text is good enough to suggest at least a transcript of authorial manuscript, then that transcript points back to the location of the manuscript itself – the copy was made at source. Shakespeare passed much of his life in London lodgings, and is unlikely to have kept valuables – a large batch of unpublished poems – anywhere so vulnerable (Sonnet 48: ‘How carefull was I when I tooke my way,/Each trifle under truest barres to thrust’). But he had in New Place a fine strong-built house with lockable cupboards in. Also a wife with keys to unlock the cupboards.

It is regularly remarked that biographical interpretation of these poems meets a hindrance. Though he alludes to the sonneteers’ custom of honouring the loved one by giving a name, Shakespeare fails to abide by it. Sonnet 81 claims: ‘Your name from hence immortall life shall have.’ As the Sonnets’ latest editor, John Kerrigan, points out: ‘Yet we never learn the young man’s name.’ One name does, however, because of Mr W.H. and T.T., incorrigibly associate itself with the Sonnets: that of ‘SHAKE-SPEARE’. This is of course the name borne throughout the poet’s writing career by that Anne Hathaway who is, if Andrew Gurr is right, the single person named in the sequence – in the apparently early and also trivial Sonnet 145 (where ‘hate away’ quibblingly = ‘hathaway’ in Elizabethan pronunciation). In fact, even if we don’t accept the full Joycean story proposed, Stephen Dedalus is surely on the right lines when in Ulysses he conjures up Anne Shakespeare as a presence in her husband’s writing life.

Poetry is by no means biography: yet identities do colour what is written. Whether we read the figures in poems as historical or imagined, they as much as the writer could say, ‘I am that I am’: and by the rule of the dyer’s hand, the poem is what they are. For this reason it seems only economical to allow for the existence somewhere near the centre of the Sonnets of that unrecapturable, possibly mediocre presence, the poet’s wife: whose brother was called William Hathaway, Mr W.H. The prosaic is, in fact, more likely to foster the Dark Lady than events more historically picturesque. That writers have necessarily an interesting life, a belief prompted by the appreciative reading mind, is surely a fallacy. Imagination is an alternative to the capacity for being ‘interesting’; what many writers seem to ask for is peace and quiet to confront and make fruitful the great shadows thrown on them by the ordinary presences all around. When Shakespeare speaks – it is a steady theme of the Sonnets – of the important life of the Court, the career spent ‘bearing the canopy’ as an obverse of his own, he may be being simply factual as well as thematic and moral: the merely domestic may have generated the emotional violences of these poems (marriage after all accounts for most murders of husbands and wives).

It’s hard, at all events, to believe that the Sonnets lack trace of the person Shakespeare lived with for over thirty years, an image kept perhaps the more vivid by his constant absences from her. Conceivable as a powerful, even attractively masculine woman, eight years older than the writer; one capable of obsessing her young husband for many miserable jealous years, then of maddening and amusing and at last (‘second-best-bed’) boring him – it is believable that this perhaps ambitious, clever and wilful woman impatiently sent her brother off to London with the bundle of fair-copied, brilliant, confused poems which her obstinate husband wouldn’t publish and which she in any case remembered, rightly or wrongly, as being mostly addressed to herself and therefore arguably her own. For the dedication put together by her genuinely admiring brother and the willing publisher he found has that assured, complacent invasion of privacy which may be the original sin of blood relatives, and even more of in-laws.

Because, furthermore, the law of not multiplying entities is a good one, it may be assumed that the Dark Lady and the Fair Young Man are at least in part merely Anne (Helena in All’s well promises that her court lover will find her ‘A mother, and a mistress, and a friend,/A phoenix, captain and an enemy,/A guide, a goddess and a sovereign’ – roles bisexual enough): a woman seen in darkness and in light, masked and unmasked, always a shadowy haunter of the poet’s imagination. For the evidence scattered through the Sonnets there is little room here – though I have glanced earlier at the highly utilitarian use of pronouns. But one point may be recorded, because it is so simple. Sonnet 121 opens:

Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed,
When not to be, receives reproach of being,
And the iust pleasure lost, which is so deemed,
Not by our feeling, but by others seeing.
For why should others false adulterat eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?
Or on my frailties why are frailer spies;
Which in their wils count bad what I think good?
Noe, I am that I am ...

This is in a way a very difficult poem because highly Henry-Jamesian. The point it makes is the dangerous power of imaginative sympathy, in poetry as in love – the poet becomes what his readers’ presuppositions make them make him. Yet inside its opacity (exactly as with Henry James) is an unforced emotional directness which it seems a kind of insult not to take straight, as simple truth. On these terms it is hard to understand what this poem is about unless it is written by a poet bitterly angered by having his verse misunderstood. When in the 1590s some of Shakespeare’s Sonnets were read among what a critic alluded to as the poet’s ‘private friends’, they can only have been taken with amusement as a confession of adultery – for so the force of ‘adulterat’ must be, meaning ‘corrupt, an adulteration of decency by their habit of lewdly in-reading adultery’. More, as a confession of adultery with a man as well as a woman, and therefore – by Shakespeare’s reckoning – ‘vile’.

The poem takes us straight into a stranglehold knot of relationship that, like the Trinitarian conceit of the dedication, works for poetry as for love: to write to be read is, the poem seems to say, to enter into engagement with sympathies and understandings possibly ‘frail’, ‘adulterat’, even ‘vile’, minds unalterably misjudging. But the poem also says something simpler than this. If ‘adulterat’ eyes are ‘false’, it appears that Shakespeare was not himself adulterous. No fair young man, no dark lady. ‘He was not a company keeper ... and if invited to, writ: he was in pain.’

Most readers of the Sonnets now meet them in the editions of Ingram and Redpath (1964) and of Booth (1977); and in both the poems are prefaced by the 1609 dedication page printed in facsimile. Kerrigan relegates the dedication to his Commentary and there reproduces it as a paragraph.This decisiveness gives its style and edge to his edition and also conditions the image of the poet he proposes. His packed sixty-page Introduction, equal in elegance and force, brings to our attention in its first sentence a Shakespeare who when his Sonnets first appeared was ‘already the author of most of the plays that have made him famous’: not therefore the sort of writer who might want not to be famous, or fear that his poems could in any sense make him infamous. The same first page concludes by calling into play a contemporary audience of readers precisely fitted to such a poet: ‘Inevitably, the question arises: would the diversity of Shakespeare’s volume have baffled its early readers? The central claim of this edition is that, no, it would not.’

Jacobean readers remained unbaffled because in possession of ‘a proper framework for the book’. And it is this ‘proper framework’ which Kerrigan’s Introduction and his animated and learned two hundred and fifty pages of Commentary make it their business to construct. Its basis is the argument that the 1609 Quarto was indeed a ‘book’ – that it was so conceived and carried out by ‘the most, not the least, self-conscious of great artists’: in short that Shakespeare planned, wrote and published it. ‘It’ in this context involves the whole contents of the 1609 volume, in which the collection of sonnets is succeeded by a longish lament in stanzas called ‘A Lover’s Complaint’, a poem still doubtfully regarded by Shakespeare scholars, sometimes even on authorial grounds. Lucidly synthesising and extending recent scholarly approaches to this Sonnets volume, Kerrigan outlines a three-part structure comprising what he follows tradition in calling the two ‘sequences’ of sonnets (1-126, ‘the fair young man’; 127-152, ‘the dark lady’); plus two linking sonnets (153, 154, the ‘Cupid’ sonnets); plus the ‘Complaint’. With this invention, the editor suggests, Shakespeare located himself within Renaissance culture proper. He was a poet working within the Courtly sonneteering conventions perfected by Daniel, Lodge, Spenser and above all Sidney – ‘Shakespeare stands behind the first person of his sequence as Sidney had stood behind Astrophil.’ Thus understood in terms of his own time, the poet’s sonnets stand clear of the confusions introduced equally by two fallacies, the biographical (or post-Romantic) and the opposing formalist (or Modernist). Shakespeare’s themes can be read and appreciated as they really are: the use of a Courtly love poetry for a paradoxical refusal to praise; Time and its effects on love; the complications of gender in a world hardly countenancing the homosexual.

This ‘proper framework’ has perhaps its own proper framework. Literary studies have reached the end of a major phase of criticism, hardly distinguishable from the end of Criticism itself. The ‘Metaphysical’ image of the Renaissance explored by Eliot’s generation has in its passing taken with it Donne and the School of Wit – all the academic involvement with ‘difficult’ poetry. Such interest as survives in pre-1700 writing tends to be political, or more broadly historical-social-cultural. Students of 16th-century poetry have turned back to what both Donne and his modern critics reacted against: the conventional poetry of the Court of Elizabeth. Hence what might be called the Return of the Sonnet. It is studied now, not with the old Edwardian belletrism, but for its capacity to illuminate the whole courtly milieu within which the Petrarchan modes had their function, social and even economic. Kerrigan’s edition is strengthened by having these new approaches behind and within it. He compacts and abstracts masterfully, and often with an outstanding rhetorical power and flair, and the result is a striking contribution to Sonnets studies. Apart from local densities of information, the edition offers a continual play of aesthetic intelligence, and the two together make the ‘Elizabethan’ Shakespeare argued here a sharp, clear and self-consistent critical formula.

Formulae are of course not literature. Kerrigan’s Introduction gains authority and security from an image of the writer essentially literary-historical. This means that the editor can hardly do more than define the context which any writer achieves himself by escaping from, by surpassing. If my argument is right, Shakespeare never really played the part that this edition constructs for him – though the suggestion that he may at least have tried to consider publication remains an interesting one. But the vulnerability of Kerrigan’s thesis (if what I have said above has any truth in it) is of small importance: scholarship is always vulnerable to the randomness of fact. What does matter is the relation of the editor’s vision of Shakespeare to the actual work the poet achieved, and, in turn, to our sense of that work.

The treatment of the ‘Lover’s Complaint’ is a small indication of the problem. Kerrigan’s concept of an attempt on Shakespeare’s part to achieve a contemporary literary structure involving both this poem and the Sonnets may well be true (or it may not): but even if true it leaves little room for the fact that the attempt did not succeed. Though the editor works ardently to illuminate ‘this extreme, rewarding poem’, he does nothing to show it as comparable to any of the better Sonnets. Another long poem about a woman afflicted in love, the somewhat lumbering ‘Rape of Lucrece’, has unforgettable lines (the curse on Tarquin – ‘Let him have time to marke how slow time goes’; the bereaved Hecuba – ‘Staring at Priam’s wounds with her old eyes’), while the ostensibly efficient ‘Complaint’ can be read over and over again, and nothing from it stays. A great artist’s variability on subjects superficially similar is not only a fascinating but a significant matter: it enforces the inclusion in critical theory and judgment of questions of experience and character. But most current critical approaches, including the revived literary-historical, gain precisely their power and lucidity from a denial of the material distinction between good and bad. Characteristically, therefore, with all its brilliancies of local analysis, the central argument of this edition does not help it to explain why the Sonnets are good and where they are good. And, however difficult this question often proves, some at least implicit sense of the answer must be vital to a modern, popular edition of these poems.

Kerrigan’s edition postulates a Shakespeare made sense of essentially in terms of his own time and of his audience – perhaps even a kind of ‘company keeper’. To this end his Introduction early raises the issue of ‘obscurity’ or bafflement in early readers, and crisply dismisses it: ‘No, it would not.’ It is hard to know whether this is based on more than hypothesis. Discussion of reaction to the 1609 Quarto is peculiarly difficult because of the almost total silence that seems to have marked its publication. One contemporary allusion to the Sonnets was at last recently discovered: the actor Edward Alleyn noted down its purchase (for five pence) in the summer of 1609. Other than that, no reference exists in a hundred years; silence reigns. The contrast with the same period’s Hamlet fever is marked and obvious. When added to the fact that unusually few copies of the Quarto survive, this silence has made some critics suppose the suppression of the edition. But suppression is not the only explanation. It may be that Shakespeare had been strongly unwilling to publish the contents of the 1609 volume because (among other reasons) he knew that it would fail: and it did. Few copies survive because few sold, and those that did sell were not cherished and preserved.

The possibility has at least some evidence in its favour. Like all other editors of the Sonnets, Kerrigan is very disparaging about John Benson, who in 1639-40 gave the poems a second edition. Benson omits some sonnets, jumbles the rest, changes one or two masculine pronouns into feminine (and includes poems by other hands); and he adds a rather interesting Preface. It is usually interpreted as the lies of a ‘publishing scoundrel’, because Benson is assumed to be disguising his efforts as a first edition of these poems, which he says ‘had not the fortune by reason of their Infancie in [Shakespeare’s] death, to have the due accomodation of proportionable glory, with the rest of his everliving Workes, yet ... in your perusall you shall find them SEREN, cleere and eligantly plaine, such gentle straines as shall recreate and not perplex your braine, no intricate or cloudy stuffe to puzzell intellect, but perfect eloquence.’ Perhaps this means what Sonnets scholars think it means. But perhaps Benson is saying something very different to a public which after all contained many readers perfectly capable of remembering the circumstances of the first edition: that the Sonnets failed simply because their author died too soon to look after their fortunes, and not because – as one might otherwise all too clearly recall – everyone in London said the poems were hopelessly obscure.

This simple interpretation of Benson’s passionate plea for the Sonnets’ SERENITY (‘no intricate or cloudy stuffe to puzzell intellect’) is at any rate supported by the commendatory poem by John Warren included in Benson’s edition alongside one by Shakespeare’s own Leonard Digges: lines whose defensive, even indignant citation of Shakespeare’s ‘learning’ is suggestive, though it must have aroused complex feelings in Benson himself:

These learned poems amongst thine after-birth,
That makes thy name immortall on the earth,
Will make the learned still admire to see,
The Muses gifts so fully infus’d on thee,
Let carping Momus barke and bite his fill,
And ignorant Davus slight thy learned skill ...

If Kerrigan is right and his Jacobeans unbaffled, it is hard to see what Benson and Warren are on about, let alone what Momus and Davus are doing on the scene. The poet’s contemporaries surely found the Sonnets impossible. And this argument is supported by the fact that for a very long while after, almost all readers seem to have agreed with them. For nearly two hundred years after Shakespeare’s death these poems, being omitted from the Shakespeare editions, seem to have gone largely unread; evidence is lacking for much response either to Benson or to Lintott’s early-Augustan incorporation of Q into a collection of Shakespeare’s poems – or even perhaps to Malone’s first scholarly edition of the Sonnets in 1780. At the end of the 18th century their existence begins to be acknowledged, but only by spasms of detraction – a resentment summed up by Wordsworth’s now well-known allusion to what was ‘abominably harsh, obscure and worthless’ in them, their ‘sameness, tediousness, quaintness and elaborate obscurity’. The Sonnets were in fact saved only by the bell – by the Victorian radical simplification into the fictive-sentimental, the Fair Young Man and the Dark Lady, and Mr W.H., and the whole still-surviving business of the Enigma or Riddle or Mystery of the Sonnets.

As editor of this new Sonnets, Kerrigan earns real sympathy when he brushes aside the cloud of biographical Enigma-cant. Yet perhaps the gesture is over-decisive in what it finds expendable. The history of the Sonnets usefully reminds us of what is often forgotten by academic criticism, that the understanding of poetry can be rare, especially among the professionally intellectual. More than this, the long stress on ‘obscurity’ has something genuine and important to say about the poems themselves. In their great strength as in their difficulty, in their intransigently abrasive originality, Shakespeare’s Sonnets are obscure. Textually speaking, the editorial problem of the Sonnets – for which there is too little room here – consists, not in the fallibility of the first compositors, but in successive editors’ inability to believe that the poet is saying the extraordinary and extraordinarily complicated things he appears to be saying. In the same way, it seems to me vital that our image of Shakespeare should widen and deepen to include a man whose poems failed. The 1609 Sonnets failed because the poems were too good, too difficult, and perhaps even too defeated: beyond a certain point they refused to ‘keep company’ with the writer’s public.

Kerrigan stresses, and writes well on, the paradoxical aspect of Shakespeare’s thematic refusal to write a praise poetry. But the argument needs to be taken much further, so as to show the real bearing and effect of this refusal – the revolutionary lack of ‘company-keeping’ in these love-sonnets. The point can be made most briefly by comparing two poems: one of the best Court sonnets with that Sonnet 107 for which the editor in his Commentary reserves perhaps his longest single note. A characteristically well-turned exhibit from Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella reads:

Whether the Turkish new-moone minded be
   To fill his homes this year on Christian coast;
   How Poles’ right king means, without leave of hoast,
To warme with ill-made fire cold Muscovy;
If French can yet three parts in one agree;
   What now the Dutch in their full diets boast;
   How Holland hearts, now so good townes be lost,
Trust in the shade of pleasing Orange tree;
   How Ulster likes of that same golden bit
Wherewith my father once made it half tame;
If in the Scottishe Court be weltring yet;
These questions busie wits to me do frame;
   I, cumbred with good maners, answer do,
   But know not how, for still I thinke of you.

Sidney’s sincerity in his love-poems is another critical problem, but at least it could not be said that this one is obscure. Its allusions are riddles and are meant to be, but they can be solved by any editor with a little historical information. And this is a fact known to the poet himself – the peculiar charm of whose poem lies in its sound of a cosy but open secret. The love-relationship is revealed with an effect of sudden wit at the end of the rattle of court gossip, like a secret behind the talkative face: but the secret is no more than a silence understood – for if it were more, it would go beyond ‘good maners’, and Sidney’s achievement as a poet was to make love in the language of those same ‘good maners’. His brilliant innovation was to find a fully public speech for what was, in theory, a most private utterance. Petrarchanism itself had become in the latter part of the 16th century a social language with wide, even political functions (Elizabeth translated her courtiers into lovers, and her foreign wooers were their countries’ diplomats). Sidney’s new style reflected this dangerous and exciting border-country, where secrets were acted out in the Courts of Love. As a result, his then greatly influential sonnets are now praised for the social realism of their picture of Court life. Within this specialised realism, this recall of the multiple social voices that make up a court, Sidney’s sonnet invents a sort of cosy public fantasy: a nest-of-boxes pleasure of the secret within the man within the chattering gossiping Court.

Kerrigan sometimes underestimates the actual (if ironic) link that will join a sonnet by Shakespeare to one of Sidney’s. There is perhaps some such relationship between the earlier poem and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 107. The comparison of the two at all events indicates what precisely it means to call Shakespeare’s a much greater poem:

Not mine own feares, nor the prophetick soule,
Of the wide world, dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love controule,
Supposde as forfeit to a confin’d doome.
The mortall Moone hath her eclipse endur’de,
And the sad Augurs mock their owne presage,
Incertenties now crowne them-selves assur’de,
And peace proclaims Olives of endlesse age.
Now with the drops of this most balmie time,
My love lookes fresh, and death to me subscribes,
Since spight of him He live in this poore rime,
While he insults ore dull and speachlesse tribes.
   And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
   When tyrants crests and tombs of brasse are spent.

Sonnet 107 is a poem that retains its creative obscurity. It cannot be ‘cracked’, as the earlier poet’s can, by information. It might even be true to say that the silence of that ‘thinke’ (in line 14 of Sidney’s sonnet) here takes over, not only reigning but flowering and bearing fruit. Instead of the loud Court, there is a coronation whose Vivat! (‘O live!’) is ageless olive trees. Editors offer combative annotations designed to explain the ‘mortall Moone’ and the ‘sad Augurs’; in one of his best and densest notes Kerrigan helps to support the case – according to the New Variorum, the majority view – that James VI’s coronation is glanced at here, thus dating the poem at or after 1603. So it may be. Yet, if the Court is central to Sidney’s sonnet, the coronation is in some sense eccentric to Shakespeare’s – a game of ‘dull and speachlesse tribes’. ‘Allusion’ means something different to the greater poet. The ‘Moone’, the ‘Augurs’, ‘Incertenties’, ‘Olives’ are figures in a dream. In ‘Whether the Turkish new-moone’ the inbred Court holds the poet silent at its talkative centre. In ‘Not mine own feares’, intensity of experience absorbs even the ‘wide world’ unegoistically into itself, into ‘feares’, a ‘soule’, ‘dreaming’.

The poem is written ‘in love’: it has become one self-consistency, an autonomy – hence that quality of free-floating spacious calm. Whoever crowns the King, and whichever King is crowned, ‘Incertenties crowne them-selves assur’de’: ‘the sad Augurs mock their own presage’; the ‘mortall Moone’ only exists in terms of that endurance of eclipse. As in a number of the later sonnets explicitly, and many of the earlier implicitly, even ‘my love’ has almost ceased to connote anything external, anything other, here it shows signs of being an embodied feeling that like a natural process turns outward to the light.

The contrast with Sidney is useful, in fact, because it suggests by what processes Shakespeare far surpassed his age. The greatest developments in the Elizabethan literary arts don’t take place at the centres of power, within the Court – however hard all writers struggled to get in. The real breakthroughs were with the excluded; they were acted out not in the Court but on the despised public stage; and of course depended above all on Shakespeare – whose private sonnets confront the themes of exclusion, dishonour, subordination. As love-poet, Shakespeare is one of the great losers, whose wry honour it is finally to be kind (Sonnet 125) to the mere successes, the ‘thrivors, in their gazing spent’ – ‘Pittifull thrivors’. In practical terms, this means not mere lament or complaint, but a continual heroic reassessment of what the excluded are left with – ‘Noe, I am that I am’: the self explored and understood always without dishonesty or disillusion. To some degree, the Court poet is prevented from this self-discovery by other terms of reference. Therefore, even as skilled and original a poet as Sidney is with all his talents a miniaturist, working in a world still essentially Medieval. His ‘psychological realism’, though fine, is external; his polite verbal people have no insides to their minds. If Shakespeare’s Sonnets, on the other hand, are difficult, it is because the writer is struggling in them to define, to realise and to come to terms with the whole dimension of internality that we think of as the possession of the modern world. If the Sonnets are, with their textual knots, their frightful metaphysical self-contradictions, the test of editors, the reason is that to the writer the wrestling ‘I’ and ‘Thou’ of love lock together in the same knots and self-contradictions: ‘Noe, I am that I am.’

It is in the tragedies that Shakespeare most fully achieved this creation of human inwardness, the ‘I-am-that-I-am’ of character. Hamlet says, ‘To know a man well were to know himself [i.e. oneself],’ which sums up well enough what takes place in the Sonnets. But the tragedies are tragedies; they end unhappily. The Sonnets, too, probably disturb as much as they provoke admiration from the simple fact that this great poet of love comes more and more in these poems to define love as a loneliness. One of the greatest, 124 (‘Yf my deare love were but the childe of state’), calls love not ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘thou’, but it: and in the end makes ‘it’ seem the desperate generosity of the individual. Hence the total irony that closes this obscure poem, and that moves so deeply throughout the Sonnets; love ‘all alone stands hugely pollitick’.

This irony is an attribute of the Sonnets’ free-standing quality, their wholeness and their intellectual independence. In his Note to 107, Kerrigan disagrees with rivals over the meaning of ‘drops’ in ‘Now with the drops of this most balmie time/My love lookes fresh’; dismissing Mattingly’s suggestion of rain or dew, he proposes medicinal drugs, adding bitter tears for Elizabeth. I suspect he has left one out: the ‘drops’ that a woman wears in her ears or at her breast, as Cordelia wears her tears like ‘pearls from diamonds dropped’. Shakespeare’s ‘love’, however gendered, bears dew- or rain-tears as diamonds: a marvellous crystallisation of these Sonnets’ rich ironies, their glittering hidden multi-facetedness.

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Vol. 9 No. 2 · 22 January 1987

SIR: Barbara Everett’s review of John Kerrigan’s edition of William Shakespeare’s Sonnets (LRB, 18 December 1986) contains a criticism which is implicit rather than explicit: all her quotations from Shakespeare give the original spelling and punctuation, whereas Kerrigan’s edition uses modernised spelling and punctuation. It would be interesting to have an explicit rather than implicit answer to this question: is there any convincing argument for Shakespeare not to be printed in the original style? As Herbert Farjeon said in his Nonesuch edition, ‘after the old text, has not the modern something of the flatness of soda-water after champagne?’

Nicolas Walter
London N1

Barbara Everett writes: It is desirable to have good modern – i.e. modernised – texts of all the older writers. But scholars and critics, especially when concerned with textual points and with cruces of meaning, in works as difficult as Shakespeare’s can be, will find it necessary to study the earliest printed texts (or, where extant, the manuscripts) in order to form their independent judgment.

Vol. 9 No. 3 · 5 February 1987

SIR: I was enchanted by what I take to be a playful suggestion by Barbara Everett (LRB, 18 December 1986) that Shakespeare’s wife believed ‘rightly or wrongly’ that the Sonnets had been ‘mostly addressed to herself’, and that it was she and her brother who were responsible, in 1609, for their publication. Miss Everett likens this to a certain designer, quoted in a Sunday newspaper, having a sketchbook published without his permission and dedicated to him, just as Master William Hathaway and Thorpe dedicated the Sonnets to their ‘onlie begetter’, Shakespeare himself.

I expected that the next Letters page of the LRB would be devoted to responses to this wholly distinctive reading of the old enigmas, and was astonished to find no reply at all in your current issue. Perhaps the scholars, each with some cherished view of the Sonnets, are made angry by Miss Everett. I, who am no scholar, was impressed, but totally unconvinced. I was impressed by the sort of Balzac novel which Miss Everett had evidently written in her head before she penned her essay. Here is a picture of appalling provincial intrigue and marital duplicity, two stupid greedy people rifling a locked cupboard in New Place, and coming upon the poems; their immediate reaction: ‘there be money in sonnets.’ Master W.H. getting on his nag and riding off to London while his sister stuffed ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ into the saddlebags. Miss Everett professes ‘real sympathy’ for the latest editor of the Sonnets ‘when he brushes aside the cloud of biographical enigma cant’. But she must not be allowed to dismiss her own original theory with such characteristic sprezzatura.

I love it. But I can’t believe it. Let us suppose that Barbara Everett is right – not about the Hathaways pinching the MS and flogging it to Thorpe, but in her more general point that the Sonnets are a sort of metaphorical marital journey.

To begin at the beginning – why is Shakespeare urging his wife (Sonnets 1 to 17) to get married? Why is he, eight years her junior, addressing her as if she were a man considerably younger than himself? Why does he regret (Sonnet 20) that Nature has ‘pricked thee out for women’s pleasure’, an unmistakable suggestion that the addressee has male sexual organs? One answer could be, if we followed Miss Everett, that these early Sonnets represent the mannish elder woman addressing the younger man who is perhaps unwilling to marry her. But since the one thing we know about the months previous to Shakespeare’s wedding is that Ann Hathaway was pregnant, how do we understand those frequent injunctions and entreaties to ‘get a son’? The young man in Sonnets 1-17 has obviously done nothing about reproducing himself. If she was pregnant already, would she beg Shakespeare to ‘make thee another self for love of me’ etc?

Then again, there are all the Sonnets which suggest that the young man is of an appreciably higher social class than the poet, one who can expect a marble tomb when he dies, and someone over whose head the poet helped bear a canopy (Sonnet 125). Why – when the Hathaways were not a notable gentry family – would Shakespeare, even in jest, write in this way to his wife?

Turning to the Dark Lady, it is arresting to discover that in Miss Everett’s view she, too, is ‘at least in part Anne’. If she is both the Young Man and the Dark Lady, I don’t understand those Sonnets in which aching jealousy is expressed for the love which has grown up between them. How can you be jealous of a relationship which someone has with themselves? The Dark Lady is represented in the Sonnets as a dishonest trollop riddled with VD. Why, when she came across the poems in the cupboard at New Place, was Mrs Shakespeare so convinced that (in the words of Nevill Coghill to Dr Rowse upon the discovery of Emilia Lanier) ‘this was the Woman. This was She’? I feel that if Mrs Shakespeare was half the things she thought Shakespeare thought she was – or half the things Miss Everett thought she thought Shakespeare thought she was – it would more than explain Aubrey’s note that Shakespeare was not ‘a company keeper … and if invited to, writ: he was in pain.’ With such a spouse, pain would be inevitable. But with such real-live drama going on at home, how could he ever tear himself away to the comparatively colourless world of the theatre?

A.N. Wilson

Barbara Everett writes: I am glad that A.N. Wilson loved my review. It would have been nice – perhaps even nicer – if he had managed to read it as well. For what he ‘takes’ he mistakes; and all its priorities he quietly reverses. My argument was the importance of the Sonnets’ Dedication, which shows that Shakespeare didn’t himself authorise these poems. This textual argument supports an impression more purely literary: the Sonnets take their power from their essentially private nature, not from their status as conventional court poetry. The important issue is the nature and value of Shakespeare’s poems, and to this any question of provenance is quite secondary. Yet the Sonnets have, too, their own ‘readerliness’, a brilliance of rhetorics – and we can parallel with this the sense that if these poems were pirated, then we owe a real debt to those responsible, without whom we ourselves might never have had the poems to read. The pirates could, in fact, be said to reflect in their character the double quality in the poems themselves: private in origin yet certainly public in effect. The most obvious source is Shakespeare’s own family. In his brother-in-law I conjectured a ‘genuine admiration’ for the poet as motive, because the Dedication displays it; Anne I called ‘clever’ because (among other reasons) I can’t believe in a Shakespeare who loved and married a fool.

A.N. Wilson’s dark fiction of ‘stupid greedy people’ has nothing to do with any of this. All his letter suggests is some limitation in conjugal experience, which in his case has apparently never included persuasion by a wife to do for his own good what he didn’t much want to do; and which leaves him incapable of believing that a wife might evidence her pride in a husband’s work by actually initiating its publication herself – a gesture all the more natural in a society which considered poets to be gentlemen, but practising dramatists only something near to vagabonds.

The ‘appalling provincial intrigue’, the ‘rifling’, ‘pinching’, ‘flogging’ – perhaps these are emanations of that playfulness he thinks characteristic of scholars: like his idea that I might in a single sentence overturn my entire argument, or like his projection onto me of some ‘theory’ of the Sonnets in a review whose whole thesis militated against the formation of any such simplifying theory. These are fun and games that don’t suggest any real desire for clarification. Nonetheless, it would be discourteous not to meet Wilson’s questions.

Let us note the concrete case he specifies, that of Sonnet 125. This opens:

Wer’t ought to me I bore the canopy,
With my extern the outward honoring,
Or layd great bases for eternity,
Which proves more short than wast or ruining? …

Wilson calls this representative of ‘all the Sonnets which suggest that the young man is … someone over whose head the poet helped to bear a canopy’. He thus imposes on the poem a light, bright literal sociality. But if we suppose that ‘bore the canopy’ is literal, we had better interpret line 3 as alluding to Shakespeare’s stint as a bricklayer. A ‘canopy’ was the ‘hood’ over a throne, or its simulacrum carried in procession: Queen Elizabeth is under one in Robert Peake’s picture of her, used by Roy Strong to introduce his ‘Gloriana’ section in The Elizabethan Image – and there is an even better-known canopied Elizabeth in the Wedding at Bermondsey. Wilson has precedents: the occasional Victorian scholar not too much at home with Shakespeare’s imagery has tried to persuade readers that the poet must have conducted a longstanding affair with Elizabeth or James or both. It seems saner to agree with ordinary readers, as with Aristotle, that metaphor is the soul of poetry. If we assume that the person under the canopy is the beloved, then the canopy has to be metaphorical. If the person under the canopy isn’t a king, he can be anything down to a ploughboy. Or a ploughgirl.

But to assume that the person under the canopy is the beloved is, in fact, a simple and flat mistake. For Wilson seems not to have noticed the powerful ‘conditional’ quality of the sonnet. The first questioning line could (just) mean ‘Would it matter at all to me that I carried the canopy?’, but in view of its context it’s far more likely to mean ‘Would it matter at all to me even if I had carried the canopy’ – ‘bore’, that is to say, as a subjunctive like ‘were’. This profound wistfulness, this resolute facing of what might have been, is not only opposed to Wilson’s simple social literalism (as if the poem were gossip): it also becomes the entire moral point of the poem. The loved one first heard of in line 9 – ‘Noe, let me be obsequious in thy heart’ – brings with her or him values precisely opposed to those of the octave: hence the force of ‘Noe’. Love is wholly unlike the life of court ceremony and power evoked in the first eight lines. Therefore, whoever the person under the canopy is, there is one person he/she can’t be: the beloved. The ‘trew soule’ (line 13) is opposed to what is ‘extern’ and ‘outward’ – since the world is only well lost for love by those who know at least roughly what they are losing. If this is a poem about the ‘trew soule’, then the lower the worldly position of the addressee, the better. And, as Wilson himself benignly comes near to making plain, you can’t get much lower than a woman.

Wilson climaxes his doubts thus: ‘Why – when the Hathaways were not a notable gentry family – would Shakespeare, even in jest, write in this way to his wife?’ To this there are two answers. The first is literary or technical, and involves the startling poverty of that ‘even in jest’ as a gloss on what happens in great and greatly original poetry. Wilson is reducing the ‘writing to’ of a poem to the ‘writing to’ of a letter. Nor can we introduce the crude distinction, as I imagine he will propose, of Life and Art – the Sonnets are to my mind in no sense mere theoretical exercises, but work that demonstrates both how deep and how wide a writer may go when he writes out of experience. But to do this demands that he address no single or simple object. This is the case, symptomatically, with Sonnet 125. Lines 9, 10 and 12 do use the pronouns ‘thou’, ‘thee’, ‘thy’, as of a loved one, or a loved one’s image. But the opening eight lines are profoundly meditative, self-questioning: a mode which seems plainly to return in the last two, lines 13 and 14, where ‘thou’ becomes another image in the mind, some ‘Informer’ (‘Hence, thou suborned Informer …’) who can hardly be the loved person. Similarly, the immediately preceding Sonnet, 124, invokes ‘my deare love’ throughout, but since it always uses the pronoun ‘it’, must mean by this the inward emotion, not the person. Similarly again, the immediately succeeding Sonnet 126, a sequence of couplets, addresses the ‘minnion’, ‘my lovely Boy’: but the gnomic, epigrammatic quality of the whole makes it plain that this is the first appearance of that Cupid who returns at the end of the whole, and is as little of a ‘person’ as is the suborned ‘Informer’.

Thus the whole question of ‘address’ is in poetry – especially in poetry of the Renaissance – far more complicated than Wilson hopes to make it sound What remains extraordinary is the degree to which Shakespeare learned to raise the limited conventions of Elizabethan court love poetry into a medium that could express what makes itself felt universally as human experience. This process clearly didn’t happen all at once, or without large experiment. This is why these poems vary so much in style, technique and achievement as hardly to be spoken of as one, two or any number of ‘sequences’. Deep interconnections hold them together, but they change and develop as they go, leaving outgrown conventions behind them. This is plainest at the start: for the first 16 or 18 – which Wilson was wise to choose for objection – are both highly conventional and strikingly odd, a rhetorical persuasion to marry that is original in being apparently directed from an older man to a younger: and C.S. Lewis wrote particularly well on the psychological unlikelihood of the situation. Yet these are good poems that work well as an internal debate on Life versus Art (Life wins, but only in a poem). But even before Shakespeare has quite exhausted the usefulness of this convention, he is transforming it to make it hold further and disparate areas of felt experience: the male subject, always shadowy, now starts (20) to become a ‘Master-Mistris’; and so something like a wavering, going-and-coming partial ‘story’ gets under way, involving the two images, ‘Master’ and ‘Mistress’, much later codified by the Victorians into Fair Young Man and Dark Lady.

Shakespeare was so very great a writer that even his fragments and passing illusions of ‘story’ hold us more than whole novels by lesser artists. Similarly, some of the Sonnets bend and break their conventions to hold tracts of experience so individual, and so real, as to call up the sense of biography, even history. But these approximations to forms scarcely invented in Shakespeare’s time are not remotely the kind of meaning we read the Sonnets for. They are magnificent poems precisely because Shakespeare was capable of detaching, impersonalising, universalising, in a manner proper for his medium and not for another. The fiction of the conjunction of the Fair Young Man and the Dark Lady, cited by Wilson, nicely reveals this: it manifests the nature of an idealism that cares more for the beloved’s betrayal of herself than for her betrayal of the writer. It states in a perfect shorthand something close to the rich worldly inwardness of the tragedies: that the writer cares for the loss of both ‘mistress’ and ‘friend’, but he cares more for the fact that ‘mistress’ and ‘friend’ are destroying each other in one person, and most of all destroying the writer as his consciousness creates their tragedy.

This is what I meant by a ‘literary’ answer to Wilson’s question. But there is another answer, more simply human and even moral. The Victorian myth of the Fair Young Man and the Dark Lady is still innocently maintained by many good scholars and critics, including even the anti-biographical Kerrigan. Yet it seems to me to have been originally the work of presuppositions in themselves repellent, a quasi-romanticism thick with unstated snobberies and misogynies. Wilson, for instance, simply cannot cease to believe that if Shakespeare in a sonnet uses terms of profound respect, then he must be addressing 1. a man and 2. an earl.

‘Why would Shakespeare, even in jest [my italics], write in this way to his wife?’ The only real answer to this is that made by Fats Waller to an inquirer who asked him what precisely jazz was: ‘Lady, if you don’t know, I can’t tell you.’ Shakespeare, on the other hand, does some telling in the Sonnets, which go deepest where they explore the connections of love with power. Wilson has explained the delightful absence from your columns of comment on my review by the ‘anger’ of scholars: but the kind communications I have had on the subject have been far from mentioning anger, only (among other things) pleasure in an absorbed rereading of Shakespeare’s poems.

Vol. 9 No. 4 · 19 February 1987

SIR: ‘You can’t get much lower than a woman.’ Miss Everett’s words (Letters, 5 February), not mine. It is silly to suggest that I was hinting at any such opinion. I was asking why, in a series of poems which appear to be addressing first a young man, and then a Dark Lady, we should suppose that Shakespeare was writing about his wife. It is not simply ‘the occasional Victorian scholar’ who has formed the impression that he whom Shakespeare addressed as ‘Lord of my love’ etc was a young aristocrat. The sonnets are full of suggestions that the young man was in a position to condescend to Shakespeare and that he was Shakespeare’s social superior. This is just a matter of historical fact. I was not suggesting any sort of sexist or class-conscious approval of Elizabethan values: merely trying to read the poems on the page, and compare them with the fascinating poems in Miss Everett’s over-inventive brain.

I asked why, for instance, Shakespeare addressed his wife in terms of regret that she possessed male sexual organs. Miss Everett huffs and puffs for two columns and then quotes Fats Waller: ‘Lady, if you don’t know, I can’t tell you.’ But that is not really an answer. What ‘metaphor’ is intended by ‘pricked thee out for women’s pleasure’? Please tell us, Miss Everett. You cannot just dismiss these questions as ‘gossip’ and ‘literalism’. Miss Everett tells us that the Fair Young Man and the Dark Lady are a ‘Victorian myth’. But read Sonnet 144. There they are, as large as life. I am not suggesting that these infinitely rereadable and inexhaustible poems are simply historical tittle-tattle. But why confuse the issue by dismissing all the surface meanings of the poems? If he says that he loves a ‘man right fair’ and a ‘woman coloured ill’ why should we not suppose that he means two people, a fair man and a dark lady?

Miss Everett thinks that she has offered a ‘textual argument’ about the Sonnets’ Dedication. Readers will perhaps remember that in her original article, it was suggested that the three figures in the Dedication – Begetter, Mr W.H. and T.T. – represented a sort of parody of the Trinity. Shakespeare, we were asked to believe, was the Father, William Hathaway the Son, and Thorpe the Holy Ghost. I had thought it more polite not to allude to this bit of Miss Everett’s article, which, whatever else it was, certainly was not an argument. She has not ‘shown’ that ‘Shakespeare didn’t himself authorise the poems.’ Recent scholarly work on Thorpe and his clients has shown that it is highly unlikely that he would have acted in a hole-in-corner manner or produced the kind of pirate edition of Miss Everett’s fancy. We shall probably never know whether or not Shakespeare himself authorised the Sonnets. They were published in a year when the theatres were frequently closed because of plague, when Shakespeare would have had time on his hands. The burden of proof rests with those who imagine that he did not himself offer the poems to Thorpe.

A.N. Wilson

SIR: I am not convinced by Barbara Everett’s reply to my letter (Letters, 22 January). She says that ‘it is desirable to have good modern – i.e. modernised – texts of all the older writers,’ but that ‘scholars and critics’ need ‘the earliest printed texts’ or manuscripts. No doubt: but surely any readers who are able to appreciate the older writers are able to understand and are likely to prefer the original spelling, punctuation and capitalisation.

Thus this used to be the policy of the Oxford Standard Authors series, in which editions of the older writers designed for ordinary non-professional readers give the original styles of Chaucer, Spenser, Marlowe, Donne, Herrick, Herbert, Milton, Vaughan, Traherne, and so on. The recent change to modernised texts for such writers as Wyatt and Jonson, and the adoption of the same modernising policy by the new Oxford Authors series, seem very unwelcome developments. The Nonesuch and Reynard series managed well enough with the old style, too. The Penguin Classics policy is, of course, to use modern style – though this is not in fact followed consistently, as may be seen in the cases of Skelton, Spenser and Donne.

My original point remains. If Barbara Everett can quote Shakespeare in the original style without anyone being bothered, can’t reputable publishers print him and other older writers in that style? And if readers of John Kerrigan’s edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets can get through his introduction, will they have any difficulty with the text of the 1609 Quarto?

Nicolas Walter
London N1

Vol. 9 No. 5 · 5 March 1987

SIR: Barbara Everett’s reading of the Dedication to Shakespeare’s sonnets (LRB, 18 December 1986) will not stand up. The Dedication may be condensed, without affecting this part of the argument, to its basic form, ‘To the only begetter Mr WH all happiness wisheth TT.’ This is not the most natural English word-order: nevertheless, read as English, the sentence has a clear syntactical meaning. It cannot mean any equivalent of ‘Mr WH and TT wish all happiness to the only begetter’: there is no English route to this.

To reach the desired meaning, Barbara Everett invokes Latin, but this is no help, because the sentence does not follow any Latin pattern or contain any Latin trope that could let it be interpreted her way. The two inscriptions she cites are not parallel or, so far as I can see, relevant in any way. All the same, there may indeed be a Latin inscriptional influence, since the words in their rather strange English order would run well in Latin provided that ‘Mr WH’ was in the dative to suit the traditional interpretation, not the nominative as her theory requires. The rhetorical purpose of the Latinate word-order may be to put the dedicatee’s name prominently at the beginning and the dedicator’s modestly at the end, a common arrangement in Latin dedications. It is to be noticed also that, on the traditional reading, Thorpe does not dedicate the book to Mr WH, but merely offers him good wishes: not such an outrageous liberty as Barbara Everett suggests, if one at all.

G.F.C. Plowden
United Oxford and Cambridge Club, London SW1

SIR: Most arguments about writers are really arguments about the critical presuppositions of readers. I’m afraid I don’t believe in what A.N. Wilson briskly calls ‘the surface meanings’ of a poem. A poem is a construct whose surface is its meaning. The word ‘woman,’ for instance, is linguistically – or as Wilson would say ‘on the page’ – a derivative of ‘man’: which is why some feminists appear to be trying to change the language. Shakespeare, too, altered his age’s language immeasurably. One small instance, perhaps not entirely successful, is Sonnet 20 (‘thou, the Master Mistris of my passion’), which so fascinates Wilson, and which appears to address a love-poem to a hermaphrodite – that ancient Renaissance conceit of perfect love. Whatever we think of the poem, the hermaphrodite was unlikely to have been met at the court of Elizabeth: if s/he had, we should probably have heard about her/him from other sources. The same may be said of the two people whom Wilson rather startlingly calls ‘as large as life’ in Sonnet 144. The ‘life’ here is first the life of a language. The Sonnet opens, ‘Two loves I have of comfort and dispaire’ – loves, not people; and though we may interpret ‘comfort and dispaire’ as we wish, they are, like ‘loves’, feelings, not people. Shakespeare does not say that he ‘loves “a man right fair" and a “woman coloured ill": he calls one love ‘my female evill’, and the other love ‘my better angel’, expanding to ‘The better angel is a man right faire;/The worser spirit a woman collour’d il’ – having already compared the ‘loves’ to ‘two spirits’. Words matter; and Elizabethans thought spirits mattered too. In these two sonnets, 20 and 144, Shakespeare was using the resources of the language to say what in his Comedies he expressed through the convention of disguise: that men and women love one another (or, if one wishes, women love women, and men, men) for something that is beyond gender and that isn’t mere sex. Donne said the same through the Neoplatonic device of ‘love-ecstacy’: ‘wee see by this it was not sexe.’

Since the ‘recent scholarly work’ on Thorpe cited by Wilson is presumably an article by Mrs A.N. Wilson, it can only be proper to assume that Wilson is as partial to Mrs Wilson as I am arguing that Shakespeare was to Mrs Shakespeare. As to the Dedication, G.F.C. Plowden is perhaps not aware that its words not only ‘may be condensed’ in the way he proposes, but have been so condensed for well over a century: his sense of the Dedication is entirely traditional. But the effect of this paraphrase is to produce what used to be known as the ‘Problem’, ‘Enigma’ or ‘Mystery’ of the Sonnets – optimistically set aside by John Kerrigan in his edition by demoting the Dedication, and by G.F.C. Plowden by his failure to require a meaning from his paraphrase. This Dedication is, by any standards, a very strange piece of writing. The question whether or not we use the word ‘dedicate’ for what Thorpe does to Mr W.H. is immaterial; either way, in Plowden’s version Mr W.H. becomes the ‘begetter’ of the Sonnets. Scholars and critics have struggled to make meaning out of this, almost invariably by distorting the sense of that simple word ‘beget’. I prefer to hold to its meaning of ‘procreate, create’. If Shakespeare is the ‘begetter’ he is therefore the dedicatee, in which case he did not publish the Sonnets – a conclusion which may be found sympathetic on other human grounds too.

Barbara Everett
Somerville College, Oxford

SIR: Perhaps you will permit me three brief observations on Barbara Everett’s article and the ensuing correspondence. First, I believe it is wrong to assume Thomas Thorpe in any way involved in writing the Dedication of the Sonnets, for one simple reason: his initials are not centred as is the rest. He carefully places himself well to the right, well below, and in a different fount. By this means he dissociates himself from the authorship of the text. Second, I thank Barbara Everett for her observation on the ‘monumental’ full-stops in the Dedication and their function as separators of words. The presence of such separators in a mason’s engraving is to get over the lack of room for making large enough word spaces: a practice which, as she observes, also develops some artistic merit. What had not occurred to me until I read the article was that this is a jeweller’s habit too, when engraving legends in confined areas on precious metals. Could the author be sending a jewel with the Sonnets? And if so, does he tell us what kind of a jewel it is, as he must surely do unless both parties are privy to the conceit?

There seemed to me to be three clues: one which has always bothered commentators – the impossibility of the syntax; then the presence of 28 full-stops, which seems to negate the punctilious function of any of them; and lastly the not unreasonable relationship (in Elizabethan terms) of 28 words to the days of the lunar cycle, at the end of which the 28 day is followed by the first again. Using these clues, if we re-arrange the Dedication by starting at the only other possible place, I believe we cure the syntax and expose a jewel, viz:


Seen thus the jewel is a ring, the very symbol of eternity.

Finally, a small point of detail. What the American lady is reported actually to have asked Fats Waller was ‘Mr Waller, what is swing?’, to which he replied: ‘Lady, if you got to ask, you ain’t got it.’

Albert Chatterley
London SE3

Vol. 9 No. 6 · 19 March 1987

SIR: You have to admire the speed of Barbara Everett’s footwork (LRB, 18 December 1986). She puts forward the amusing theory that Shakespeare addressed his sonnets to his wife. I ask (prosaically): ‘But, what about those sonnets where the poet appears to be urging a young man to get married? A funny thing to write to a wife’. Everett, at great length, dodges the question, but asserts that the Man Right Fair and the Dark Lady are Victorian Myths. She draws my attention to the old saw that ‘metaphor is the soul of poetry,’ and says that those early sonnets ‘work well as an internal debate on Life versus Art’. (This ‘work well’ reveals all: it shows that, for Everett, reading is a purely creative process in which we can modishly make the words on a page ‘mean’ what we want them to ‘mean’.) I reply: ‘But you still haven’t answered the question. What about the indisputable maleness of the addressee?’ She replies (surprisingly for one who floated the notion that Shakespeare was addressing his wife) that the person addressed ‘appears’ to be ‘a hermaphrodite’. We are in the world of metaphor again. She repeats her belief that Shakespeare was ‘partial to’ his wife, and adds (Everett the gossip columnist) some fascinating speculations about the harmony of my own marital relations.

I am glad that she makes it so clear that the Sonnets can mean whatever we make them mean. Since all is metaphor, we need not quarrel about anything so sordid as a fact. It would have pained me to point out to Everett, who (I read once in a Sunday paper) leads a reclusive life, that a hermaphrodite is not the same as an androgynous young man whose pretty features call back the lovely April of his mother’s prime. I should also have found it distasteful to suggest that there was Freudian significance in Everett’s inability both to see the smutty joke in Sonnet XX or get the Fats Waller quotation right. ‘Lady, if you gotta ask, you ain’t got it’ becomes, in such a context, positively obscene.

So, I promise not to take up any more of your space with attempts to get Everett to deviate into sense about the Sonnets. May I raise one general point, though, about which your readers probably have views? It is this business of Shakespeare being devoted to his wife. Beyond the fact that they lived apart for needlessly long periods, and that he provided for her with notorious minginess in his will, we do not know much about the relations between Shakespeare and Ann Hathaway. Yet Everett ‘can’t believe in a Shakespeare who loved and married a fool’ (Letters, 5 February) and more recently (Letters, 5 March) she ‘argues’ that Shakespeare was partial to his wife. This from someone who thinks that the Man Right Fair and the Dark Lady are ‘myths’! Merely because Shakespeare was the most generous and humane of all great geniuses, why should we believe that he liked his wife? It is simply a non-sequitur. Literary history is full of geniuses who were either wretchedly unhappy with their wives or who were married to fools, or both. One does not need to choose extreme examples, such as Strindberg, Wesley, Milton, Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy, Carlyle, Ruskin or Meredith, to make the point.

A.N. Wilson

SIR: I have little doubt that Barbara Everett’s piquant review of John Kerrigan’s edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ was of great interest to persons in the Eng Lit trade. Outsiders like myself were less well done by. What somehow got lost sight of and was not recovered in the subsequent correspondence was an indication of the immense help the common reader of the poems receives from Kerrigan’s book. Its ‘Introduction’ of 63 pages I find as informative as it is lucid and ambitious; the 257 pages of ‘Notes’ are detailed without ever being pedantic, helpful without being patronising, and comprehensive without being tedious; and even the critical ‘Account of the Text’ is written with the needs of the inexpert reader in mind. Don’t you, sir, think that all this amounts to a service that is worth mentioning, and even perhaps commending?

J.P. Stern
Williams College, Massachusetts

Vol. 9 No. 7 · 2 April 1987

SIR: A.N. Wilson (Letters, 19 March) doesn’t understand the meaning of words. A more frequent use of the dictionary might temper his states of resentment. ‘Partial’ means ‘prejudiced, not impartial’; it doesn’t mean (as he imagines) ‘amorous’.

He similarly misunderstands most of my other words, which don’t matter, and many of Shakespeare’s, which do. The ‘indisputable’ maleness of the subject of the Sonnets can be disputed by anyone who can read. Of the 154 Sonnets, around 123 are unspecific as to the gender of the person(s) they address or concern. All are fairly inward, and some plainly ‘address’ nobody; one or two are scarcely even about love. Of the remainder, around seventeen suggest a male, and around fourteen suggest a female. These figures are approximate, but the predominance of the ‘ungendered’ must strike a reader. And even the more ‘male-suggesting’ of the Sonnets include difficulties such as Wilson, who can’t abide a metaphor, wants us not to know about. Two such sonnets, 20 (‘the Master Mistris’) and 144 (‘Two loves I have’), I dealt with in my last letter, and I note Wilson’s telling silence on the subject. I will give one further case here. One ‘ungendered’ sonnet, 82, in the middle of what we like to call the Fair Young Man group, has for its first line: ‘I grant thou wert not married to my Muse.’ A reader will straightforwardly place the stress where it belongs, on the rhyme-word ‘Muse’. But a subject not married to my Muse has to be married to my something else. It seems unsafe to assume that Shakespeare wanted to assume that we are all rather relaxed about homosexual marriage. And the Sonnets, though intensely original, nowhere initiate the kind of convention-breaking advertisement required to announce that wives can be men, too, in Wilson’s ‘factual’ sense (homosexual sonnets were written, and they aren’t like Shakespeare’s). The common-sense conclusion is that the sonnet is addressed to somebody rather like a wife.

It would take up too much of your space to accumulate all the evidence of ways in which these poems make their ‘subject’ or ‘subjects’ peculiarly ambiguous, even as to gender and status. What interests me is that the poet himself wills that ambiguity – that Wilson’s voulu simplicities work against the very poems themselves. A ‘fact’ hardly to be derived from Wilson’s letters is that these sonnets have long been acknowledged as among the most difficult poems ever written in English. Readers of the LRB might find the entertainment this correspondence so far fails to provide in looking up Sonnet 112, ‘Your love and pittie’ – a poem so difficult as to be quietly despaired of by most editors, almost all of whom variously emend its last line:

You are so strongly in my purpose bred,
That all the world besides me thinkes y’are dead.

I think the emenders are wrong, and the difficult sense Shakespeare makes is what he means: though Wilson, of course, would call the poet’s mocking self-awareness here sheer ‘modishness’. This is why his presuppositions can’t be accepted. They degrade the Sonnets. He allows himself to assume, for the purposes of argument, a bright and shallow appearance of common sense, a talk of ‘facts’, that denies the very nature of these poems. I agree with all despairing, or undespairing, editors that the reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is a more difficult undertaking than Wilson is trying to make us believe.

Barbara Everett
Somerville College, Oxford

SIR: Albert Chatterley, commenting on Barbara Everett’s Shakespeare article and the ensuing correspondence (Letters, 5 March), makes ‘a small point of detail’ about ‘an American lady’ who asks Fats Waller: ‘Mr Waller, what is swing?’ According to Chatterley, Waller replied: ‘Lady, if you got to ask, you ain’t got it.’ This I’m afraid is still not strictly accurate. What Waller said was: ‘Look, lady, if you gotta ask, you ain’t got it.’ Moreover the woman in question was a Mrs Crutchley, who came, oddly enough, from Middlesbrough, and was visiting cousins in Leonia, NJ, one of whom had the entrée to the late-night jam-sessions at Minton’s. Fats Waller is said to have remarked later that night to an (unidentified) companion: ‘I got big eyes for that limey cat.’ So she wasn’t an American lady at all. But this probably doesn’t affect the story one way or the other.

Bernard McCabe
London NW3

SIR: Barbara Everett is wrong to say (Letters, 5 March) that my condensation of the so-called dedication to Shakespeare’s Sonnets produces the Mr W.H. enigma. The enigma arises from Mr W.H.’s being the only begetter, and this is a result of the original syntax of the dedication, not of the condensation, which does not alter the syntax. The syntax of the traditional reading is perfectly possible, while that of Barbara Everett’s reading, which requires Mr W.H. to be somehow the subject of ‘wisheth’ is not possible. This is what Housman, whose name shines in an adjoining column to my first letter, calls a ‘stony fact’.

G.F.C. Plowden
London SW1

Vol. 9 No. 8 · 23 April 1987

SIR: Here we go again. I promised not to quarrel any more with Barbara Everett about Shakespeare’s Sonnets. By all means let her believe that they were addressed to Mrs Shakespeare, to the Earl of Southampton’s cat, to anyone she likes. Fine by me. When she said that Shakespeare was ‘partial’ to his wife, however, I thought that she meant that he was fond of her, more than that he was prejudiced in her favour. Now, apparently, I should have used the dictionary before leaping to any such conclusion. My Oxford Dictionary gives ‘having a liking for, or fond of’ as one definition of the word ‘partial’. Perhaps Everett was using a different dictionary.

Larkin, incidentally, was fond of Barbara Everett, as I am. Her overpraise of Larkin and Amis is full of the generous percipience for which she enjoys her following. It is almost as though it comes from a pen different from the one which writes about Shakespeare and about me.

A.N. Wilson

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