Reading Shakespeare’s sonnets

If you like Shakespeare’s sonnets then you will be interested to know that Don Paterson has recently published a new commentary on them. You can read an article about the writing of this commentary, by Paterson himself, on the Guardian website here.

Anyone who has followed the few entries in this blog – and I apologise sincerely for those who return looking for something new and find it all but abandoned these last months – will notice a fondness for Paterson. I confess to finding him one of the most interesting living poets and am drawn to everything he writes. The piece on his book Rain that I wrote is here, but, for those interested there is a transcript here of the speech he gave on receiving the T S Eliot prize for poetry a few years ago. It’s a lovely analysis of what he calls the ‘dark arts.’

But back to this article. There are a couple of delightful little asides, not least of which is an account of his struggle with Helen Vendler’s commentary on the sonnets. Vendler is one of our foremost analysts of poetry, and, normally, she elucidates and adds to a poem she is talking about. In the case of the sonnets she spends several hundred pages of a very handsomely bound book demonstrating the arcane structures she has discovered within them, how one word, like ‘love’ will be used and re-used, twisted, added to and finally contorted within the last two rhyming lines. Paterson says of this:

‘I also wanted to try to bring a bit of sanity to the discussion of how Shakespeare wrote these crazy poems in the first place. The main motivation here was reading Helen Vendler’s brilliant and infuriating The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. As a critic, Vendler has led me through the thickets like a bemused and grateful child for years now, but I’ve had growing misgivings over her critical method, and her Shakespeare book was where I finally lost it. (Twice I found myself on my hands and knees, taping the book back together after it had bounced off the wall.)

I wanted to say something to counteract the perception of Shakespeare’s compositional method as a kind of lyric soduku, and put in a word for the kind of glorious, messy procedure I’m quite certain it was, whatever the crystalline and symmetrical beauty of the final results.’

And, earlier he comments on the type of love being described:

‘This is a crazy, all-consuming, feverish and sweaty love; love, in all its uncut, full-strength intensity; an adolescent love. The reader’s thrill lies in hearing this adolescent love articulated by a hyper-literate thirty-something. Usually these kids can’t speak. The effect is extraordinary: they are not poems that are much use when we’re actually in love, I’d suggest; but when we read them, they are so visceral in their invocation of that mad, obsessive, sleepless place that we can again feel, as CK Williams said, “the old heart stamping in its stall”.’

Just to finish I thought I might include my favourite sonnet (because I can) number 73, one that others often seem to ignore:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold,

When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou seest the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west,

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death’s second self that seals up all in rest.

In me thou seest the glowing of such fire

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie

As the death-bed whereon it must expire,

Consumed with that which it was nourished by.

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

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