Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Friday, 19 October 2012

"Reading Shakespeare's Sonnets" by Don Paterson (Faber, 2010)

Of all the well-known poets, Paterson's the one I feel the most in sympathy with - in his attitude to poetry, how far he theorizes and what he theorizes about, etc. In the introduction he writes "I formed a vague plan to read one or two sonnets a day, keep a record of my thoughts, feelings, gut reactions and reflections ... I revised these notes as little as possible, and hope that this book has retained the feel of the 'reading diary' that it was", p.X. The result is entertaining and informative.

He comments on the poems as a poet ("being a poet, I'm always keenly aware of less noble reasons for doing things. It's entirely possible that WS separated the poems so that we wouldn't notice he'd recycled his rhymes", p.117) and as a man who's been in and out of love, who's heard all the excuses before. He tries to follow the plot of Shakespeare's emotions through the series, distinguishing the mere conceits from the expressions of emotion. His paraphrases are useful, his judgements uninhibited ("It begins with ... a rather dull run of seventeen poems", XIII).

When the poems fail, they do so in various ways - they're confused, boring, repetitive, commissioned, etc. Some are of interest only as psychological reports (WS doesn't come over as especially self-aware). At times Paterson sounds like a forthright workshop commenter

  • "But l.4 is a nightmare. No one knows what it means. This is bad, as I'm pretty certain that WS intended a single meaning, or at least an uppermost one", p.75
  • "... is just about the most pointless run of alliteration in the Sonnets, and the sign of a poet clutching at straws", p.195

He thinks that the ordering and numbering were under Shakespeare's control, and that some numbers were especially significant. He tries to date some of the poems, using his knowledge of history, the plays and stylistic clues - "I think we can infer a fair gap of time between sonnets 99 and 100 - not least because he's started to write well again", p.288

He reminds us that things were different in those days

  • "Back then, puns held a lot more entertainment value than they do now; they had to. A good new pun did the rounds like a viral video", p.315
  • "its" didn't exist and they had fewer punctuation symbols

Sometimes he takes a break from the sonnets, giving us his opinions - he

  • has a theory of metrical analysis
  • has a theory of metaphor
  • thinks that few couplets work. "subtitles-for-the-thick" (p.269)
  • believes criticism shouldn't be too serious
  • knows that poets have tricks that non-poets aren't always aware of
  • prefers poetry-writing where the poet's exploring

He gives us his context-setting opinions -

  • "The question 'was Shakespeare gay?' is so stupid as to be barely worth answering, but for the record: of course he was", p.XIII
  • "If we just read the poem, we read half the poem; we should also read the author (... I used to hold the opposite position - i.e. the New critical line ... I was wrong. There's a continuity between author, text and reader, and a rich reading engages with its whole length", p.206
  • "No one, however, has exploited the possibilities of the thematic domain quite like WS, who will often sever words from their native part of speech and even primary denotation, and allow them to float free and orient themselves according to the weird magnetic force-field of the poem alone", p.237
  • "For me, the problem with the most elaborate Elizabethan poetry is that it's predicated on a non-existent type of reader, and I'll stop there, before I say something career-destroyingly unfashionable about John Donne", p.468

Here's a sample of his views on particular sonnets

  • 10 "Another dull one", p.34
  • 29 "There's very little here to lift it out of the mundane ... this sonnet has often been placed among the very greatest", p.88
  • 36 "This is one of the very few sonnets, incidentally, which Coleridge regarded as of the first water ... STC had a point-system ... Only eight [sonnets] gained top marks. His choices are utterly bizarre ... I like this one too", p.110
  • 37 "the whole poem turns out to be a shoddy patchwork of ideas and effects WS has developed or will develop elsewhere, and has no thematic coherence whatsoever", p.113
  • 47 "this wretched poem ... is so thin you want to wrap it up and feed it soup", p.138
  • 55 "I'm no great fan of this sonnet ... I find it a bit crude and mildly hysterical ... I maintain that Wendy Cope's splendid parody ,... is the superior work, and by some distance", p.163
  • 56 "A lovely, wretchedly undervalued poem on a too-little-mentioned twist in love's awful narrative", p.165
  • 60 "This is a magnificient piece of verse", p.175
  • 63 "This poem is without interest", p.184
  • 70 "For Will, this is D-minus stuff", p.203
  • 73 "justly celebrated as one of the most beautiful of the sonnets", p.210
  • 93 "I'm very fond of this often overlooked sonnet", p.266
  • 97 "Me and Coleridge like this one, but no-one else as far as I can make out. I wish that was paying me a compliment, but Coleridge had bloody awful taste", p.276
  • 107 "its obscurity has given it undeserved prominence … a pretty average effort", p.307
  • 116 "One of the most famous of all the sonnets, and even Coleridge thought this one was special", p.340
  • 118 "No paraphrase can do a shred of justice to the almost inhuman cleverness of this argument, the glorious balance of the whole, its logically rigorous defence of its own irrationality, its original phrasemaking, its flawlessly pursued conceit", p.348
  • 130 "God only knows why this wretched little poem is so popular", p.392
  • 145 "many critics consider this poem so awful they'd like to see it excluded from the sequence", p.443
  • 146 "this is a terrific poem", p.447
  • 147 "Ted Hughes thought highly of this sonnet", p.456
  • 152 "Would that this sequence had ended better, but in a sense it's beautifully symmetrical, having started so poorly"

As well as the views of Coleridge and Hughes, we hear from Wordsworth, who thought the Dark Lady sonnets "abominably harsh, obscure & worthless"

The typos increase later on - obligued (p.243), superblydirected (p.240), thetight (p.422), somtimes (p.459), haev (p.465)

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