- William Shakespeare: The Sonnets and ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ edited by John Kerrigan
Viking, 458 pp, £14.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 670 81466 0
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:
CUI VITAM DEDIT ET MORTEM
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.
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?’
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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:
OUR. EVER-LIVING. POET. WISHETH. THE. WELL-WISHING. ADVENTURER. IN. SETTING. FORTH. TO. THE. ONLIE. BEGETTER. OF. THESE. INSUING. SONNETS. Mr. W. H. ALL. HAPPINESSE. AND. THAT. ETERNITIE. PROMISED. BY. OUR. EVER-LIVING. POET.
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.’
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.
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?
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.
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.
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’.
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.