Making Shakespeare’s Sonnets – part 2

Let’s say I’m putting together an edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets for a prestigious publishing house. I spin slowly on my incredibly expensive orthopaedic office chair, casting my handsome and intelligent eyes around my oak panelled study and across my many shelves of rare books. I puff thoughtfully at my cigar, before stubbing it out in an exquisite antique ashtray; I rise, catlike, and make my way to the shelves with my customary athleticism and grace. Time to begin on my definitive edition of the sonnets, then. I take down my personal copy of the 1609 Shake-speares Sonnets, printed, it says, ‘By G. Eld for T. T‘ – ‘to be sold by William Aspley‘, it adds, in slightly smaller type; in smaller type still, ‘1609’.

Good. But what are Shakespeare’s sonnets? The title of this little book seems fairly clear: with no little brilliance I deduce that the poems within are – presumably – Shakespeare’s sonnets. And yet, as Helen Vendler notes in her book, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, sonnets written by Shakespeare pop up elsewhere, too. Romeo and Juliet share a sonneting rhyme scheme when they first meet; Berowne and Longaville trot out sonnets in Love’s Labour’s Lost; there is an epiloguing sonnet at the end of Henry V. These may be sonnets written by Shakespeare but, Vendler argues, they are not Shakespeare’s Sonnets:

The sonnets uttered within plays by dramatic characters […] are shaped by the themes of the drama and by the actions taking place on the stage; they do not show the successive intellectual position-taking that is such a striking feature of the Sonnets.

The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Belknap Press, 1997) pp. 5-6

This is not just a judgement that the sonnets uttered within plays are part of other pieces of work: they are, in Vendler’s view, qualitatively different things. (The sonnet at the end of Henry V, she says, is ‘outward, expository, and narrative’, unlike those within the 1609 Shake-speares Sonnets, which are, she says, ‘inward, meditative, and lyrical’). So announcing what ‘Shakespeare’s sonnets’ aren’t (that is: our idea of them should not include Henry V’s epilogue, or Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting) begins to argue something about what Shakespeare’s sonnets are. It also makes some judgements about that 1609 book Shake-speares Sonnets printed by G. Eld for ‘T. T.’. Helen Vendler’s take that the poems in Shake-speares Sonnets display a ‘successive intellectual position-taking’ might seem quite innocuous at first glance, but even to assert that the poems belong together and that they function as a series hasn’t always been treated as uncontroversial – as we shall see, if you’ll permit me a cliffhanger.

Let’s ask again, then: what are Shakespeare’s sonnets? To sound pernickety, the question hangs on another: what is Shake-speares Sonnets? On this point, it’s fun to compare the cover and the title page attached to Vendler’s consummate close reading of Shakespeare’s poems:

detail from front cover ^
detail from title page ^

Vendler’s title page makes a typographical distinction between her title and that of the book it’s talking about; the front cover doesn’t. This problem is perhaps on the level of the logistical rather than the literary – does the remit of Vendler’s book cover all of Shakespeare’s sonnets (let’s be generous and say ‘any poem written by Shakespeare that’s 14 lines long’), or is the book an analysis of the contents of one book, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, first printed in 1609? Our twin questions – what are Shakespeare’s sonnets / what is Shake-speares Sonnets – are made more difficult to answer if we accept that some of the poems found in the 1609 Shake-speares Sonnets seem to have had an independent, itinerant life before being put into print as part of a ‘successive intellectual position-taking’ by ‘G. Eld’ for ‘T. T.’. What do we do when we find some sonnets written by Shakespeare – and found in the 1609 Shake-speares Sonnets – were printed by William Jaggard 10 years earlier, included in a book called The Passionate Pilgrim? Though Jaggard puts Shakespeare’s name on the title page, this may have been an attempt to make some easy money on Shakespeare’s growing popularity, for analysing linguistic traits and contemporary records and literary allusions seems to tell us this much:

Only the three sonnets which open The Passionate Pilgrim, and one further sonnet and lyrics, can be confidently claimed as Shakespeare’s. The two opening poems were later to appear in the 1609 Quarto (Q) as sonnets 138 and 144, and the other three were taken from the 1598 Quarto of Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Katherine Duncan-Jones, introduction to her Arden edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, p. 1

Whatever the story is behind sonnets 138 and 144 pluckily wandering around 10 years before being stood in line among 152 others in Shake-speares Sonnets, the fact that they did troubles attempts to treat the poems within Eld’s book as a coherent entity; the ‘successive’ nature of the ‘intellectual position-taking’ might not be a given.

I light up another cigar; I pour another whiskey; as the sun leans low in the sky I shiver and pull my mink stole more snugly around my shoulders. This edition may be more trouble than it’s worth. The logistical difficulties of inclusion and exclusion – of deciding, simply, which poems constitute Shakespeare’s Sonnets – will lead me towards some sort of a statement about how I think these poems are to be read with one another. I’ve not even gotten into whether I’ll be including A Lover’s Complaint, a poem made up of 47 rime-royal stanzas which follow the 154 sonnets in Shake-speares Sonnets. Katherine Duncan-Jones includes it in her Arden edition. John Kerrigan’s Penguin edition is called The Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint. Colin Burrow edited a book called The Complete Sonnets and Poems for the Oxford Shakespeare. What the hell am I going to call it? That whiskey went down quick. I pour another.

And then – problems upon problems! – I have to decide what the poems themselves say. Most of the sonnets written by Shakespeare only seem to survive extant in Eld’s printed version, but of course in the case of sonnets 138 and 144 we have some variations to consider:

sonnet 138, taken from ‘Shake-speares Sonnets’ (1609)
a very similar version of the poem as it appears in ‘The Passionate Pilgrim’ (1599) – major verbal differences highlighted in orange

In such instances, editors normally work out which version they trust most. The extent of that trust has to do with the genesis of the printed text: the circumstances of the poems’ arrival in the print shop, and the processes by which the poems were put into print. As I’ll show in the posts to come over the next few weeks (more cliffhangers!), teasing out the specific history of any given early modern text’s formulation in print is difficult – sometimes, in some aspects, outright impossible. Even when we only have one text to choose from, editors might still find certain aspects of its appearance unsatisfactory, untrustworthy, and perhaps only more or less representative of the text that Shakespeare wrote. As such, an editor’s engagement with Shakespeare’s sonnets (or Shake-speares Sonnets) tends to be something circular: a literary interpretation of the poems depends upon the perceived trustworthiness of the text, and the perception of the text’s trustworthiness drives the editor’s literary interpretation of Shake-speare’s Sonnets.

In next week’s post I’ll outline some of the spikier arguments that have arisen out of these circular editorial mullings. For now, a particularly extreme example of editors having to make a decision. Here are the first four lines of sonnet 146 as it appears in Eld’s 1609 Shake-speares Sonnets:

The repetition of ‘my sinful earth’ doesn’t make obvious sense, and it’s caused several centuries of consternation. General consensus holds that something has gone wrong in the printing: that, composing the text in type, some poor hapless hand followed some poor lost eye and set the words at the end of line 1 mistakenly once more at the start of line 2. Summing this state of affairs up in his book Shakespeare’s Modern Collaborators, Lukas Erne sets out how editors have tended to ‘agree that emendation is necessary’. ‘Yet how are the first three words of line 2 best emended?’, he asks:

By ‘Feeding’ (Arden 3), ‘Spoiled by’ (Oxford), or ‘Thrall to’ (Bevington)? Or by one of the solutions mentioned in the New Cambridge edition: ‘Fooled by’, ‘Starved by’, ‘Foiled by’, ‘Pressed by’, ‘Rebuke’, ‘Bearing’, ‘Fenced by’, or ‘Gulled by’? Or by one of the more than eighty (!) other readings that have been proposed? It makes little sense to argue that one of these readings is correct and the others wrong, yet an editor’s choice can have definite critical implications.

Lukas Erne, Shakespeare’s Modern Collaborators (London: Continuum, 2008) p. 22

Riffle to sonnet 146 in your copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets – or The Sonnets and a Lover’s Complaint, or The Complete Sonnets and Poems, or whatever it is you have in front of you. What has your editor chosen to write at the start of Line 2? Hunt around for their explanation – it may be in the small print at the bottom of the page; it may be in the notes at the end of the book; it may be in a ‘Note on the Text’ at the end of the introduction; it might not, perhaps, even be discussed anywhere in the book at all. Editors will normally feel duty-bound to put something here – but it’s worth reflecting that the words committed to print at this point in your edition may never actually have been Shakespeare’s.

In next week’s post I’ll be focussing on editorial treatments of Sonnet 126 (‘O Thou my louely boy’). Click on the link to visit Internet Shakespeare Editions, where you can read over the poem as it was printed in the 1609 Shake-speares Sonnets.

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