Reading Shakespeare's Sonnets, By Don Paterson - Reviews - Books - The Independent

Faber & Faber, £17.99, 500pp. £16.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Reading Shakespeare's Sonnets, By Don Paterson

This is not a conventional work of criticism and is all the better for it. Indeed, so far does it depart from the norms of academia that at times it is unclear whether Paterson is writing about Shakespeare or Shakespeare about Don Paterson. As the introduction declares, "reading a Shakespeare sonnet is an act of authorship".

But then any critic starts with a surprisingly empty canvas, given we know so little about the Sonnets. They could have been written at any time between 1582 and 1609, probably in the 1590s. The first 126 address an unknown young man (or YM, as Paterson refers to him) as the object of both the poet's interest and affection. Then the Dark Lady (DL) enters the scene and the last 28 sonnets include her in a more complicated ménage à trois. All save two of the sequence were unpublished before 1609 when a Quarto was produced with no clear dedicatee other than a mysterious Mr WH, and with two (possibly identifying?) lines excised from the final sonnet addressed to the YM.

This diffidence about naming the Young Man is usually interpreted as discreet deference for a presumed aristocratic sponsor. Although as a player-manager, Shakespeare knew how to beat the drum for his works. As a publishing ploy it may have been as successful in enticing interest then as it is now. Few critics also dare to suggest the obvious - that a poet of Shakespeare's unbridled imagination was quite capable of having invented his entire cast.

Most books about the Sonnets take two approaches: they either treat the sequence as a roman à clef and try to identify the YM and DL. The late AL Rowse spun this out over several volumes. Or they get out the concordance and try to exert leverage on every last couplet by placing them in literary context. Neither approach quite satisfies.

Paterson describes his own approach as "diving headlong into the pit". He keeps a loose diary while reading a sonnet a day, so that we get largely unmediated reactions, together with the poems themselves.

He takes a brisk approach to the Young Man problem. Of course, Shakespeare had a sexual relationship with him and was bisexual; no, it doesn't particularly matter who the YM was. What Paterson is really concerned with - and where the book soars above the competition - is how the poems work; how Shakespeare uses and abuses the sonnet form to achieve his effects.

Given that Paterson is one of the finest living poets working in the sonnet form, he brings to this a craftsman's insight and refreshing candour. Writers from Ben Jonson to Philip Larkin have been suspicious of bardolatry, and Paterson is no exception. Where the Master is clearly treading water, he's not afraid to say so, describing one meretricious sonnet as a "turkey".

But if you let Shakespeare write Shakespeare for long enough you're bound to get some masterpieces. Paterson dissects them with clinical thoroughness and a lot of backchat to the nurses; it is not often that the readers of a work of criticism are referred to as "my chickens".

Nor does he always choose the most anthologised to praise. Both "Let me not to the marriage of true minds" and "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun" are batted away as formulaically Platonic and misogynistic respectively. A sonnet like "That time of year though mayst in me behold" he fillets with great tenderness. Where Shakespeare has revised his own work - as with the only two of the poems he published twice - Paterson can show why he might have made those changes.

He is also unusually acute about the physiological effect of poetry – how our dopamine receptors react to stimuli. That is appropriate for a work where the poet often seems flooded by emotions he battles to rationalise.

Above all, his approach allows for a narrative development within the sonnets, plotting the complicated emotional chess moves that develop between the characters: YM to DL; Check; Poet retreats. Some have found the mix of stern poetics and Oprah Winfrey inclusiveness disconcerting. When we get to the final sonnet, 154, Paterson exclaims: "Group hug!" But the great merit of this book – and where it differs from so much academic literary criticism - is that, however eccentric it may occasionally be, it is never dull and frequently brilliant.

Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week