Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

The Survival of the Wittiest

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

The Survival of the Wittiest

Article excerpt

David Gewanter applauds a literary - and scientific - exploration of the Bard's poetic longevity.

Why Lyrics Last: Evolution, Cognition, and Shakespeare's Sonnets

By Brian Boyd

Harvard University Press 240pp, Pounds 19.95

ISBN 9780674065642

Published 26 April 2012

The title Why Lyrics Last might cast Shakespeare's sonnets as the crocodile of poetry, riding the waters of poetic innovation untouched, chomping on new literary theories; but the book showcases Brian Boyd - the Vladimir Nabokov expert and author of the well-received On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction - in brilliant conversation with Brian Boyd, the voluble and energetic reader of evolutionary biology. Boyd-lit offers subtle and capacious readings of the sonnets' playfulness, their ways of challenging and attracting four centuries of readers. Boyd- bio explores the affinities between the sonnets and science: from terror management theory to male mating efforts, from cognition research to Maori battle songs.

Does evolution, as a paradigm, offer a wider field of association than, say, the trial balloons of New Historicism or the late wheezing of Sigmund Freud? Boyd-bio nimbly employs both the blood-sport Darwinism of Herbert Spencer and the brotherly Darwinism of Peter Kropotkin, and can speculate on biological "status" and societal "prestige" in the sonnets.

Yet he offers an end-purpose for lyric: a bid for sexual selection. Men produce lots of sperm, and lots of sonnets; women are resistant and choosy. This reproductive imperative cannot easily account for the lyrics of prayer, nature, politics or mourning; single-sex love; or lyrics by women. Nor can the customary meat-and-poetics of lyric - irony, depression, contra naturam spasms, Philip Larkin's "Old Toad" - seem an evolutionary success. The risky leaps that Boyd-bio takes are breathtaking, and open Shakespeare's art to fresh enquiry. Still, there are some odd landing spots: does the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's patron, really compare to a silverback gorilla?

The admirably informed Boyd-lit offers crisp and clear readings of sonnets. But he, too, has corralled them in service of a problematic contention: lyrics don't tell narratives. Shakespeare's sonnets have survived, he says, by defeating our expectations for story and by offering patterned play instead. …

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