Glitches and Green Worlds in the Sonnets

By Harrison, Matthew | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 2016 | Go to article overview

Glitches and Green Worlds in the Sonnets


Harrison, Matthew, Shakespeare Studies


In his edition of the sonnets, David West writes that the "key" to Shakespeare's sonnet 32 is "that it is totally insincere" (110). (1) In that poem, you'll remember, the speaker imagines a moment after his death when his beloved comes across his poems. They have not aged well: whether by the vicissitudes of taste or the steady development of poetic technique, they now seem "outstripped by every pen," "Exceeded by the height of happier men" (32.6, 32.8). The solution, offered twice, is to read "for ... love" rather than for "rhyme" or "style" (32.14, 32.7, 32.14). (2)

West's point echoes through the criticism, not only of this moment but of the many similar moments in which Renaissance poetic speakers malign their own poems. We read failure as insincere mastery. Thus West refers this instance to "the convention of an ironic personal depreciation or mock modesty in the sonnet tradition." Likewise, Hyder Rollins reminds us of "the Elizabethan convention of pretended humility" (in Atkins 101), Atkins of the reader's "difficulty accepting the humility as genuine" (100), and Vendler of the "modesty topos" (174). (3) But notice that these four accounts (of irony, convention, disbelief, and topos) all locate the problem slightly differently: in the sonnet tradition, in Elizabethan culture, in readerly reaction, or in that long tradition of writerly self-deprecation. Even in calling the sonnet's sense of its own failures conventional, we disagree on what convention is being invoked.

I want to suggest that insincerity is this poem's key without being its claim. That this is a poem we are locked out of, and insincerity is one way of getting in. We cannot read the poem the way it asks to be read, for "my love." Note, by the way, how that phrase oscillates between "for love of me" and "in remembrance of my love of you"--and how painful the gap between those two can be in the Sonnets. In both cases, the poem begs for an intimate, specific, embodied love that we, separated by time and so much else from speaker and beloved, cannot offer.

So we take the readings our instruments allow, not only here but throughout the literary tradition. We systematically decode moments of doubt, confusion, relinquishment, and failure into signs of mastery over stylistic traditions. (4) In the brief time I have, I want to think through another way into such poems. And I want to do so by thinking about failure.

So: one mode of thinking about failure is what I will call "comic failure." We find this kind of failure laid out in self-help books and entrepreneurial culture, in advice to "fail better," "fail faster," "fail forward," and so on. Comic failure recuperates unpleasant feelings by incorporating them into narratives that (allegedly) move towards success. Such accounts are ideologically potent: they turn moments of abjection, rejection, dismay, or bad luck into reaffirmations of dominant values. (5)

I call this comic failure because it is the movement of so much comedy: a structural blockage becomes a series of personal mistakes--misconceptions, misrecognitions, blunders--that lead into a reaffirmation of a more-or-less existing order. At least for certain members of the cast. (We might think, for instance, about how As You Like It turns problems of capital--inheritance--into problems of cultural capital that can be resolved with a little "education," a show of valor in rescuing his brother, and a friendship with the Duke.)

The Sidneyan sonnet, in particular, often deploys this kind of comic failure. A structural problem (Stella's refusal, the conflict between virtue and desire) turns psychological and is then revised through wit. The sonnet "Grammar Rules" is exemplary for the ways wit reinterprets rejection as acceptance: two no's, he asserts, make a yes. We often read sonnets of self-deprecation, loss, and despair in exactly this way: the speaker's "rudeness" becomes, through the magic of sprezzatura, evidence of his mastery. …

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