Dazzling Puzzles

By Swift, Daniel | The Spectator, November 27, 2010 | Go to article overview

Dazzling Puzzles


Swift, Daniel, The Spectator


Reading Shakespeare's Sonnets

by Don Paterson

Faber, £17.99, pp. 500,

ISBN 9780571245024

Halfway through his new book about Shakespeare's sonnets, Don Paterson quotes W.H. Auden. Auden was one of Shakespeare's great commentators and he firmly warned against reading the sonnets as simple statements. 'It is also nonsensical, ' Auden wrote, 'to waste time trying to identify characters. It is an idiot's job, pointless and uninteresting.'

Shakespeare's 154 sonnets are dazzling puzzles, rich and strange, and they have often been met with manic speculation in the place of reasoned literary criticism. Critics have sought to explain who the Dark Lady is, and who these apparent love poems are addressed to; they have mined the sonnets for proof of Shakespeare's homosexuality.

Paterson's book sensibly insists that these are foremost poems, and the strongest parts of his commentary are those in which he unpacks the poetic tricks and styles used by Shakespeare. He has a refreshingly commonsense tone. Some of the sonnets are among the finest poems in the English language; others, as Paterson convincingly argues, are almost deliberately strained and obscure.

The problem is that having quoted Auden, Paterson continues, 'Oh, I don't know, ' and proceeds to do precisely that which Auden advised against. Based upon a string of strained premises, he identifies one character addressed by Shakespeare as George Chapman, most famous for his translation of the Iliad, and then argues that Chapman is haunted by the ghost of Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare's influential predecessor.

He goes on to claim that the sonnets as a whole are directly addressed to Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton. At best, this is a childlike move - why bother to quote Auden only to dismiss him? - and at worst, it is the kind of self-indulgent affront to the reader that marks much of Paterson's book. He shows off, by alluding to another commentator on the sonnets;

and then laughs off the idea that anyone else might have done this better than he has.

He presents dull, redundant ideas as radical innovations. He is, in the nicest possible terms, tone-deaf.

Paterson is best known as a poet, and he brings with him a practical sense that these sonnets are work: he is attuned to their mechanics, and it is refreshing to be reminded that reading poems does not have to be a fussy or academic pursuit. …

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