One of the biggest improvements to my life in 2022 and 2023 has been to re-engage with Shakespeare’s work. There’s been such joy – as well as healing – in reading The Winter’s Tale, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Julius Caesar and Cymbeline. I’ve now embarked on a project to read all the plays in a year or two (as Hotspur said: “The time of life is short! / To spend that shortness basely were too long.”)
But what of the poetry?
Prior to last year, my engagement with Shakespeare’s poetry was limited to Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, both of which I read as an English Literature undergraduate in the 1990s. I say that I read them: I have no memory of doing so but was recently surprised to discover my Arden 2nd edition text annotated in my own handwriting.
Yet something else troubled me. I had never read the sonnets. I bought a Penguin edition some years ago, perhaps out of a sense of romantic posturing, but not only did it remain unread, I gave the book away during a brief enthusasm for Marie Kondo. When Waterstone’s opened in Lichfield last year, I showed my support for the new bookshop by buying the same edition of the sonnets. I did read some of it this time, but it was hard going without footnotes.
This is probably a common problem amongst sonnet virgins. While some poems are familiar (too familiar, perhaps) others are seriously challenging, even for people who are reading All the Plays of Shakespeare. And what are we to make of the fact that some of the sonnets are addressed to a male friend and others to a ‘Dark Lady’?
Luckily, around this time I heard a podcast about All the Sonnets of Shakespeare, edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells, so went immediately to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust bookshop in Stratford-upon-Avon, where I bought a copy, with its luxurious cover of writhing lillies and gold-embossed lettering. Thus equipped, I began a ‘sonnet-a-day’ project, which involved reading one sonnet in the morning before work, coffee in hand, and journaling on it.
In 1964, W. H. Auden wrote: “Probably, more nonsense has been talked and written, more intellectual and emotional energy expended in vain, on the sonnets of Shakespeare than on any other literary work in the world”. But what became clear to me is that All the Sonnets of Shakespeare is not a biographical reading (the sort of “nonsense” referred to by Auden) but a radical reworking of our understanding of Shakespeare’s poetry.
For a start, the poems are not presented in their original order – as published in 1609 – but in the order the editors think they were written, based on an analysis of the language and a wider understanding of Shakespeare’s work.
This was a relief because I had previously found the sonnets addressed to the young man – the so-called ‘procreation’ cycle – to be something of a slog (I know what Hesketh Pearson meant when he called the sonnets: “those sometimes beautiful but mostly tedious poems”). In addition, I find the youth/dark lady tropes incredibly unhelpful when trying to imaginatively engage with the works.
Reading through All the Sonnets of Shakespeare (which, incidentally, opens with sonnet no. 154) I began to enjoy the feeling of unmooring these works from Shakespeare’s biography. Not that the editors completely eschew biographical possibilities (as mentioned in the excellent Introduction, two of the sonnets are written from the perspective of someone on horseback, and another sonnet accompanied the gift of an almanac) but the poems are “read for traces of [Shakespeare’s] personality” rather than through one, restrictive lens.
Another pleasing aspect of All the Sonnets of Shakespeare is that the book includes all the sonnets, by which the editors mean, sonnets within the plays too (such as the famous “If I profane…” scene in Romeo and Juliet – yes, it’s a sonnet). The book also includes a one-or-two-line plain-English summary of each sonnet at the bottom of the page, longer plain-English summaries at the back of the book, and the occasional reminder in the notes that the poem “Could be addressed to either a male or female”.
Because I’m not a taskmaster over poetry (if I don’t have time, I leave it to another day) it took me roughly seven-to-eight months to read them all. I began by being quite reliant on the notes and summaries, but as I gained in confidence, I covered them up while I read the poem, only reading them when I’d finished (always curious to see if Edmondson and Wells agreed with my interpretation or not). I also copied a lot of the sonnets out by hand, which slowed me down and helped me to appreciate each line.
Now that I’ve finished both book and project, I feel slightly bereft, but the great thing about classic literature is that it gets better on the re-reading. As I went along, I identified 26 sonnets that resonated with me, and I’m in now the process of re-reading them and whittling them down to a personal top ten, which I’ll publish here in due course.
If you have favourite sonnets or editions, do please let me know in the comments!
All the Sonnets of Shakespeare, edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
You might also enjoy: Happy Folio Day | Katherine Rundell’s ‘Super-Infinite’: a John Donne Biography on Steroids.