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The Enduring Popularity of Shakespeare's Sonnets

James Sherman, Librarian, Literature & Fiction Department,
Book of Sonnets

This Saturday, January 21, at 2 PM in the Taper Auditorium of Central Library,  the LAPL hosts an opportunity for the general public to read their favorite Shakespeare Sonnets. Shakespeare’s Sonnets are enormously popular -- translated into all major languages ( here’s an excellent ASL Translation of Sonnets 18 and 19), it’s considered writ that they were the very origin of modern love poetry in English.  Many artists have experimented with performance of the Sonnets, such as setting them to music; in one notable version, the Sonnets were turned into the pop songs played on period instruments for Olympics and Queen’s Jubilee.  In another example, Rufus Wainwright set nine of the Sonnets to music.

 

Yet during Shakespeare's life, and for a long time afterwards, the Sonnets were largely ignored.  

 

Typical of the lack of evidence regarding so much of Shakespeare's life, there’s no exact proof that Shakespeare approved of the printing. Many scholars and fans look to the Sonnets as the Bard’s most personal work, and that they were always meant to be private.  As such, Shakespeare may well have been perturbed by their publication.

 

He needn't have worried. The Sonnets were essentially dismissed, perhaps because the sonnet as a form was on the wane by1609 (Cromwell’s ascent and the English Civil War might also have been a factor).  Who today has read Shakespeare’s narrative poetic works Lucrece or Venus and Adonis?  Yet while those poems went through multiple printings during Shakespeare’s life -- Venus and Adonis had been reprinted 17 times by 1675-- the Sonnets were pretty much  ignored, with no discussions of them in contemporary accounts.   For instance, though scholars such as John Blades, in his book on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, note that Ben Jonson and John Donne must have studied Shakespeare’s Sonnets as a primer for their own work in the form, those two poets don’t mention Shakespeare’s Sonnets in any of their correspondence.

 

In fact it wasn't until 1640 that the Sonnets were reprinted,  in an abridged and now controversial form, by John Benson. The Sonnets were published again as a book of general poetry -- subtitled “poems by Shakespeare and other gentlemen” (e.g., Herrick, Beaumont, Milton).  While Benson included the majority of the  Sonnets-- 147 of the 154 -- he took enormous liberties with Shakespeare's work.  For example, where the Sonnets were numbered in 1609, he made up titles, and grouped them thematically. This reorganization appeared to work in some cases:

 

“...the Sonnets which Benson draws together under a single title do have a unity of theme, for example, Sonnets 127 and 130-32, grouped under the title ‘In prayse of her beautie though black’ (sig. E8r )..... Sonnets 38-40 are assembled under the heading ‘A congratulation’ (sig. B7r ), a trio followed by Sonnets 41-42 (‘Losse and gaine’, sig. B8r ). Sonnet 40 actually fits better with the pair that follows than with the Sonnets with which it has been joined. -- Reading Shakespeare's Sonnets.

 

Benson bowdlerized the Sonnets, too, by manipulating the structure so that the first section of 126 Sonnets addressed to a fair youth obscured the fact that the subject was male:

 

For example, in Sonnet 101 Benson changes the male pronouns ‘he’ and ‘him’ to ‘she’ and ‘her’ in the final line of the poem (though he keeps the phrase ‘Because he needs no praise’). This sonnet appears under the title, ‘An invocation to his Muse’, alongside Sonnet 100 (sig. E1r–v). Similarly, in Sonnet 108 Benson replaces ‘sweet boy’ with ‘sweet-love’ conforming to more traditional rules of heterosexual love poetry. This sonnet is combined with Sonnet 107 under the title ‘A monument to Fame’ (sig. F6r–v). In places, Benson’s titles explicitly define the subject of the poem as female: ‘Selfe flattery of her beautie’ (Sonnets 113, 114 and 115, sig. E4r–v) and ‘An intreatie for her acceptance’ (Sonnet 125, sig. E7r). - British Library

 

To be fair to Benson, current scholarship suggests that it was later reprints of his 1640 work which were responsible for the gender changes.

 

Benson’s edition was the accepted edition until 1780, when a new edition was created as a supplement to a printing of the complete plays.  This edition, printed by George Malone, was a return to the unexpurgated 1609 Quarto (with numbers and titles!).  While this edition was looking past Benson’s to the source,  It offered a fresh approach for the future: the restored arrangement of the Sonnets sparked interest at the dawn of the romantic era, most notably by Wordsworth and Keats.  John Keats’s study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets resulted in some his most mature poems. Wordsworth suggested that the Sonnets were not only compelling love poetry, they  “might help explain the mind of Shakespeare” and (of course! ) he wrote a poem about it:

 

Scorn not the sonnet; critic, you have frowned,

Mindless of its just honours; with this key

Shakespeare unlocked his heart

 

Thanks to the renewed popularity of poetry in the romantic era, the Sonnets quickly became part of the canon of literature in the English language.  With the ascension of Queen Victoria and the British Empire, Shakespeare’s works became part of the general rise and hegemony of English (and later, American) culture, their popularity grew from there and has been assured to this day.  Interestingly, the biographical aspect continued to be a main source of interest, with continued speculation about the subjects of the poem.  For example, Oscar Wilde wrote a short story about the mysterious dedication:  The Portrait of Mr. W.H. is based on a theory that the subject was an actor who specialized in playing women in Shakespeare's company.


Even now as the scholarship focuses heartily on the discussions of the subjects of the Sonnets and their historical background, the Sonnets have reatined their popularity and their appeal to both heart and mind,and have kept them a favorite for students and poetry lovers everywhere.  If you’re a fan, be sure to come to the Central Library on Saturday, January 21, 2017 between 2 and 3:30 PM , where you are invited to participate in a public reading of Shakespeare's Greatest Hits , Shakespeare at 33 1/3 RPM-- 33 of his best loved Sonnets.


 

 

 

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