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An Essay on Shakespeare's Sonnets

An Essay On Shakespeare's Sonnets - Stephen  Booth
What makes Shakespeare's sonnets so good? Why does a sonnet such as the one below still resonate?

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.

Booth's book provides an answer. Booth chose a good title, as his book really is an essay, rather than a methodical study. Reading the sonnets, as Booth describes it, becomes a complex experience. One of the chief ways this experience remains essentially pleasurable rather than maddening, is by what Booth refers to as "the comfort of the couplet." In contrast to the teasing paradoxes encountered in the quatrains, the couplet "offers the reader a sound, simple reason why the poem was written and an over-simplified suggestion of what it was about." The reader, Booth explains, wants to be stimulated but not utterly baffled, so the couplet...

ties off one set of looose ends, brings the reader's mind back to conceiving of experience in a single system, and keeps him from worrying about or even bringing to consciousness the intellectual upheaval in which he has just participated.

Having described in the first half or so of the book--often in minute detail--the patterns of structure within Shakespeare's sonnets, Booth puts these critical tools to work. He devotes the rest of the book to analyzing four of the sonnets, line by line, and discussing the different patterns as the reader would encounter them. Freed from the dense description inherent in presenting his complex critical system, Booth's final essays are lucid and entertaining.

Other ideas are developed as well. The essay on sonnet 73 discusses the motif of time, the essay on sonnet 60 presents the function of the couplet, the essay on sonnet 94 develops (with examples from other critics) the reductive nature of paraphrase, and the essay on sonnet 15 discusses the sonnet tradition.

Booth's remarks on the sonnet tradition are particularly provocative. The sonnet, he explains in his essay on sonnet 15, relies on a discrepancy between what the poet says and what the reader expects. The sonnet convention (based on the conventions of courtly love) pivots on the idea of indecorum:

Its essential device is the use of the vocabulary appropriate to one kind of experience to talk about another. The writer taked about his lady and his relation to her as if she were a feudal lord and he a vassal, or as if she were the Virgin Mary and he a supplicant to her. A witty emphasis on the paradoxically simultaneous pertinence and impertinence of the writer's language and stance to his subject matter is of the essence of the convention...In all stages of its development, the courtly love tradition relies upon the reader's sense of the frame of reference in which the writer operates and the writer's apparent deviation in a rhetorical action that both fits and violates the expected pattern.

The patterns Booth finds in Shakespeare's sonnets are not unique; Sidney's contain these patterns as do Wyatt's or Spenser's or any number of poets. What is unique to Shakespeare is the amount of patterning he uses, making his sonnets seem "full to bursting not only with the quantity of different actions but with the energy generated from their conflict." These conflicts and tensions give the reader a feeling of freedom that mimics real experience within a form that is artificial, providing the comfort of order.

Booth's book is not designed as a handbook to the sonnets. You wouldn't go to his book to get a concise interpretation of sonnet 123 or to find out the historical background on sonnet 101. You will, however, get Booth's ideas on how a Shakespearean sonnet works and what happens to the reader as s/he explores its intricacies. My first impulse, when I finished the book, was to go back to the sonnets and re-read many of them, with the new perspectives Booth presented. I believe a work of criticism or theory that encourages you to return to the text and see it in a new way has accomplished its purpose.