SHAKESPEARE'S SONNETS. Edited with analytic commentary by Stephen Booth. 583 pp. (Yale Nota Bene). New Haven & London : Yale University Press, 2000 (1977). ISBN 0-300-08506-0 (pbk.)
Shakespeare's 'Sonnets' is a deservedly well-loved body of poetry, and there have been innumerable editions. For the enthusiast and student, however, it's doubtful that there could be a better edition than that of Stephen Booth. Originally published in a bulky (and expensive) clothbound edition in 1977, it has now been reissued as a fat though fairly compact paperback that will put it within reach of a much wider audience.
One reason that Elizabethan lyrics are so powerful and memorable, is that they were composed in an age when poetry was still linked closely with music. Elizabethans were often competent musicians, and many of their poems were true lyrics or songs. Often their poems were set to music, and all were probably composed while the gentle plucking of a lute or some such instrument was running somewhere through the back of the poet's mind.
Today we live in an age when composers are no longer giving us real songs, songs that stay in the mind and that can be hummed or sung when for some reason or other they rise into consciousness; songs that are always there when we feel like singing, and that can help cheer us up, make us happy, and refresh our spirit; songs, too, for both light and more thoughtful moods.
In contrast to this true type of song, what we seem to be getting today is little more than words with little or no meaning accompanied by noise, the sort of stuff that a machine could write and probably is writing, and profoundly unmemorable.
Shakespeare's 'Sonnets,' however, bring us a world of meaning. The whole of life is in them - its joys and sorrows, its passions and frustrations and torments - and all expressed in some of the most sonorous and beautiful English ever written, and set to powerful rhythms that deeply penetrate the psyche.
Stephen Booth's edition, after a Preface in which he explains his procedures, gives us not one but two texts of the 'Sonnets,' each of which is printed on facing pages : The Text of the 1609 Quarto (Apsley imprint, the Huntington-Bridgewater copy), and Booth's edited text with modern spelling and punctuation.
Seeing the texts exactly as they were presented to Shakespeare's contemporaries is an interesting experience. Some readers will probably love the antique spellings and typography, other may hate it, but at least we've been given a choice. And having access to the Quarto can lead to a deeper understanding of the poems.
Booth's incredibly full and detailed commentary, a commentary for the advanced student and the scholar, and which "is designed to help a modern reader towards the kind of understanding that Renaissance readers brought to the works," is set in a rather tiny font and runs to over 400 pages. Here, in comments ranging from brief glosses to full-length essays, will be found the answer to every conceivable question we may have about an individual sonnet, and much more besides.
Booth has incorporated four extended essays into his analytic commentary : 1. On explications and emendations of unsatisfactory Shakespearian texts (pp.364-72); 2. On the special grandeur of the best sonnets (pp.387-92); 3. On spelling and punctuation (pp.447-520); 4. On the functions of criticism (pp.507-17).
Following the commentary Booth has provided a list of Abbreviations Used in the Commentary; two Appendixes (1. Facts and Theories about Shakespeare's Sonnets; 2. Excerpts from Book XIV of Ovid's 'Metamorphoses'); a detailed Index to the Commentary; an Index of First Lines; and a section of Additional Notes. The book also includes illustrations of two title pages, and the incredible 'literal portrait of a beauty' on page 453.
It will be seen that Booth has set quite a feast before us, and probably one far bigger than many readers are looking for. Those who would prefer to have a version which, though still offering the original Quarto text along with a modernized text, but with a less detailed though equally sophisticated commentary which takes the form of sonnet-by-sonnet essays, might take a look at the far better produced and more beautifully printed edition of Helen H. Vendler ('The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets,' Belknap 1999).
Others might prefer to think of Booth's prize-winning edition as a sort of investment, which perhaps contains more than they presently need, but which they will probably be able to put to fuller use later on. In terms of its content, the Booth seems to me to be unexceptionable. In terms of its physical makeup, however, it leaves much to be desired.
Although it is well-printed, the paper is not of particularly good quality. The fonts used for the 'Sonnets,' though not large, are readable. But the fonts used in the rest of the book are so tiny as to make them tiring to read for any length of time. You will need very good eyesight and very good lighting to feel comfortable when reading this book.
To return to the 'Sonnets,' the fact that their lines stick so easily in our minds, and that the re-reading of favorites will soon see us having memorized, if not the whole sonnet then certainly substantial portions of it, seems to me proof that the 'Sonnets' are real sustenance for the spirit. They help at different times to to fortify our spirit, to clarify our own thoughts about life, and even on occasions to cheer us up.
As such, and whether we realize it or not, they become a kind of word-music that all of us need. So whether you go for the Booth or the Vendler or some other less ambitious edition, my advice would be to give Shakespeare's words a chance to work their magic. You may be surprised at what they can do for you.