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I suppose many readers come to the sonnets with the view that they will be all sweetness and light
on 8 January 2016
Some time ago, I set myself the long, pleasurable task of reading all Shakespeare's plays with the help of commentaries (mainly Arden) and the RSC DVDs. Not a quick read, but falling short of full academic study. I left the sonnets to the end (apart from Troilus which I think is unreadable and yet to be finished), so I was quite accustomed to the poet's language. Some of the criticisms here sound a bit high-minded, oblivious of the fact that readers coming to the sonnets for the first time do need help and shouldn't be ashamed of seeking it. The English language has changed over five centuries and even the ordering of Shakespeare's words can seem unfamiliar, confusing and obscure. I know that this book has many typos and similar. His jokey style either hits the target (one of his critiques around no. 130 had me in stitches) or it misfires badly, very often obscuring the very point which he is trying to make. I had to refer to my specialist dictionary to understand the more abstruse literary terms which Mr. Paterson applies to the text - he begins by explaining them and seems to lose interest as the book progresses. However, I suppose many readers come to the sonnets with the view that they will be all sweetness and light, lovey-dovey - and this they certainly are not (or mainly not). You need a book like the Arden commentary to understand what Shakespeare is saying, the verbal twists, the topical references - in other words, elucidation. But there's more to it than that. The poet was a highly sensitive human being and truly screwed up in his love life. The bitterness, jealousy, sense of inferiority, status-consciousness, guilt, self-reproach all come through strongly in the poems, and it is helpful to have someone to bring this together and 'humanise' the dry commentary. But there's more to it than that again. This is poetry. Although I wish he had done it more often, Mr. Paterson brings his own 'poet's ear' to the poetry, the language, its balance, the prosody and the strengths and weaknesses of each poem in expressing the sentiment which it carries. To me this has been invaluable. If he concentrated on that alone in a future volume, I would be happy.