Monday, 20 December 2010

This week at Middlebrow Manor...

... let's talk about Shakespeare's sonnets!

Well, let's start with a totally non-academic fact - my Mum, Margaret Fox, shared her birthday with William Shakespeare (23rd April not the year, obviously). This may not seem very important in the great scheme of things but it mattered to me because Margaret (1924-2010) was a huge fan of the one they call 'the bard' (the one by whom all poets in English shall be judged... 1564-1616). She particularly loved going to the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon - she would go for a few days whenever she could, see play after play after play and think she was in heaven. She was a bit of a culture vulture (and a some time snob, it must be said) and so the RSC was her idea of top entertainment (well, that and Saturday night TV... ). Part of the reason she loved the RSC and all that went with it was that she'd had an odd, and in many ways hard, upbringing in the 1930s without a lot of cultural content and I know she loved to experience that 'look at me, enjoying Shakespeare, this is life as it should be lived' feeling. I used to gently take the piss out of her for it ('my snobby mother, ha!' - easy target) but she was perfectly entitled to her feelings and really I could have let it go (though of course she got me back regularly by making faces at what she saw as my own low culture tastes and life choices... she once said 'I think you could do better than poetry, dear'! Ouch...).

Anyway, this spring, in the last week or so of Mum's life, I kept trying to read to her when it got to the point where she was restless and fed up but couldn't read to herself any more (she'd always been a devoted reader). After several false starts I realised that just a page or so of a Shakespeare play would do it (the nearest one on the bookshelf was 'Twelfth Night') and as soon as I started to read it aloud her face relaxed and I could see that it was just the thing she wanted to hear. I could see that it made her happy ('my life still has culture! I may be dying but I still have this and I am not in an old people's home listening to “Eastenders” or bingo numbers'). Also it reminded her of happy times and it helped her to fall asleep (very quickly – she was hardly sleeping at night). Overall I'm pleased I thought to do it – it is a happy memory from a pretty difficult time.

Like my mother, I too have loved Shakespeare's plays (well, the tragedies certainly). I studied several in school ('Macbeth', 'Hamlet', 'Measure for Measure') and I went to see those (and loads of others) when I was 16-18 and living in London. I was lucky enough to have good English teachers who really encouraged a love of the plays and though I've rarely gone back to Will's work since then I should think that the love of Macbeth's torments and Hamlet's confusions will be with me forever... in some form or another.

Shakespeare's sonnets though...all 154 of them... I've never really seen the attraction and therefore the new Faber & Faber edition of them (complete with commentary throughout from Scottish poet Don Paterson) was aimed precisely at people like me (oiks what are a bit cultured but not as much as they could be...). I bought the book a little while back and have been reading it steadily (I love Faber books... could lick them... though this one, I note with shock, has more typos than any book I've read in years! Disgraceful really.). The front cover looks like this:



So, what's my position now? Have the sonnets and all their talk of love found a place in my heart..? Or in my head..?

Well, for a start I must warn you that Paterson guides the reader in a very particular way and from the reviews it is apparent that some people like his approach more than others. The marvellous Adam Mars Jones (in the Guardian here) is pretty scathing but other reviews (here, here and here) are more positive. For me, the approach was... OK, quite more-ish, certainly not dull. He's slangy and funny about... 70% of the time... and then erudite and high-powered for the other 30% (but I managed to skim a lot of the latter... whenever he said 'anorak alert' I confess I did press fast-forward on the eyes hating, as I do, so much of that poetry-as-science-and-here-look-at-the-length-of-my-terminology business). As for the jokes, some were funny, some weren't but that is the way with jokes, I find, no matter who's tellin' 'em. Overall his chatting-to-a-mate-in-the-pub style worked for me in the simple sense that it got me through the book and that without it I'm not sure the sonnets themselves would have kept me reading (and yes, I do know you don't have to read them all at once but, on this occasion, I did... it was all or nothing). I was glad, I must admit, that Paterson had done all the background reading (so we oiks don't have to...) because lit. crit. has never been a place I've felt at home. Plus he's good with the vocabulary of the time (vital so you don't get the wrong end of the innuendo...) and in a good number of cases I found the explanations (just literally 'what the hell is this sonnet about?') necessary and helpful (even if I didn't always agree with all his decisions and directions). Now I come to think about it I disagreed with him fairly regularly but I suspect a lot of that is just to do with taste, life experience and the fact that I'm about as arrogant and temporarily overconfident as he is sometimes (or as his writing persona is sometimes anyway). As for where I disagreed... well, for a start I wasn't hugely keen on all the 'what poets do' and 'what poets think' that the commentary contained... as though they/we were all one happy band of campers working in the same way (I'm not sure that that could be any further from the truth...). Also he often hated the end couplets (last two lines) of the sonnets and found them unnecessary, whilst more often than not they were my favourite bit. Finally he wrote a lot about the whole 'Will's gay, Will hates women but still dabbles with them now and again' thing (for context purposes) and whilst I didn't necessarily disagree with what he said on that score I did feel he spent a lot more time talking about it than I really wanted him to (and I LOVE gays... and women...). The more he pondered 'who Will was shagging when' the more I found I just didn't want to try and come up with a 'what Will was doing at this point in this life' scenario (because we just don't know so it's like a game with no rules, no point, no end... and I'm a person who's interested in people, on the whole...). I know why he banged on about the gay content and issues so much (he feels other critics/commentators have ignored it, got it wrong etc.) but still it felt a bit forced to me at times... or a bit too matey somehow (in a 'hey, we all know what relationships are like, don't we, got gay friends, haven't we, eh?'). It's hard to explain why but this did get on my nerves and even a bit under my skin. Maybe DP and I just think about people and relationships in very different ways... or maybe I should have read the book more in snatches here and there... or maybe I moan too much (and not in a sexual way). Bloody readers - always moaning about something.

As for the poems themselves - Paterson is very clear in his 'some are good, some are not so good' commentary but try as I might I couldn't get very excited even about the ones he INSISTED were beyond compare. On this reading at least, I found again and again that I just didn't like these sonnets very much (the odd line here and there but not many whole poems). They seemed so nowt-but-showy, so in-the-knowy, so woe-is-me-oh-woey (must stop this now...). In fact I got so restless that I found myself playing a little game called 'give the sonnet a silly subtitle' (some of them 20th century song lyrics...). The more I read the more they made me long for the plays, for some substance, for some direction, for something (anything!) other than all this whining and obsessing with looks and beauty and 'oh, how time will ruin you my young bunion, but I'll still love you and commemorate you in me lovely verse' (and am I judging them by my own 21st Century silly sensibility... well yes, it appears so... but I can blame Paterson and his constant use of 21st century silly language and catchphrases throughout for that... innit though?). Perhaps one of the things about reading the sonnets was that I found them, as a whole, quite depressing, strangely hollow. For me, there seemed to be very little love in them at all (or at least little that I could recognise as love... and love has kind of been my life's work - we talked about love poetry back here, remember... though I suppose it could be partly the several hundred years time difference...). Or maybe it's that Shakespeare just didn't love anyone very well (men or women). Or maybe no-one loved him (that might explain the great tragedies...). Or maybe he just loved himself (that wouldn't be unheard of for a writer now would it?). But I'll stop there because, as I said, we'll never know. This may shock you but I struggled to find even one sonnet in the book that I'd like to copy and paste for you here – and that helped me understand why every time a newspaper has one of those 'print some famous people's favourite Shakespeare sonnets' I'm always bemused by all the choices (and yet I could print excerpts from his plays till the coos come hame). It's not even that I don't like sonnets and formal poems... anyone who reads here regularly will know that I do (50% of the time at least... I wrote a sonnet last post... and did I mention... save the villanelle! In fact email Faber and Faber to that effect if you don't mind – I'd like an anthology of them please by Easter!). In the end I picked this one (102) to share with you (it's all nightingales and 'I know I'm not writing about you as much as I used to but I still love you, honest, in fact it's more special now...'):


My love is strengthened, though more weak in seeming;
I love not less, though less the show appear.
That love is merchandized, whose rich esteeming
The owner's tongue doth publish everywhere.
Our love was new, and then but in the spring,
When I was wont to greet it with my lays
As Philomel in summer's front doth sing,
And stops her pipe in growth of riper days.
Not that the summer is less pleasant now
Than when her mournful hymns did hush the night;
But that wild music burthens every bough,
And sweets grown common lose their dear delight.
Therefore, like her, I sometime hold my tongue,
Because I would not dull you with my song.




So, there you have it – Shakespeare's sonnets 4 out of 10... must try harder. Would anyone even read them if it weren't for all the plays (controversial, sensationalist, moi?)? Maybe I'll feel a bit more rational about this in a month or two but it is interesting to note that this book partly came about because Paterson realised that, like many of us, he referred to Shakespeare's sonnets as 'classics' without really knowing them. Well, maybe there's a reason so many of us don't know them very well (and some of the ones we think we know we get completely back to front...). Maybe they're just not that classic. Maybe we worry about what is and what isn't 'classic' too much.

Anyway, to finish this broadcast I bring you something else about love but this time from that great cultural resource - 21st century TV (an episode from series 3 of the wonderful 'Six Feet Under', to be precise... could only find the bit I wanted with subtitles and an abrupt end...). We're a bit late to this series (as ever... so no spoilers for later series please) and this clip about love had me snivelling when I watched it last week. Coincidentally it's a gay character speaking here and the clip must be good because I enjoy it even though it has o'pra in it (I don't like o'pra much - my culture vulture Mum adored it of course...).





It's nearly Xmas, isn't it? Peace and joy to you all, peeps, and love too of course - good quality love.

x

22 comments:

Selma said...

I am really moved by the story of your Mum and her love for Shakespeare. My grandmother was the same with Robert Burns. 'Read me some Rabbie,' she'd say when she was feeling down. It just goes to show the power of the written word. It can be transforming.

Have a wonderful Christmas, Rachel. Hope it's not too cold for you. Much love xxx

Rachel Fox said...

Transforming... and comforting.

It is cold... outside... nice and cosy indoors though (cosy - such a Scottish word... I never used to say it so much!).

x

Titus said...

Really interesting post, wish I'd had longer to get to know your Mum.
And I do feel very confident that I can say 'No Thanks' to the book.
It is the density of Shakespeare's sonnets I really enjoy, but like you I'm no fan of that final couplet. That's why my forays are nearly always Petrarchan.
Still to watch any Six Feet Under.
I think I need a Time-Turner for Christmas.

Who did the front cover illustration for the Paterson book?

Rachel Fox said...

No T, it's Paterson who doesn't like a lot of the couplets. I like them on the whole. He'd like to drop a lot of them - I'd drop the rest of the poem first! I'm just not a poet at all it seems. Humbug.

As for '6 Feet' - it's all love and death and art, very funny, very dark. Brilliant.

Illustration on book by Eleanor Crow.

x

sunnydunny said...

I love the sonnets; well, maybe not all of them, but a lot of them. I just can't stand the thought of reading a commentary on them. I like to make my own discoveries in poems, and to decide for myself what they mean to me.

Rachel Fox said...

I just thought a commentary might help me see what I was missing in the sonnets but in fact it made me less interested in them in the end I think (though it wasn't at all an uninteresting book - plenty to think about, all sorts of threads). As I mentioned it is helpful with vocabulary and phrases of the time and things like that (because there are a lot of words that we think we know when we read them... but in fact we're assuming, and assuming wrongly unless we're experts in ye olde, because the word has changed significantly since then). Though I suppose just a good glossary could do the same job. Still, I'm not sorry I read this book (WS and DP) - just a little disappointed with the sonnets themselves most of all. I always want to be wowed and am disappointed when I'm not. Back to the Larkin for me! Back to the TV...

x

Rachel Fox said...

In fact I've been listening to show tunes all day and I feel much better now.
x

Totalfeckineejit said...

Nice what you did for, and with, your mum. Lovely memories, despite the circumstances, or perhaps because of them, I'm sure.I'm also sure you will miss her this Christmas.But what you had and did was special.

Eryl said...

I have to confess I have read them all, several times, and I like about four of them. And, I like your story about your mother and her love of the plays, and reading them to her much better than those four.

Have a good Christmas, X

Titus said...

Note to self: stop speed reading.
Cheers for the Crow.

Rachel Fox said...

If the trains are running my in-laws are coming so we'll have a full house at Xmas and I'll be too busy to miss her too much, TFE. That's the idea anyway.

Interested to know which sonnets you like, Eryl.

I'm a terrible skimmer myself, T.

x

Rachel Fenton said...

Well, though I do not LOVE the sonnets, I do greatly esteem them! And there's the rub, for me. We moderners have become so used to spluttering out affection hither and thither that when something touches us deeply we sound trite if we say we love it. I think a little historicising is helpful in nurturing an affection for t'old Will's sonnets. Imagine if you were the young man-apple-of-Will's eye and that you had just been compared to the sunshine (imagine being in love and your lover reciting a sonnet all about you to you) and then you read a sonnet to some old bag (as far as you're concerned) and Will is saying [her] "eyes are nothing like the sun" and even with a head full of pubes he still so would rather than you! As If!!!! So there's a great frisson within the sonnets - a great load of allsorts actually that I'm only just getting to a position of being able to translate (and I did tragically badly at this in uni!)...anyway...will check out this particular book if only to play spot the typo - my other fave activity. Thanks for keeping it real there! And it's very moving that you chose to share the moments of you reading to your mum. That gave me a lump in my throat.

Rachel Fox said...

No shame in the trite here, lovely Rach (in fact it's one of the adjectives my poems get regularly from critics... hah!).

The book does do plenty of historicising but maybe the way it does it (very modern language etc.) had the opposite effect for me and just got me in a tizz ('what year is it? who am i?' etc.). Did I feel a frisson? No, not really, not on this reading. It all just got on my nerves.

And I am aware that this year any other emotions are a bit overshadowed (lunar eclipse reference!) by our own bereavement. I do feel a bit 'love affairs, oh please! Death is the big one!'. This will pass no doubt.

x

Rachel Fenton said...

You're very lucky to have had a relationship like that with your mum. And love affairs are not a comparison to the loss of that. Sorry if it seemed I was saying that.

Rachel Fox said...

No, no, I wasn't criticising you! Just trying to excuse my own reactions to the poems probably... or trying to work them out anyway.

x

Rachel Fenton said...

But I do have a bludgeon where my tongue should be. And it's only afterwards I think how thoughtless my comments may be perceived.

Rachel Fox said...

Not at all! Not at all! I really didn't mean it in that way! Don't you dare take a criticism in there.
xxx

Rachel Fenton said...

xxx

Marion McCready said...

That's a lovely story about your mum, Rachel. I'm super impressed that you read through all the sonnets, And with a commentary! Sounds like the upmost feat of boredom to me :) "fast forward on the eyes" - brilliant! Sure I like the odd Shakespeare sonnet but I couldn't read a whole book of them through at once, great review though!

Rachel Fox said...

Maybe it wasn't a good way to read them... but I just wanted to immerse myself in them and see if that would make the difference. It didn't. It did make me want to read one of the plays again/anew though.
x

The Weaver of Grass said...

A lovely story Rachel. and I do like the idea of 'good quality love' perhaps the most important thing in the whole world. Love to you all at Christmas.

Rachel Fox said...

You know it when you see it! And when you feel it. Love to you all too Weaver.
x