All the Sonnets of Shakespeare, a new book edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, assembles all of Shakespeare’s sonnets in their probable order of composition, along with modern paraphrases and commentary for each poem. The book will be published Sep 24 by Cambridge University Press, but is available now for pre-order.
Read an excerpt from the introduction below (reprinted by permission), which argues that readers can gain insight into Shakespeare’s personal experiences and emotions through the sonnets.
We believe that many of Shakespeare’s Sonnets are deeply personal poems, written out of Shakespeare’s own experience. This does not mean that we should seek to tell a coherent biographical narrative through them, nor should we impose one upon them. Thirty-three out of 154 sonnets are not addressed to a person; 25 of these are personal meditations (miniature soliloquies), and 6 are addressed to an abstract concept, for example to Time, or to Love; and 2 are translations (see Table 2). Biographical readings that misunderstand Shakespeare’s collection as a unified sonnet sequence hunt for a single, deterministic narrative where, in fact, none exists. Indeed, though the sonnet form lends itself to a compressed narrative development across its fourteen lines, we do Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609) as a collection a disservice if we go to it expecting to find a story.
They are personal poems in as much as they present themselves to us immediately and at varying levels of intimacy. They have Shakespeare’s DNA running through them. Setting aside the classical names of Adonis and Helen (Sonnet 53) and Cupid and Dian (Sonnet 153), the only personal name mentioned in any of them is the poet’s own: ‘my name is Will’ (Sonnet 136, line 14). Sonnets 22, 57, 89, 134, 135, and 143 also pun on Shakespeare’s first name, reason enough to consider the collection as personally inflected – but to varying and of course ultimately unfathomable degrees.
Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets can intermittently seem like encountering miniaturised dispatches from life turned into poetry: the poet’s relationships, inner turmoil, feelings of mortality, regret, self-loathing, guilt, but also his joys and gratitude. But rather than turning these elements into an historical, autobiographical narrative, Shakespeare’s Sonnets can instead be read for traces of his personality, as though the poems were his emotional, psychological, and spiritual memoir, in part made up of his addresses to other people, in part his own soliloquies played out primarily for himself. In some of them he seems to take delight in his own ingenuity, the compactness of his own expression (for example Sonnets 39 and 40), and only the toughest, most precise and demanding of minds could have written, for example, Sonnets 118 to 120. He wrote sonnets in Stratford-upon-Avon and London, and probably worked on them in his mind through his daily activities, as poets do, and as he commuted on horseback between the town and the city that divided up his life. Sonnets 50 and 51 are written from the perspective of someone riding a horse.
Many of them contain what might be regarded as personal allusions: ‘the trophies of my lovers gone’ (Sonnet 31, line 10); Sonnet 24 seems to refer to a portrait of the loved one which the poet’s eye has copied in his heart (lines 1–2); Sonnet 23 refers to ‘my books’, which suggests private reading; and three sonnets refer to lameness or limping (Sonnets 37, 66, and 89), which might refer metaphorically to the lines of verse, or literally to the poet’s own lameness. Some of the sonnets contain references to things or happenings the meaning of which has been lost to time, for example the ‘peace’ mentioned in Sonnet 107 which ‘proclaims olive of endless age’ (line 8). Nobody knows whether this refers to an actual political or personal moment (or, if so, when). Sonnet 125 begins ‘Were’t aught to me I bore the canopy’, which might refer to an actual aristocratic or even royal procession, or one that took place in the context of stage production. Sonnets 78 to 86 refer to other poets writing about the loved one. Traditionally, these have been read as referring to ‘a rival poet’, but in fact only Sonnet 79 refers to one rival. Sonnet 83 refers to ‘both your poets’ (which could mean Shakespeare himself plus another, or two other poets), and Sonnet 86 mentions some secret confederacy of collaborators working with a rival poet in love, as well as one particular collaborator and advisor, ‘that affable familiar ghost / Which nightly gulls him with intelligence’ (lines 9–10). These references seem plausibly to refer to actual individuals who have been working against the poet in some way.
It is often said that there are no surviving examples of Shakespearian correspondence (apart from Richard Quiney’s letter addressed to him in October 1598). But in fact two of the sonnets are letters by Shakespeare (in this resembling Helen’s in All’s Well That Ends Well, see p. 224). Sonnet 26 is the accompanying note for another ‘written embassage’ (line 3). Malone in his edition of 1790 cited Edward Capell’s commentary on similarities between this sonnet and Shakespeare’s dedication to the Earl of Southampton for his narrative poem, The Rape of Lucrece (1594). Sonnet 77 is another sonnet-letter, and one which accompanied a personal gift:
The vacant leaves thy mind’s imprint will bear,
And of this book this learning mayst thou taste.
The ‘book’ to which the poet refers is usually thought to be a notebook. But Adam Barker identifies it as an almanac on the grounds that the gift already contains information (‘learning’) as well as blank pages (‘vacant leaves’), as almanacs did. It was common practice to use the empty pages included in almanacs for memoranda, notes, and personal reflections. Sonnet 122 does, however, mention a notebook, apparently containing memoranda, which the loved one has given to the poet (‘Thy gift, thy tables’, line 1). But the poet, it seems, has given the notebook away:
Nor need I tallies thy dear love to score
Therefore to give them from me I was bold.
(Sonnet 122, lines 10–11)
In fact, Sonnet 122 marks the occasion of the poet explaining that notes from the loved one need not be kept because he or she is already etched into the poet’s ‘lasting memory’ (line 2). Many of the sonnets – apart from these examples – can be read and thought of as similar to personal correspondence.
As readers we need to ask ourselves how far we imagine Shakespeare himself as the first-person voice in his sonnets. Poets fluctuate in how far they self-identify with their first-person subject – unless of course they are writing poetic drama or dramatic speeches. It has long been thought that Shakespeare, when writing sonnets, did indeed ‘look into [his] heart and write’. Poets have been especially attentive to this quality of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. William Wordsworth (1770–1850) powerfully admired Shakespeare for so doing in a sonnet which begins:
Scorn not the Sonnet, Critic, you have frowned,
Mindless of its just honours; with this key
Shakespeare unlocked his heart.
Robert Browning (1812–89) refuted Wordsworth in his poem ‘House’ of 1876: ‘Did Shakespeare? If so, the less Shakespeare he!’. Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–92) was inspired by Shakespeare’s Sonnets and, over a period of seventeen years, wrote love lyrics in memory of his beloved friend Arthur Henry Hallam. He ordered them into a single collection of poems, In Memoriam: A. H. H. (1849), which sets out to show the development and progression of his grief and faith. In structuring it around a fictional, three-year period, Tennyson was probably inspired by Sonnet 104:
Three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride;
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned.
The poems which form In Memoriam are at one and the same time deeply personal and literary, based on Tennyson’s own experiences, his reading, and poetic inheritance. In one of the lyrics, he evokes the name of Shakespeare in order bravely to confess his love for his friend:
I loved thee, Spirit, and love, nor can
The soul of Shakespeare love thee more.
(In Memoriam, 61, lines 11–12)
Wordsworth and Tennyson represent the many readers who, over the centuries, have sought a personal conversation with and within Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609).
Shakespeare made the sonnet form his own. He thought and felt through it; he brought an often astonishing compactness of articulation to its individual, disciplined lines; and to many, though by no means all of them, he brought his own strength of feeling and personality. Most of them seem to us to be costly, confessional poems, rather than merely literary exercises – but the imagination of a dramatist is always there. In being composed over at least twenty-seven years, Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609) is most likely to encompass many different occasions and people in his life, unidentifiable and anonymous moments which, because he was inspired to write about them in the ways he did, are obscured by but not lost to time.
Read the complete text of Shakespeare’s sonnets with commentary on The Folger Shakespeare.