If you’ve encountered William Shakespeare’s sonnets anytime since 1609, it’s likely been in the form of the edition from that year. Four centuries and countless editions later, we still know these 154 complex, impassioned, personal, often cryptic poems in the sequence enshrined in the earliest collection edition, Shake-speare’s Sonnets: Never Before Imprinted, published in London in 1609, seven years before the poet’s death.
We don’t know whether Shakespeare himself chose the order of the sonnets in that retrospective collection. Paul Edmondson and Prof. Sir Stanley Wells of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust find it plausible that he did. Whoever it was knew them well and put some thought into it: keeping the thematically and syntactically connected pairs and sequences of poems together, starting the volume with a sequence of sonnets about procreation, etc.
If anyone knows the sonnets intimately today, it’s Edmondson and Wells. Their new edition, All the Sonnets of Shakespeare, combines the poems of the 1609 collection with sonnets and sonnet-like passages from the Bard’s plays, all re-sequenced in modern scholarship’s best surmise of chronological order.
All the Sonnets of Shakespeare offers much more than a re-ordering. It includes valuable context for the craft of sonnet-writing as Shakespeare practiced it, and gives some sense of the poet’s development over the years. The 40-page introductory essay that opens the elegantly designed volume lays out the editors’ aim and method:
It is our hope that in arranging all the sonnets of Shakespeare chronologically we have newly minted these poems and poetic extracts in a fresh and open context, furthering our understanding of what the sonnet form meant to Shakespeare, its difficulty, its individuality, its rhetorical and dramatic potential.
I might not have chosen the word “minted,” but I concluded after reading these poems and selections in Edmondson and Wells’ order that they have indeed succeeded in deepening our understanding of these classic works, no small feat.
Below each poem the editors state whether it’s (likely) addressed to a man, a woman, a person of unspecified sex, an abstraction such as Love or Time, or simply the reader; provide notes on the meanings of archaic or cryptic words and phrases (as any edition of Shakespeare must); and in some cases point out parallels with characters and dynamics from the plays.
They also provide handy prose paraphrases of all the poems. They render the following, for example:
So oft have I invoked thee for my muse
And found such fair assistance in my verse
As every alien pen hath got my use,
And under thee their poesy disperse.
in prose thus, more understandably to the modern reader:
“I have so often called upon you as my muse and found such inspiration for my poetry that unfamiliar writers have adopted my practice, and circulate their poetry under your auspices.”
The 1609 edition began with a set of 17 sonnets about procreation. But these date from 1595-97, when the poet was already well over 100 sonnets into his oeuvre. Reading them after absorbing a raft of poems about lust and romantic love makes the maturity of these exhortations to a friend (or perhaps to himself) to have children feel more sensible. Another example, this one from the end: The original collection ended with two early sonnets, both paraphrasing the same Greek epigram. But biographically speaking, it makes much more sense to read them first, as examples of a young artist developing his voice and his skills as he confronted the classics.
The editors also situate Shakespeare’s poetic effort in the full tradition of English poetry up until his time, and of the sonnet in particular.
[I]t is, on the whole, a collection of often highly personally inflected poems written over at least twenty-seven years, rather than a sequence aimed at catching the mood and developing the taste for a literary fashion. His sonnets are not public poems written and published for money [like his longer poems of the 1590s]…they were published a decade after the vogue for sonnets had passed, printed only once, and were “clearly a flop on their first appearance.” He seems interested primarily in using the sonnet form to work out his intimate thoughts and feelings. As a result, his collection is the most idiosyncratic gathering of sonnets in the period.
The new ordering also scrambles common assumptions, such as the trope that the bulk of the sonnets concern or are addressed to an unknown friend of the poet while the rest concern the mysterious “Dark Lady.” (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun…If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.”) The sonnets have long fueled speculations about bisexuality, but even on this score the new collection gives us a new angle. By including speeches from plays it reminds us that however personal the emotions expressed in the sonnets may be, we are reading our language’s most brilliant dramatist. Pointing this out, the editors go on to say, “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.”
It’s instructive to read heartfelt personal poems about love (“Is it thy will thy image should keep open/My heavy eyelids to the weary night?”) after passages from Romeo and Juliet (“Now old desire doth in his deathbed lie,/And young affection gapes to be his heir”) or a piece of deliberately terrible doggerel from a play mingled with the formal sonnets’ grave syntactic and semantic brilliance.
It makes one wonder if the modesty Shakespeare expresses in some of the Sonnets is genuine. “Oh, how I faint when I of you do write,/Knowing a better spirit doth use your name,/And in the praise thereof spends all his might,/To make me tongue-tied, speaking of your fame!” He touches the truth, rather, in the poem that immediately follows: “Your monument shall be my gentle verse,/Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read,/And tongues to be [future readers] your being shall rehearse/When all the breathers of this world are dead.”
We know not to whom “you” refers in any of the sonnets. But the memory of him or her – or, as we’d say in 2020, them – persists.
No contextualization or re-ordering, however enlightening, can make Shakespeare’s sonnets immediately accessible to 21st-century readers, even to today’s lovers of poetry. The vocabulary alone requires too much disentanglement. Still, as its boutique-quality paper and design suggest, All the Sonnets of Shakespeare is more than a contribution to scholarship. It’s a gift to all who love poetry and all who love Shakespeare. After all, how much does the reader gain from approaching the sonnets in the 1609 order? Even if it was Shakespeare’s wish, inexorable time and scant documentation make his personal poetic psychology and motives too remote. Anything that brings them into greater focus is a boon for the reader, which this new “minting” offers in more ways than one.
All the Sonnets of Shakespeare, out now from Cambridge University Press, is an ideal gift for the English major in your family – or for yourself. Ranking among the greatest literature in the language, it’s also a window into the mind of our most esteemed author.
In a sonnet written at the dawn of the 17th century Shakespeare asked his beloved, “What’s in the brain that ink may character/Which hath not figured to thee my true spirit?” This book gives us a deep look at the universality of that true spirit. Now we are all “thee.”