The 400th anniversary of the first publication of Shakespeare's sonnets slipped silently by, all but unnoticed, in late May and early this month. But that is perhaps routine, since like all things Shakespearian, his sonnets are hedged in still-unsolved mystery.
That was the case more than 50 years ago in Bingham Hall, in Chapel Hill, when I underwent my first serious encounter with these magnificent, mysterious poems. Our mentor in the senior English majors' Shakespeare course was Peter Phialas, who had earned his Yale doctorate editing one of the plays for the original Yale Press edition. He knew his stuff. I pause to offer him this salute across the years.
English studies then featured two theories of poetic interpretation, with contradictory implications for the study of the sonnets. Their autobiographical suggestiveness, their anchorage in the late Elizabethan age, seemed obvious. Leslie Hotson, a ranking scholar, had recently established--to his satisfaction--that a line like "the mortal moon hath her eclipse endured" (Sonnet 107) alluded to the recent defeat of the Spanish Armada, whose formation was crescent-shaped before the "Protestant wind" blew it apart.
There were, Hotson argued, other dim if discernible allusions to papal monuments recently constructed in Rome and to the assassination of a French king. Or did the line about the "mortal moon," as others suggested, make veiled reference to the approaching end of Queen Elizabeth's long reign? As certainly the implicit cast of the story the sonnets told--of a beautiful youth resisting marriage, a treacherous "dark lady," the mistress of the speaking poet of the poems, and the moody poet himself--seemed to tell a story that went beyond the merely imaginary.
It was an intriguing thought that the biographically scanted Shakespeare of Stratford had teasingly lifted the scrim of anonymity by offering fleeting nods to current events. The autobiographical theory still has its adherents, though none so cocksure as the historian A. L. Rowse, who trumpeted some 30 years ago that he had identified the poet's "dark lady," only to get his ears pinned back. It was a lesson in modesty for us all.
Meanwhile, for us apprentice critics in Bingham Hall, there was at play a countervailing poetic theory, called the New Criticism, new precisely in its defiance of poetic historicity. Its cardinal doctrine was that all great poetry is essentially contemporaneous in texture; the era and idiom in which a great poet writes are less important than his artistry.
The canonical text was Cleanth Brooks's Well Wrought Urn (1947). Brooks admonished us that verse worth remembering and treasuring is continuous with an unbroken tradition stretching forward from the Elizabethan age, called "metaphysical" by Samuel Johnson because it celebrates wit, irony, intricacy, paradox, and wordplay. Moreover, proclaimed William Empson, another founder of the New Criticism, there are "seven types of ambiguity," no less, so that the merit of great poetry is a capacity to yield various glosses and thus inspire argument.
So which theory, if either, offers a master key to the sonnets? The documented facts are few. The sonnets were first mentioned by one Francis Meres in 1598, reporting that Shakespeare, already known as an actor and playwright, was circulating "sugar'd sonnets" among his "private friends"--how many he didn't say. The playhouses had been closed five years earlier by the plague; and scholars speculate that Shakespeare improved his leisure by writing two brilliant narrative poems based on classical and mythic sources and those "sugar'd" sonnets.
It seems questionable that Meres himself read them; otherwise, he would have found plenty of salt and wormwood in the mix along with the sugar. Publication of all 154 sonnets came a decade later. The quarto edition, the only one in Shakespeare's lifetime, was entered with the Stationer's Register on May 20, 1609, and presumably printed shortly thereafter. The quarto bore the famously tantalizing dedication to "the onlie begetter of these ensuing sonnets, Mr. W. H." Who this W. H. was, and whether he and the publisher Thomas Thorpe pirated the poems, remains in dispute. The guessing game goes on.
The sonnets' subsequent history is a tangled tale. But for me, half-a-century after that first encounter under Peter Phialas's tutelage, the charm of these poems lies in their matchless verbal intricacy and depth. The argument over the supposed historical and autobiographical echoes, however intriguing, seems distinctly secondary.
Much the thorniest issue the sonnets raise is that the first 126 were clearly written to, and about, a young man, possibly the Earl of Southampton. Southampton was then an underaged ward of the state, exasperating his widowed mother and the powerful Lord Burghley by refusing three lucrative suits of marriage, only to impregnate and marry one of Elizabeth's ladies in waiting.
She was furious and threw him into prison, where he stayed until the next reign. No one in Shakespeare's time seems to have fretted over the homoerotic overtones, whether autobiographical or merely conventional, although by the 19th century some editors recoiled in horror and tried to disguise the young male addressee as a woman. My own notion is that Shakespeare (with other transcendent artists) created a new category, which we might call "omnisexuality."
The lesson I gather from all the fascinating dither--obviously, my immersion in the New Criticism proved to be indelible--is the error of what psychologists call "concrete thinking." Or in the formulation of the philosopher Gilbert Ryle, a "category mistake." The sonnets are not a discursive narrative, whatever they hint at by way of real-world acts and emotions. They are poetry, a created form. The poet who created Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, and Falstaff, and scores of other living characters, was fully capable of spinning an artful yarn involving a beautiful youth, a dark, treacherous mistress (with hairs like wires!), and hanging on that frame his imperishable musings on love, loyalty, lust, jealousy, envy, longing, betrayal, joy and sorrow, death and the immortality of art ("Not marble nor the gilded monuments of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme").
That many of these themes and tropes were conventional is not to the point. Here, as everywhere else, what Shakespeare touched he touched with magic. The dramatist who could transform stale historical chronicles into art could transmute every base metal. That is surely the key point, four centuries later.
Edwin M. Yoder Jr., a former editor and columnist in Washington, is the author, most recently, of Lions at Lamb House.