It's now time for another boring writing entry, chapter five of Shakespeare's Sonnets: "The Artistry of Shakespeare's Sonnets." Yee-haw. I'm going to keep attributions to Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells to a minimum, but unless something seems obviously like commentary on some notion of the artistry of the sonnets, it's most likely their ideas, "channeled" through my summary, to the best of my ability. That's for when I paste this into my blog. Here goes:
Each reading of the sonnets leads to a better sense of the particular sonnet being read. Once is never enough because the form is too dense. (Damn, someone wants me to play Elder Scrolls, a game Tobias has loaded on the computer. I thought I deleted all of those. I just ignore those requests.) This, the following is commentary, is hardly a surprise to anyone who has read Shakespeare, or much of anything, with at least a bit of seriousness. There is some focus on sonnet 76, as one that is more self-reflexive than some of the others, more about writing (as are a few others). 76 provides some criticism of the form within the form, but in self-deprecating in regard to the power of the form, and the particular poem and poet themselves. The form is part of the power of the sonnet. The separation between the persona and the poet is not desired in the reading of 76, but the question remains just how much of the poem is autobiography, how much is a focused collection, and how much is merely (as if any of them are mere) an artistic exercise. 76 focuses on the question of whether the poems are to be read separately or as a group, as a literary exercise or autobiography.
As noted earlier, the questions regarding the relationship of Shakespeare's life to the sonnets cannot be answered. However, when focusing on just the formal concerns of the poems, the autobiographical element cannot be examined. Further complicating this is the ability to read the sonnets as dramatic monologues. The readers relationship to the poet and the poem is reconsidered in sonnet 76. The "you" of the poem can be the reader, the particular object of the poem, but the reader may read the poem to another, further distancing the "you" from the poet while creating a reflective intimacy.
In a different vein, the sonnets share some shape with paintings with an emphasis on the imagery wrought by the words. Another relationship is the "golden mean" found in the sonnets. In painting, the foreground occupies about one-third of the lower space of the painting. This is the space occupied by the sestet, the concluding aspects following the turn/volta. This is somehow an instinctively "right" place in both a visual and rhetorical sense. It is also less obvious in the sonnet than in paintings. Line nine turns set up the volta, often using a signal word such as "then" or "for" or something of that sort. A number of the sonnets set up the turns by opening with "when" statements, creating a when-then relationship. These turns are not always tied to the octave-sestet, but can occur either before or after. The quatrains can each provide a "when" type point with the "then" element coming in the concluding couplet. Even the quatrains may not be wholly regular. Some (146) opens with a four line question/quatrain. This is followed by a two-line question, one-and-a-half lines and then a half-line long questions.
What this tells us is that the reading of Shakespeare's sonnets must not be constrained by the form. At the same time, the couples pretty much always provide a sense of closure, so one cannot ignore the form either. The role of the couplet is often to state the thesis of the sonnet and/or to provide an overview of the progression of the thoughts that will be expressed in the sonnet. Opening lines may be public or intimate, depending upon the focus of the concluding couplet. Sonnets also tend to begin in media res which creates a sense of progression both within and among the sonnets.
Similarly, the syllables and the rhyme work to make meaning for the sonnets, to effect a response from the reader. This is true of any good piece of poetry, not just Shakespeare, though he is among the best, if not the best, at doing this. (This is Alexander Pope's notion of sound and sense.) One way to see the interplay of syllables and rhymes is to strip the sonnets of punctuation and work to make sense of them. I may just do this with students, giving them a couple of poems sans punctuation to see what sort of meaning they come up with, what sort of punctuating they do. One of the common themes of the sonnets is mutability (the deconstructing or dissolution of life as we know it, whether organic or social ). Overall, the artistry is felt in both the general and particular of each sonnet, however those are manifested, be they autobiographical or artistic exercises, singular or part of a whole.