Working Thoughts: Sonnets, Wives and Daughters

In volume 25 of the New Variorum, Hyder Rollins writes several appendices on various controversies about the Sonnets: their date, their arrangement, the identity of the Friend, and such. The tone is alternatively exhaustive and exhausted, as the editor wearies into sarcasm under the weight of scholarship in which he sees little value. Of Knight’s proposed rearrangement of Shakespeare’s sonnets, he complains:

Knight’s comments are interesting and modest, but in all innocence, he started a game that promises never to end. If our wives do not write novels and our daughters plays, they are likely on no provocation at all to malarrange Shakespeare’s lyrics.

The insult is targeted more at the (mostly) male arrangers to whom Rollins will turn his jaundiced eye in the rest of the appendix rather than to the wives and daughters it also mocks. Glib and dismissive sexism serves to denigrate the project of rearranging as romantic, amateur, speculative, and playful. Rollins might be the first to say that his gender categories here aren’t total: he would have known the scholarship of Helen Clarke, Charlotte Endymion Porter, Mary Cowden Clarke, Caroline Spurgeon, Una Ellis-Fermor, and Rosemond Tuve, among others. (Or at least, he should, and since I’m ventriloquizing him here, he will.) Rather, the culturally-inflected distinction between serious men and scribbling women operates as a metaphor for the separation of careful, scholarly study of Shakespeare and popular forms of engagement.

We still sometimes discuss this distinction in gendered terms: academic scorn for popular Shakespeare often turns on rejecting ideas of the sentimental, the ‘relatable,’ the romantic, the narrative, and the fantastic. And as Annamarie Jagose has pointed out, the other language for Shakespeare’s Sonnets that we’re now skeptical of is the metaphors of the closet: the secret, the coded, the lock and key. Against both of these, we position what Paul Hecht refers to as the ‘editorial tone’: careful, professional, committed to an ideology of progressive improvement and hiding its idiosyncrasy in careful allusiveness.

But this isn’t, ultimately, how we think about poetic meaning. As much as our editions attempt to pin down, our arguments try to unstick: in the best journals and best monographs, we track “networks of association,” read against “dominant readings,” deconstruct, and reorient. We are alert that texts—sonnet sequences even more, perhaps, than most—distribute meanings over networks that are implicated and imbricated in larger cultural formations, that pulling on one strand causes the whole to vibrate in new frequencies. There is, I insist, something creative in such efforts: at this moment, our discipline is deeply invested in a type of invention that is both finding and making. We play the same never-ending game as the “wives” and “daughters” that Rollins so glibly dismisses, albeit in different institutional structures, with different rhetoric, and with different burdens of sexism and scorn.

One project I’m thinking about this summer is how to revisit their efforts, without condescension, to attend respectfully to their engagements with Shakespeare’s text. I have two problems. The first is archival: is there indeed a neglected archive of “malarrangements” by women that has been excluded from the scholarly tradition? Where should I look for it? Periodicals? Correspondence? And, if there’s not, what makes Rollins think there is?

The second is methodological: in doing this type of work, sociological insights, easy generalizations, and fatuous praise threaten to replace real insights. How do I do justice to the play of mind against text? My inclination is to argue that there’s something hypertextual about the Sonnets, that poems speak to each other across and against their orders, and that re-arrangements are less idle fantasies than attempts to track desire-paths across the text. But more on this later.