A Dispatch from the Sonnet Mines

(Following the lead of Karl Steel, I’m blogging my efforts to put together this article. This post may disappear at some point, but for now it’s here, as a monument at least to the slipperiness of my ideas.)

Let me start with two scenes of reading. First, a methodological proposal by Arthur Acheson in his 1922 volume, Shakespeare’s Sonnet Story, which seeks to restore Shakespeare’s sequence to its original order. Midway through explaining his method to an imagined skeptical reader, he suggests an experiment:

[T]ake two copies of the Sonnets in Thorpe’s order… cut out the leaves and spread the sonnets out from one to one hundred and twenty-six, and for the present forgetting my chronological order or Thorpe’s sequential order, move the sonnets here and there, grouping them according to subject or theme, they will be found to divide naturally into seven groups… (xxi)

Having found these groups, “any intelligent student” will be able to arrange the sonnets within them consecutively, and then, “a working knowledge of the chronological order of the plays and the progressive development of Shakespeare’s style” (xxii) will suffice to arrange the groups chronologically. And voila! The first 126 sonnets, reorganized.

Acheson cannot quite stick to his rhetoric of ease, determined as he is to prove his knowledge and labor. We learn that when a student tries this method, after a few weeks work, he, “not having as intimate a knowledge of the sonnet story, failed to give the sequences the same consecutive order, and having considered the subject for a very much shorter time, his order within the sequences differed somewhat from mine…” (xx). And, indeed, when he describes this method yet again, 60 pages later, he adds that he has spent two decades re-evaluating and reconsidering. A story that intends to demonstrate, immediately and clearly, the manifest rightness of a given order becomes instead a prescription for a lifetime of reading: constant evaluations and judgment, appealing to many types of knowledge and tempered by ones own “preconception and obsession” (45).

With this account, I want to juxtapose Bruce Andrews, writing in 2003 about the practice of reading electronic poetry:

We can think of the textual surface as an instrument panel, the screen as a flat & opaque workspace, given enormous fluidity, activating the user’s body. Action replaces both the passive representation of conventional literature & the passive spectacle of animated, programmed work. It embraces navigation, micro-evaluations, conceptual animation, freeze-framing, editing, blending, filtering, subliminal cut & paste, time compressions & expansions, frame resizing: practically everything we need to sidetrack closure.

The field has rotated 90 degrees: replacing the flat surface on which Acheson “spread out” and then “moved” the sonnets (44), is a different sort of desktop. But the set of operations Andrews describes are precisely those undertaken by Acheson’s hypothetical rearranger: navigating and evaluating, animating and compressing, sorting and blending.

In juxtaposing these two moments, I intend to relate a very recent set of questions—about digital reading, digital editions, and the future of the humanities—with very old ones about Shakespeare’s sonnets, their order, and the connections between them. Lev Manovich has proposed that the database replaced the narrative as the defining form of “the computer age.” Where narrative draws a privileged line through disparate events, the database offers multiple orders, mediated by user and interface, with temporal sequence at most one of them. Database forms—the list, the matrix, the catalog, the encyclopedia—offer up not cause-and-effect or similar devices of sequential comprehension, but rather a topology that can be traversed in multiple ways. As such, databases lend themselves to what Alan Liu has called (in contemporary criticism) “micro-, hetero-, and play-ism”: attention to the free range of small differences, to the motility of the detail within a matrix of larger forces. Manovich’s target is the limited ambition of new media projects that emulate the grammar of narrative; Liu’s theoretical assumptions underlying the turn towards detail in literary criticism. My point will only be that we’ve been here before.

In all these cases, what is at stake is how to close-read a field, a network, a database. Acheson and Andrews both imagine reading as an active, evaluative, and even creative engagement with a world of almost infinitely recombinable texts. Against the more or less sequential organization of the individual textual element—left to right, top to bottom, beginning to end—, the work surface maps a terrain of association and adjustment, visual hierarchy and serendipitous connection, that constantly shifts under us. A series of recent critical turns (new historical, rhetorical, sociological, digital) has put new pressures on the shapes of our argument: we think now less in terms of adjacency and sequence than of distributed intensities and networks of association. Laying tabs out like sonnets on the desk, we trawl through EEBO and the MLA bibliography, the DNB and the OED, tracing and inventing the connections that make meaning. We have many terms for our resistance to teleologies and sequence—queer theory, weird reading, material philology, “medium-close reading,” and so forth—but these different approaches share a sense of the power of relation, of the way one detail may sparkle in the light cast by another. Eileen Joy writes:

Any given moment in a literary work (all the way down to specific words and even parts of words, and all the way up to the work as a whole), like any object or thing, is “fatally torn” between its deeper reality and its “accidents, relations, and qualities: a set of tensions that makes everything in the universe possible, including space and time,” and literary criticism might re-purpose itself as the mapping of these (often in- and non-human) tensions and rifts, as well as of the excess of meanings that might pour out of these crevasses, or wormholes.  [Weird Reading, 30]

Sonnet sequence criticism, I will suggest, is constantly wrestling with such excess, caught between the infinite interperability of the text and our awareness that the patterns we find are always in some sense our own desires refracted back to us. Shakespeare’s Sonnets have long invited us to confront our own methodologies, to reflect on which connections we are justified in making. Always at stake in our readings is the status of literary argument itself: how do the patterns observed by a critic come to mean? After all, from the efflorescence of glosses in Stephen Booth’s edition through the tremendous mass of criticism, we are confronted with an overabundance of significance at every level. We have, as F. T. Prince writes, “far more evidence than we can hope to exhaust the meaning of.” (review of Rollins).

What I am working on, I suspect, is a type of Weird Critical History, in which a chance relation—between the problems of reading sonnet sequences and those of a database-driven but qualitative humanities—offers an opportunity to reinvigorate both sets of questions. I’m still debating how to structure the larger piece—by metaphor, by intertext, by modern reading—but I want to put up one section I’m working through.

Sequence and Relation

The sonnet is among the most architectural of the lyric forms: well-shaped, square, with familiar furniture and clearly articulated functions. Indeed, for me, at least, to read a sonnet is to think through the relationship between this artifactuality and its immediacy: the vivid turn, the gathering or exhausting force of the couplet. One metaphor we might adopt is Stefano Boselli’s, the sonnet as “a tiny chamber black-box theater whose essential walls are its limited verses.” Something is made and something is said and somehow we dwell in the utterance until we make sense of it.

And then there is another sonnet. We find ourselves in another room, another utterance, and we begin again the process of reading. As A.C. Hamilton writes, “A sonnet shines brilliantly for the moment that it is read, only to fade entirely before the next sonnet.” Sonnet sequences, he writes, are like “stars against a black sky rather than related points on a narrative line.” And yet in fading, sonnets do not vanish: to read a whole sonnet sequence in a sitting is to be faced with the constant return of things half-forgotten. Even reading two or three sonnets together, one sees in these stars the beginning of a constellation, imagined lines of connection giving a shaping form to these isolated objects. Hamilton’s metaphor, then, offers a color-inverted version of the field we encountered in Acheson and Andrews, in Bernadette Mayer at the head of this section, and elsewhere in the sonnet criticism. (Samuel Butler, for instance, describes laying two copies of the sonnets out on a desktop and “shift[ing] them again and again tentatively till I had got them into the order in which I have printed them.”)

As readers, we sally on with two contradictory strategies: we respond to the densely folded, carefully staged moment of the particular poem, rife with what Lyn Hejinian refers to as “vertical intensity,” as well as a slow, haphazard sense of repetition and association that animates and alienates what we have already read (Hejinian’s “horizontal extensivity” [“Rejection of Closure,” 1). The first timeline is the one in which we work out the complicated, enjambed tease of the first lines of Shakespeare’s sonnet 13:

“O that you were yourself, but love you are

No longer yours than you yourself here live.

Against this coming end you should prepare…”

In the second timeline, we hear something else, the radical charge with which this first “you” bursts into the sequence, transforming the series’s erotic intensity. With it, “love” reaches new heights: what was empty “self-love” in 3, purely visual “loveliness” and lovely” of 4 and 5, and kind affection in 9 and 10’s “love towards others” and “love to any” becomes the deeply possessive and personal vocatives that bookend this poem (in lines 1 and 13). I am not trying to suggest that reading one poem we compare the semantic range of each of its lexical items against all prior ones: I certainly could not have told you how the word “love” shifted until I checked. But this effect—and others like it—are very much part of the radical surprise of this poem’s first line. At least in the order of the poems as given by Thorpe in 1609, it is here that the Young Man becomes beloved.

Other words, images, and conceits similarly become laden with meaning as one reads, though the particulars change with every reading and reader. Richard Blackmur writes, “No one can improve upon the accidentally established order we possess; but everyone can invite himself to feel the constant interflow of new relations, of new reticulations—as if the inner order were always on the move.” Arguments about the order of the sonnets continually appeal to our sense of such connections, whether in defense of the current order—Don Patterson: “The sequence has been ordered in a meticulously careful, sensitive and playful way that can only indicate the author’s hand” (Guardian piece)—or opposition to it:

“Look how the conventional sonnets shed much of their conventionality, become purposeful and ennobled as thy return to their rightful place; how each sonnet over and above its own graciousness takes on a deeper meaning and an added beauty as a living part of the majestic whole. And whose pleasure is not quickened on reading the beloved words anew in the even march of sonnet after sonnet from opening to close, the mind distracted and disturbed no longer, as in the Quarto, by incongruity of idea or mood or subject.” (Denys Bray, 43)

And indeed, reading rearrangements, however skeptically, one is sometimes struck with such connections. Bringing together sonnets 62 and 22, for instance, Bray’s edition teases out the dialectic of “self-love” and difference in these two poems about looking in the mirror, letting their interest in beauty and comparison transform sonnet 18 which here follows them. So, too, Clara de Chambrun has sonnet 43 delightfully repair 113: one poem meditating on how absence distorts the features of the world, making the eye untrue during the day, and the second reflecting on the eye’s best sight at night, when dreams portray the the beloved. The couplet now neatly closes both poems:

All days are nights to see till I see thee,

And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

Such moments of resonance have a strange status. We are right to be skeptical that they are signals to some hidden true order, right perhaps to doubt that they are intentional at all. Yet in aggregate, the slow accumulation of such effects, even more so than any narrative, is what makes reading a sonnet sequence so rich. Alice Notley refers to it as a “relational tension” (667, describing The Sonnets of Ted Berrigan): “The pieces of the self are allowed to separate and reform: one is not chronology but its parts and the real organism they create” (4).

Sonnet criticism is increasingly turning from vertical intensity to horizontal extensity as the object of its attention, both within The Sonnets and in the volume’s engagement with the outer world. Critics, we might say, no longer analyze so much as they assemble: we limn networks of association, juxtapose compelling intertexts, meditate on the matrices of forces within which a poem swirls. I’ve long been convinced that a lingering challenge for qualitative digital humanists is to reckon with the stakes of this new close-reading, animated by association rather than structure. (Polemically, I’d say this is an age of critical incunabula, in which insightful acts of assemblage are described as intentional, structural, psychological, or ontological claims. But, then, I’m a contrarian.)

As such, I think it’s time that we engage with these weird sonnet readers, not for their rhetoric but for their topology, for the sparks that fly from the grinding of brains against poems. And when we do, we might recognize the contiguity of their projects with contemporary work on reading digital poetry. Their work on the “links” between poems—associative, imagistic, rhyme, narrative—can be productively read beside Susana Pajares Tosca’s work on the “lyrical quality of hyperlinks” and Peter Whalley’s account of the “rhetoric of hypertext.” So, too, their efforts to shore up narrative through order speaks to Lyn Hejinian’s account of poetic closure. And the continued possibilities of their strategies of rearrangement, erasure, and association, as found in engagements with the Sonnets by contemporary poets like Ross Goodwin, K. Silem Mohammed, Paul Hoover, and Jen Bervin, might help us to rethink the potential of digital editions.

More on all of this soon.