Dr. Carl Atkins is the author of Shakespeare’s Sonnets: With Three Hundred Years of Commentary as well as a prolific commenter here at ShakespeareGeek, both while holding down a day job as a medical doctor. Instead of a typical author interview with press blurbs and bio questions we decided to do something different – Carl’s going to guest blog a series for us based on *your* questions. Question : Let’s start out with the big question – are the sonnets autobiographical, or what? If they were, then who is the Dark Lady? Who is the “Fair Youth”? Have these questions always been a mystery, or is it more like the authorship question, where it can all be traced back to one person who originally asked the question (I’m thinking of Delia Bacon, who first posed the idea that Sir Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s works). This is a good place to start. Let’s get this out of the way right in the beginning. The presence of some autobiographical elements in at least some of the sonnets were suggested by Shakespeare’s earliest commentators, including the most influential, Edmund Malone, in his edition of 1780. As more commentators found signs suggesting autobiography, the effect snowballed, perhaps reaching a height with Wordsworth’s romantic outburst
“with this Key Shakespeare unlocked his heart.” However, Sidney Lee, a turn-of-the-century Shakespeare scholar and biographer cautions:
“autobiographical confessions are very rarely the stuff of which the Elizabethan sonnet was made….With good reason Sir Philip Sidney warned the public that ‘no inward touch’ was to be expected from sonneteers of his day….At a first glance a far larger proportion of Shakespeare’s sonnets give the reader the illusion of personal confessions than those of any contemporary, but when allowance has been made for the current conventions of Elizabethan sonneteering, as well as for Shakespeare’s unapproached affluence in dramatic instinct and invention…the autobiographic element in his sonnets…is seen to shrink to slender proportions.”
The problem, I think, is that Sonnet commentary began almost 200 years after the sonnet convention peaked. Shakespeare’s Sonnets were published in 1609, at the tail end of the craze that was going out of fashion. By the late 1700’s when The Sonnets were starting to be taken seriously as part of Shakespeare’s important works, nobody understood what “sonnet cycles” were.
They looked at The Sonnets as 154 poems and not in the context of the Elizabethan sonnet cycles that were popular in Shakespeare’s day. Taken in that context, we must recognize that it was common for the poet to write “in propria persona”, i.e., as if he were speaking, without regard to whether the subject matter literally applied to himself. The themes were also common
and repeated from one cycle to another–themes that we find in one form or another in many of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Looked at from this angle, any initial suggestion of autobiography must be regarded skeptically.
An additional problem is that we know very little about Shakespeare himself, so it is very difficult to confirm or refute any autobiographical suggestions made on the basis of an implication in a sonnet. And, of course, The Sonnets themselves are maddeningly vague. As to the identity of the Dark Lady and the Fair Youth, much ink has been wasted in search of them. W. H. Auden did not mince words on the matter. He said: “It is…nonsensical, no matter how accurate your results may be, to waste time trying to identify characters. It is an idiot’s job, pointless ad uninteresting. It is just gossip.” Stephen Booth, somewhat less archly decries the “games of pin the tail on the Dark Lady.” Again, we have the problem of the vagueness of The Sonnets and the lack of biographical
information for confirmation that prevents any conclusions from being drawn, even if we were to assume that these individuals were anything more than fiction. I have found nothing in The Sonnets themselves, nor in the extensive commentary I have read, to lead me to believe that the Dark Lady and the Fair Youth were any more than dramatis personae required for the
purposes of poetry (whether or not they bore resemblance in part or whole to persons familiar to Shakespeare). About the Author This book brings together the scholarship of dozens of the most brilliant commentators who have written about Shakespeare’s Sonnets over the past three hundred years. This edition adds the significant work done by modern editors to the most important commentary culled from the two variorum editions of the last century. Atkins presents a straightforward edition without jargon with the simple goal of finding out how the poems work and how they may be interpreted. He is the first to collate the modern texts so that differences among them can be fully appreciated and compared. His discussion of meter and verse is more substantial than that of any other edition, adding particular dimension to this text. Those coming to “The Sonnets” for the first time and those seeking a fresh look at an old friend will equally find this edition scholastically rigorous and a pleasure to read. Carl D. Atkins is a practicing medical oncologist in New York. Got a question for the author? Send it in and we’ll see if we can get it in the queue!