Guest Blog : Are The Sonnets Autobiographical? with Dr. Carl Atkins

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!

10 thoughts on “Guest Blog : Are The Sonnets Autobiographical? with Dr. Carl Atkins

  1. I wish! Unfortunately, I need lots of hardcovers to be sold to get a paperback edition. However, quite a number of academic libraries have bought copies and you might check that avenue out. You might even ask your local library to buy a copy!

  2. hi there,

    it says Dr. Atkins is the first to collate the extant editions of the sonnets. Any way he can tell us how he did this please?


    William S.

  3. Wow, the book looks interesting; the price doesn't. Any chance of an affordable paperback version?

  4. Yes, I wish I could do that. Alas, I live in a village in the French Alps, and our library is, well, small, and, as you can imagine, doesn't have books in English. They can't get inter-library loans from university libraries either.

  5. What I did was collect all of the modern editions since the New Variorum Shakesepeare edition of 1944, when Rollins collated the previous editions. (I went to the bookstore to buy some, and went online to buy others.) I read through each one and noted the differences in the way each editor printed the text, down to the last comma and period. This had not been done since 1944. Instead, each editor had made his own choices, rarely commenting on previous editors. I thought it was about time someone put it all together so the texts could be compared. In my book, I comment on significant differences among modern editors, usually giving my own opinion about what makes sense. But all the information is also there for the reader to make an informed decision as well.

  6. So do you then stay with the original punctuation as a guide to speaking the sonnets a la Percy Simpson interpretation? And further to what end did you collate the different punctuations of editors?
    I thought Hyder Rollins was the first to collate the extant copies of Q1609 Sonnets?

    I posted on punctuation in Q1609Sonnets on my blog
    and here on Hyder Rollins

    looking forward to your reply.

  7. I wonder if Dr. Atkins could comment on the strange silence that seems to have surrounded the publication of the 1609 Sonnets–they seem not to have sold well or been widely read, since so many survive, and I believe one copy has annotations in the spirit of "What a load of tosh" at the end. It's almost as if the original audience were at a loss for how to interpret the sequence, or even disgusted by them.

  8. Just so everybody knows, Carl and I are hoping to make this a regular series. So some of these questions will be separated into their own posts for lengthier discussion.

    In particular I know that "what's the deal with the 1609 publication" is in the queue all ready to go, I'll bring that one up next and we can start a whole new topic.

  9. For SCPeters: Just briefly I will note that The Sonnets were published at the end of the Elizabethan sonnet-writing craze. Many editors speculate that Shakespeare actually wrote many or all of them much earlier than 1609. As Duane mentioned, more on this later.

    For William Sutton: Yes, I definitely stayed for the most part with the original punctation as a guide to pronunciation, but actually more so, for interpretation (also more on that later). I am impressed that you know of Percy Simpson. He is, unfairly I think, much out of favor is scholarly circles, but was my guiding spirit. I collated the punctuation of modern editors to show how much variation there was, and how little rationale there often was in choosing punctutiion. As Helen Vendler put it, "All editors repunctuate according to their own understanding of the conection among the lines and quatrains of a given sonnet." This is a process she practices and condones and with which I heartily disagree. It leads to misreadings, misunderstandings, and unnecssary emendations, as I show in my book.
    Rollins was, indeed, the first to collate the 13 extant copies of the 1609 Quarto, and there are very few variants among them. I found only one minor error in Rollins's collation, which he was unable to detect because he collated partly from facsimile. Sonnet 116 is misnumbered 119 in all copies of the Quarto. Rollins mistakenly states that it is correctly numbered in the Bodley-Caldecott copy. In my communication by email with the Bodleian library, I asked their librarian to check the original and it turns out the it was changed by hand by an early owner, the 9 made to look like a 6.
    Of course, collating the original copies of the Quarto is quite a different matter from collating modern editions with their editorial changes.

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