Who would have thought that when I joined The Poetry Project (formerly the Read More Poetry project) in order to read some poetry, that I would spend most of the year working my way through a 500 page commentary on Shakespeare’s sonnets. Not because the commentary was poor but because it was a bit too successful in its argumentation.

When I first wrote about Don Paterson’s book in April I was in the first exuberant flushes of love. It’s knowledge, irreverence and delight in dissecting bad poetry – regardless of the reputation of the original poet – had me howling with laughter. But eventually Shakespeare’s whining about the fickleness of the YM (Young Man) and his own coupled with Paterson’s whining (albeit very entertainingly) about Shakespeare’s whining had me – shall we say – whining too! Like Paterson, I just couldn’t take another sonnet about the same old, same old ….

And so I began to read the odd sonnet, here and there, between other books.

Finally (sonnet 127) the DL (Dark Lady) appeared and things got interesting again – in two ways. Firstly, without Paterson’s commentary and explanation of Elizabethan double entendre I would have had no idea whatsoever that I was in places reading pornography. (Although sonnet 135 is obvious to everyone.) Secondly I began to disagree with the commentary. Not about whether the poetry was good, bad or really, really bad (because Paterson is more than convincing about that) but about Shakespeare’s attitude in the DL sonnets. He hated the DL, with venom. She was tearing him apart with her indifference, her infidelity. (Not that he was any better.) But he was powerless to resist her. And all that pain, passion and darkness turns into misogynistic outpourings. They are horrible without a doubt. I can’t see Paterson being the kind to bow to the dictates of the feminist agenda and political correctness. At least I hope he’s not doing so when he declares these attitudes unacceptable. All I can say is that he’s fortunate if he never found himself infatuated by someone who was bad for him ….. and that Shakespeare’s DL sonnets are mild compared to the spleen I have personally vented against members of the opposite sex who were bad for me! It goes without saying, I enjoyed the DL sonnets more than the YM ones, many of the latter feeling entirely artificial.

As Paterson says, sometimes our William was writing just to make up the numbers ….

although, not all the time and when a lovely sonnet is being discussed, Paterson’s praises are as fulsome as his critiques –

Sonnet 118: This is a brilliant sonnet, and heaven alone knows why it isn’t better regarded. It should be revered.

although he often finds a sideswipe or a comic punchline very hard to resist.

Sonnet 97: Me and Coleridge like this one, but no one else, as far as I can make out. I wish that was paying me a compliment, but Coleridge had bloody awful taste.

Sonnet 132: Who said love had to be consistent? A much sweeter sonnet, this one, with all the hatred directed inwardly again, where it belongs. Indeed WS is deriving no little masochistic pleasure from the fact that he feels himself to be scorned and pitied; good man. He loves the way it makes the DL look. Her dark eyes are like mourners, consoling him on his grief – albeit a grief she’s caused, through the torment of her disdain. (Disdainful mourning, mind you, is a hell of a complicated expression. Try it. I’m going for Stephen Rea above the nose and Alan Rickman below it, but it’s coming out like Bell’s palsy.)

And that’s when Paterson likes what he reads! His pithy comments about poor lines are deadly:

Line 13 (0f Sonnet 100) is awful, and scans like a drunken clog-dance.

Literary criticism was never so amusing or read so gleefully. It does leave you wondering how the sonnets have come to represent the epitome of love poetry. Obviously because the sublime nature of the best transcend the poverty of the worst. Paterson’s commentary will leave you in no doubt as to which category each sonnet belongs …. although you may want a second opinion. Academics obviously disagree.