Why Lyrics Last: Evolution, Cognition, and Shakespeare's Sonnets
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In Why Lyrics Last, the internationally acclaimed critic Brian Boyd turns an evolutionary lens on the subject of lyric verse. He finds that lyric making, though it presents no advantages for the species in terms of survival and reproduction, is “universal across cultures because it fits constraints of the human mind.” An evolutionary perspective― especially when coupled with insights from aesthetics and literary history―has much to tell us about both verse and the lyrical impulse.
Boyd places the writing of lyrical verse within the human disposition “to play with pattern,” and in an extended example he uncovers the many patterns to be found within Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Shakespeare’s bid for readership is unlike that of any sonneteer before him: he deliberately avoids all narrative, choosing to maximize the openness of the lyric and demonstrating the power that verse can have when liberated of story.
In eschewing narrative, Shakespeare plays freely with patterns of other kinds: words, images, sounds, structures; emotions and moods; argument and analogy; and natural rhythms, in daily, seasonal, and life cycles. In the originality of his stratagems, and in their sheer number and variety, both within and between sonnets, Shakespeare outdoes all competitors. A reading of the Sonnets informed by evolution is primed to attend to these complexities and better able to appreciate Shakespeare’s remarkable gambit for immortal fame.
Benedick loves Beatrice: And I’ll be sworn upon’t that he loves her, For here’s a paper written in his hand, A halting sonnet of his own pure brain, Fashion’d to Beatrice. Hero continues: And here’s another Writ in my cousin’s hand, stol’n from her pocket, Containing her aﬀection unto Benedick. (V.4.85– 90) Shakespeare has Romeo and Juliet signal their perfect suitedness in love from the start by exchanging their ﬁrst words in sonnet form. And in the Sonnets themselves, in his proudest boast
returning my love, and “pity me,” so committed to love for thee, by returning my love. Instead, his “thou” is “to thy sweet self too cruel” in not having children, and should “pity the world,” by producing copies of “thy sweet self.” Sonnet 1 addresses large issues, of relevance to all readers, indeed to all life, but in a way almost demotivating, despite its personal and urgent tone. Shakespeare here makes the most of the lack of deﬁned situation that the brevity of lyric verse enables. What
sequence, allows him to explore in unpredictable ways love’s pleasures and pains, its selﬂessness and selﬁshness, its constancy and its changeability, its security and insecurity, its mutuality and its occasional onesidedness; love and sex, love and friendship; love and praise, love and blame; love and presence, love and absence; love as glory, love as shame; love and truth, love and deceit, love and self-deception. lov e a nd t ime: t he you t h 99 Not only does the Fair Youth sub-sequence
capacity to command the attention of others, in a free market of prestige in exchange for payment. Shakespeare makes the relation of poet and patron a recurrent, though far from a continuous, part of the relationship between Poet and Youth. Status is often not at issue in the sonnets, but wherever it is, the Youth’s, the beloved’s, tends to be much higher than the Poet’s, echoing both conventional sonnet sequences and the relation of poet to patron. In Sonnet 25 Shakespeare introduces for the
can I then return in happy plight”), but it leads in turn into the parallels, and variations on a theme, in 29 and 30, which can and so often do stand on their own. But so far we have considered Sonnet 26 only in thematic terms: the Poet is physically removed from his Lord of love, and too poor in wit to dare show his face. If we look at the sonnet’s poetic texture, however, we can see the poet playing the kind of complex games with status that recur throughout the sonnets, here by toying richly