Shakespeare’s masterful sonnets were ushered into the world amid the anarchy of shady Elizabethan printing and bookselling. Clinton Heylin’s engaging and irreverent new book, So Long As Men Can Breathe: The Untold Story of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, takes readers inside this early 17th-century milieu of poets, patrons, scribes, and the rampant bootlegging of manuscripts.
In his pithy study that should intrigue both armchair sonnet enthusiasts and professional scholars, Heylin deftly chronicles centuries of speculation about the 154-poem sequence’s narrative patterns, “intended” order, and whether they suggest that the poet and player from Stratford was bisexual. Above all, the author probes why and how a popular playwright revered by King James’s court around 1609 would entrust private poems filled with potentially scandalous, homoerotic yearnings to an unsuccessful printer during a time when the Elizabethan sonnet craze had already passed.
To Heylin, a clear reading of the evidence supports the view that the book containing Shakespeare’s sonnets and a narrative poem not written by Shakespeare, called “A Lover’s Complaint,” was pirated by Thomas Thorpe, who published it in a 1609 quarto edition. This happened when unlicensed publishing was the norm, since copyright belonged not to authors but to a “cartel of printers and booksellers.” In this context Heylin considers how the suspected bootlegger may have come to acquire Shakespeare’s sonnet manuscript.
Some believe Shakespeare may have circulated his poems anonymously in small sections as early as 1595 for a private audience. He undoubtedly revised some for posterity and abandoned others. Heylin’s look at the quality and structure of three sonnet sequences is especially useful for students of Shakespeare’s poetry. He explores how “The Marriage Sonnets” (Numbers 1–17) may have been commissioned by the Countess of Pembroke to convince her rakish son, William Herbert, (the future Earl of Pembroke and eventual patron of Shakespeare’s King’s Men) that he must settle down and marry. “The ‘Dark Lady’ Sonnets” (Numbers 127–154), which have monopolized recent debate, are considered less polished. Heylin examines the view that Shakespeare wrote them to parody the actual sonnet form, citing “My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun” as one of the best examples.
About the real identity of the “lovely boy” in “The ‘Fair Youth’ Sonnets” (Numbers 18-126), Heylin has much to say of interest to non-scholars. In the late 18th century, when Edmund Malone compared contemporary editions of the sonnets with Thorpe’s early published sequence, critics realized that the object of the sonnet speaker’s love was a highborn young man. Later on, William Wordsworth ushered in the modern obsession with the Fair Youth’s identity. Heylin’s appraisal of evidence for and against the two likely candidates for the poet/speaker’s affection—Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, and William Herbert, the future Earl of Pembroke—is quite thorough. He concludes that there isn’t sufficient evidence to call either the Fair Youth, but he suggests why Pembroke has the stronger claim.
One of the book’s abiding concerns is how the sonnets came to be “a secret subtext to the man’s plays” for two centuries, until Malone published Plays and Poems in 1790 and brought the sonnets into Shakespeare’s canon. In particular, the book’s first half appraises post-Restoration, Romantic, and contemporary views about the provenance of Thorpe’s sonnet manuscript, Shakespeare’s reaction to Thorpe’s piracy, the scandal it would have caused, Thorpe’s failed career, and rival poets who may have written “A Lover’s Complaint.” In the book’s second half, Heylin charts Shakespeare’s growing reputation as a playwright, beginning when dramatist and biographer Nicholas Rowe released a six-volume edition of the plays in 1709. He chronicles the vagaries of two centuries of controversy about “the worth and subject matter of the sonnets,” touched off by early editors Malone and George Steevens, and later enriched by artist critics such as A.W. Schlegel, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Oscar Wilde, William Hazlitt, and W.H. Auden.
Heylin is quite piqued by the turn of the debate since 1983 when Katherine Duncan-Jones, editor of the Arden Shakespeare’s Sonnets, challenged the prevailing view that Shakespeare did not authorize Thorpe’s 1609 book. He repeatedly snipes at Duncan-Jones for reviving the case for “authorization” without plausible evidence. Equally frustrating to Heylin is the currently popular idea that if Shakespeare authorized the 1609 book, the mysterious additional poem called “A Lover’s Complaint” must have been penned by the Bard as well. Heylin goes into exasperating detail to expose the flaws in this thinking, arguing that Shakespeare not only didn’t support Thorpe’s sonnet edition, he may have suppressed the book from being reissued.
The study of Shakespeare’s sonnets is fraught with speculation, in part because we don’t know exactly when they were written or first circulated. Equally frustrating is the dearth of allusions in the poems that would link them to actual events. Heylin, an Elizabethan and Jacobean historian and biographer of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, is sensitive to the pitfalls of speculation, even if his own theories remain plausible but unproven. Nevertheless, his manner of throwing stones at shaky, influential theories is lively and down to earth. Heylin traverses some tedious terrain, keeping the reader curious. He does, however, occasionally bog down in turgid territory peripheral to Shakespeare’s authorship, especially when probing theories about who wrote “A Lover’s Complaint.” For the most part, Heylin artfully mines the drama inherent in the debate, working each turning point into his own plot point.
For this reviewer, who has taught the sonnets in college-level British literature courses after being reluctantly weaned on New Criticism, Heylin’s study is a pleasingly sardonic crash course in four centuries of scholarship. For Shakespeare enthusiasts outside the academy, So Long As Men Can Breathe is a useful point of departure for a deeper study of the Renaissance book trade and the elegance of the sonnets.