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New Editors Bring Poetic Justice to Shakespeare's Poems Hot

Ron Severdia
Written by Ron Severdia     November 04, 2007    
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New Editors Bring Poetic Justice to Shakespeare's Poems
  • by Katherine Duncan-Jones & H.R. Woudhuysen
  • Publisher: Arden
  • Published in September 27, 2007
  • 5
While sipping her morning coffee, Katherine Duncan-Jones muses on her latest project—the Arden 3 edition of Shakespeare's Poems, a project almost 15 years in the making. Co-edited with H.R. Woudhuysen, who edited the Arden 3 Love's Labour's Lost in 2002, the poems are a natural progression for Duncan-Jones, having edited Shakespeare's Sonnets for the Arden 3 series (1997).

How does one embark on such a monumental task? Duncan-Jones relates, "I started working on the poems by looking at the date and context and how they fit into the overall larger picture of Elizabethan and Jacobean literature as well as Shakespeare's own literary career."

Like any journey beginning with the first step, Duncan-Jones took on re-editing Shakespeare's sonnets back in 1992. Arden requested she also tackle the poems in the same volume, but she felt that the book would be too long and the poems deserved their own tome. As she states in the preface, Shakespeare's poems "have been generally viewed as peripheral to Shakespeare's achievement" when, in fact, they likely say more about his early work than any other piece. The Arden 2 editors agreed, tackling the poems, but leaving the sonnets unaltered from the original 1918 edition of Arden 1. Luckily, the Arden 3 editors have been focusing on giving the entire canon a fresh makeover.

When editing the sonnets, Duncan-Jones approached them as would a fan of the New York Times crossword puzzle, taking a sonnet apart each day and "solving" its intricacies. There were a few exceptions and, combined with her teaching position at Oxford, it became an even longer task than originally anticipated. Yet, it was essentially based on the "one a day" principle.

"Sonnets come in lovely bite-sized pieces," she remarks, "which is one of the reasons why teachers often like teaching them because they can spend a session on a single sonnet."

But it takes years of experience and sonnet exploration before one can get to the point of approaching the sonnet editing in this fashion. Besides a brief stint in Cambridge, Duncan-Jones has spent most of her life at Oxford working on Elizabethan history before turning her sights on Shakespeare. She's followed research and publications on the sonnets for several decades now and admits admiring Stephen Booth's (UC Berkeley professor of English) edition of the sonnets exclaiming, "I even occasionally quoted some of his witty and perceptive commentary in my edition of the sonnets."

One would argue that another vital component is a passion for Shakespeare's sonnets. Helen Vendler, Harvard academic and author of the well-known and obsessive The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, has approached Shakespeare's sonnets in a highly mechanical manner. Calling them merely "verbal contraptions," Vendler deconstructs each sonnet almost as if it were a linguistic finger puzzle.

"I think she's brilliant but I want to focus on what it might have meant to its early readers or how it might connect with other poems," explains Duncan-Jones. "We're absolute polar opposites because I think we should read the sonnets to enjoy and make us think about the things explored, love, complicated relationships, putting emotions into words, and how to understand human beings. Feelings are very important."

In addition to Venus & Adonis, Lucrece, and The Passionate Pilgrim, a number of poems of questionable authorship are also included in Shakespeare's Poems. When asked her thoughts about the recent upsurge of authorship challenges Duncan-Jones replied, "I'm puzzled by it. The contemporaries of Shakespeare didn't have any doubt that the man from Stratford was the actor and the playwright. His colleagues that worked with him for 25 or 30 years knew the man and people like Richard Burbage would have known if some kind of fraud or impersonation was going on. It's just absolutely fantastical."

What does the future hold for Duncan-Jones? She's currently working on a new publication about Shakespeare's early years and reputation, following appropriately on the heels of the poems. Once she confirms a publisher, she hopes to complete it by 2009.

Shakespeare's Poems offers a gamut of supporting details around the poems themselves. Various versions of the poems are included, as well as an examination of the publishing history, and of the social and political contexts in question. The editors have also explored sources in Livy and Ovid as well as added a facsimile of Poetical Essays. Both Shakespeare's Poems and Shakespeare's Sonnets are highly recommended additions to the collections of students and scholars alike. The insightful introductory essays, detailed annotations, and polished texts contain many fresh approaches, giving them their long-overdue recognition.

Buy Shakespeare's Poems (Arden 3 Series) at
Buy Shakespeare's Sonnets (Arden 3 Series) at

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