Normally, when reciting aloud a poem I have memorized, I do it alone, in the shower or while walking the dog. It’s not so much stage fright as a wish not to bore or frighten others. The phenomenon of people talking, seemingly to themselves, in public places is a commonplace of the Digital Age, but I still associate it with psychosis, and that’s not an impression I wish to encourage. My one exception to private recitation occurred the day before our wedding, during a rather raucous dinner party. This was in Nova Scotia, at a place called Murder Point. I was asked by members of my wife-to-be’s family and their friends, to recite something appropriate (they had heard I was a reader). I quickly scratched “Gerontion” from consideration and made the obvious choice, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. A clichéd gesture, I suppose, but I knew the poem cold and my listeners had no complaints. From where we were seated, the Atlantic Ocean was audible, so the line “It is the star to every wand’ring bark” seemed like a nice topical touch.
I’m reading Don Paterson’s Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Faber and Faber, 2010), a poet’s grab bag of idiosyncratic footnotes to the 154 poems. To his credit, Paterson avoids the poles of dogmatism and whimsy. He riffs and free-associates on the poems, glosses allusions, heightens the reader’s awareness of the sonnets as pure sound, and generally avoids stuffiness. When he comes to 116, he replays some of my thoughts in Nova Scotia eighteen years ago:
“One of the most famous of all the sonnets, and even Coleridge thought this one was special. It’s generally true of popular poems that they can be open to a number of interpretations (nearly all perennially popular poems are also great, apart from the 10 percent that are awful). Although I doubt this was WS’s intention, that’s certainly how it’s panned out here. Generations of anthologists, lovers and marrying couples have all given it a cheerfully one-sided reading, rather conveniently forgetting the circumstances that gave rise to it.”
Paterson gets to his point. The sonnet, he says, “is still frequently heard at weddings. Which is pretty funny. Firstly, this is not a union of the flesh but of minds; and secondly, and somewhat more to the point, of two men.” I’m no literalist. For my purposes, it was best to keep an open mind, and among my listeners were no deep readers. Today, my favorite line is “Love is not love” and its subsequent clauses. Paterson doesn’t mention it but the line recalls the words of the King of France (and future husband of Cordelia) in Act I, Scene 1 of King Lear: “Love’s not love / When it is mingled with regards that stands / Aloof from th’ entire point.”