On a freezing noon hour in April, people gather in Central Park, as they do each year, to read and listen to Shakespeare’s sonnets, complete, out loud, and in sequence. Together, the readers narrate, episodically, one of the strangest love stories on record. First, the poet urges a handsome young man to get married and have sex with a woman not from love or even lust, the woman remaining unnamed and unpictured, but, weirdly, from a selfish desire to make more kids as good-looking as he is. Then the poet confesses that he is in love with the young man, while trying to convince himself that good looks have a good moral effect in the world. The next set is all about the poet wanting desperately to have sex with a dark-haired woman—but then, having done it, the poet feels so insanely guilty about it that he doesn’t enjoy it anymore, or enjoys it only as he is actually doing it, while before and after he feels awful. There is a lot of obscure travelling back and forth, and exchanging of gifts, which tends to confirm a sense that the poet is of lesser social station than the one written to, or about. Then he sighs and shrugs, and makes a few puns about Eros. Not only is the story strange; it is also told in a language that, though lucid line by line, seems in each poem ambiguous to the point of murk. The poetic conceits tend to get cancelled even as they’re introduced: the poet can’t say that his mistress’s eyes are like the sun without saying that they aren’t. Among the enigmas, lines of an unreal, fairy-tale beauty emerge: “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”; “I summon up remembrance of things past”; “That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows / whereon the stars in secret influence comment”; “Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul / Of the wide world dreaming on things to come.”
“Love songs, nothing but love songs,” the old FM station used to advertise, and stern indie-minded music lovers sneered as they went by toward . . . other love songs, sung by indie-minded singers. The love song, whether from Shakespeare or his lessers, is to the currency of our feelings what the dollar bill is to our economy, the dining-room table to our family life—the necessary, inevitable thing. Exactly because everything is a love song, we sigh at another one, even as we prepare to sing it. There’s a story in which the great grump George S. Kaufman, hearing the first, satirical words of the Gershwins’ ”They All Laughed” (“They all laughed at Christopher Columbus / When he said the world was round; / They all laughed when Edison recorded sound”), hoped against hope that this one, please, was not a love song. Then the Ira Gershwin lyric made its way to the inevitable turnaround (“They laughed at me wanting you”), and Kaufman sighed and surrendered. They all are.
The usual path of art-to-people is from particular experience to universal recognition—I saw a rose! Now you’ve seen it, too—but love poems and songs must honor a sense of singularity. What we feel for Daisy or Darren may be what everyone feels for his or her own Daisy or Darren. But what we feel aboutwhat we feel for Daisy is all our own. Though repetition and stereotype might seem to be the bane of the formalized love song, Ted Gioia’s new book, “Love Songs: The Hidden History” (Oxford), shows that the flow of them never ceases, and insists that, properly heard, each love song sings its time. Gioia’s book runs from Sappho’s lyrics on Lesbos to hip-hop in the South Bronx. He invites the critic’s cliché “wonderfully erudite,” and earns it, not to mention the even cheaper critical term “provocative,” though he earns that, too. He makes you think. Often, what he makes you think is that he’s wrong, but you have had to think your way through to that conclusion.
Beneath the great love songs, he tells us, are not great singular loves but great social lurches. They happen when continents collide and sexual orders are subverted—the great age of the troubadours, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, for instance, reflects both the hybrid vigor that arose after the Muslim conquest of Iberia and a (rare) moment when women’s desire got heard. Eleanor of Aquitaine may or may not have played a central role in promoting the cult of courtly love and its songs, but she exemplifies the period; in the early Middle Ages, Gioia tells us, women were known to be the “main propagators of European love songs.” The male troubadours, in his view, provide another instance of “men assuming a dominant position in a musical field after women had made the visionary—and often transgressive—first steps.” For him, it is a paradigm instance. “Hound Dog” will always have been sung by brave Big Mama Thornton until the Elvis of the age gets his tongue around it—and then, all the way out in Liverpool, John Lennon hears it, misunderstands it in some fruitful way, and the process of subversion and sanitizing starts again.
Gioia’s book covers a tremendous amount of ground and gives you something to remember on almost every page. Who can forget the cautious troubadour singing of his patron’s wife, “For her body is beautiful and pleasing and white beneath her clothes. I say this only on the basis of my imagination,” along with many other small human and lyrical oddities? Still, Gioia casts a cold, unexcitable eye on matters that might better be seen with a warmer and more excitable one. And he has a weakness for the “beneath the sweet surface lies something subversive and squalid” school of popular-music criticism. At one moment, he quotes songs created by female slaves and asks sternly if the situation of slaves singing songs for their Muslim masters is “really so different from the current day when the love songs we hear on the radio or in concert are performed for pay and not as a reward for our individual charms and lovemaking skills.” Elsewhere, he writes that Frank Sinatra “added new levels of irony, sometimes outright cynicism, to the emotional immediacy of the torch singers, and the end result was something new: a performance that delivered the inner meaning of the lyric while also offering an arch commentary on it.” But having fun with an emotion is not at all the same thing as making fun of it. Sinatra is the master of that difference.
Gioia, on some level, knows better. About the explosion of courtly-love numbers in the eleventh century and after, he writes, “We do well to remember that gems and nuggets sometimes appear on the surface. . . . If our study of the history of love songs so far has taught us anything, it should be that the romantic and erotic imagination constantly seeks to express itself in music, and does not require external justification.” But the external justifications keep coming, and the best love songs, he’s inclined to think, mock rather than serve the conventional ideas of affection and attraction.
Constantly searching sentimental literature for unsentimental or “subversive” instances seems a perverse occupation, like scanning a nursery for ugly babies. The interesting question about babies is what makes them so cute, and the interesting question about love songs is why so many of them have such an unreasonable hold on our imagination. “Yesterday” is the most covered song ever written, and would not have been better if it were more realistically disabused about why she had to go. He doesn’t know; she wouldn’t say. That’s the love song. Sentiment, after all, is just the grumpy guy’s word for love.
Or is love just the sentimentalist’s word for sex? This is what makes the fascination with Shakespeare’s sonnets so understandable. Of all the great love lyrics, Shakespeare’s sonnets are the most relentlessly mysterious and even mystical in expression, and the most entirely carnal and physical in foundation. We want them to be all about love and keep finding that they are all about sex.
They are also, perhaps for that reason, the most often argued-over sequence of love poems in any language. We know that they were being circulated in manuscript when Shakespeare was a youngish man—Francis Meres, in 1598, refers to the poet’s “sugred sonnets among his private friends.” But who put them together; what prompted Thomas Thorpe to publish them, in 1609; whether the publication had the poet’s approval: these are all conundrums.
In a new book, “Ideas of Order: A Close Reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Neil Rudenstine, a former president of Harvard and a scholar of Renaissance literature, argues that Shakespeare assembled the sonnets not higgledy-piggledy, as they may appear, but in calm and deliberate order, and that a larger pattern can be descried in the sequence. One should always be wary of a book by a scholar insisting that there is a pattern where before none has been seen, since scholars have an overwhelmingly strong confirmation bias in favor of patterns—finding patterns is what scholars do. The great art historian Leo Steinberg found the “line of fate” in the Sistine Chapel, which skewered figures from separate scenes into occult sentences, with the same excitement with which Percival Lowell had once found canals on the surface of Mars. These were illusory—but, more important, irrelevant. Interpretation is the teasing out into articulate words of a complicated sensation or experience. It’s not often the discovery of some other, completely different experience that the surface of the work was hiding.
Rudenstine, in search of his pattern—roughly, that the sonnets deliberately develop, as with a musical theme, the poet’s friendship with that noble youth, from buoyant affection and loyalty to disappointment and disenchantment, and that each of these emotions depends, to be properly apprehended, on our knowledge of the ones just past—has no time for the old biographical questions that entangle the sonnets. Who is that mysterious Mr. W.H. to whom Thomas Thorpe, or perhaps Shakespeare himself, dedicates the sonnets? Who is the Youth? Is the dark lady actually the poet Emilia Lanier, as the eccentric British scholar A. L. Rowse insisted (an identification that led to the discovery of Lanier as a poet of real merit, to the point that the feminist critics who revere her hesitate to mention the Shakespeare connection, for fear of Yoko-izing her)? And who’s the rival poet? Marlowe is the likeliest candidate, but his gayness raises complicated questions.
A favorite scholarly idea is that these questions mistake Shakespeare’s real purpose, which was to invent a group of characters in order to play with Petrarchan conventions. Yet nobody writes poems like the one beginning “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame” as a desk exercise. A working poet like Shakespeare is usually too busy to have sabbaticals for scholarly inquiry into verse types and genre blendings. The pressure of immediate experience is felt on every page and in every poem of the 1609 book. The muddle of metaphors that the poet often wades into is proof of this—he starts in one direction, finds his experience checking it, makes a turn, and, with a sighing rhyme, ends the poem. The old-fashioned critics who saw the sonnets as a journal of responses to a set of bewildering circumstances in the poet’s life were surely more right than not. (And Shakespeare is playing Shakespeare, making up a voice fit for a poet talking to himself. It’s particularly clear that it is Shakespeare, the middle-class player from a small provincial town, who is doing the thinking; the anxiety about social status—most evident in the poem that begins “Alas, ’tis true I have gone here and there. / And made myself a motley to the view, / Gor’d mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear”—is that of someone who once worried that he had sold out, exactly as a successful Hollywood screenwriter might have, half a century ago.)
The argument that Shakespeare participated in Thorpe’s publication of the sonnets has become newly fashionable: we are told that Thorpe was far from being a pirate, that the manuscript seems closely proofed, etc. In order to justify the claim to pattern and order in the sonnet sequence, one has to accept some version of this belief. Yet the existence of Sonnet 145 in the series is strong counter-evidence, almost a smoaking gun. Written in octosyllabics, very clearly juvenilia or apprentice work, it ends with a labored, flattering pun on the maiden name of Shakespeare’s long-suffering wife, Anne Hathaway. (A provincial woman whose husband is off in London having it on with dark ladies and beautiful youths suffers, and for long.) Whether or not it is Shakespeare’s first surviving poem, as some have argued, it is certainly a very early (and very bad) one. It is hard to imagine it as anything but an early poem to his first love, which somehow slipped in among the poet’s other lyric poems. This is the kind of thing that happens when poems circulate among friends in manuscript. Clinton Heylin, the Dylanologist and amateur scholar, has pointed out that they are very much like the Dylan bootlegs that circulated for years, with the singer’s implicit toleration, if not his explicit endorsement. (The homoerotic themes are sufficiently conventionalized as to be inoffensive, the tributes of a devoted friend.)
And if Rudenstine is not entirely persuasive in asking us to experience the tracings of a pattern, he is certainly right in asking us to see an inflation in effects, best witnessed in cumulative sequence. The sonnets are about sex in all its dimensions: sex as infatuation, sex as baleful infatuation (the poet always wanting out while, so to speak, wanting in), sex as recreation, sex as social hostage, sex as exhausting pleasure, sex as revenge, imagined sex and real sex. In the Shakespeare sonnets, sex turns out to be a varied enough activity to cover for a lot of talk about love.
Yet the dumb fact of lust is placed inside a girdle of allusions and alliterations. The music of the sonnets is rooted in Shakespeare’s underrated mastery of repetition and its effects in turning sense to incantation, the second appearance of a word pointing toward something slightly different from the first, and making both words seem magical, as in the beautiful beginning of Sonnet 8: “Music to hear, why hears’t thou music sadly? / Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy.” Again and again (and again), Shakespeare finds in one word twice more than double the flavor.
The marriage of lulling sounds and lustful subject is, on the whole, the marriage that pop music makes. Fittingly, an entire Web site has blossomed solely to paraphrase contemporary love songs in Shakespearean sonnet garb. Conducted by one Erik Didriksen, who will be publishing a collection of these parodies this fall, the site Pop Sonnets benefits from Didriksen’s perfect reproduction of the Jacobean typography and spelling. Still, one gets the idea by reading the rewrite of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”:
My reputation’s sown with rumors’ threads:
it’s said that I carouse, am void of wit,
and have amassed more beaus than Hydra’s heads
yet cannot make a single one commit.
Which works its way around to:
For just as bakers must their loaves create
and thespians put on their fictive acts,
the ones who live in scorn shall always hate
I’ll from my shoulders shake their vile attacks.
Significantly, the better the song, the more joyful the Bardic paraphrase, as in this parody of the Beatles’ famous anthem:
O, there are tasks impossible to bring
to resolution by a person’s choice
the hymns that only cherubim can sing
cannot be sounded by a mortal voice . . . .
To live—to care—to thine own self be true—
all noble occupations done with ease
—if thou art guided by the simple creed
that love is all thy life doth truly need.
The jokes are delicious, but they are not on Britney Spears or Taylor Swift. Nor is the joke really on Shakespeare, whose language turns out to adapt so readily to shallow pop emotions. The joke is really on love, which has so often been this amalgam of low desire and high diction, even though the height of the diction may change with the centuries. We always wrap sex in sounds, raw appetite in rhythmic adjectives—wrapping Britney in the Bard is just a smart way of exposing the workings of the gimmick. As the critic William Empson wisely remarked, what Shakespeare continually shows is that life is essentially inadequate to the human spirit. Our truths are too meagre and mammal to rise to our hopes of what life ought to be. Love, especially, is inadequate to the human idea of it, but a good lover must avoid saying so. That’s why he makes up songs.
Can love, and its songs, go on forever? “The special intensities of romantic love probably flourish most against a background of publicly supported conventions,” the philosopher Bernard Williams wrote, in the nineteen-eighties. Without a set of contraries to rub up against, he meant, love is just a hookup. We always underestimate the degree of prohibition that love provokes. At a time when hooking up with boys becomes banal for teen-age girls, they sing of kissing other girls. Or the pursuit of teen-age monogamy becomes a story. (One young couple I know held on for four years, and officially broke up on the verge of college, not in a heat of misunderstanding but because it seemed wise: a royal divorce in the old dispensation—you give up attachment for long-range purposes of state, like Napoleon regretfully giving up Josephine.) In a circumstance where most of the old social barriers to sex are gone, new ones will necessarily emerge, some of them harsher-seeming to older eyes.
Of such things are new songs made. The comedian Aziz Ansari’s book, “Modern Romance” (Penguin Press), is an attempt to map the barriers to love in a time of almost no taboos at all. For Ansari, whose book was written in collaboration with the N.Y.U. sociologist Eric Klinenberg—Klinenberg supplying the data, Ansari the jokes—those barriers are mostly technological. Love wends its way through a field of hostile gadgets, like a stream through competitive dams. The book’s jokes depend to an astonishing degree on romantic snafus on Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat, as a similar book in the seventies would have turned to singles bars and singles clubs.
As a consequence, perhaps, Ansari’s book seems short on scenes, funny extended romantic exchanges. Almost nothing happens in it. His love stuff is, to take a fair comparison, less detailed and surprising than that of the comedian Paul Reiser, who, twenty years ago, wrote a book about coupledom in the same kind of tone. When Reiser described how every couple cultivates a few funny stories to offer in informal competition with other people’s funny stories—and how, as often as not, the only one left listening at the end is your partner, who has heard the story a million times before—some small, previously unseen piece of social comedy was netted and kept. Ansari, by contrast, favors “bits,” rather than longer sketches: texting is a way of flirting; it has never been so easy to connect with the opposite sex as it is now, yet adultery has never been so easily detected—the pile of e-mails, texts, and “like”s leaves a trail. And so on.
Ansari does have a startling truth to brood on: he is the child of an arranged marriage—his parents both immigrated from Tamil Nadu—and a successful arranged marriage, at that. Yet this seems surprisingly unencumbering, easily accepted and written past. The trials of the second-generation immigrant can seem quickly alleviated in love these days. The full weight of shtetl life fell on Portnoy every time he pulled on his zipper—and Portnoy was a third-generation immigrant. Much the same was true of Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill every time they took a drink of whiskey, Irishness making itself felt even unto the fourth generation and the last damp circle on the bar. But now the immigrant past can be cast off almost before it can surface. “Abie’s Irish Rose,” the star-crossed love of two ethnicities, would be harder to picture now, especially in the big cities and on college campuses. Sexual manners in the age of Tinder tend to ease, or eroticize, ethnicity. Ethnic identity is still important as an abstract artifact of “pride,” but pride, which goeth before a fall, also goeth, so to speak, before a rise.
“All good love songs are sad,” Paul McCartney, who knew, once told this reporter. The mystery is that while what we want is love fulfilled, what we actually feel most deeply about is love frustrated. The safest bet going is that we’ll find scruples to complicate our passions, barriers to intensify our desires. When none present themselves, we invent them at the bedroom door, and find reasons to constrain passion even when it comes at us, smiling and unconstrained. Supplying such scruples for you is one of those modern subjects, as the essential loneliness of love is the real burden of its songs.
When we’re young, we seek another to overrate; when we’re older, we seek another to overrate us. Infatuation happens in midlife when we believe that someone is once again rating us at an inflated value rather than the discounted one of an older love, now aged. The other shows us ourselves in a forgotten light, as someone less dull than we thought we had become. We look at each other and love ourselves.
Another, lasting, kind of love—the permanent harmony that seems to have eluded Mr. and Mrs. Shakespeare as it eludes most of us—is difficult to name without making it sound weak in comparison. Agape, divine love; caritas, compassionate caring; empathy or lifelong engagement (though without Cupid to make it frisky love seems merely dutiful). Lasting love that is not simply habitual is found among the shards of the self-regarding mirror, after it is broken and we have to look around at life as it, so inadequately, is. What we may get in exchange is another pair of eyes to help us see the world with. We call that emotion by love, too, but perhaps it needs a better name, and a song or two of its own.