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Retirement's the time for Shakespeare

June 21, 2007 | 12:27 pm

Shakespeare_2 You can find plenty of histories (by Robert McCrum and David Crystal, for instance) tracing how much the English language has changed — read: "changed" as "deteriorated" — since the Elizabethan era.

Or you can turn to a new edition of "Shakespeare's Sonnets" and find clear evidence of this decline on every page. Published by Duckworth Overlook (474 pp., $37.50), this splendid volume has been edited and supplied with commentary by David West, a renowned translator of Virgil, among others.

In his introduction, West confides that he began this project "knowing nothing about Elizabethan history" — wait, how can this be a wonderful edition if it's by a Shakespeare novice? More on that later.

Printed beneath each sonnet is a simple paraphrase that is ideal for directing classroom discussions and clearing away confusion over certain lines. Take the opening lines of Sonnet 30, which gave Scott Moncrieff the title for his translation of Proust: "When to the sessions of sweet silent thought, / I summon up remembrance of things past." West’s paraphrase is: "hen I think about the past...."

This approach is perfect for the teacher struggling to get students to unplug their iPods and give the Bard a chance. The paraphrases reduce the intimidating language into something more familiar that they will understand. But, alas, there is that villainous word "reduce": On each page, two moments in the English language's history stare back at the reader — the boldly ornamented figures of the late 16th century and the flat, simple prose of our own. Which do you prefer, Sonnet 33's rich declaration ("Full many a glorious morning have I seen") or the homely paraphrase ("A bright morning often means a dull day")?

West came to this project for his own pleasure. "Having spent my working life on Lucretius, Horace and Virgil, I took to the Sonnets in retirement," he writes. He was curious about them, not intent on developing a project. But as he sought out commentaries to guide him, he became increasingly dissatisfied and convinced of the need to write his own.

Though he doesn’t have the fluency and familiarity of preeminent poetry critic Helen Vendler, West is an ideal commentator. He gives fascinating discussions of the classical allusions that Shakespeare, like all Elizabethan poets, sowed into their works. West also offers a meditative model of retirement for all book lovers — if, of course, their 401(k) money holds out.

— Nick Owchar