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Shakespeare: the immortal bard(s)?

May 20, 2009 |  4:16 pm

William-shakespeare Were William Shakespeare's "Sonnets" the "Basement Tapes" of the Elizabethan age? The idea, suggests Clinton Heylin in "So Long As Men Can Breathe: The Untold Story of Shakespeare's Sonnets" (Da Capo: 280 pp., $24), is not as farfetched as it sounds.

The first edition of the "Sonnets" -- which appeared 400 years ago today, on May 20, 1609 -- was put out by Thomas Thorpe, a fringe figure in Elizabethan London's literary culture, less a legitimate publisher than what Heylin calls a "booklegger." In that sense, the "Sonnets" may have been an early bootleg -- published without Shakespeare's knowledge or permission, much as "The Basement Tapes" were when they leaked out in the late 1960s and essentially started the rock 'n' roll bootleg industry.

As to why this is important, partly it's a matter of historical curiosity, because the provenance of the "Sonnets" has long been questioned, as has the identity of the "fair youth" to whom they were addressed. (Heylin believes the intended recipient was William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke.)

But more to the point, it has to do with the line between public and private art, between what writers (or singers) create for public consumption and what they create for themselves. In much the way Bob Dylan did with "The Basement Tapes," Haylin argues, Shakespeare used the sonnets to try new things, including writing in a nakedly autobiographical voice. Would he have been so daring if he had been writing for an audience? Would he have felt so free?

Heylin was on NPR's "All Things Considered" this morning, talking about his book. At the end of the segment, NPR asked listeners for their selections of works that might still stir people 400 years from now.

This is the sort of mind game for which I generally have no use, because it operates from a false premise: that the value of a work of art is in posterity. No, if "Sonnets" -- or "The Basement Tapes," for that matter -- have anything to tell us, it's that the power of art is its immediacy, its ability to speak to a particular moment or situation, and in so doing take on issues (love, longing, mortality) we all share.

But then, this afternoon, I came across the new book by Albert Goldbarth, a collection of poems called "To Be Read in 500 Years" (Graywolf: 186 pp., $16 paper), and I began to wonder if 400 years was not enough.

Of course, the premise of Goldbarth's collection (or one of them, anyway) is that the future is a place we can't imagine, which only makes the issue of posterity more elusive -- and the longevity of the "Sonnets" more profound.

-- David L. Ulin

Photo Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library