Why Lyrics Last: Evolution, Cognition, and Shakespeare's Sonnets

David Gewanter applauds a literary - and scientific - exploration of the Bard's poetic longevity

April 26, 2012

The title Why Lyrics Last might cast Shakespeare's sonnets as the crocodile of poetry, riding the waters of poetic innovation untouched, chomping on new literary theories; but the book showcases Brian Boyd - the Vladimir Nabokov expert and author of the well-received On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction - in brilliant conversation with Brian Boyd, the voluble and energetic reader of evolutionary biology. Boyd-lit offers subtle and capacious readings of the sonnets' playfulness, their ways of challenging and attracting four centuries of readers. Boyd-bio explores the affinities between the sonnets and science: from terror management theory to male mating efforts, from cognition research to Maori battle songs.

Does evolution, as a paradigm, offer a wider field of association than, say, the trial balloons of New Historicism or the late wheezing of Sigmund Freud? Boyd-bio nimbly employs both the blood-sport Darwinism of Herbert Spencer and the brotherly Darwinism of Peter Kropotkin, and can speculate on biological "status" and societal "prestige" in the sonnets.

Yet he offers an end-purpose for lyric: a bid for sexual selection. Men produce lots of sperm, and lots of sonnets; women are resistant and choosy. This reproductive imperative cannot easily account for the lyrics of prayer, nature, politics or mourning; single-sex love; or lyrics by women. Nor can the customary meat-and-poetics of lyric - irony, depression, contra naturam spasms, Philip Larkin's "Old Toad" - seem an evolutionary success. The risky leaps that Boyd-bio takes are breathtaking, and open Shakespeare's art to fresh enquiry. Still, there are some odd landing spots: does the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's patron, really compare to a silverback gorilla?

The admirably informed Boyd-lit offers crisp and clear readings of sonnets. But he, too, has corralled them in service of a problematic contention: lyrics don't tell narratives. Shakespeare's sonnets have survived, he says, by defeating our expectations for story and by offering patterned play instead. The proposal follows the traditional division of poetry into lyric, epic/narrative and dramatic. Boyd-lit says he wanted to call the book "On the Absence of Stories", and argues this thesis throughout. Yet he must concede that marvellous lyrics such as W.B. Yeats' Leda and the Swan or William Wordsworth's Daffodils do tell stories, that metaphors provide "mini-narratives", and that "our minds have evolved to be captured by story" as he ably explores in On The Origin of Stories (2009). Like the theorist M.M. Bakhtin, who argued for the dialogism of novels by dismissing lyrics as monologue, Boyd-lit may here be protecting the territory of his other book. Yet this premise constricts his sense of lyric play.

Even if Shakespeare's sonnets are "non-narrative lyric", the technique has not won evolution's beauty contest. Lyrics since Shakespeare are not particularly "non-narrative"; they have led not to the circulating Gertrude Stein but to Wordsworth, Yeats or to Robert Lowell, whose sonnet-sequence book The Dolphin dramatises "the common novel-plot": husband betraying wife for mistress. Indeed, even Darwin's elaborate metaphor from his Origin of Species - depicting evolution as a spreading tree - presumes that we understand both literary texts and diverse natural phenomena as narratives.

Shakespeare wrote that crocodiles bred on mud and sun. His sonnets still command the stream, and show their practice-tears and teeth. Establishing end-points for Shakespeare's lyrics - evolutionary or narrative - is as tricky as explaining how eyeballs evolved. But then, the word "eyeballs" first appeared in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis. Boyd's valuable syntheses of literature and science range beyond those of A.N. Whitehead, beyond Nabokov perhaps, and certainly beyond the cutting remarks of scientist T.H. Huxley, "Darwin's bulldog", who explained the utility of circumcision by quoting Hamlet: "There is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will."

Why Lyrics Last: Evolution, Cognition, and Shakespeare's Sonnets

By Brian Boyd

Harvard University Press 240pp, £19.95

ISBN 9780674065642

Published 26 April 2012

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