Why Lyrics Last: Evolution, Cognition, and Shakespeare's Sonnets
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In Why Lyrics Last, the internationally acclaimed critic Brian Boyd turns an evolutionary lens on the subject of lyric verse. He finds that lyric making, though it presents no advantages for the species in terms of survival and reproduction, is “universal across cultures because it fits constraints of the human mind.” An evolutionary perspective― especially when coupled with insights from aesthetics and literary history―has much to tell us about both verse and the lyrical impulse.
Boyd places the writing of lyrical verse within the human disposition “to play with pattern,” and in an extended example he uncovers the many patterns to be found within Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Shakespeare’s bid for readership is unlike that of any sonneteer before him: he deliberately avoids all narrative, choosing to maximize the openness of the lyric and demonstrating the power that verse can have when liberated of story.
In eschewing narrative, Shakespeare plays freely with patterns of other kinds: words, images, sounds, structures; emotions and moods; argument and analogy; and natural rhythms, in daily, seasonal, and life cycles. In the originality of his stratagems, and in their sheer number and variety, both within and between sonnets, Shakespeare outdoes all competitors. A reading of the Sonnets informed by evolution is primed to attend to these complexities and better able to appreciate Shakespeare’s remarkable gambit for immortal fame.
Benedick loves Beatrice: And I’ll be sworn upon’t that he loves her, For here’s a paper written in his hand, A halting sonnet of his own pure brain, Fashion’d to Beatrice. Hero continues: And here’s another Writ in my cousin’s hand, stol’n from her pocket, Containing her aﬀection unto Benedick. (V.4.85– 90) Shakespeare has Romeo and Juliet signal their perfect suitedness in love from the start by exchanging their ﬁrst words in sonnet form. And in the Sonnets themselves, in his proudest boast
it clear that I am not challenging, as Heather Dubrow has, the division into 126 sonnets to or about a Fair Youth, and the next 28 about a Mistress. Dubrow objects to the critical practice of “gendering the addressees even when the texts do not specify whether they are male or female.” As Jackson notes, “There are many references to the maleness of the addressee in Sonnets 1–126 and the femaleness of the addressee in Sonnets 127–54, and no contrary indications.” That can only be a deliberate
deploying the word “mistress”—for the only time since Sonnet 20 called the Youth “the master mistress of my passion”—in the sonnet immediately before 127 introduces his Mistress in person. And, as we have seen, Sonnet 127 pointedly echoes the opening of Sonnet 1, to honor the opening of a second sub-sequence. If we read any sonnet as part of the sequence, then Shakespeare invites us to read each in the ﬁrst 126 as to or about the Youth, and each of the rest as to or about the Mistress. I say the
in another way than the purely biological route of leaving oﬀspring: it allows us to match thoughts and feelings across space and time, to connect with Shakespeare and his readers over centuries, to feel we are part of a human world of creation and communion that persists beyond our individual deaths. Since Shakespeare so often aﬃrms the immortality of his art, such immortality presumably mattered a good deal to him. In biological terms, this may seem odd. Evolution has bred in us emotions as
terms of character and event, intention, action, and outcome, but they invite other predictions, even if often unconscious, in terms of word associations and line, rhythm, rhyme, and stanza structure. We may expect a rhyme sound, but in a good poem we enjoy the unexpected, perhaps farfetched, move, and the unexpected word, that lead us to the right rhyme. Writers strive not only for novelty, for ways of keeping readers’ reward systems alive by ensuring prediction errors. They also strive 22