Brian Boyd, Why Lyrics Last

Brian Boyd, Why Lyrics Last: Evolution, Cognition, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), x+227 pp. £19.95 hb. ISBN 978-0-674-06564-2.

In reviewing three evolutionary studies of epic poetry for the BSLS, I was persuaded by Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories that, in the right hands, an evolutionary perspective on literature could productively inform our understanding of narrative poems as narratives. But I remained doubtful that this approach had anything much to say about them as poetry. (Click here for a link to this review.) In his new book, Why Lyrics Last: Evolution, Cognition, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Boyd takes up this challenge directly. He takes Shakespeare’s sonnets as his test case, as something like the apex of Western achievement in lyric verse, and as representing lyric at its most remote from narrative. His ostensible object is to use evolutionary literary criticism to understand why Shakespeare’s sonnets are so effective and lasting as lyrics, though he is candid in admitting that his motivation is as much to validate his approach itself, by demonstrating that it can lead to new insights into lyric as well as narrative poetry.

In a fuller review of On the Origin of Stories, again for the BSLS, George Levine remarks that, while Boyd is a sensitive literary critic, it is not clear that his readings themselves are dependent on his critical methodology. Indeed, Levine goes further, suggesting that the elements of the readings that do follow from the evolutionary approach are often banal or predictable, while the real insights derive rather from Boyd’s own subtlety as a critic, regardless of his approach. (Click here for a link to Levine’s review.) If this is a weakness of Boyd’s analysis in that book, it is even more apparent in this one. Boyd’s overarching concern is with literary patterning as a form of cognitive play, coupled here with an exploration of how such patterning can work in non-narrative ways. This leads him to some excellent analyses of verbal patterns within individual sonnets, across pairs of sonnets, and across the sequence as a whole. Boyd’s critical eyes and ears here are very acute. On the other hand, aside from a heightened alertness to pattern, which is a characteristic of all good close reading, from the New Criticism to deconstruction and beyond, it is not clear what evolutionary theories of cognition bring to this reading. Whereas in his earlier book Boyd’s analysis of literature as a means of developing cognitive and imaginative faculties akin to play in children and other animals was careful and sophisticated, here when the parallel to play is invoked all that results is bathos, as Shakespeare plays ‘a game of hide-and-seek’ (42) with his reader or ‘bounces’ his words through ‘as many hoops as he can find’ (47), while the sonnet form itself, or more precisely the line, becomes not a scanty plot of ground or a moment’s monument but a ‘playpen’ (139).

This is equally true of Boyd’s reading of the sequence as a whole. His analysis of how Shakespeare’s sequence works as a piece of non-narrative literature is precise and persuasive. He rightly draws attention to Shakespeare’s refusal to fix the emotional relationships at play in the sequence, or to account for them in causal terms. He sees, too, the rich possibilities that Shakespeare creates by allowing us to read the sonnets both in sequence and as stand-alone poems, particularly as regards the gender-dynamic of the poems and so of different possible understandings of love. As he remarks, this generates ‘a doubleness of a kind possible only in lyrics, not in story’ (112). Boyd overstates the uniqueness of Shakespeare’s performance here. For all that he references other Elizabethan sonneteers besides Sidney and Spenser, he takes their more directionally narrative sequences as the norm for the English sonnet sequence, rather than the more fluid sequences of less well-known poets such as Samuel Daniel, Giles Fletcher or most of their contemporaries, which work with the same absence of narrative detail and flexibility of patterning as Shakespeare does. On the other hand, Shakespeare surely does exploit the potential of this form with more daring and wit than they do, while Boyd’s mode of reading would serve to draw out the strengths of their work too. Nevertheless, aside from his decision to focus on non-narrative patterning – itself driven less by his approach than by a perceived lack within it – it is not clear that this mode of reading is dependent on evolutionary or cognitive biology. Likewise, while Boyd’s choice of a toy to represent Shakespeare’s use of the sequence as a form – the kaleidoscope – is more suggestive than the playpen, the analogy is overworked and not ultimately as suggestive as the analysis itself.

While the strengths of Boyd’s analysis bear only a circumstantial relation to his theoretical approach, its weaknesses are the direct result of it. In principle, the more sophisticated models of evolutionary literary criticism developed by Joseph Carroll, Jonathan Gottschall and Boyd himself accept culture as a part of human biology and therefore take the specificities of different cultures into account in their analyses. In practice, they are more concerned to trace supposed human universals in action than to consider how different cultural contexts might affect how they manifest themselves. Boyd’s own analysis of Homer’s Odyssey and Dr Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! in On the Origin of Stories is a rare exception to this rule. Here, however, he appears to have reverted to type. On the one hand, this leads him through banalities, platitudes and misplaced scientific diction to more bathos (‘Shake-speares Sonnets starts with sperm trying to meet eggs’ (56), ‘Shakespeare well understood the power of human sexual dimorphism’ (102)). On the other hand, it leaves him blind to cultural difference.

Boyd pays lip service to the importance of patronage to Elizabethan poetry, but his insistence that the young man who is the object of the first 126 sonnets (read in sequence) has no reason to resist the poet’s insistent protestations of love suggests that he has not really thought this scenario out in any detail. More widely, he has little sense of the function of declarations of love as forms of social currency in Elizabethan England, in the multiple contexts of patronage, dynastic alliance and the state’s appropriation of the discourses of Petrarchism for political purposes. By reading the typical scenario of the sonnet sequence, where the insistent lover rededicates himself sonnet-by-sonnet to an unmoved beloved, as confirming the insight of evolutionary psychology that ‘Females can test male commitment best by resistance, by making would-be partners demonstrate their persistence’ (64), Boyd effaces all these layers of implication, as well as ignoring the fact that there is precious little evidence that any of the Elizabethan sequences bar Spenser’s (and he ends his sequence married) and possibly Sidney’s were written as direct communications from passionate poets to their loves. Boyd’s choice example, that of Petrarch himself, who ‘demonstrated his exceptional persistence, through all those sonnets, as if in proof of his incomparable commitment’ (65), is further undermined by the fact that, for the last hundred poems in the Canzoniere, Laura is dead.

Shakespeare is for Boyd the exception rather than the rule here, but his efforts to substitute less crude biological reasoning in his case is not much more helpful. The thesis that poetry is a competitive exercise in which Shakespeare was determined to excel is little more than a commonplace, while Boyd’s cost/benefit analysis gets us precisely nowhere in understanding the specific compositional choices a given writer may be led to make at a given time in a given place. Boyd asserts that writers ‘strive to reduce composition costs – by borrowing and recombining, where they can, ideas and devices that have worked for themselves or others – while maximizing composition benefits, by earning the most interest and the richest response from those readers they care to reach’, while readers themselves ‘prefer high comprehension benefits, low search costs, and comprehension costs as low as the high benefits they seek will allow’ (21-22). This is not only crude, it is false to the vast range of different styles of writing and the equally vast range of reading preferences. It is also false to the thrust of Boyd’s own analysis of Shakespeare, which depends upon considerable investment of time and scrutiny, and so presumably high search and comprehension costs.

Boyd is betrayed by his loyalty to universalist arguments into repeated self-contradictions. The competition between poets is a competition for status, which is supposedly valued because it increases a man’s inclusive fitness by making him more attractive to women, yet as he admits poets often do not achieve such status until long after they are dead. Shakespeare’s promise to immortalise the young man in art, thereby immortalising himself, is a case in point. Boyd wants to explain Shakespeare’s success in creating ‘the prototypical lyrics in English, and perhaps the most successful in Western literature’ (4), yet he admits that the sonnets did not win much acclaim for the first two hundred years after they were published, that many readers still find the sequence as a whole hard-going, and that even he doesn’t like the sonnets to the mistress much. By taking cultural trends into account – the eclipse of the sonnet as a form by simple lyrics on the one hand and classical odes on the other in the seventeenth century, the decline in the popularity of long poems since the end of the nineteenth century as reading habits and social practices changed, the multiple changes too in sexual mores since Shakespeare’s own day – he could avoid, or at least explain, some of these contradictions.

In On the Origin of Stories, Boyd gave us the most robust and suggestive prospectus for evolutionary literary criticism to date, supported by if not necessarily determining two impressively insightful readings of literary texts. In Why Lyrics Last, he gives us another insightful reading, but one that is undermined, not underwritten, by the evolutionary critical method he wants to promote.

John Holmes, University of Reading