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

Overview

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 ...

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Times Higher Education

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…The risky leaps that Boyd-bio takes are breathtaking, and open Shakespeare's art to fresh enquiry...The admirably informed Boyd-lit offers crisp and clear readings of sonnets...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.
— David Gewanter

Wall Street Journal

Boyd proves a delightful guide to the sonnets' tortuous passages, artfully describing their twists and turns. He compares the sequence to a kaleidoscope that "continually taps or shakes its colored chips into new configurations" at times teasingly reminiscent of nearby sonnets. Without story to seize our attention, Boyd argues, Shakespeare—like all lyric poets—must load his lines with "more or less pure patterns of verbal form" that command our focus at the risk of exhausting it. Displaying a scholar's skill and an evangelist's enthusiasm, Boyd points out patterns sonic, semantic and imagistic...His volume marks an intriguing entry point into a line of inquiry that will surely continue to evolve, providing ever more particular reasons for our rhymes.
— Abigail Deutsch

Times Literary Supplement

[A] lively and unusual account of Shakespeare's sonnets...[Boyd] has a lot of good things to say about the details of the sonnets, much that is subtle, humanly interested, and closely observed. He writes evocatively about the confusions and ambiguities of narrative in the poems.
— Seamus Perry

Australian Book Review

A most accessible book that blends the local with the vast, particularly in Elizabethan sonnets, which have the human disposition towards natty verbal patterns...Gerald Brenan once observed that "One of the marks of a great poet is that he creates his own family of words and teaches them to live together in harmony and to help one another." And Shakespeare was such a canny harmonist. Boyd has an excellent ear for the sounds and steps of this lineal family, reading the most relevant sonnets persuasively, coaxing out their innuendoes, even their resistances.
— Chris Wallace-Crabbe

Mac Jackson
The most illuminating book on Shakespeare's Sonnets since Helen Vendler's The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets.
Stanley Wells
An impressive work of scholarship... a genuinely original and valuable addition to the substantial body of criticism of Shakespeare's Sonnets.
Jonathan Gottschall
Boyd demonstrates how literary study can, should, and will be done in the future.
Times Higher Education - David Gewanter
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…The risky leaps that Boyd-bio takes are breathtaking, and open Shakespeare's art to fresh enquiry...The admirably informed Boyd-lit offers crisp and clear readings of sonnets...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.
Wall Street Journal - Abigail Deutsch
Boyd proves a delightful guide to the sonnets' tortuous passages, artfully describing their twists and turns. He compares the sequence to a kaleidoscope that "continually taps or shakes its colored chips into new configurations" at times teasingly reminiscent of nearby sonnets. Without story to seize our attention, Boyd argues, Shakespeare--like all lyric poets--must load his lines with "more or less pure patterns of verbal form" that command our focus at the risk of exhausting it. Displaying a scholar's skill and an evangelist's enthusiasm, Boyd points out patterns sonic, semantic and imagistic...His volume marks an intriguing entry point into a line of inquiry that will surely continue to evolve, providing ever more particular reasons for our rhymes.
Times Literary Supplement - Seamus Perry
[A] lively and unusual account of Shakespeare's sonnets...[Boyd] has a lot of good things to say about the details of the sonnets, much that is subtle, humanly interested, and closely observed. He writes evocatively about the confusions and ambiguities of narrative in the poems.
Australian Book Review - Chris Wallace-Crabbe
A most accessible book that blends the local with the vast, particularly in Elizabethan sonnets, which have the human disposition towards natty verbal patterns...Gerald Brenan once observed that "One of the marks of a great poet is that he creates his own family of words and teaches them to live together in harmony and to help one another." And Shakespeare was such a canny harmonist. Boyd has an excellent ear for the sounds and steps of this lineal family, reading the most relevant sonnets persuasively, coaxing out their innuendoes, even their resistances.
Library Journal
Boyd (English, Univ. of Auckland, New Zealand; On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction) asserts that although literary poetry has lost the interest of the general population over time, we must acknowledge how Shakespeare's sonnets have the same attractive power as contemporary nursery rhymes, jingles, and pop music. Boyd notes that Shakespeare's sonnets contain the "patterns that indicate the actions, intentions, dispositions, and characters of members of our own species," and by refusing to configure his sonnets into a narrative, "he can give voice to the fluctuations and repetitions that we recognize in our own emotions and ruminations." Boyd compares the 154 sonnets to a kaleidoscope in which Shakespeare "may offer fresh configurations at each new tap or shake"; it is Shakespeare's subtle, insightful wordplay that invites us to revisit these poems. VERDICT Readers who are more interested in a Bill Brysonesque treatment of the bard and his "greatest hits" will take a pass on this one. Boyd's line-by-line analysis of Shakespeare's lyrical mastery and his exploration of its connections to evolutionary and psychological theories will be best appreciated by higher-level students of the field and committed Shakespeare aficionados.—Jillian Mandelkern, Spring-Ford Area Senior H.S., Royersford, PA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674065642
  • Publisher: Harvard
  • Publication date: 4/5/2012
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 955,250
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Brian Boyd, University Distinguished Professor in the Department of English, University of Auckland, is the world’s foremost authority on the works of Nabokov.
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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter 4: From Sonnet to Sequence: Love: The Mistress


Love, Sonnets, and Sexual Selection

Since Shakespeare’s time, poets have written sonnets on many subjects, from John Milton’s “On His Blindness” and Keats’s “On First Reading Chapman’s Homer,” to Carol Ann Duffy’s dramatic monologues (“Human Interest,” a knife-killer’s lament, or “Anne Hathaway,” a surprising view from that second-best bed—of which, more later). But Shakespeare’s initial audience thought of sonnets, most often, as love-poems.

One of the readiest evolutionary explanations for sonnets, or any of the arts, is sexual selection. The logic of reproductive specialization into female and male leads to one sex’s producing resource-rich eggs and the other’s producing massive numbers of cheap but highly motile sperm to increase the chance that some will reach the far fewer available eggs. Sperm is cheap and eggs are dear: one man produces enough new sperm every month to fertilize in theory every woman of reproductive age in the world. Not only do females produce vastly fewer eggs than males, but once an egg is fertilized, they may have to commit weeks or months to its gestation. Females therefore have reason to be highly selective in accepting males as partners. As a result males need to compete against one another for females, and do so either head to head, literally, like stags and stag beetles, by knocking out the competition, or, as it were, head to heart, by competing to appeal to the available females more than other males do. In this latter case males need to display — to demonstrate their desirability to females, in the hope of being selected by at least one of them. In many species where intersexual selection operates, that can lead to the hypertrophy of a single suite of features, like the peacock’s tail or the male bowerbird’s compulsion to build bowers taller and more tasteful than those of his rivals. In the human world, where we have discovered the power of specialization, there may be many routes to success and therefore many avenues for male display. Among those we prize most are the intellectual and the creative, and their combination. Steven Pinker makes the case vividly: “the impulse to create art is a mating tactic: a way to impress prospective sexual and marriage partners with the quality of one’s brain and thus, indirectly, one’s genes. Artistic virtuosity ... is unevenly distributed, neurally demanding, hard to fake, and widely prized. Artists, in other words, are sexy.” Today young male comics artists frequently explain their art as a way to attract young women who might otherwise ignore them as physically unprepossessing or socially unconfident.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Story and Verse 1

Lyrics Unlinked

1 Poetry, Pattern, and Attention 9

2 Lyric and Sonnet 24

3 A First Shakespeare Sonnet 35

From Sonnet to Sequence

4 Love: The Mistress 55

5 Love and Time: The Youth 83

Beyond Love

6 Status 115

7 Death 134

Shake-Speares Sonnets, 1609

8 Lyric and Narrative 151

Envoi: Verse and Aversion 175

Notes 185

Bibliography 199

Index 215

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