Brian Boyd’s Why Lyrics Last poses a deep question: Why is non-narrative verse so fascinating for some and so exhausting for others? Unfortunately, the answer the book yields ends up being rather shallow: humans are enamored by play with patterns in general and narrative patterns in particular. Non-narrative verse eschews the kind of pattern with which we are most comfortable in order to explore patterns of other kinds. Hence, those fascinated by non-narrative verse find such explorations inherently compelling, while others are frustrated by the absence of the narrative landmarks to which they are accustomed.
In order to convince us of these claims, Boyd uses Shakespeare’s Sonnets as a prototypical instance of a work of non-narrative verse precisely because the sonnets have been so controversial amongst literary scholars. It is Boyd’s contention that the reason for this controversy lies in Shakespeare’s abandonment of narrative patterns for the sake of concentrating on patterns of other kinds within and across his sonnets. This contention is justified through his analysis of art as deriving from play with pattern, and while narratives are the sort of pattern to which we are most inclined, it is the other less appreciated kinds of pattern on which Shakespeare’s sonnets are focused. These include not just patterns in language, but also in imagery, emotion, mood, analogy, theme, and so many others that by the end of the book one is left wondering what, if anything, doesn’t count as a kind of pattern.
However, it is not merely their play with pattern that accounts for the endurance of the sonnets. Boyd also suggests that in rejecting narrative as much as possible while still adopting the traditional sonnet structure, Shakespeare’s sonnets frustrate our expectations in ways that are engaging for some, tedious for others. This approach makes the structure and content of the sonnets surprising, both for Shakespeare’s contemporaries as well as modern literary scholars. Indeed, the surprising nature of the sonnets is yet another proposed reason that they have earned so much attention; we notice the unexpected much more readily than the mundane.
By this point, it should be clear that much of Boyd’s argument depends upon empirical conjectures regarding human cognition. He borrows heavily from experiments and theories in cognitive and evolutionary psychology in order to provide evidence for his thesis, but unfortunately it is here where the book is at its weakest. The concepts appropriated from these domains are truncated to the point of inaccuracy or conflated into obscurity. An example of the first type of error occurs early on, when the primacy effect (which describes the fact that subjects remember primary information better than information presented later on) is reduced to the cliché that first impressions matter. (p. 36) An example of the second type appears much later, when the distinction between status and prestige, taken from evolutionary psychology, is glossed over almost as soon as it has been introduced. (p. 116) Indeed, it is at times hard not to see these concepts as having been cherry-picked in order to bolster the author’s arguments, rather than being used to inform the broader issues within which the book is situated.
To be fair, the majority of the book focuses more on textual analyses of the sonnets themselves than on attempting to offer a comprehensive cognitive or evolutionary explanation for their controversial status amongst literary scholars. It is here that the book is at its best, with the author engaging in deep and detailed examinations of structure and content within and across the sonnets. Weaving what is essentially a narrative about a piece of literature that is understood as essentially resisting any narrative interpretation is no easy task, but Boyd manages it, doing so with the most subtlety when writing within his own element, i.e., literary criticism.
These sections of the book, in which the author devotes his full attention to the sonnets themselves, also make it abundantly clear that fans of his previous book On the Origin of Stories are its target audience. This is not a book for those working within evolutionary or cognitive psychology, who will likely find it at best frustrating and at worst sophomoric. Nor is it a book for those who are entirely new to Shakespeare’s sonnets. Though some of the sonnets are fully transcribed—typically in the instances where Boyd’s analysis is at its most intense—many others are quoted only fleetingly: a single couplet, or even a single line. (p. 175)
As a result I found myself doing much flipping back and forth while reading in order to follow the author’s train of thought. This has the added consequence—no doubt unintended—of giving the impression that Boyd has carefully selected only those sonnets (or parts of sonnets) which seem to support his thesis. This impression is only strengthened by the author doing little to address potential objections aside from fairly obvious straw-men, e.g., the objection that in arguing that artistic creation is partially motivated by sexual selection, Boyd has discounted women as a source of human creativity. (p. 179)
Of course, it would be unreasonable to expect the author to cover all of Shakespeare’s one hundred fifty four sonnets just to make his point about the confounding endurance of non-narrative verse, but a more in-depth consideration of counter-examples, a subtler use of evolutionary and cognitive psychology, and perhaps a bit less reliance on metaphor and analogy certainly would have made the book a more convincing read. All of this suggests that the best way to read Why Lyrics Last is with a copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets close at hand, and a considerable pinch of salt.
© 2012 Ian Wrght
Ian Wright is an ABD PhD candidate in the philosophy department at York University.