Author, author, matching novels with Shakespeare sonnets

The poet, writer and musician Don Paterson.

I was recently charged with the happy task of matching one Shakespeare sonnet to each of the 25 specially chosen titles being given away for World Book Night on Monday. It sounded like one of the more interesting parlour games you could play, and a fine excuse to fire some of these lovely, weird and not-as-widely-read-as-you’d-think poems out into the world again – so I set about it with some enthusiasm, determined to marry off the right books to the right poems.

My first attempt involved selecting my favourite 25 sonnets in the idiotic hope that, somehow, most of them would just fit. I was perhaps too emboldened by my early success with The Remains of the Day, for which “Sonnet 73” is obviously a screamer (“In me thou see’st the twilight of such day / As after sunset fadeth in the west” etc), and Pride and Prejudice – “Let me not to the marriage of true minds”.

Then it all went to hell in a handcart. None of the others seemed to fit without a shoehorn, or a mallet. The gaps widened as the game went on, leaving Emma Donoghue’s Room with the wholly inappropriate extended knob-gag of “Sonnet 135”, and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens with “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” No, I probably shan’t.

It all reminded me sharply of Billy Collins’s infamous set-piece “Paradelle for Susan”: “The paradelle is one of the more demanding French fixed forms … the first and second lines, as well as the third and fourth lines of the first three stanzas, must be identical. The fifth and sixth lines, which traditionally resolve these stanzas, must use all the words from the preceding lines and only those words.” The final stanza in Collins’s poem reads:

I always cross the highest letter, the thinnest bird.
Below the waters of my warm familiar pain,
Another hand to remember your handwriting.
The weather perched for me on the shore.
Quick, your nervous branch flew from love.
Darken the mountain, time and find was my into it was with to to.

Only Collins was being intentionally funny. I began to worry about the whole project. Maybe it was as daft as trying to pair flavours of ice-cream with popular diseases, or Welsh celebrities with the Ikea catalogue. Anyway, I decided to throw away most of my first choices and let the books select their own partners from the 120-odd wallflowers I’d ignored.

The first one I did off the top of my head was John Ajvide Lindqvist’s vampire novel Let the Right One In. “Sonnet 67″ was irresistible:

Why should false painting imitate his cheek,
And steal dead seeming of his living hue? …
Why should he live, now Nature bankrupt is,
Beggared of blood to blush through lively veins?

Rebecca got “Sonnet 131”:

Thou art as tyrannous, so as thou art,
As those whose beauties proudly make them cruel.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was – of course! – “Sonnet 64”:

When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage …
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay …

And then it started to get fun. Mark Billingham’s Sleepyhead – “He doesn’t want you alive. He doesn’t want you dead. He wants you somewhere in between” – perhaps needed something a little more tortured than “Sonnet 43”, but the novel has the perverse effect of making the poem creepy as hell.

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright, are bright in dark directed …

Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife gets the distinctly SF “Sonnet 44”:

No matter then although my foot did stand
Upon the farthest earth removed from thee;
For nimble thought can jump both sea and land
As soon as think the place where he would be … while “Sonnet 100” seemed to point in the direction of Stephen King’s Misery:

Where art thou Muse that thou forget’st so long,
To speak of that which gives thee all thy might?
Spend’st thou thy fury on some worthless song,
Darkening thy power to lend base subjects light?

A few, I admit, are a little cheeky. I tied Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief with “Sonnet 122″, which is a rather obscure joke: one possible reading of the poem is that Shakespeare is admitting he has lost or accidentally given away a notebook he’d been presented with by his lover.

Sonnet 25‘sLet those who are in favour with their stars / Of public honour and proud titles boast” had to go with David Peace’s The Damned United, of course, while Paolo Coelho gets the alchemist of “Sonnet 119″, but not perhaps quite the guy he had in mind:

What potions have I drunk of Siren tears,
Distilled from limbecks foul as hell within,
Applying fears to hopes, and hopes to fears,
Still losing when I saw myself to win.

On the back cover of Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void I slapped the “you had me at goodbye” “Sonnet 126”, with its empty brackets. And the relationship between “Sonnet 146” and Sophie Kinsella’s The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic is a secret, and will remain so. Or is there one?

Anyway we got there in the end, and it turned out to be a grand excuse to give some of the less well-known poems in the sequence some exposure. I hope the authors are unoffended by the choices, and that a few more readers will be prompted to go back and read the sonnets straight through from start to finish, like the strange, beautiful, feverish novel they almost are.

• For more information go to

Author, author: my task was to match novels with Shakespeare sonnets. By Don Paterson | Books | The Guardian.

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