This, I’d say, is uniquely charged, recondite poetry that both hovers over and sharply reenvisages the English sonnet in a nearly scholarly way, but is also remarkably engaging, bawdy, risqué and contemporary. The two books are complementary and contribute to a trilogy, full title English Strain, of which the pending British Standards marks the third part.
The effort is marked by interwoven threads, as it were. The roots of the project pertain to the rewriting, dubbing or transposing of sonnets, setting up with Petrarch’s third, reproduced here, but thence moving on to other notables of the English form: Wyatt, Surrey, Milton, Charlotte Smith and Elizabeth Barrett Browning for the Shearsman volume, and Michael Drayton, rather underrated, for Bad Idea.
The whole is a highly unusual combination of ribaldry and finesse. It’s also pretty much all in the sonnet form of the Petrarchan variety, which for all its stateliness risks being overcome by farce; there are lookin parts for contemporary politicians such as Theresa May and Boris Johnson. There is a brooding disquiet about what is fairly uncompromisingly seen as the folly of Brexit.
But more than that it is nonetheless just an indulgent pleasure to read, and the sifting through or romp via historical progress tends to keep it all on the rails. Try for instance,-
Petrarchan petting! At the end of the poem he gives her away
like an evil relative at a shot-gun wedding. I wish he’d done
something with this poem. I wish I’d done something
with my life, like jousting or a tourney (p91)
where the irreverent mockery looms apparent.
It is pleasing also and appropriate that English Strain moves chronologically, with the opening epigraph from Drayton.-
My muse is rightly of the English straine,
That cannot long one fashion intertaine. (p6)
I’d say what we find is a considerable amount of libidinal energy and direction hewn according to the formal model of the sonnet form, so we get a fascinating mixture of the eruptive and the contained coterminously. There’s also a good amount not just of Westminster politics here but also gender relational controversies, which might be particularly fitting given the sonnet’s role as a mode for finding courtly favour. And a mite unlike Boccaccio, Petrarch was often studious and exacting, that is that the form must have it to the end. It is as if Sheppard is addressing this language by testing how suitable and appropriate it is to our times, which indeed it remains so, or not far off, perhaps more Machiavelli than Dante, however. It is a very effective trawl through history. But Sheppard throughout is agile, not easily pinned down. He is also adept at inhabiting a variety of poeticising voices, so that the Charlotte Smith, say, is just as fluent and persuasive as the few Milton poems here. Would Woolf’s Orlando be too wild a comparison, although Flush is in Sheppard’s bibliography? An obvious source book framing the issues here is also the Reality Street Book of Sonnets. I think then that this is very accomplished poetry at the innovative end of things, reworking literary contemporaneity with the irrefutable force of historical embeddedness.
Clark Allison 27th April 2021