Helen Vendler, a chaired professor at Harvard University, is widely regarded as the foremost critic of contemporary poetry in the English language, dealing perceptively and boldly with the works of Seamus Heaney, A. R. Ammons, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, James Merrill, Jorie Graham, and many more. She also has written distinguished studies of John Keats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walt Whitman, and Wallace Stevens. This book, nine years in the making, may well be her masterpiece.
The history of William Shakespeare’s sonnets begins with the 1609 publication titledShakespeares Sonnets: Never Before Imprinted, addressed to “The onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets Mr. W. H. . . .” This quarto contained 154 sonnets, of which all but the last two have been established by scholars as authentic.
Vendler accepts the conventional division of the sonnets into two sub-sequences. The first includes most of the poems, 1-126, and is addressed to a young man who is the poet/speaker’s much- loved and celebrated friend or lover, his junior in age and superior in social status. The initial seventeen, usually termed “the procreation sonnets,” appeal to the young nobleman to marry so he can outwit death by generating children. In the remaining poems of the first sequence, the speaker sings of his beloved’s good looks while bitterly acknowledging that the young man is relatively indifferent to him. The second sub- sequence, poems 127-152, is addressed to a promiscuous dark lady who, after she has had the speaker as a lover, seduces the young man as well, so that the speaker is doubly betrayed. Sonnet 134 concludes with the couplet, “Him have I lost, thou hast both him and me;/ He pays the whole, and yet am I not free.”
The speaker repeatedly and obsessively dwells on the licentiousness of his mistress while expressing his bafflement that her charms should nevertheless excite him. Vendler is not particularly concerned with questions of the speaker’s (let alone Shakespeare’s) homosexuality or bisexuality. She does entertain the Freudian supposition that the speaker, in having sex with a woman who has had sex with the young man, is having vicarious homosexual intercourse with the young man who has refused him erotic favors. What interests Vendler is that the sonnets show twice over the cycle of idealization, infatuation, and inevitable disillusion; thus, their psychological import is tragic, with the speaker never recovering from his attachments. The last (152) sonnet to the woman begins, “In loving thee,” whereas the last (126) to the man begins, “O thou my lovely boy.”
The story line of the sonnets has led some critics and many lay readers to search for historic figures in Shakespeare’s world that might correspond to his dramatis personae. Leading candidates have been Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, and William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, both of whom had well-known homosexual proclivities. Nothing can be definitely established here, however, and Vendler—as well as most modern Shakespeareans—advises readers to ignore such speculations, even though she lists, among prefatory critiques, John Berryman’s jibe, “When Shakespeare wrote, Two loves I have,’ reader, he was not kidding.”
In her comprehensive, learned, and often eloquent introduction, Vendler insists that the lyric differs drastically from the social concerns of a novel or play. The lyric “directs its mimesis toward the performance of the mind in solitary speech. . . . In its normative form it deliberately strips away most social specification (age, regional location, sex, class, even race).” She mildly castigates Eve Sedgwick, a sociopsychological critic, for whom the sonnets “seem to offer a single . . . narrative of the dangers and vicissitudes of one male homosocial adventure.” Vendler insists that it is what a lyric does with its borrowed social languages, how it casts them into word combinations, that essentially matters. “A coherent psychological account of the sonnets,” she declares, “is what the sonnets exist to frustrate.” Lyric poetry instead depends on linguistic structure, syntax, and play.
Vendler’s critical approach is thus uncompromisingly aesthetic. Her criteria for excellence in lyric poetry are that “the theme must be freshly imagined, the genre must be renewed, and the words must surprise and satisfy from the point of view of proportion, musicality, and lexical vivacity.” She finds the sonnets ideal for her concentration on linguistic organization and tone. Sometimes her own tone is sternly dogmatic: “Form is content-as-arranged; content is form-as- deployed.” No poet, she states, has ever found more linguistic forms for conveying human responses than Shakespeare in the sonnets, with the poems an unrivaled repository of relationships and moods. Shakespeare’s greatest achievement is his speaker, never to be confused with his creator, even though he, too, is a poet.
Shakespeare gives his speaker depth as a character through several...
(The entire section is 2069 words.)