The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets

by Helen Vendler
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2069

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.

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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 compositional strategies, of which Vendler describes seven: “Temporal”—he has continuity of memory; “Emotional”—his moods are conflicting and volatile; “Semantic”—his mind has many compartments of discourse; “Conceptual”—his alert, observant mind is gripped by ideational conflict; “Philosophical”—he rebels against received ideas, especially in religion or gender relations; “Perceptual”—he is a deep and broad observer; and “Dramatic”—he responds to prior statements by one of the poem’s dramatis personae.

Vendler’s ambition is to convey the chief aesthetic “game” played in each sonnet. In her linguistic analysis, she focuses on the relation of a sonnet’s three quatrains to its concluding couplet, which is often self-ironizing. In her poem-by-poem commentary, she stresses what she calls the “Couplet-Tie”—words appearing in the body of the sonnet that are then repeated, verbatim or in variants, in the couplet; these words are almost always highly significant thematically. Sometimes such analysis requires considerable ingenuity. In 55, for example (“Not marble nor the gilded monuments/ Of princes shall outlive this pow’rful rhyme”), Vendler finds the poem’s key word to be “live,” with “outlive” in quatrain 1, “living” in quatrain 2, and “live” in the couplet. What, then, of the third quatrain? Shakespeare has ingeniously tucked away “live” in “oblivious.” In this sonnet, the speaker hyperbolically perpetuates the being of his beloved through his poetic art.

Vendler’s chief rival as a linguistic/aesthetic interpreter of the sonnets is Stephen Booth, whose extended analytic commentary, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, appeared in 1977 (Yale University Press). She chides him for often lacking the critical courage to cut through Shakespeare’s plurisignification of language to a poem’s “fundamental gestalt,” and she directly differs with him in interpreting several of the sonnets, particularly the famous 116:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixéd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his heighth be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Booth admits that this poem has bombastic elements but nevertheless esteems it as a definition of love that is noble, convincing, and moving. Vendler’s interpretation is heretical: She reads 116 not as a description of true love but as its “dramatic refutation or rebuttal.” The quatrains, she points out, differ powerfully from one another, with negation prevalent through many uses of “no,” “nor,” “never,” and “not.” She argues that the poem’s speaker seeks to repudiate the utterance of a previous speaker (the young nobleman?). He will not dignify time, so important to the young man, with seasons, years, epochs, and ages. For him, only the Day of Judgment is the proper measure of love’s time. The poem is a coherent denial of the extended implied argument, that love is time’s victim, of an opponent. The triple negatives in the last line (“never,” “nor,” “no”) are the last signal of the sonnet’s refutational rhetoric, linking the couplet to the many negations that precede it.

Vendler unites the theme of 116 with those of the next two poems. She reads 116 as the young man, by his mention of “impediments,” announcing the waning of his own attachment to the speaker, the dissolution of the “marriage of true minds.” She proceeds to read 117 (“Accuse me thus: that I have scanted all/ Wherein I should your great deserts repay”) as another exposure of the young man’s ignoble nature. He shows himself to be self-centered, suspicious, petty, unforgiving, and unloving. The speaker’s eleven-line string of apparently abject concessions is counterweighted, in line twelve, with one closing negative plea (“shoot not”), so that the rhetorical structure of the sonnet becomes an eccentric 11-1-2. Shakespeare contrasts the hectoring vulgarity of the young man’s diction to the posed dignity of the speaker’s language.

In 118, the speaker, taking his cue from the young man, acts out his own infidelities. He takes malign “drugs” (“Drugs poison him that so fell sick of you”); that is, he samples other loves. The speaker here regards these liaisons as a “medicine” that would either help the love between him and the young man to a keener edge or prevent it from becoming too deeply involved. Vendler notes that this confession of infidelity previews the conclusion of the “Young Man” sonnets.

Vendler is wonderfully acute in her treatment of the “Dark Lady” sonnets. For example, take 128, a sexual jeu d’esprit that uses the conceit of a lover wishing he could be transformed into some object used familiarly by his beloved. Here he stands by his mistress as she plays the virginal (spinet), wishing he could be the “blessèd wood” that resounds under the touch of her “sweet fingers.” Shakespeare represents sexual jealousy in comic terms, with the lover reduced to only a pair of lips, the lady only to a set of fingers. He urges her to continue playing, but to offer him her lips. The poet has here elegantly solved the problem of conveying, in a playful mode, the tormented state of a jealous lover. Vendler takes the opportunity to defend lyric poetry against the charge that it presents a smaller world than other literary forms: “The personages in lyric are so great that the world can contain only two or three of them at once.”

Perhaps Shakespeare’s most celebrated sonnet is 129 (“Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame/ Is lust in action . . .”). He here chose as his aesthetic challenge the depiction of a person’s changing responses to lust. Vendler sees him showing three sorts of retrospection: personal-judgmental, personal-chronological, and universal-analytic. For once, the voice is impersonal, distinguishing the present self-in-repentance from the former self-in-sin. The poem presents the reader with two models of experience: “What I think of lust now that I reflect on it” and “How I felt while I was experiencing it.” The concluding couplet ironizes both models, putting their mutual incongruity in a larger framework in which they show mutual dependency, “as represented formally by the chiastic well knows and knows well.” Vendler’s interpretation stresses what she terms “reading for difference” among the quatrains and couplet, with grammatical and discursive changes warning and guiding the reader.

Such a reader is not presumed by Vendler to be a newcomer to the sonnets. In her introduction, she plainly states that her work is for someone already acquainted with them and in possession of lexical annotations by such respected editors as Booth, G. B. Evans, or John Kerrigan. Vendler’s work is deliberately dry and, for some readers, fearsomely technical. She explores Shakespeare’s shades of feeling, shifts of mood, and curvatures of time through an array of complex diagrams, flowcharts, and lists of key words, yet she is disarmingly aware of her awesome text and writes that her commentary is not to be read straight through but to be browsed. Her book is an illuminating and authoritative achievement. All lovers of poetry stand in great debt to her.

Sources for Further Study

Library Journal. CXXII, November 15, 1997, p. 59.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. December 28, 1997, p. 3.

The Nation. CCLXV, December 29, 1997, p. 24.

The New Republic. CCXVII, November 17, 1997, p. 27.

The New York Review of Books. XLIV, December 18, 1997, p. 60.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, November 16, 1997, p. 6.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, October 13, 1997, p. 65.

The Wall Street Journal. November 12, 1997, p. A20.

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