The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, $35
by Matthea Harvey
Critics faced with the daunting interpretative task of Shakepeare's sonnets have often resorted to speculation about the poet's relations with the "young man" of the first sequence, or the ethics of his addresses to the promiscuous "dark lady." It is odd, these days when the aims of narrative come under such critical scrutiny, to find that that the sonnets are still so often treated as stories or arguments- especially since the narrative content of the sonnets is often slight. Sonnet 71, for instance, when pared down to its essential information, becomes "I am dead / I am fled / I love you so / I am gone." In her introduction to The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets, Helen Vendler comments on the problem that the poems' irreducible natures pose: "The appeal of lyric lies elsewhere than in its paraphrasable statement," she writes. "Where then does the charm of lyric lie?" The phrasing of this question reveals the appreciative and investigative approach Vendler takes throughout the book, and if her answer-"the arrangement of statement"-sounds a bit dry, what follows is instead a heady journey into the sounds, structures, and strategies of the sonnets, led by a guide as perceptive and rigorously instructive as one could wish for.
Each sonnet is presented here first in the typeface and spelling of the 1609 Quarto, and then in Vendler's modernized version, with adjusted spelling and punctuation. In the brief and illuminating essays that follow each poem, Vendler aims for what she terms "evidential criticism": "remarks for which I attempt to supply instant and sufficient linguistic evidence." These remarks are enhanced by her conversation with the critical works of John Kerrigan and Stephen Booth among others. Vendler uses numerous systems of classification (shifts in subject, pronouns, tenses, idiom, argument, and speech acts; distinctions between private and social; lateral and vertical vocabulary connections; references to the Petrarchan model) to analyze the sonnet's architecture.
Diagrams abound. These are most useful in the complicated "avoidance sonnets," in which the speaker, like an Elizabethan Houdini, ingeniously evades unhappy conclusions, and the "betrayal sonnets," in which the speaker, the young man and the mistress all appear. Of Sonnet 42, which ends on this couplet of contrived inclusion, "But here's the joy, my friend and I are one: / Sweet flattery! then she loves but me alone," Vendler writes: "Shakespeare offers four models to describe the relations between the three persons in the triangle. The models become increasingly tortured, as the speaker tries to find a way to include himself in the relationship of the young man to the mistress." She tracks the speaker's gradual loss of love through the pronouns, which move from second to third person address, explaining: "The aesthetic pathos of the poem arises from the loss of the power to say thee any longer. 'Thou and I are one,' is the pathetic second-person shadow-statement, unsayable, behind the third-person fantasy-statement, 'My friend and I are one.'"
"Shakespeare almost never repeats a strategy," Vendler argues, and the numerous ways in which she describes the sonnets-as "homily," "cross minuet," "apotropaic charm" and "jeu d'esprit"-support her claim. Sonnet 76-in which the speaker responds to a complaint by the bored young man against the monotony of his receiving "old-fashioned" poems that are so tediously constant in form that anyone can identify them as Shakespeare's-she reads not as apology but as "apologia, a reply in self-defense."
Vendler takes up and continues this defense: "The young man is a reader who reads only for theme; and the poet freely admits the monotony of his theme (you and love). But Shakespeare is a writer whose eye is on style. The verbal lexicon of any language is finite, as is the generic lexicon of any poetic: there are no words but old words. Style is dressing them new." When Vendler argues that "as the painter must serve color, and the sculptor volume, the poet must serve language," she formulates a reading of the sonnet form that functions for Shakespeare much as a "signature style" does for a painter-that is, as something to work with and against. Just as Rothko's canvases viewed side by side demonstrate a variation within the bounds of the "given" form of stacked blurred rectangles, the sonnet form (with its similarly rectangular elements-three quatrains and a couplet) allows for even greater invention within the "restrictions" of rhyme and meter.
An exercise in close reading in the New Critical tradition, The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets teases out alliterative chains, hidden words (Sonnet 68's "bouquet of five invisible roses" embedded in the words shorne, flowers, bowers, others, and store) puns (Sonnet 87's hitherto uncommented-upon "aching" hidden in "a king"), anagrams, and so on. Vendler's visual perspicacity allows her to unlock the strategies that underlie Shakespeare's "erotics of the eye." On the compact disc that accompanies the book, Vendler reads from sixty-five of the sonnets, and her performances foreground the unique "contraptions of language" she has uncovered in each one.
Appropriately enough, the book is also an effort of close listening. Vendler has a kind of "sonnet radar": from the text of the sonnet she interpolates echoes of what the sonnet's addressee has just said, what the speaker is trying to avoid saying, and what the speaker wants to hear. Consider these lines from Sonnet 116:
While 116 is commonly read as a "true love" sonnet, Vendler finds in it "an example not of definition but of dramatic refutation or rebuttal." She imagines what the lover may have said prior to the poem's composition: "I did love you once; but you have altered, and so there is a natural alteration in me." To support this reading, Vendler scans the line with an iambic rather than trochaic reading of the first foot ("let ME? instead of "LET me"), and then points out that the many negations that follow imply a pronounced difference of opinion.
Later, analyzing sonnet 126, a "six-couplet poem," in which Time triumphs over the young man,
Vendler reads the blank space itself: "The Quartos-two sets of eloquently silent parentheses-emphasize the reader's desire for a couplet and the grim fact of its lack. Inside the parentheses there lies, so to speak, the mute effigy of the rendered youth."
Vendler does not seem compelled to offer radically new readings of the sonnets: when her interpretations differ from other critics, she bases her reading on evidence within the text. She departs from Stephen Booth's interpretation chiefly in her insistence that authorial instruction is present in the sonnets, from the ordering of images and quatrains to grammatical constructions and word choice. Vendler moves easily between warning modern readers against reading irony where there is none ("There are . . . I believe, sonnets of hapless love-intended as such by the author, expressed as such by the speaker.") and more decidedly contemporary readings, such as that of sonnet 73, in which "The speaker has read the text of his own aging physical body."
In her 1995 critical work The Breaking of Style, Vendler considered the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Seamus Heaney, and Jorie Graham, deliberately bringing the three poets' work into tension and relief. Though here she does not spell out the connections between Shakespeare and current trends in poetry and criticism, the way she discusses the sonnets tends to relate contemporary and canonical poetics. Here is Vendler on Ashbery, from Soul Says: "Ashbery traces the flirtings of the mind with moral awareness, and exposes its quick scurrying to its preferred and pathetic holes of security." And here on Shakespeare, from the volume under review: "The sonnets stand as the record of a mind working out positions without the help of any pantheon or any systematic doctrine."
In her introduction, Vendler offers the book to "those interested in the Sonnets, or students of the lyric, or poets hungry for resource." Anyone glancing at just a few of the essays will benefit from Vendler's microscopic examinations. To read the book from start to finish, however, is to receive a thorough education in how to look at a poem. One feels that when Shakespeare wrote the line, "A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass," he hoped one day for a reader who would see in this image what Vendler sees: "the emotionally labile contents of any sonnet as they preserve their mobility within the transparent walls of prescribed length, meter, and rhyme." This outstanding work of criticism has made those walls and what lies behind them very clear.