‘The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets’ by Helen Vendler

Posted: December 23, 2011 in Parameters
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The Bellknapp Press of Harvard University Press

Nobody writes books like this anymore: books of close-reading; books that investigate poetry in depth, from their language, their craft. Maybe not since the ground breaking and canonical textbooks of New Criticism has there been such an extended and comprehensive study of a body of work.

This is a handsome, and exemplary book.

If, like me, you always thought the Sonnets the weakest part of Shakespeare’s oeuvre: inconsistent quality etc etc, then, like me, you will be surprised at this book’s claims.

Throughout, Helen Vendler has used the 1609 Quarto edition of the Sonnets. A facsimile of this edition is reproduced; the examination and commentary of each sonnet is then prefaced with a modern-spelling version of the sonnet. The length, depth and volume of the commentary varies; at times she has gone into great detail examining a particular sonnet’s strictures and structures etc, at times she has written less. The last two sonnets she not commented on at all.

The Hardback version of this book contains a cd of Vendler reading selected sonnets.

The genesis of this book lies in a pamphlet of her 1990 Hilda Hulme Lecture, entitled Ways into Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

She suggests we do not look for a cogent philosophy, autobiography, or historical parallels, or even sociological asides to the age, in the Sonnets.

Sonnets were the equivalent of well-turned pop songs; poems of emotional and emoting content. With the Sonnets we perhaps come across the Lennon and McCartney of sonnets, or perhaps Dylan. Probably the former; that is, the traditional sonnet taken on further, into something more.

The collection, the Sonnets, consists of two thematic sequences; the first, from 1 to 126 Vendler calls the Young Man sequence, is followed by the Dark Lady sequence, sonnets 127 to 154. However, this does not prove that they were written sequentially, or in thematic order. Following Kent Hieatt, she states that early, what she calls ‘trial pieces’, are scattered throughout the collection as a whole: sonnets 4, 6, 7, 9, 145, 153, and 154

It is only in the preparation of the Sonnets, however, that the two were first construed as a sequence, she argues.

Of the Dark Lady sequence she makes the illuminating comment that they form “a proto-sketch for a drama rather like Othello, with its jealousy… sexuality… ambiguous “darkness”… and so on…”, whereas the Young Man sonnets are more ‘lyrical’ in the sense  that they “…allow(s) full exercise of the linguistic play… (that) embody(s) (the) structural mimesis…,”. The true ‘actors’ of lyric, as opposed to drama, are the words, “And the drama of any lyric is constituted by the successive entrances of new sets of words, a new stylistic arrangement… visibly in conflict with the previous arrangement…”. Othello was published in quarto in 1606, the Sonnets in 1609. The time of writing and preparation of the one coincides well with the preparation etc of the other.

Sequence One, the Young Man sonnets, she characterises as  “…entirely an infatuation of the eye – which makes a fetish of the beloved’s countenance rather than his entire body – that gazing is this infatuation’s chief… form of intercourse.” There was no consummation, it seems, if we are to read them for veracity.

Sequence Two, however, she reads as a contradictory aesthetic to that: “Shakespeare’s duty as a poet of the inner life was not to be fair to women but to be accurate in the representation of the feelings of his speaker.”

Early on she makes the case for a very clear distinction between the writer of the poems (Shakespeare) and the speaker of the poems: lyric poetry is, by necessity a spoken art: “The act of the lyric is to offer its reader a script to say. The words of a poem are not to “overhear … nor is the poet “speaking to himself” without reference to the reader…”. In fact it is Shakespeare’s fabrication of the realness of the speaker that is one of the innovations of these poems. Shakespeare’s speaker is “… given “depth” of character in each individual sonnet by several compositional strategies…” and she goes on to enumerate seven of these, giving an explication on each one. Her exhaustiveness of examination is most impressive, and, what is more, very persuasive.

The Shakespearian sonnet is a structure of four parts: three quatrains, and a couplet. This means the quatrains of the poems can be ‘set up’ in a variety of ways: successive and equal; hierarchical; contrasting; analogues; logically contradictory; successively louder/softer etc.

The relationships between the quatrains are distinguished by the manipulation of phonemic clusters or metrical effects.

These sonnets are, she writes, “… fundamentally structured by an overlying inner emotional dynamic,” which “allows the speaker to see more, change his mind… pass from description to analysis…”. It is, she says, “a system in motion… with several subsystems going their way through them.”

Sonnet 30

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,

And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste;

Then can I drown an eye (unused to flow)

For precious friends hid in earth’s dateless night,

And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,

And moan th’expense of many a vanished sight.

Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,

And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er

The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,

Which I new pay as if not paid before. 

     But if the while I think on thee (dear friend)

     All losses are restored, and sorrows end.

Her commentary is very informative here. The sonnet, she writes, “… takes pains to construct a speaker possessing a multilayered self, receding through ‘panels of time’: “now”, “recently”, “before that”, “yet further back”, “the remote past””. She plots these out on a table thus: ‘Habitual present’; ‘Time of stoicism’; ‘Time of loss’; ‘Happy time’; ‘Neutral time’, and then proceeds to justify this with apposite quotations from the poem.

One of her most interesting examinations of this poem is her following through of strings of word sounds that ‘sound out’ the argument, its turn, conclusion, and counter turn. Read down, and across:

sessions        remembran – ce        woes    flow       drown      lack           precious

sweet                          sin –  ce      wail    friends   death’s     love’s         a-fresh

silent                        can –ce-ed   waste                                  long        

summon                expen – se        woe                                   losses

sigh                     grievan –ce-s     woe

sought                                           woe

sigh    t                                       sorr  ow

since

sad

 She even posits, wittily, the coinage of a new verb (“… given the Renaissance confusion of sigh and sight, recalled by Kerrigan…”): sigh, sight, sought: “A sigh is the eventual result of a sight sought.”

The last couplet is always the tricky one, relying at times on cliché, or proverb. These times, she writes, are when the speaker “gives up”, admits that a conclusion is beyond him, and that he must throw the problem to a wider jury, that of time-tested knowledge.

This makes sense, the poems are all concerned with knowledge through experience; time is the greatest test of knowledge, as well as the greatest source of error. Between the two is everything that we know of our self and ourselves.

In this particular sonnet “… the credibility of the couplet depends upon the probability that once the things summoned up in thought become rawly painful, the speaker will in reaction turn to the … friendship of the young man…” i.e. not to “right” the situation, but for him just to be there.

“It is,” she writes, “in such simultaneous marshalling of temporal continuity, logical discreteness, and psychological modelling that Shakespeare’s Sonnets surpass those of other sonneteers.”

Sonnet 55, she suggests, is built around the key word ‘live’. There are many instances of sonnets built around, and building in, key words. In 55 this is the one word that appears in all four parts of the sonnet, but more importantly, the one word that carries the weight of meaning in each part. In each part, that is, except quatrain 3; we have in quatrain 1 out-LIVE, quatrain 2 LIV-ing, the couplet LIVE… but in quatrain 3 it occurs in ob-LIV-ion. This one word carries the whole crux of the sonnet: how can the beloved survive, or outlive, oblivion?

This also points up one of Shakespeare’s greatest strengths, his unwillingness/inability to stay with a simple explanation, or expression; in 55 he must relate his desire for his beloved’s continuance, to practical, realistic means; that it is not enough his strength of desire or love should ‘rule the day’, but that it should be expressed concretely, that publication is the way, and the way of the future.

Helen Vendler successfully makes the argument for reading sonnet 116 as a sonnet of “dramatic refutation or rebuttal…”. This sonnet is generally taken as a classic case of affirmation (a kind of ‘Love Is…’ cartoon?). There are a number of such rebuttal sonnets in the collection, it is one of the threads that runs throughout the collection (cf. Sonnet 18, Shall I compare thee to summer’s day?/ Thou art more…; Sonnet 130, My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun… etc etc).

Sonnet 116 runs:

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 fixed 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.

She says of the sonnet: “… there are too many no’s and nor’s, never’s and not’s… The prevalence of negatives suggests that this poem is not a definition, but rather a rebuttal – and all rebuttals encapsulate the argument they refute.”

The iambic prosody of the sonnet belies the general reading: this sonnet’s meaning is emphasised by that the stress falling on that ‘me’ in the first line: ‘Let me not to the marriage…’

Vendler argues that the speaker in 116 is responding to certain arguments, or rationalisations. In this case, that of the Young Man, for a more ‘open’ relationship than the one already assumed by the speaker.

With quatrain 1 we have the mimicking of the argument, and its outright rebuttal. Quatrain 2 asserts an alternative stance to that of the other person; quatrain 3, states Vendler, “is not simply a rhetorical restating of those two threatening words alter and bend… the words are now unpacked in their full significance as they are reinscribed…”. Quatrain 3, in fact, takes on the other’s stance where before this position had been fought off/away; the speaker has now to admit the other’s stance and argue on his terms. This is in a sense a backing off/fearing to offend. It can be read as a plea, to bear(s) it out, but together. The couplet’s tone is more conceding in its self-turned criticisms, its broken rhythms.

Sonnet 117 is in some ways a continuation of the situation in the overlapping of “topics, diction, and imagery, as noted by Booth…”. Booth also commented, Vendler notes, that “in 116 the speaker is grand, noble, general, and beyond logic; in 117 he is petty, particular, and narrowly logical.”  This is not inconsistency; it is an artist manipulating the facets of his art.

Earlier it was stated that the Sonnets cannot be read as cogent autobiography; the argument for this runs that their autobiographical bases are overlaid, offset, outplayed by the writer’s artfulness and skilled characterisations, that the Sonnets aim more at artistry than salaciousness.

It is surprising, and chastening, to learn, as here, just how much needs to go into a poem, into its structure; how its structure is in fact a part of the sense of the thing, and how the sound of words, part-words, can clinch an effect on the listener. A poem is indeed as much a physical artefact as a subjective, metaphysical, event. A poem is as much intent as it is manipulation of language.

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Comments
  1. Yes. Stephen Booth, once my professor, is insightful as well. I’d leave his classes spellbound. There’s so much in Shakespeare’s well, and your posting is refreshing.

  2. Came to this late…buy, yes, great info, great post.

    In another context (essential books every writer should read) I expressed this view:

    Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609, William Shakespeare) because the greatest writer of the English language has left you 154 fourteen-line Renaissance poems in iambic pentameter from the 17th century that are still crystal clear in the 21st. If you’re not in love with the sounds of words, you’ll never be a writer. You might as well learn from the best.

    • Gee thanks Stephen.
      I used to think the Sonnets were the man’s weakest point. Until that is, I read this. Bought this! It just goes to show close reading is the only way. It is very time-and-energy consuming, so thank goodness there are lighter and easier writers about!

      • Also, thinking outside the box, ARABELLA – my latest novella – has an Elizabethan sonnet as the book description:

        The youth of two great Bostonian lines
        Who meet and love on fair faraway Isle
        Tender the tale: two souls, two hearts, two minds
        Alike…Reader, pause here, stay but awhile

        Together Love’s wonder and passion mix
        A beauty rare though sweet enough to reach
        Love’s zenith: high hour! the lovers’ fix!
        Slow idyll time for slow love on the beach

        But Old World lines with ancient flaws reveal
        Threats that imperil from inside and out
        And for their lives our lovers must appeal
        To Fate that her turns be then turned about

        Witness these events with eyes new and right
        See now what comes forever from their sight

  3. And with added ancient Greek inscription flavour!
    Good man.

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