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Helen Vendler's The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets first appeared in 1997 and then in paperback two years later. During the past five years, most reviewers have lauded Vendler's work. Richard Howard,
in The New York Times Book Review has said Vendler's Art "will prove to be the most valuable critical performance in recent American literature on classic texts." To Mathea Harvey,
the book is "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" (see
her review in the February/March 1999 issue of
Other critics have differed in their reception of Vendler's
Art. Mark K. Anderson, for instance, has described Vendler's work as "downright exhausting", ostensibly because her razor-sharp interpretations excise any feelings or thoughts the
Sonnets may express (see "The Art of
The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets" published in the Spring 1998
Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter). And Joe Eldredge of hUMILITY pRESS alleges Vendler's analysis is "a form of cryogenic deconstruction" because Vendler offers scant commentary on the
Sonnets' historical context, thereby circumscribing Shakespeare's poems within "an artistic vacuum".
To her critics' credit, Vendler's
692 page book can seem daunting. Yet the author warns her reader in the Introduction that, first, she intends "this work for those who already know the sonnets, or who have beside them the sort of lexical annotation found in current editions" and, second, "this Commentary is not intended to be read straight
through." Likewise Eldrege's allegations seem targeted not so much at
Vendler's work itself, but at its very theoretical assumptions (more on
this below). At its very best,
The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets is a beautiful example of close, careful reading by a true master in poetry criticism.
For Vendler, words alone are certain good. She is the New Critic par excellence and much of the theory operant in
The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets is that of evidential or structural criticism. As she explains in the
Introduction, her fundamental method for interpretation is an examination and celebration of the "lyric" including "subgenre, structure, syntax, and linguistic play"; thus for
the true 'actors' in lyric are words, not 'dramatic persons'; and the drama of any lyric is constituted by the
successive entrances of new sets of words, or new stylistic arrangements
phonetic) which are visibly in conflict with previous arrangements
used with reference to the 'same' situation.
To this end, Vendler probes the inner workings of the Sonnets and how they aesthetically delight. For each sonnet, she provides the reader with the 1609 Quarto
version beside an updated, modernized spelling. She then offers a two to three page "close reading" of the sonnet, examining the voice of its speaker, structural tensions, chiastic turns, and imagistic development. Often she sketches out a diagram for the reader, drawing any number of hierarchical, lateral, or cyclical relationships between words or phrases. She has also noted what she calls a "couplet tie" in each sonnet, where Shakespeare uses a word or two in the quatrains that reappear in the couplet. Rather than consider Shakespeare's concluding couplet as an addendum, summation or recapitulation of the previous three quatrains, the couplet tie unifies the sonnet and creates a trajectory for the reader to follow into further contemplation of the poem's myriad significances. Vendler possesses that rare combination: the critic's deliberate perspicuity and the poet's rolling imagination. This book is a remarkable critical accomplishment. I have included longer excerpts here from one of the book's sonnet-essays to testify to Vendler's powers. We are all familiar with this one, I'm sure:
Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this pow'rful rhyme,
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
'Gainst death and all oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the Judgement that your self arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.
Vendler notices two strategies at work within the poem. The first involves the speaker's tendency to shift back and forth between
bestowing grandeur on entities when they are connected
with the beloved, but bestowing squalor on the very same
entities when they are mentioned in connection with ordinary
objects. Thus, in Q1 (her abbreviation for Quatrain 1), memorial
edifices are grand marble or gilded monuments when they are
compared to the verse immortalizing the beloved, but when
they are connected to sluttish time the very same splendid
monuments become unswept stone besmeared…The palpable
scorn of the speaker in calling memorial monuments unswept
stone besmeared with sluttish time and calling the agents
destroying such monuments wasteful war and root[ing]
broils raises by contrast the tone of adoration of the attempt
to perpetuate the being of the young man, and even the tone
of destructive conflict when it touches the young man.
The other strategy "is the gradual transformation of a memorializing and commemorative impulse into a resurrective one." This change welcomes questions about the relation between the poet's self and the purpose of elegy. As Vendler puts it: "Does the person [you] remain alive in the contents, or does only a record
[of your memory] remain?" This paradoxical tension becomes resolved in the concluding couplet "So, till the Judgement that your self
arise, / You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes." Vendler argues:
The inertness of your memory and your praise have both fallen
away as modes of phrasing in favor of three active verbs: till
your self arise, you live, [you] dwell. The intensive your self
of the Last Judgement--your very self, your physical self--allows the subsequent
you / [you] to take on various meanings: your
mortal self, spiritual self, inscriptive self, verbal self. The hyperbolic
claim of pace forth has been deferred to the aris[ing] of Judgement
Day…Whenever a Shakespearean hyperbole is allowed to dwindle
down to a more modest formulation which counters the poet's
compelling drive to contest time's power with emotional lies
('Gainst death…shall you pace forth), we are brought to admire
the way in which a middle terrain is found that both emotionality
and accuracy can inhabit.
The couplet tie here, by the way, emerges through the words eyes in lines 11 and 14 and live which ironically transmutes from
outlive (line 2), to living (line 8), to oblivious (line 9), to
live (line 14). I might recommend morning calisthenics (or at least a brisk walk) before undertaking Vendler's
Art; it seems she expects the same careful reading of her readers as she does of herself. And this is a joy for readers of poetry who prefer to ponder every linguistic or structural presence and absence in the Bard's greatest lines.
Within the confines of the theory Vendler has set forth for herself in the
Introduction, her arguments and analyses are seamless. Yet, by virtue of her very strengths, Vendler's interpretive approach also poses a theoretical quagmire in light of the burgeoning of cultural studies in Shakespearean scholarship, at least since the 1970's. Whereas Vendler limits the scope of her discussion to the text of the
Sonnets and their structural design, the bulk of analysis over the past three decades has shifted the critical lens to economic, political, historical, and sexual preoccupations in Shakespeare's work. Vendler's most ardent critics (like Mark Anderson and Joe Eldrege) could object that the confines of Vendler's theory are simply too narrow and perhaps out of step with recent trends in criticism. Does evidential criticism of the Sonnets not reduce the beauty of poems into mere mechanics, with all of the diagrams and discussion of structure? What about feminist readings of the Dark Lady sonnets? Or psychoanalytic or queered examinations of the speaker's desire for the Young Man? If, as Vendler claims, "the
Sonnets represent the largest tract of unexamined Shakespearean lines left open to scrutiny", why not break fresh ground in Shakespeare studies than return to earlier theoretical models?
In anticipation of these charges, Vendler maintains that discussions of culture are perhaps more suitable to a novel or drama because those genres so deliberately and self-consciously re-present and re-construct their social milieu. In the case of the
Sonnets, the success of lyric poetry depends upon the arrangement of words, their layers of meaning, sounds, and form. This is in no way to dismiss the crucial significance and import of cultural studies in Shakespeare's work; it is only to delineate that the genre of poetry, as Vendler argues, "remains the genre that directs its mimesis toward the performance of the mind in solitary speech. Because lyric is intended to be voiceable by anyone reading it, in its normative form it deliberately strips away most social specification (age, regional location, sex, class, even race)." Shakespeare's
Sonnets therefore demand the close reading that Vendler has set forth and mastered so well throughout her career.
The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets is a valuable reference for any serious reader or student of the
Sonnets. I, myself, would have liked a more thorough discussion of diction and alliteration. But, as Vendler warns, these essays are only sketches and by no means exhaustive in their analysis. Vendler's
Art will certainly pace forth. If not out to the ending doom, at least as long as readers continue to cherish one of the best critics on some of the best poems.