The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets

Article excerpt

Helen Vendler.TheArt of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997. xx + 672 pp. $35.00 cloth. CD included: the author reads 65 sonnets.

As a stylized form of verbal construction and expression, the sonnet necessarily demands conscious artistic manipulation of words and their patterns of sound and meaning. Yet undeniably there are varying levels of achievement in the history of this long-popular form, and some writers have even found the sonnet devoid of meaning simply because it is redundant In Helen Vendler's close reading of the 154 Shakespeare sonnets, however, this magisterial critic reveals that in fact the Bard's consummate, unmatched art-his "impulse to aesthetic stylization" (630)-is based to a large extent on redundancy, not only of key words repeated in the three quatrains and couplets of a given sonnet, but within the two subsequences that make up the first 152 sonnets.

Following the two subsequences as they develop the speaker's relationship first with the young man and then with the dark lady, Vendler observes connections between one sonnet and the next as well as among those with similar themes, images, or structural strategies. At times her method is to move backwards and forwards within the series to interrelate repetitive words or phrases that have appeared previously or reappear later and that indicate developing positions or conflicts vis-@-vis the two figures addressed by the Sonnets' speaker. In addition, Vendler detects repeated internal letters embedded in individual words that for the critic echo each sonnet's central idea. Whether one entirely agrees with Vendler on every word she analyzes, her study of the Sonnets can manifest with frequent brilliance the thoroughly conscious art of Shakespeare's handling of this classic form, even as her analyses suggest the notion that had the Bard written none of his plays he would still be the greatest writer in the English language.

Two of many general assertions that Vendler makes about Shakespeare's style are that in the Sonnets he is "an astonishingly nonclassical poet" '(198), and that he likes to put "a grandly Latinate adjective with an Anglo-Saxon noun" (46 1). She notes that gods and goddesses "play almost no part in his sequence" and that the absence of classical references aids in giving the impression that Shakespeare's speech is "naked and immediate" (198). While Vendler finds that Shakespeare's sonnets often owe much to his "constant writing for oral delivery on the stage" (137), she also recognizes that the poet belonged "to the world of print"(95) and therefore employed the looks of words on the page in constructing his lines and quatrains. In considering Sonnet 118, Vendler points to wordplay involving "etymologically the French version of ma/" (500) in the word maladies as it reiterates the most repeated words in the poem:sick, sicken, sickness, and ill(s). She also discovers the poet playing with antonyms and homonyms, as well as the phonemesi that"haunt[s]" (501) such words as policy, anticipate, and medicine in place of the word sick. Likewise, in her explication of Sonnet 150, Vendler suggests that the word whore "flicker[s] through the poem" (634) in the form of worth, worst, abhor, worth, again, worthy, and worthiness. As she reveals in every case, the visual and sound patterns underscore each sonnet's basic problem-in number 150 the "transvaluation of moral values" (635).

Readers of the Sonnets tend to encounter the same few examples from Shakespeare's sequence, and this fact points up another service rendered by a study like Vendler's, which, in conducting the reader through the entire sequence, discloses in the process its larger thematic developments as well as the pairings of Sonnets like numbers 50 and 51. Perhaps because such pairs should be read together, 50 and 51 are not included, for example, in The Norton Anthology of English

Literature, which, in the Major Authors edition, prints 29 of the 154 Sonnets. …