The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.006 Friday, 1 January 1998.
From: Skip Nicholson <
Date: Tuesday, 30 Dec 1997 12:33:04 -0800
Subject: 8.1224 Vendler's Book on the Sonnets
Comment: Re: SHK 8.1224 Vendler's Book on the Sonnets
Mona Simpson's review of Helen Vendler's *The Art of Shakespeare's
Sonnets* appeared in Sunday's Los Angeles Times Book Review. It's on
and here is the text (clean, I hope. I sometimes have trouble with word
processor codes that don't always strip out of a file as I would have
South Pasadena (CA) HS
Los Angeles Times Book Review
Sunday, December 28, 1997, pp. 3-4
O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag
THE ART OF SHAKESPEARE'S SONNETS. By Helen Vendler . Harvard University
Press: 672 pp., $35
By MONA SIMPSON
Copyright Los Angeles Times
Though I never attended Harvard College, I consider Helen Vendler to be
one of my teachers. I came across one of her books in the stacks of the
UCLA research library when I was in high school and just learning to
read. At that time, she helped me contend with Wallace Stevens. Later, I
depended on her foundations for my own readings of Keats. I'm
particularly grateful for her patient delvings into Seamus Heaney's
lexicon and for her introduction to A.R. Ammons, whom I first
encountered in an anthology of hers. That was a case in point of her
almost invisible brilliance. She chose "Easter Sunday," arguably Ammons'
most haunting poem, and cut it to a perfectly resonant page.
I don't always agree with her judgments of contemporary poets, and I'm
sure she'd drive me crazy if I were a poet. (Along with Marjorie
Perloff, she's considered a bit of a St. Peter, deciding who gets in.)
While she can open a poem and organize it, take apart the strands and
lay it out neatly in stacks like a good mother helping her child with
homework, I find some omissions in her taste. She lacks appetite for the
stark, the Shaker in poetry. But then, compatible verdicts are not what
I read scholarship for. I didn't always agree with R.P. Blackmur, and no
one in their right mind could agree with Nabokov or Henry James'
assessments even half the time.
I read Helen Vendler's prose for the reason I read any prose. I'm
persuaded by the voice; I feel the presence of a sympathetic sensibility
and-as she has said of the speaker in Shakespeare's Sonnets-I believe
she has created a "credible" intellectual self. In her essays, one feels
a mind constantly working at the old questions of how to live and feel
through the reading of poetry. And after a while, one holds a common
body of reference. (Granted, yours is always a subset of hers. She sang
the liturgy in Latin in seventh grade. Growing up, she wasn't allowed
movies or TV; her parents thought of those as "unimproving ways to spend
time." I worked high school nights at a California Ice Cream Parlor,
reading Proust and straining to make out Grateful Dead lyrics from the
And now Vendler has taken on Shakespeare's Sonnets, the cycle of 154
poems that has riveted and intrigued readers for the nearly 400 years
since they were published. They begin with an older poet giving advice
to a beautiful young nobleman. The tone of the poems changes from fond
paternal interest to infatuation, intimacy, passion, as the poet
continues to address the young man who seems at first to "lead him on."
Finally, the poet reckons with his own life for what it is: a solitary
passion. Then the Young Man takes up with the poet's girlfriend, a
promiscuous Dark Lady toward whom the poet voices a full range of love
Shakespeare comes late in the sonnet tradition, and his linguistic
transmutations imply a panoply of human moods with complex accuracy.
They animate the almost smug comfort of even imagined reciprocity; the
raw pain of jealous suspicion; the wintry admission that the beloved,
though reassuring, does not feel the same way; and the older poet's
subsequent endless accommodations, his scaling down of expectation.
Part of the poems' lasting appeal is just how "real" they feel. The
unlikely nature of the protagonists (an Older Poet, a Young Man, a
promiscuous Dark Lady, a Rival Lady) makes them more striking and has
given rise to volumes of speculation about the work, which, according to
John Bayley, falls into two critical camps: Those scholars on the hunt
for the real story behind the Sonnets, and those who read the sequence,
as they would a novel, assuming invention, not only linguistic but also
in terms of "plot" and "character."
Vendler wisely reminds us the "feelings attached to fetishistic or
anomalous sexual attraction are identical to the feeling attached to
more conventional sexual practice, and it is essentially feelings, not
love-objects, which are traced in lyric."
Which is to say that the feelings are true, whether or not there ever
was a Young Man in Shakespeare's life or a Dark Lady.
Written over nine years, "The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets" prints the
poems in their 1609 Quarto version and in a modernized version of
Vendler's own (for which she seems to have picked and chosen from G.B.
Evans' 1996 edition and Stephen Booth's comprehensive commentary.) Each
sonnet is followed by her commentary.
In her introduction, Vendler says she is mainly interested in the poems
as verbal contraptions, and she creates her own technical apparatus to
look at their overlapping structures. She catalogs the words in the
couplets that also appear in the body of the sonnet and labels them
"Couplet Ties." (She counts a word and its family of variation as one
word for this purpose.) She charts enjambments, anagrams, phonemic and
graphic patterns and considers the structural units of meaning, whether
they are Italian, Petrarchian or one of Shakespeare's many variations.
Though intricate and technical, Vendler's analysis of the Sonnets is
never boring. Even the conceit of the Couplet Tie, which at first
annoyed me with its other-sonnet-another-couplet-tie monotony, had me
convinced of its power by Sonnet 67, in which every quatrain contains a
variation of the word "live" except the couplet. There, Shakespeare
refrains from offering the word, and this disappointment contributes to
the ominous feeling one is left with at the sonnet's end, emphasizing
"that the young man does not 'live' in the present, rather, he is a
preserved relic of the past."
As the Poet reconciles himself to the nature of the Young Man's somewhat
shallow affections, he backs away from his early hopes for reciprocity
and concentrates his devotion on the building of the linguistic
monuments to him. Commenting on sonnet 55, Vendler notices that the
speaker scales down his hyperbolic suggestion of an audience suggested
by "all posterity" to "the more probable audience for the Sonnets,
It's hard to imagine many contemporary American lovers reading either
the Sonnets or any commentary about them, but the Vendler book can be
read by all lovers of poetry. It's not only for academicians. Though my
copy of the galley is full of technical words, such as "epideictic,"
"commination," "proleptically" and "aureate," underlined and looked up,
it is, in fact, easy to read. Though meticulous, Vendler is
consistently, reassuringly sensible. She stays in the poem. She's
interested in corners of feeling, new positions, new hues on the
spectrum of daily passion we may recognize but not know to name. (The
way Degas, for instance, may introduce a physical position one has bent
over into many times but never seen depicted.)
The tone of her discourse reminds me of what English classes in college
used to be, when students took them because they loved books and words.
Now, English departments are often animated and divided by minds
passionate about historical context, sociology, psychology, gender
politics or some other kind of politics.
Vendler writes in the introduction: "In the past I have often wished, as
I was reading a poem, that I could know what another reader had noticed
in it; and I leave a record here of what one person has remarked so that
others can compare their own noticings with mine."
Her meticulous structures of analysis are a gift: They quietly allow
one's own interpretive faculty to rise. By clearing up all the
mechanical obstacles to understanding, your own apprehension of the poem
emerges whole, and you've only to recognize it.
Sometimes reading the Sonnets before and after the commentary gives me
back the feeling of learning to read again. The teacher would ask a
question, and I knew the answer before I could really commit to it. I
knew in some feeling way that the letters on the board said "truck," but
I couldn't get it out. My answer seemed too internal, murky, too my own,
maybe too easy to be true. Later, of course, I could read, but the
moment of learning itself-like the moment the leaf grows in those
photosynthesis films-is always missed, never experienced.
Vendler's myriad attentions to the minute patterning of words and sounds
yield just such mysterious glories. She diligently, even stringently,
employs her technical surveys, and what emerges from beneath their grid
is surprising, substantial, evanescent.
She couldn't care less who the "real" (dead) subjects of the Sonnets are
(the closest she comes to speculation is to say, after sonnet 82: "the
use of the word hue . . . suggests once again that it may have been some
occult reference (now lost) to the young man's name.")
She's a subdued commentator. She's not the kind of critic who says of
sonnet 73's Bare ruined choirs: "Wow!" Or of sonnet 30: Sessions
("Sessions!") of sweet silent thought. She is interested in the inner
life of the speaker and refuses any political judgment of content.
Yet she's amazingly big-minded; Shakespearean in her own voice, in the
sense that it's hard to feel exactly where she is located. With so many
critics, you can tell just what they're looking for and from what
angle. She seems more or less to take what's there. There's no strict
agenda to her noticings.
She's nimble imaginatively. "It is true there is irony in the Sonnets .
. . but there are also, I believe, Sonnets of hapless love-intended as
such by the author, expressed as such by the speaker. . . . Judging the
presence or absence of authorial irony is a matter of poetic tact in
At one point, she asks rhetorically, "Is irony, lover of proverbs, a
better state than hopeful attachment and anguished loss?" Vendler
strongly suggests that the answer is no.
But she's not dippy about passion either. Her vantage isn't the
love-is-the-only-high-road air sometimes evinced by people who've
recently left long-time spouses. When Michael Silverblatt asked her on
his radio program, "Bookworm," if there were any ignored Sonnets she
particularly liked, she cited sonnet 50, in which the speaker is riding
a horse. She finds the speaker's obsession unsympathetic. "Nowhere is
the obsessiveness of love better exemplified in the Sonnets than in the
speaker's response to his bloodied horse's groan. . . . We are meant, I
think, to wince at this tenacity in private grief in the presence of the
horse's pain." This is as close as she comes to political correctness.
She intends us to believe Shakespeare, separate from his speaker, sides
with the horse.
Though her tone is maternal (one longs for an adverb to imply a kind of
female avuncularity), her emotional temper is expansive and worldly. She
prefers the Sonnets to the young man to those to the Dark Lady. Only
occasionally, she lets her own language soar, as in her assertion that
the last five lines of sonnet 15, "sung under the sign of the sullying
scythe, remain a hymn to the human love-syllable, you."
She has many ways into a poem. She observes of the beautiful nocturne,
sonnet 29, that "Nothing much happens by way of events; but there is an
inexhaustible supply of fresh scenes (a characteristic of lyric from
Petrarch on, as we see the lover on horseback or sleepless in bed.)"
In sonnet 61, she puzzles together a ghost poem ("indecorous, shaming,
accusing") beneath the more "sayable" poem. The tone begins gently, with
the speaker wondering whether he's being kept awake by the young man's
spirit from afar prying "To find out shames and idle hours in me." Then
he sadly recognizes that it is not the Young Man's jealousy but his own,
tormenting him. "Oh no, thy love, though much, is not so great; / It is
my love that keeps mine eye awake."
After identifying several Sonnets as reply poems, she goes ahead and
writes out dialogues between the young man and the speaker, which could
have taken place just before the sonnet begins.
A factor in all her interpretations is her deeply oral conception of
poetry. She first heard these Sonnets as a child, recited by her
mother. She herself learned all 154 by heart. Her ear training is
profound and often yielding. The book is accompanied by a CD onto which
Vendler has recorded the Sonnets. It's a relief to hear a reader, rather
than an actor, read the poems.
When asked by the Paris Review whether teaching helped her criticism,
she replied, "Oh, it would have to, if only because you learn more poems
by heart every year from teaching them. They work on you, then in a
different way they work on you when you're reading them off the page. .
. . Out of the depths of my heart will come a quotation completely
unbidden. And then I will think: Oh, so that's what I am feeling today.
On any occasion when a response is called for, what usually comes to my
lips is a line from some poem or other. My son laughs about this and
says, 'A quotation for every occasion, Mom.' "
What first struck her about Wallace Stevens was hearing his voice on a
Like the best teachers, she's willing, at times, to seem dumb and a
little goofy. "There is no return to a closing statement by the poet,"
she says, referring to sonnet 32, "e.g. (with my apologies) 'If thou
wilt read me thus, I'll not repine / For all I think and all I write is
Talking about sonnet 42, she resorts to charts.
S loses YM
S loses M
[Note: in the diagram, the YM and the M in the two previous lines are
bracketed together with the notation "they find each other."]
She's willing to tell us "the gist of" a quatrain.
When she damns Shakespeare, she damns gently. "Sonnet 7 has little to
recommend itself imaginatively . . . ," and sonnet 26 "is not notable
for imagination." My only impatience with the book is that sometimes I
think she displays too much evenhandedness. There's a relentless
fairness that makes me want to go out and shout, dance, sing Bruce
Springsteen lyrics, live in the language now. For my taste, she's
occasionally one degree too reverent of writers. Sometimes I feel she's
a little cowed by Shakespeare. She's a believer in the contradicting,
antithetical mind, but she doesn't grant him ample mental range to admit
one simply uninspired outpouring, one true dud.
In a way, a straight-through reading of the book seems false, as one
would more naturally leaf through the Sonnets, according to mood. At
first, her responses feel like individual essays, but about halfway in
you realize huge orchestral movement is being made from the resonating
Her argument about the speaker's hope for and delusion of reciprocity in
the early Sonnets is like the prelude in a long novel, such as "Swann in
She persuasively demonstrates how Shakespeare creates a "credible self,"
in the form of the speaker, by following his fast, contradictory
thoughts in "this portrait of a mind plunging among its categories to
find resemblances as it does in the creation of multiple temporal
In addition to the gathering force of her major, binding thematic
arguments and persuasions, there are the smaller pleasures of her
erudite asides, her deep, easy knowledge of church Latin, liturgy, of
Keats lore (he remembered sonnet 97 in his ode "To Autumn") and Chapman
lore (Chapman believed he was in communication with Homer.) The volume
is sprinkled with pertinent references to Keats, Hopkins, Stevens,
Heaney, Yeats, Frost and fewer than I personally would have expected to
Vendler argues that the couplet in the Sonnets should be taken not as a
resolution to the poem but as a coda, with many possible relations to
the body of the work (summarizing, reinforcing, refuting, ironic.)
As my coda, I want to mention one aspect that I admire in Vendler's
work, which she may not even like. I accord her the same stature I
accord Joan Didion and Alice Munro-contemporary artists of prose
fiction, women and personal icons. She's someone of genuine intellectual
stature who also writes seriously about motherhood, from both sides,
"My mother was the first person to introduce me to Shakespeare's
Sonnets. She quoted them often, and had memorized many of them. Her last
pieces of writing (which we found after Alzheimer's disease had robbed
her of memory) were fragments of the Sonnets which, either from fear of
forgetting or as a means of self-reassurance, she had written down on
scraps of paper. It is no mean tribute to the Sonnets that they, of the
hundreds of poems she knew by heart, were the last to fade."
Mona Simpson Is the Author of "Anywhere But Here," "The Lost Father" and
"A Regular Guy."
Copyright Los Angeles Times