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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: January ::
"The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets"
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.007  Friday, 1 January 1998.

From:           Martin Green <
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Date:           Wednesday, 31 Dec 1997 19:38:08 -0800
Subject:        "The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets"

Since (unless I have missed something) there has so far been no
discussion in this forum of Helen Vendler's recently published book,
"The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets," I will attempt to initiate such a
discussion by setting forth some of my thoughts, mostly negative, about
that book, in the hope that others will bring to my attention the good
things about the book which either I fail to appreciate or have not
read. (And I have not yet read the commentaries on all of the Sonnets;
what I have read are the prefatory pages, the introduction, and about 20
of the commentaries, focusing so far on those sonnets which are of
particular interest to me.)

Dr. Vendler states (in the prefatory material, p. xiii, and in the
Introduction, p. 13) that she will not attempt to arrive at the
"meaning" of the Sonnets, but will attempt to disclose the techniques or
strategies which make the words of the Sonnets, and the arrangement of
those words, convey so well emotions of all kinds. (This  she calls a
"mimetic aesthetic result," which she defines, on p. xiii, as the
"enact[ment], by linguistic means, [of] moves engaged in by the human
heart and mind.")

It can come as no surprise, considering how lofty is the goal Dr.
Vendler sets for herself, that she fails to accomplish it; what does
come as a surprise is how profoundly she fails - - by which I mean that
the techniques she uses, and the conclusions she reaches, are not only
unconvincing, but also, often, bizarre and inane.

Most obvious among these, and meriting very little attention, because
Dr. Vendler herself concedes (at p. xvii) that they may be ignored with
no detriment to her discussion, are the diagrams accompanying some of
her commentaries.  These diagrams are offered as visual depictions of
significant relationships between and among words, or of the structure
of a sonnet, but to me they are, at the very least, completely useless,
and at the very most, completely incomprehensible.  Here are examples of
two completely useless diagrams (please make allowances for the
inability to make in an e-mail format exact reproductions of the
diagrams):

"Structure of Sonnet 26.

        [               ]
        [               ]
        [ Apology       ] 6 [lines]
        [               ]
        [               ]
        [               ]

        [               ]
        [               ]
        [               ]
        [  Hope         ]  7 [lines]
        [               ]
        [               ]

        [  Apology      ]  1 [line]"

And here is a diagram from the commentary on Sonnet 77 (Q stands for
Quatrain, C stands for closing couplet; the lines should be seen as
arrows, with the arrowhead to the right of the horizontal lines, or at
the bottom of the vertical or slanting lines):

        "Q1     1 line: Glass - - - - 1 line: Dial - - - 2 lines: Book
                        |                       |               |
        Q2      2 lines: Glass - - - -2 lines: Dial             |
                                                  \             |
        Q3                                         4 lines:  Book

                C: [2 lines: Summary}"

Those diagrams which I find completely incomprehensible defy
transmission by e-mail; I refer the curious reader to the diagrams for
Sonnets 34, 69 and 87.

Another of Dr. Vendler's odd techniques is identifying what she calls
"anagrammatic play." For an example of this, I quote a paragraph from
her commentary on Sonnet 20 ("A woman's face with nature's own hand
painted,/ Hast thou the Master Mistris of my passion," etc.; the
asterisks on either side of a word or phrase delimit material which in
the original is italicised):

[BEGIN QUOTE] There are some difficulties in the language, notably the
climactic emphasis on *hues* (line 7) and the odd *-eth* endings on
verbs (*gaze, amaze*) that could apparently have ended as well in *-es.*
Bizarre as it may appear, the poem seems to have been created in such a
way as to have the individual letters of the word *h-e-w-s* (the Quarto
spelling) or *h-u-e-s* in as many lines as possible (I have not checked
all the Sonnets, but the random checking of a few has not turned up
another sonnet of which a comparable assertion could be made.) The list
of available letters (not words) in each of the fourteen lines (Quarto
spelling) is as follows: hews, hues, hews, hews, hews, hew[z], hews,
hews, hews, hews, he[ ], hues, hews, hues (with a phonetic pun on use).
The *h* needed for *hews* is contributed in line 8, by *amazeth,*
thereby perhaps explaining the *-eth* endings. *Hew* is climactic in
line 7 because it is the word by which the master/mistress controls
almost all other lines. The high proportion (2.7 percent) of *w*'s in
the total of letters in this sonnet is also explicable by the necessity
of making *hew* as often as possible. Though neither *hew* nor *hue* can
be found complete in line 11, which contains only an *h* and an
*e*,there are of course two *hew's* in line 7, preserving the proportion
of one *hew* per line, all *in his controlling.* If this anagrammatic
play is in fact intended, the sonnet becomes even more fantastic than
its theme suggests. [END QUOTE]

Now, there are three things dreadfully wrong with what is set forth in
the foregoing paragraph. The  first is, that the letters h, e, u, w and
s are so common in the Shakespearean word-horde (to say nothing of
English in general), that when I myself checked to see what the chances
were of finding the phenomenon so marveled upon by Dr. Vendler (I made
not a random check, but very sensibly focused on sonnets beginning with
"when," of which there are many), I immediately found, in Sonnet 2 (and
I checked no further), that each and every line contained the letters
h-e-w-s or h-u-e-s - - and, indeed, one of the lines contains the
letters twice over.  So the occurrence of letters spelling "hues" or
"hews" in every line of Sonnet 20 is NOT some kind of fantastic intended
anagrammatic conceit, but an inevitable consequence of the extraordinary
commonness of the letters h, u, e, w and s in English words.

Now, it MAY be that the unusual phenomenon of which Dr. Vendler claims
she could find no comparable example is not the mere presence of a lot
of h's, u's, e's, w's and s's in the lines of the sonnets, but rather
the presence in the lines of a sonnet of words providing letters with
which to anagrammatize one word which in the sonnet is especially
emphasized, as is *Hews* in Sonnet 20. So I checked  on that.  Noticing
that in Sonnet 91, the words "Horse" in line 4 and "Horses" in line 11
are both capitalized, and therefore, perhaps, important or significant,
I looked for "available letters (not words)" with which to anagrammatize
them, and - - eureka! - - found in each of the fourteen lines letters
which spell "horse"! In fact, in line 4, there is ANOTHER "horse" in
addition to the plainly spelled-out "horse" - - and over and above (or
perhaps behind) that, in both lines 4 and 11, which each contain the
un-anagrammatized horse, appear also the letters a-s-s (or, if you
prefer, a-r-s-e), bringing satisfying closure to the "horse" theme of
this Sonnet - - strangely ignored by Dr. Vendler.

One could go on like this forever (or at least through the 154 sonnets),
and, to tell the truth, I enjoy playing the games which Dr.  Vendler has
invented, although I do not think they add anything to our understanding
or appreciation of the Sonnets. Frinstance: I happen to think that the
word "Rose" has a special significance in the Sonnets.  The word
appears, capitalized and italicised, in the second line of the first
sonnet, and, always capitalized, in eight other sonnets (all this, of
course, in the Quarto text).  Now if, as Dr. Vendler suggests with
respect to "Hews," Shakespeare intentionally writes his sonnets using
words which supply letters designed to anagrammatize important words,
then maybe, using the Vendler approach, I can confirm the importance of
"Rose" by finding that the words in each line of Sonnet 1 contain
letters which lend themselves to spelling out this possibly important
word.  Sure enough, I find that letters available to form the word
"Rose" appear in every line of of Sonnet 1 (Quarto spelling; that word
in line 7 has to be spelled "aboundance"!), except line 6 - - but then,
as it turns out, there are TWO "roses" in line 9, so this gives us our
full complement of 14 roses (one for each line). Does this by itself
prove that I'm right about the significance of "Rose"?  I doubt it. And
maybe the words are not "Rose," but "Eros," or "sore."  In fine, it's
not likely that these anagrammatic diversions mean anything. So the
second thing which is dreadfully wrong in this approach is its
suggestion that lurking in the rearranged letters of the words of the
Sonnets, could they but be correctly read, are messages from William
Shakespeare: a "Sonnet Code," perhaps. If Dr. Vendler's book, which has
been so highly praised, countenances this approach, what shall we say to
those who find "Herbert Hoover" anagrammatized in line 9 of Sonnet 31?
What has happened to REAL (aka "old-fashioned") scholarship?

The third "dreadful error" is really not so dreadful. In the
above-quoted paragraph, Dr. Vendler writes that "*Hew* is climactic in
line 7 because it is the word by which the master/mistress controls
almost all the other lines." However, *Hews* is not that which controls,
but that which is controlled: the master/mistress, "a man in hew" has
"all *Hews* in HIS [emphasis supplied] controwling."

I leave this subject with the observation that Dr. Vendler makes similar
claims with respect to the significance of letters as letters in her
commentaries on other Sonnets (and I repeat that I have not read all of
her commentaries). She sees (perhaps only out of deference to her
"erudite copy-editor" (p. ix)) the word "car" anagrammatized in the
words "gRACious," "sACRed" and "tRACt" in other lines of the Sonnet. She
believes that the word "widdow" in the first line of Sonnet 9 fascinated
Shakespeare, which accounts for the existence in every line of that
Sonnet of w's, v's, or u,s, which letter she describes as being
mirror-images of themselves, and she calls Sonnet 9, which has a total
of 39 u's, v's and w's, a "Fantasy on the Letter W." What, then, is
Sonnet 48, which has a total of 40 u's, v's and w's?: why does not Dr.
Vendler note here the phenomenon which seemed so significant in Sonnet
9? And is counting letters, and their infinite possible permutations,
literary criticism?

Sounds, of course, receive attention. Of Sonnet 126, Dr. Vendler notes
its "extreme felicity of diction" - - the "extraordinarily dense texture
of alliteration and assonance joining almost every word to one or
several other words." This is a good description of one of the most
remarkable qualities of almost every one of Shakespeare's sonnets, and
both of his long poems: their mellifluousness.  In the commentary on
Sonnet 126, Dr. Vendler lists the words in the sonnet by their
consonants and vowels, to show their interrelations: "quietus," for
example, appears in the column of "k" words, of "i" words, of "e" words
and of "s" words - - which may, I suppose, afford some insight into the
liquid diction - - except that also to be considered is how the words
are placed in sentences vis-a-vis each other, for that is equally
important in determining with what felicity the lines roll off the
tongue.

The commentary on the sounds in Sonnet 109 contains a curious
misstatement: Dr. Vendler notes the existence of long A sounds in the
three quatrains of this sonnet (in the words: say, ranged, exchanged,
stain, reigned, stained), and writes that "only in the [concluding]
couplet is the 'stain' of long A . . . wholly absent, suggesting that it
has been removed by love . . . ." But long A in fact IS present in the
concluding couplet, in the word "save":

        "For nothing this wide Universe I call,
        Save thou my Rose, in it thou art my all."

(There's that pesky Rose again! Need I point out to those who have read
this far that although lines 2, 6, 7 and 9 of Sonnet 109 are devoid of
"Roses" formed by anagrams, the other ten lines have so many atomized
roses that, not even counting the capitalized Rose in the couplet, there
are in the Sonnet the requisite complement of fourteen roses, thus
proving . . . ?)

Well, I could go on, discussing, say, what appear to me to be the
inadequacies, both in concept and utility, of  "key words" (which is
what Dr. Vendler calls words which appear in each of the three quatrains
of a sonnet); the presumption of the identification of "defective key
words" (words which Dr. Vendler thinks should have been in a sonnet, but
which aren't), and the unhelpfulness of "couplet ties" (words in the
first 12 lines of a sonnet which are repeated in the concluding couplet
- - such as, for Sonnet 1, the one word, "world," which tells us
absolutely nothing about the theme(s) of Sonnet 1).  In some sonnets,
the "couplet tie" does encapsulate significant themes - -but in at least
as many others, it doesn't.

Noting in conclusion that the book does not have a subject index - - a
major defect in any scholarly work - - I shall here end this no doubt
too-long posting. It's New Year's Eve, and I see that in line 3 of
Sonnet 28 one can find the letters (but not the words) which spell out
Shakespeare's wish for all his devotees: Happie New Year!
 

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