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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: January ::
Re: The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets"
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0016  Monday, 5 January 1998.

[1]     From:   Laura Fargas <
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        Date:   Sunday, 4 Jan 1998 05:41:36 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0010  Re: The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets"

[2]     From:   Curtis Perry <
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        Date:   Monday, 05 Jan 1998 09:45:11 -0700 (MST)
        Subj:   The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Laura Fargas <
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Date:           Sunday, 4 Jan 1998 05:41:36 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 9.0010  Re: The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets"
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0010  Re: The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets"

Peter Herman wrote:

>  What bothers me most of all, however,
> is Vendler's utter disregard for history. Whether or not one is a new,
> middle, or old style historicist (I tend to align myself with the
> former), I think that we can pretty much agree that words have
> particular meanings in particular circumstances and eras (somehow, I
> think the line "I am tired of poets who are gay") would be interpreted
> to mean something very differently than what Yeats had in mind), but
> Vendler seems to think that she doesn't have to know any history.
> Certainly, her bibliography lacks any contextual works.

I can't comment on the book because I haven't yet been able to lay hands
on a copy; however, I do (or at least think I do) know enough about
Vendler's intention to say that Peter Herman's perception sounds correct
to me, but is also irrelevant to the project of this book, based on what
I have heard of Vendler's intentions, as articulated in lectures given
while it was being written and answers to questions I raised at those
lectures.

Thus, as I understood it, she was very much engaged in giving an
ahistorical close reading of the text; she was pre-eminently interested
in giving the sonnets a strictly textual, poetic reading, and one that
was more focused on the presence of a word in a poem than on the exact
nuance the word was meant to have at the moment of composition.
(Certainly we can debate whether her intended kind of close reading is
even theoretically possible, as well as whether she has pulled it off in
this book.)  She was interested in rhetorical devices, the realms of
discourse invoked or dragged into any one poem, the variations on theme
and the degree and manner of variation.   To say it more plainly, if she
had wanted to talk about shift or slippage in nuanced meanings over a
period of centuries, she would have done so; her omission to do so here
has to do with that subject being well outside the scope of her approach
to the sonnets in this book.

Moreover, that approach had a closely defined project which she called
"Reading for Difference" (in fact, I thought that was the intended title
of the book).  What she sought in each sonnet was the element that would
make it unique, that would *most* differentiate it from all other poems
ever written in English, including, most of all, from all of the other
sonnets.  Through that method, I had the impression she was seeking the
poet's compositional hand, attempting to penetrate to the decisions that
made each poem.  We don't (do we?) have foolscap or definitely
Shakespearean variora for any of the sonnets;  instead we have printers'
errors, which are not quite as good when one seeks the poet's intention.

Thus, again as I understood it from the lectures, the presence of
"usurer" in a sonnet would be interesting to her more for not being
"coiner" or "coneycatcher,"  having once entered the poem into the realm
of insult or corrective, rather than for the current state of the law or
public opinion on usury or any real-world usurers of the day, or the
precise denotative meaning of the word in current London usage.  Then
there is the rhetorical device of the ironic, funny, and homiletic
adjective "profitless" to think about, and cast around inside the same
poem for echoes/contrast. The object is to find the poet's mind *as*
poet, to find traces of the poem-building process.  Let me emphasize
that this could be an incorrect statement of her plan; this is my
impression.

This concept of "reading for difference" struck me as a fascinating
effort to bring to bear on so large a group of poems, known for
centuries in an accepted sequence that may or may not have any actual
relationship to the poet's design, the order in which they were written,
or the way in which they were transmitted to readers-there was talk
about the "sugar'd sonnets"  being circulated, but apparently not of how
many or how they were organized. (Correct me please, anyone who knows
better.)  I had the impression that Vendler was also seeking to take an
unworshipful and unromantic approach; I saw that one reviewer has said
she failed of this in failing to condemn any of the sonnets as stinkers,
but again, remembering that her intention was to read for 'difference,'
not 'goodness' or 'importance,' I think this objection misreads her
project.

The value, appropriateness, etc. of the project-and the degree to which
she altered her project in the finished book-are all valid questions,
but I don't mean to address them here.  I'm simply saying that Peter
Herman's perception of an ahistorical reading, even with respect to the
meanings of the words used, is a correct one, but that such was her
intention as I understood it. The complete absence of any contextual
works in her bibliography strongly suggests that she has adhered to this
intention, since the NYT review mentioned some eleven pages of
bibliography.  To suggest that Vendler has never consulted the OED is
...  well, highly implausible.  I mean, I would bet *large* sums of
genuine American currency against it.

Personally, I am looking forward very much to reading this book-
clearly, there will be plenty to chew on.  The issue one writer
addressed here-the use of h-u-e in one poem, whether as possibly encoded
meaning or as ruling sound permutations-is exactly the sort of thing I'm
interested in.  It is perfectly possible for a poet at work to think
that the current poem is mainly about two sounds of the letter 'o,' and
to subordinate content decisions in the poem to that aural obsession-the
way Picasso would say he had green indigestion and paint only green
things -- green oranges, green harlequins, green bulls-for a little
while.  The paintings might be awful, but the obsession with green was
served.  If that's the sort of thing Vendler has gone after in this
study, reading it is going to be fun.  I confess, I find the prospect of
diagrams daunting, but I struggled through them in the GREs and expect
I'll survive this exposure as well.

Laura Fargas

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Curtis Perry <
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Date:           Monday, 05 Jan 1998 09:45:11 -0700 (MST)
Subject:        The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets

Like others who have posted on Vendler's book, I've only read her
comments on about 20 of the sonnets.  I'll reserve judgment on the whole
until I've read more. I do find some of the ground-clearing in the
introduction reductive, however.  And nasty in one important instance,
which I'll quote: "Some feminist critics, mistaking lyric for a social
genre, have taken offense that the women who figure as _dramatis
personae_ within sonnet sequences are 'silenced,' meaning that they are
not allowed to expostulate or reply.  In that (mistaken) sense one would
have to see _all_ addressees in lyric as 'silenced' (God by George
Herbert, Robert Browning by E. B. Browning) since no addressee, in
normative lyric, is given a counter and equal voice responding to that
of the speaker" (19).

The reduction of feminist criticism to whining and taking offense seems
mean spirited here, and of a piece with Vendler's other published
attacks on feminist criticism.  But more importantly, this condescending
remark ignores the sophisticated arguments offered by Nancy Vickers and
others about the ways in which the Petrarchan sonnet sequence as a genre
thematizes the silencing of women. The point isn't simply that Laura
doesn't speak because she's not the speaker.  The point is that the
SPEAKER in Petrarch's sequence constantly harps on anxiety (in the use
of the Acteon myth, for example) about the way Laura's response might
disrupt him and his sequence. The speaker - in such an account - is
shown to use various strategies to distance the love object and defer
such disruption. This is part of what makes Petrarch's sonnets rich and
engaging as poetry; similar issues are taken up by Petrarch's many
imitators.

If you accept this reading, then it follows that the silencing of women
is part of the thematic content of the genre - not just some vulgar PC
invention that the overly-sensitive decide to get huffy about!  Even if
one does not accept the argument, it's certainly strong enough to
warrant direct and non-reductive engagement.  And I note that Vickers,
for one, does not even appear in Vendler's bibliography.
 

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