In The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Helen Vendler takes for granted a “homosexual infatuation consummated in the eye’s intercourse with an image” in the boy sonnets and “heterosexual infatuation completed in the penis’ intercourse within the bay where all men ride” in the dark-lady poems; and specified that the two “are so characteristically present together in Shakespeare’s speaker, it seems at first extraordinary that they should have been euphemized by so many observers into traditional friendship and conventional (if adulterous) heterosexual practice. But unlike Duncan-Jones, Vendler does not attribute this euphemizing to personal nervousness on the part of previous critics or to a desire to exonerate Shakespeare.

In its place “the reason these passions were susceptible to such euphemizing is that the feelings attached to fetishistic or anomalous sexual attraction are equal to the feelings attached to more conventional sexual practice, and it is essential feelings, not love-objects, which are traced in lyric. ” Thus it does not matter a great deal to whom “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? was addressed. “The poet’s duty is to create aesthetically convincing representations of feelings felt and thoughts thought. … Whether or not we believe that such should have been the speaker’s feelings and thoughts is entirely irrelevant to the aesthetic success of the poem. ”

Certainly “meaning” is irrelevant: “the wish of interpreters of poems to arrive at something they call ‘meaning’ seems to me misguided. ” in what then “does the charm of lyric lie? ” in “‘the arrangement of statement. form is content-as-arranged; content is form-as-deployed. ” True to these principles, Vendler goes on to elaborate formal commentary on the sonnets, complete with diagrams (which I found distracting–the appropriate medium of criticism is language). She attempts “to see the chief aesthetic ‘game’ being played in each sonnet,” and she catalogues numerous strategies that repeat themselves. One is “self-correction,” of which sonnet 73 (“That time of year thou mayst in me behold”) affords an instance.

The first two images of old age (in the first two stanzas) she describes as “linear”– the fading of autumn into winter and twilight into night. The third (third stanza) is “a stratified image”: old age is the glowing of fire upon the ashes of youth. “How did this change of mind take place–the discovery of an elan vital within the ruin, of a steady heat in the twilight? ” In replying that question Vendler does in fact discover meaning, but not meaning reducible to paraphrasable content; rather it inheres in the ordering of the three quatrains.

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The linear quatrains (simply by virtue of being linear) are nostalgic; they presuppose a happy youth (the “sweet birds” of stanza 1) prior to the decline of age. The stratified, spatial picture reduces youth to ashes and superimposes the glowing of age upon it. “Once it is admitted that youth wanes, it is clear that the only locus of true life is the present, which can now honestly be called by a positive name, glowing. That is smart analysis, which proves in practice the worth of Vendler’s critical principles (and Vendler does not rely in this case on diagrams). Vendler has given a far more stylish (which is to say more genuinely literary) edition of the sonnets than Katherine Duncan-Jones’s, one which by rising above “meaning” as extractable content (and therefore above such subpoetic concerns as the nature of Shakespeare’s personal relations to his “love objects”) shows us how the sonnets, as sonnets, mean.

But Vendler’s rigorous formalism involves certain limitations, and her analysis of sonnet 551 (to return to our example) demonstrates these. She recognizes, as Duncan-Jones does not appear to, that the doctrine of the resurrection of the body is of basic importance to the poem; and she makes full allowance for the Christian meaning of “your self arise”– the couplet assigns “‘real’ living to the day of the Last Judgment, when certainly all shall be raised incorruptible. But Vendler’s concern is not with the implications of this reference for the speaker’s love for the youth, his claims for poetic immortality, much less for anything it may tell us of his religious studies; those would be extractable meanings. Instead she is concerned with how this “real living” serves to complete the form of the sonnet.


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