The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets
By Helen Vendler
(Harvard University Press, 672 pp., $35)
In 1978, when Stephen Booth published an edition of Shakespeare's sonnets—his dual purpose was to help the lay reader and to satisfy the expert—he made certain observations on the nature of his task. The common reader, he argued, simply isn't bothered by passages that stretch the understanding of the expert. Sometimes "a reader will see the speaker's point without understanding (or knowing that he has not understood and cannot in any usual sense understand) the sentence that makes the point." Booth is an expert with a passion for syntactical and semantic ambiguities and overlaps. The value of the sonnets, for him, is less what they seem to be plainly saying than what they can be found out to be surreptitiously adding to it. Sometimes they do this in ways that set up contradictions between the plain sense of what the poet is saying and the covert senses deriving from his virtuoso manipulations of language.
Although this situation is held to be generally true of all the sonnets, there are some that are especially challenging to the editor or the commentator. Booth's word for such a challenge is "a devil's puzzle," and such puzzles have been explained, or explained away, in dozens of different ways. Sometimes the interpretation of an entire sonnet is disputed—an obvious example would be Sonnet 94, "They that have pow'r to hurt, and will do none." More often the crux is a single line or quatrain. Booth happens to choose Sonnet 16 as his example of a devil's puzzle.
We had better have the whole sonnet before us, though the discussion turns mostly on the third quatrain, lines nine through twelve. It is necessary to add that the sonnet is a sort of follow-up on 15, "When I consider every thing that grows/Holds in perfection but a little moment," of which the lay person probably has no difficulty in following the sense: men are like plants, they flourish, fade, and die, but the poet will fight nature and time in an attempt to preserve in verse the beauty of his friend. Sonnet 16 then asks whether the youth shouldn't take a better way than this, and perpetuate his beauty more efficiently by marrying and having children, a course that the poet has advocated several times in the earlier sonnets:
But wherefore do not you a mightier way
Make war upon this bloody tyrant Time? And fortify yourself in your decay
With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?
Now stand you on the top of happy hours,
And many maiden gardens, yet unset
With virtuous wish would bear your living flowers,
Much liker than your painted counterfeit:
So should the lines of life that life repair
Which this time's pencil or my pupil pen
Neither in inward worth nor outward fair
Can make you live yourself in eyes of men.
To give away yourself keeps yourself still,
And you must live drawn by your own sweet skill.
A common reader, who in any case will not enjoy all 154 sonnets equally, might feel that he or she can here detect a clear enough thought that is not given very clear expression. This is a fault of Shakespeare's long since pointed out by Dr. Johnson: "It is incident to him to be now and then entangled with an unwieldy sentiment, which he cannot well express, and will not reject; he struggles with it a while, and if it continues stubborn, comprises it in such words as occur, and leaves it to be disentangled and resolved by those who have more leisure to bestow upon it."
Indeed, much arduous leisure has been bestowed on this sonnet. We have had three full-scale editions since Booth's, all expert, all good in their various ways, all having a lot to say about that quatrain. What are the "lines of life"? Lineage, offspring, lines on the hand as read by a palmist? Lines drawn by a portraitist? Booth points out that a reader might well understand "So should the lines of life that life repair" to mean "So should the lines of life which repair life," and the "Which" of the next line, forcing us to treat "that" as a demonstrative, though it cancels this interpretation, does not abolish it; it is hanging around there. Booth, in what I take to be the most brilliant of the commentaries, is keen to show how much is always hanging around. In this, though he is less cavalier and more explicit, he is a descendant of William Empson, who began his remarkable career by showing how much there was hanging around in the line "Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang." Naturally Empson had a go at the lines of life, pointing out, among much else, the ambiguity of the word "should."
There is just as much ingenious commentary on the "time's pencil" line, but it would be extravagant to go into that now. The question I am getting round to is, what kind of commentary has Helen Vendler provided? Her book is not an edition, though she makes some textual changes and observations. She accepts, for example, the old and (I think) unnecessary change of "he" to "she" in line 8 of Sonnet 41, and, not being an editor, she sees no need to defend the reading. The sonnet says that the speaker is not too hurt by the thought that his young man attracts the attentions of women:
Beauteous thou art, therefore to be assailed;
And when a woman woos, what woman's son
Will sourly leave her till he have prevailed?
Changing "he" to "she" seems sensible on the face of it, and the emendation was made in the eighteenth century; yet "he" may not be wrong. It could be making a slightly less expected and subtler point, namely that the woman's business may be to prevail upon the man to believe that he is doing the prevailing. One can't have both readings, and editors and commentators must make up their minds about such things. Here Vendler, normally a bold and independent spirit, has preferred what I suppose is the consensus view (though it is not Blakemore Evans's).
On other matters Vendler feels no need to choose between views, and the effect of this immunity is to distance her commentary from what common readers may think their natural or rightful interests.She does not speculate about the identity of the young man addressed in the first 126 sonnets, nor of the Dark Lady of sonnets 127-152. I myself see no reason why she should. The sequence involves a Young Man and a promiscuous Lady; these figures, erotically associated with the speaker of the sonnets, become erotically involved with one another. There is a story, a scandal allusively mentioned, and it has for a very long time seemed to hundreds of commentators that the story is incomplete unless one can identify the originals of the characters. Young Man and Dark Lady in themselves are not enough, being masks and not real people who have become involved, as masks hardly could, in an interestingly steamy threesome.
But modern scholars simply don't allow this. John Kerrigan, in his New Penguin edition, perfunctorily mentions some candidates for the role of Young Man: William Herbert, Henry Wriothesley, Willy Hughes, the boy actor invented by Oscar Wilde, and others with the initials H.W. or W.H. (Mr. W.H. is "the onlie begetter" to whom the book of the sonnets is dedicated); and Mary Litton, Lucy Negro, Emilia Lanier, and others for the Dark Lady. He adds that "none of this matters much," and Blakemore Evans in the New Cambridge edition refers all who care about the matter to the vast Variorum edition of Hyder Rollins, with its "awe-inspiring" list of candidates. Still, there are those, including the late A.L. Rowse, who have regarded the detection of the originals as essential to the study of the poems.(Rowse heavily backed Emilia Lanier.) Of course, those names are proposed only because something—in some cases, quite a lot—happens to be known about them on other grounds. And although Shakespeare's job ensured that he had contacts in aristocratic, theatrical, and what might be called bohemian circles, we know little about his social life; and it is more probable, after all, that any historical originals would be persons quite unknown to fame.
Clearly, there is here a divide between the interests of casual readers and the interests of professional readers. It appears that most people prefer to read biographies of authors rather than their works. They seem to have a prior and perfectly legitimate interest in personalities. But the professionals apply themselves to other issues, and the attitude of contemporary commentators and editors is reflected in what Kerrigan says. Or perhaps he is too gentle; to the professionals, none of this matters at all. I admit that this formula accurately expresses my own feelings.
Again, like most modern editors, Vendler is content to leave the sonnets in the order in which they were first published. The argument about Shakespeare's homosexuality or bisexuality is not her primary business. Still, she is more interested in it than Booth, allowing that both sequences, addressed to the man and to the woman, have sexual infatuation as their inescapable motive. Indeed, she has some strong words on this subject, offering the Freudian observation that the homosexual infatuation of the first part is subliminally linked, as it were, to the choice, in the second part, of a promiscuous woman (desiring "to be anchored in the bay where all men ride"). Yet as a rule Vendler avoids this kind of thing. Her main task is to deal with the sonnets as poems, in themselves; and she makes clear what this entails by remarking that "I do not regard as literary criticism any set of remarks about a poem which would be equally true of its paraphrasable propositional content."
Although she insists on elaborate occult ties that give the entire sequence order, Vendler treats the sonnets one by one, finding in each of them its own structure but also something that it shares with the rest—the trick of repeating in the couplet words, or variants of words (all counting as "Key Words"), which occur in all three preceding quatrains. Some will find the application of this principle, which she calls the "Couplet Tie," rather strained; it can sometimes depend on an assonance or even on an anagram. And the rules are such as to make it impossible for the commentator to lose: we are told that the absence of a key word is equally significant.
This formalistic approach ensures that Vendler's commentary, like Booth's, is addressed primarily to the scholar or the serious student. Her claims on their attention have no false modesty. She says of two very famous sonnets, 116 ("Let me not to the marriage of true minds") and 129 ("Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame") that their "moral substance has not been properly understood because they have not been described in formal terms." We are presumably to understand that now it will be.And she repeatedly makes plain her disagreements with her predecessors. Thus Booth is accused of being so concerned with his overlapping structures that he is satisfied to remain in contented irresolution rather than choose among interpretations; he makes "too ready a surrender to hermeneutic suspicion." No predecessor has paid proper attention to the sonnets as poems; and if Vendler can afford to be politely condemnatory throughout on the lucubrations of the admirable Booth, she has understandably little time for poem-avoiding psychological and gender criticism. Astonishingly (when one considers the vast bulk of commentary), she claims that the Shakespeare's sonnets have never had decent attention; only ten or fifteen of them have been given the full treatment by critics.
Obviously this is a book to be worked through, rather than simply read. Vendler remarks ruefully that "total immersion in the Sonnets ... is a mildly deranging experience to anyone," and this derangement, as well as conferring advantages, may take also a benignly paranoid form. She literally knows the sonnets by heart, and has worked on them for years, but even so she has to admit that she is occasionally baffled. In her introduction she actually prints a cento-sonnet, a sonnet that she has herself constructed from lines written by Shakespeare, in order to demonstrate that the real thing is different, this fake having "no structural coherence, no logical development."
This, I think, is not quite true. Vendler undervalues her own poem to enhance her praise of Shakespeare's. It seems worth saying that not all the sonnets are truly worth the attention that she declines to offer to her own. At moments she suggests agreement with this opinion by giving some poems rather scant attention. And sometimes, she says, she has "not been sure of the `game' of a given sonnet," but that there is a good game to be detected she is reasonably certain. She has too high an opinion of her poet's intelligence and skill to register a temporary lapse into the obvious, the vacuous, or the tedious.
It might have strengthened rather than weakened her book to have considered the possibility that some of the games are not worth the candle. Certainly there are poems here that contain lines that assault one's sight with a sudden glory: for instance, "Nativity, once in the main of light/Crawls to maturity." In such passages different discourses are mingled, and the result is the kind of thrill in which most readers delight. One gets it again in the lines that delighted Keats, the harvest sheaves "borne on the bier with white and bristly beard." Yet even Wordsworth, himself an indefatigable but sometimes fatiguing sonneteer, complained of a general "sameness" in the sequence, and by the time one reaches 108 ("What's new to speak, what now to register,/That may express my love, or thy dear merit?") one may be inclined to agree; though of this particular sonnet Vendler finds a lot to say, including the observation that it contains an "aural pun" on "wrinkles" and "ink." So she does not agree with Wordsworth, and goes to some trouble to refute the charge made by John Kerrigan, in his good Penguin edition, that Sonnet 105 is "dull" (it almost admits as much itself), saying that "the poem is one of Shakespeare's many witty defenses of the (apparently) invariant matter and form of the Sonnets."
It sometimes occurs to me that those of us who truly want to preserve Shakespeare's position of eminence (and there are people who in one way or another seek to dislodge him from it) would do well, now and then, to speak of his bad moments as well as of his good ones. He will do very well without bardolatry. Not that Vendler overtly practices anything of that vulgar kind. She has made a great effort to familiarize herself with the mind of an author whose resources she rightly assumes to be immense. It nowadays seems much to his credit that he was rarely interested, as some sonneteers were, in mere rhetorical decoration—a point she makes in her introduction and frequently in her commentary.
But let us go back to Sonnet 16 and see how Vendler deals with it. She devotes a long and ingenious essay to Sonnet 15, but she is briefer on its sequel, Sonnet 16, having almost nothing to say about the "lines of life" except that "lines" may be a pun on "loins." She spends more space on the argument that "ward, read backwards, yields draw," which is somehow held to explain the odd use of the word "drawn" for "procreative activity." There is a discrepancy, she argues, between the martial opening and the imagery of the maiden garden; perhaps, in this last of the sonnets urging procreation, "[t]he speaker may feel his biological arguments exhausted," or perhaps he has become so personally attached to the young man that he has lost interest in the desirability of his getting married. Still, the key words "your self" and "war (drawn, inward, outward)," together with "live" or its representatives "living, life" or perhaps even "flowers," occur just as they should in all three quatrains and then in the couplet. These preoccupations indicate the idiosyncrasy of Vendler's interests; little of what she says is anticipated by other commentators.
This method is employed consistently throughout, but I will give only a sample or two. Sonnet 20 ("A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted") is the one on which turns much of the argument about the author's sexuality. Vendler calls it a little myth of origin. Nature has made a beautiful woman but, falling in love with her creation, has added a penis to the model ("pricked thee out for women's pleasure"). She detects a number of dirty jokes (puns on "acquainted," lewd play on "one thing" and "no-thing") and says the key word is "woman." She finds it bizarre but true that the letters of the word "hews (hues)" appear in "as many lines as possible." Yet she says little about "master-mistress," although, according to Kerrigan, this "hint of eroticism flusters interpreters and drives them to extremes." While Blakemore Evans, in the New Cambridge edition, begins his long and learned note by remarking that the phrase "has probably generated more heat than any other in the Sonnets," it has not flustered Vendler. Booth stays very cool; for him the sexuality of the Sonnets is of the Sonnets only, and tells us nothing about the life of their author. Vendler does not believe this, but her commentary is cooler still. Her eye is fixed on the language of the poems, and on their occult structures.
Sonnet 42, like 40 and 41, is about the young man's having an affair with the poet's woman. Vendler makes the dubious point that since the youth is not called "thou" in the last five lines as he is in the first nine, a reduction in intimacy is being suggested. But he isn't called "you," either; and in any case the Elizabethan rules about tutoyer were never very firm. (Explain Artemidorus's warning to Caesar: "If thou beest not immortal, look about you.") This pronominal plot looks imaginary to me. Of course, the whole enterprise is very challenging; one isn't expected to believe everything.
One difficulty is that Vendler rarely gives expression to her undoubted love for these poems. In Sonnet 53, she mentions the topic of shadow and substance and its Platonic ancestry, but she never cries aloud with pleasure at the boldness of "millions" in the second line:
What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
And there is little sign of excitement in the treatment of Sonnet 65 ("How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,/Whose action is no stronger than a flower?") with its extraordinary legal intrusions; and nothing to explain why "that affable familiar ghost/Which nightly gulls him with intelligence" in Sonnet 86 is unforgettable. Instead we have learned observations: "The phonetically and grammatically tautological pun—`thou art all my art'—which conflates the copula and its predicate noun...."
On "They that have pow'r to hurt, and will do none" (Sonnet 94), Vendler's comment concerns its structure (moving from the social to the vegetable). Sonnet 107, which includes the famous line "The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured," is praised for its Latinity and its etymological puns; it is not this commentator's business to discuss who or what the mortal moon was, though other critics think the mysterious allusion helps to make this one of the most difficult of the sonnets. Attempts on it are varied and numerous: the Spanish Armada with its crescent formation; the queen's climacteric (thought to occur at age 63, a dreaded multiple of seven and nine); an eclipse of the real moon in 1595; and so on. Rightly or wrongly, people want to know what had been prophesied ("And the sad augurs mock their own presage"), and what the reference to peace means ("And peace proclaims olives of endless age"). Of course they can look elsewhere, and it could be maintained that in any case they will not find a secure answer.
The discussion of the famous Sonnet 116 ("Let me not to the marriage of true minds") turns on the argument that it is written in reply to the young man, who has been saying, more or less, "For my part I have to admit the possibility of impediment to the marriage of true minds," and we are advised to read it so: "Let me not.... Love is not love," and so on. He has been employing a disingenuous "utilitarian rhetoric" to make this deplorable case that love does alter, and can be removed with the remover. Now he is being corrected. This "reinscription" idea may seem plausible enough in the context of a series of bitter sonnets of betrayal, but surely it is, in the end, merely a fancy, not to be proposed as the master reading. There is an interesting comment on the difficult 121 ("'Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed"), though it seems questionable that this first line exhibits "moral desperation"; I have always taken it to be sour and resigned. But Vendler is always explicit, and it is easy to disagree.
The Dark Lady sequence starts with 127, and Vendler likes it less than 1-126, but it is possible—indeed, I find it easy—to prefer it. Still, she gives these poems the full treatment. She is very good on 128 as a sexual jeu d'esprit, and on "Th'expense of spirit" (129). She seems to miss the tone of 130 ("My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun") and spends her space warning against a palpable misreading that few will make. Sonnet 138 ("When my love swears that she is made of truth") is a wonderful poem, more resigned than bitter; the speaker is a clever man trapped in an affair that calls for fantasies and lies that he is by now too weary or too disgusted to enjoy. (We would think the lover on the downslope of age, but the first version of the poem appeared in 1599, when Shakespeare was 35. Perhaps that was the downslope.)
Sonnet 144 ("Two loves I have, of comfort and despair") makes a point of what Kerrigan calls "intricate bawdry," calling for more explanation by editorial commentators than it is part of Vendler's program to provide. Another puzzler is the remarkable 151 ("Love is too young to know what conscience is"). Vendler, here following Booth, who is learned on dirty words, finds a genital pun in "conscience." (Can this be what Hamlet meant when he said "conscience doth make cowards of us all"?) Of course this poem does depend on its double meanings. Of the grim 152 ("In loving thee thou know'st I am forsworn,/ But thou art twice forsworn to me love swearing"), Vendler admirably remarks that "the reader admires the clarity of mind that can so anatomize sexual obsession while still in its grip, that can so acquiesce in humiliation while inspecting its own arousal...."
This book is a great achievement, the work of an author with an almost devout passion for good poems, a passion that the academy has not succeeded in killing. Vendler insists that her purposes are aesthetic, often enough saying that her predecessors' were not, yet her book is deliberately dry and, for some readers at any rate, fearsomely technical. Ideally, it should not be used until one has worked with Booth or, better, some more conventional editor. Blakemore Evans has the right kind of solid learning and the right desire to explain. As I write, a new Arden edition, by Katharine Duncan-Jones, is about to be published; Vendler salutes it in passing, and it will have the advantage of printing poem and comment on the same page. Like the others I have mentioned, and also the Ingram-Redpath edition of 1964/1978, it will no doubt cater to readers on the lower slopes as well as more practiced climbers, for whom alone this devoted and expert commentary is intended.
Frank Kermode is the author or editor of more than 60 books. His most recent work is Concerning E.M. Forster.