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The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets



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Harvard Univ Pr
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Helen Vendler, widely regarded as our most accomplished interpreter of poetry, here serves as an incomparable guide to some of the best-loved poems in the English language. In detailed commentaries on Shakespeare's 154 sonnets, Vendler reveals previously unperceived imaginative and stylistic features of the poems, pointing out not only new levels of import in particular lines, but also the ways in which the four parts of each sonnet work together to enact emotion and create dynamic effect. The commentaries--presented alongside the original and modernized texts--offer fresh perspectives on the individual poems, and, taken together, provide a full picture of Shakespeare's techniques as a working poet. With the help of Vendler's acute eye, we gain an appreciation of "Shakespeare's elated variety of invention, his ironic capacity, his astonishing refinement of technique, and, above all, the reach of his skeptical imaginative intent." Vendler's understanding of the sonnets informs her readings on an accompanying compact disk, which is bound with the book. This recorded presentation of a selection of the poems, in giving aural form to Shakespeare's words, heightens our awareness of voice in lyric, and adds the dimension of sound to poems too often registered merely as written words.

Author Biography

Helen Vendler is A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University.

Table of Contents

Conventions of Referencep. xiii
Introductionp. 1
The Sonnetsp. 43
Key Wordsp. 653
Defective Key Wordsp. 655
Works Consultedp. 657
Index of First Linesp. 669
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.



When God saw his creatures, he commanded them to increase and multiply. Shakespeare, in this first sonnet of the sequence, suggests we have internalized the paradisal command in an aestheticized form: From fairest creatures we desire increase. The sonnet begins, so to speak, in the desire for an Eden where beauty's rose will never die; but the fall quickly arrives with decease (where we expect, by parallel with increase, the milder decrease). Unless the young man pities the world, and consents to his own increase, even a successively self-renewing Eden is unavailable.

Here we first meet the Shakespearean speaker, and begin to be acquainted with his range of tones. He can speak philosophically, or rise to an urgent vocative, or can turn to a diction drawn from "common sense" (aphorisms, epigrams, proverbs, and biblical tags). All are in play throughout the sequence: the sorrowing disinterestedness of his philosophical voice, the increasingly interested passion of his direct address, and the pathos of his frequent invoking of common wisdom in the hope of persuading a recalcitrant addressee. The different rhetorical moments of this sonnet (generalizing reflection, reproach, injunction, prophecy) are permeable to one another's metaphors, so that the rose of philosophical reflection yields the bud of direct address, and the famine of address yields the glutton who, in epigram, eats the world's due. The reappearance of a previous metaphor in a moment of different rhetoricity makes us believe that behind all the speaker's instances of particular rhetorical usage there lies in his mind a storehouse or bank of fundamental images to be drawn on. We are thereby made to believe throughout the sequence in the sustained and real existential being of the speaker.

We are also educated in the speaker's culture--here, in such stock figures as the medieval Rose of beauty, gluttony as one of the seven deadly sins, an allusion to Isaiah [32.5], the command from Genesis to increase and multiply, the dynastic obligation to produce heirs, and so on. Our education continues throughout the sequence, until the speaker's mind creates our own. With rare exceptions, the speaker draws on the common coin of his culture. It is not to his imagery in itself that an aesthetic inquiry must look, but rather to his juxtapositions that test one image against another for adequacy.

There are two distinguishing features in this originating (but perhaps late-composed) sonnet, both of which we might not expect in such a brief poem: the first is the sheer abundance of values, images, and concepts important in the sequence which are called into play, and the second is the number of significant words brought to our attention. Such a wide sweep leads me to think that the sonnet may have been deliberately composed late, as a "preface" to the others. The sonnet can be seen, in sum, as an index to the rest of the sonnets, or as a diapason of the notes of the sequence. A quick enumeration of values considered by the speaker as axiomatic and self-evidently good would include beauty, increase, inheritance, memory, light, abundance, sweetness, freshness, ornament, springtime, tenderness, and the world's rights. The salient images include fair creatures, the rose, bright eyes, flame and light, fuel, famine, abundance, foe, ornament, herald, spring, bud, burial, and (the oxymoronic) tender churl. The concepts--because Shakespeare's mind works by contrastive taxonomy--tend to be summoned in pairs: increase and decease, ripening and dying; beauty and immortality versus memory and inheritance; expansion and contraction; inner spirit (eyes) and outward show (bud); self-consumption and dispersal, famine and abundance, hoarding and waste; gluttony, debt. This sonnet is unusual in bringing into play such a plethora of conceptual material; it seems a self-conscious groundwork laid for the rest of an edifice. Words appearing here which will take on special resonance in the sequence are numerous: fair, beauty, ripe, time, tender, heir, bear, memory, bright, eyes, feed, light, flame, self substance, make, abundance, foe, sweet, cruel, world, fresh, ornament, spring, bud, bury, content, waste, pity, eat, due, and grave.

In short, we may say that this sonnet makes an aesthetic investment in profusion. Its indexing function for the sequence allows it to be seen as a packed bud from which many subsequent petals will spring. It is a sonnet that best bears rereading in the context of the sequence, when one is prepared to hear to the full the resonance of all its concepts, values, images, and words. Since its aesthetic display is intended to evoke profusion, the poem enacts its own reproach to the niggardliness it describes; as the heralding bud of the sequence, it displays the same potential for self-replicating increase as natural creatures. But Shakespeare will abandon this easy parallel between aesthetic and natural increase in favor of a different aesthetic, that of distillation. The style of profusion will soon alternate with a style of metaphysical wit and concentration.

Shakespeare's commitment to profusion in this sonnet is visible as well in the way in which two alternate readings, one inorganic and one organic, are given of the young man's refusal to breed: he is a candle contracted to the flame of his bright eyes; or he is a rose refusing to unfold his bud. The first symbolizes the refusal of the spirit; the second, the refusal of the flesh. The first creates famine; the second, waste. The juxtaposing of two incompatible categories--here, the inorganic and the organic--is one of Shakespeare's most reliable techniques for provoking thought in the reader. When two incompatible categories are combined in the same metaphor--"a candle which refuses to bud forth"--we say we have mixed metaphor, or catachresis, a figure which vigorously calls attention to itself. Shakespeare's use of metaphors from incompatible categories applied to the same object (here, the young man) does not immediately call attention to itself; it can pass almost unnoticed. Yet the candle-value (light and heat should be diffused as a social good, not consumed only by the candle) derives perhaps from a New Testament source (hiding one's light under a bushel), and is in any case parabolic and moral in import. But the organic metaphor (Thou . . . Within thine own bud buriest thy content), though offered as a moral reproach, suggests a weakness of a biological sort, such as we infer in a bud that does not blossom, perhaps because it cannot. Since neither of these metaphors, organic or inorganic, is drawn from the human realm, they both exist in dissonance with human metaphors like foe or glutton, the first suggesting self-war (by contrast to the self-nurturing implied in self-substantial fuel), the second self-cannibalism. As the poem glides from metaphor to metaphor, it "makes sense" on the argumentative level, while revealing, on the metaphorical level, the author's struggle through thickets of metaphor seeking relevant (if contradictory) categorizations of the young man's culpable inertia--which is alternately seen as a sin of omission (buriest) and a sin of commission (foe). The cognitive dissonance of the metaphors presses the reader into reflection; and this technique, recurrent throughout the sonnets, is the chief source of their intellectual provocativeness.

A willed profusion of the sort remarked in the diction and metaphors of the sonnet is also evident in the many speech-acts of the poem (the number here is greater than the norm in the sequence). An appeal to the consensus gentium ("we") is followed by an exemplum: as the riper should decease, his heir might bear his memory. With the rise of temperature always implicit in the turn to direct address, the rapidity of speech-acts increases with the vocative second quatrain: the little narrative (thou feed'st thy light's flame with self-substantial fuel) is succeeded by dependent paradoxes of famine in abundance and cruelty in sweetness. Praise has turned to reproach, and the two are combined in the oxymoron and paradox of the tender churl who makes waste in niggarding. An exhortation--Pity the world--is followed by a prophetic threat (or else). These speech-acts will be among those most frequent in the speaker's repertory throughout the sequence; in fact, we tend to define the speaker as one given to paradox, to exempla, to appeals to the consensus gentium, to volatile changes from praise to reproach, and to exhortation and prophecy. By showing us the speaker in many of his characteristic speech-acts, Shakespeare continues the display of profusion, initiates in us a further sense (beyond his fund of metaphors) of the speaker's typical behavior, and prepares us for the rest of the sequence.

If we take profusion as the aesthetic intent of the sonnet, we can justly ask whether the intent fails in any respect. An honest answer might be that the human alternatives offered by the logic of the sonnet ("breed or sin") seem incomplete when measured against the reaches of Shakespeare's imagination elsewhere. The narrowing of profusion to these bare alternatives makes the close of the sonnet purely conceptual and rhetorical, rather than truly imaginative. And these dynastic alternatives are not relevant to Shakespeare himself (who had already married and begotten children). The issue of a good poem must be urgent to the poet. When Shakespeare, after sonnet 17, abandons the dynastic question in favor of issues of mortality and corruption, his imagination can come fully into play.

Most of the sonnets lend themselves to more than one schematic representation. This one is no exception, but we may say that its primary structure seems to be as shown in the diagram. The unexpectedness of such a structure, in which the reproachful narrative of actuality (lines 5-12) straddles the octave and sestet, shows Shakespeare's inventiveness with respect to the continental sonnet structure. Many of Shakespeare's sonnets preserve (except for rhyme) the two-part structure of the Italian sonnet, in which the first eight lines are logically or metaphorically set against the last six. An octave-generalization will be followed by a particular sestet-application, an octave-question will be followed by a sestet-answer (or at least by a quatrain-answer before a summarizing couplet). In such poems, we can see to what an extent Shakespeare had internalized the two-part structure of so many of his predecessors, Italian, French, and English. On the other hand, he finds a strenuous pleasure in inventing as many ways as possible to construct a fourteen-line poem; and I think it is no accident that the first sonnet in his sequence avoids the two structures a reader might expect--the binary structure of the Italian sonnet, and the quatrains-in-parallel of the English sonnet. (The quatrains here are not parallel, since direct address does not appear until after the first-quatrain, which, unlike the other two quatrains, is phrased in the first person plural.)

Because the ghost of the Italian sonnet can be said to underlie all the sonnets in the sequence, a "shadow sonnet" often can be intuited behind the sonnet we are reading. To give only one example of how such a ghost is felt here, let us imagine a sonnet more equally balanced, in which the initial reproaches to the young man are followed by a sestet of positive exhortations: [So thou, fair youth, must bear an heir to be / An ornament, as thou wert, to the spring]. The place of such expectable lines of positive injunction is usurped, as it were, by the reiteration in [Q.sub.3] of the narrative of reproach already heard in [Q.sub.2]; and the "fact" of such usurpation is made evident by the tormented brevity of the single positive exhortation, Pity the world. The profusion so "normal" in this sonnet (as we have seen) is thus sharply prevented from exhibiting itself in positive terms at the close by the distorting "overabundance" of the narrative of reproach.

A confidence in the social norm of reproduction (from which the young man's deviancy is measured) exists, here as later, in tension with a confidence in the young man, so that even in the two small reproach-narratives, the terms of reproach (famine, waste) are preceded, as if involuntarily, by a rhetoric of praise. It is as though, before coming to the point, the speaker had to delay in wonder and admiration: "Thou--that art now the world's fresh ornament and only herald to the gaudy spring--buriest thy content." It is easy to imagine a more mitigated praise; but here the praise is unqualified, as though social morality might reproach, but not dim, beauty. If Shakespeare (and the social world linking the third quatrain and the couplet) are here the owners and deployers of judgmental language, the young man is the sovereign over descriptive usage: he compels it to be beautiful, even when it is describing a sinner.

Copyright 1997 President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

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