Shakespeare's sonnets through an eminent scholar's eyes: provocation, nourishment

November 30, 1997|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Three minutes of patience, please. Shakespeare, who lived PTC from 1564 to 1616, wrote a total of 154 sonnets. A sonnet, every literate schoolchild knows, is a flexibly rigid form, always 14 lines long, of ancient origin.

In English, there are 10 syllables in each line (the wordy Italians like 11 and the unspeakably verbose French prefer 12). Each sonnet usually is in four quatrains and one couplet, which is to say, three four-line bits followed by a pair of lines.

Rhyme schemes are formal, though there are several models. The Shakespearean form (in which, you may be astonished to learn, Shakespeare wrote his) has two pairs of rhymes in each quatrain and the couplet rhymes on its own, yielding a rhyming pattern of abab; cdcd; efef; gg. Shakespearean lines are in iambic pentameter, which, of course, means that there are five ""feet," each one consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one.

OK. Got it?

Not all that daunting, unless you are one of those people who believe that poetry is a stream of words that gush out, in the manner of a cracked water main bubbling up to flood a city street.

Ordering back the tide of such streaming nonsense comes a work on Shakespeare's sonnets by Helen Vendler, one of the two or three most influential and feared critics of poetry in the English language. She is the doyenne of ""close reading" - informed and intricate feats of formal analysis of poetry. The book is ""The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets" (Belknap/Harvard University, 672 pages, plus an audio CD, $35).

Life's work

Vendler is a distinguished professor at Harvard and author of a shelf of books, mostly on contemporary poetry. She spent nine years on this volume, but in truth it is the work of an entire adult life. To begin this work, she memorized all 154 sonnets.

Vendler wrote the book for readers already familiar with Shakespeare and to some extent his sonnets, and recommends having other works at hand or in mind while reading hers. This may be superfluous, as Vendler offers translucent readings, clear, open, remarkably free of the cant and clutter of much academic writing. Beyond that, her book could be exciting and nourishing for a reader with no background in Shakespeare but a healthy appetite for fine and lovely writing.

The primary emphasis in most of Vendler's criticism, and almost entirely in this work, is on the architecture and mechanics of poetry - form, stylistics, syntax, word choice, grammar.

She rejects and ridicules critical and analytic delvings into underlying, usually unintended, messages of politics, morality, social and historical programmatic values. She tends to dismiss as trivial work that is autobiographical or self-concerned.

There is great intelligence and integrity in her unbridled contempt for the tendency among many academics these days to contort every work of art into a political or social polemic: Multiculturism has produced the most virulent anti-intellectual propagandas in modern cultural history.

"A coherent psychological account of the Sonnets," she writes, "is what the Sonnets exist to frustrate. They do not fully reward psychological criticism (or gender criticism . . .) any more than they do political criticism."

Amen.

But the offset in Vendler's work is that her analyses sometimes seem cold, devoid of humanism and passion.

The most provocative example of that, doubtless, is in that she does not reject the common observation that the first 126 sonnets concern ""a young man, and the rest . . . a dark-haired and dark-eyed woman." But she keeps Willie straight.

Vendler insists, and backs her conclusion with vastly detailed analysis, that although the controlling motive of the second, woman-directed, set of sonnets is sexual, the poems directed to the young man are driven by ""entirely an infatuation of the eye," not sexuality. She insists that "Shakespeare was, after all, a man subdued to the aesthetic."

This is a slap in the face, of course, to the currently popular notion that Shakespeare was homosexual, and that his work celebrated homosexuality.

No riot threat

This interpretation is not confronted that directly, of course. And such delicacy pervades most of the book.

The analyses are very thorough, clear, but will send no one

screaming naked into the snow.

It is doubtful that even the most dutiful will work straight through the bulk of the individual commentaries. Nor does Vendler intend anyone to. But to read the first few and then, informed by their elaborate intent and erudition, to skip to the later sonnets - favorites I should think, or the most celebrated ones - is to be made to consider a great deal.

On the compact disc that comes with the book, Vendler reads 65 of the sonnets. Her delivery is not lyrical. Listening, her reading seems sweet at first, and then begins to go flat. What she brings is precision of phrasing, but it sounds more like very formal prose than poetry or music. The lyrics are seldom lyrical.

But then the sonnets are all of such glorious language that simply to listen, without resolute attention (which would probably incense Vendler), is pleasant, pleasing, somehow nourishing. It drove me back to read more commentaries and, informed and fueled, to reach out for understandings of my own.

Much that Vendler lays out, I believe, almost certainly was not in William Shakespeare's consciousness. But her demanding examinations do make you think, consider. And to stretch your awareness is to grow, in understanding of the work and of poetry in general. All Good Things.

For those acomplishments - and incomparable scholarship - it is an enduringly valuable and nourishing book.

Pub Date: 11/30/97

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