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The Art of The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

by Mark K. Anderson

This article was first published in the Spring 1998 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.

A few years ago, I interviewed a feminist scholar who always kept extra soft-soled shoes at hand when she watched TV. That way, she said, she always had retaliatory options within reach whenever something or someone particularly annoying or offensive appeared on her set.

Undoubtedly, throwing footwear at one’s television may not be the ideal means to achieve positive social change. But there is one advantage to her system for those of us who haven’t yet embraced television’s interactive future. Namely, she at least has the opportunity to vent, while the rest of us are merely left to stew.

In the time since our interview, I can’t say that I’ve adopted the cultural studies professor’s unusual video viewing policy. But I do sometimes think of her when the image of, say, Sen. Jesse Helms or Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas appears on the evening news. (A few times I’ve been tempted to shout, “Duck!” to the unsuspecting newscaster in the line of fire.)

There is at least one subject, though, where one’s natural desire to search for the truth–whatever it may be–combined with the shamelessness and chicanery of the field’s many expertise-dispensing professionals occasionally has me reaching for the nearest unused sneaker or bedroom slipper.

Indeed, witnessing the recent critical fawning over Prof. Helen Vendler (whom The New York Times has called the “enemy of seeking moral messages or biographical allusions in poetry”) and her 1997 tome The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets can be summarized for me in four words: My countenance shakes shoes.

The problem is, for those who haven’t yet bothered to explore Vendler’s tangled web, pursuing her many critical pronouncements and pontifications can be downright exhausting. (And for the present essay, I’ll only be considering her introductory remarks and not her equally audacious commentary on the individual sonnets.) I ran out of footwear in the section “Conventions of Reference.” That’s before the Introduction, even. When the pages are still counted in roman numerals.

As Hotspur might say: ‘Zounds!”

Vendler begins her critical journey into the author’s poetic memoirs with an observation:

“Though many of the Sonnets play (often in blasphemous or subversive ways) with ideas central to their culture, I assume that a poem is not an essay, and that its paraphrasable propositional content is merely the jumping-off place for its real work. As I say in my Introduction, I do not regard as literary criticism any set of remarks about a poem which would be equally true of its paraphrasable propositional content.” (xiii)

Thus, in two sentences, she has effectively shut off any discussion of thematic meaning, let alone authorial self-revelation. To suggest that the latter can be found anywhere in the Sonnets is, to Vendler’s estimation, preposterous. Or at least it’s beneath those who appreciate Art with a capital “A.”

“Any treatment of the Sonnets that focuses chiefly on their themes loses almost all of their aesthetic richness,” she alleges. (7)

The unspoken caveat, of course, is that the above is only true so long as one stands by the dewy banks of the Avon river, pondering the ripples and eddies as the poet surely must have done four centuries ago. However, once one steps away from Stratford and trusts the works rather than The Birthplace, the “aesthetic richness” that Prof. Vendler so doggedly pursues through 650 pages of charts, graphs, word games and play-by-play analyses appears almost as a by-product. The art is there and in abundance. No weather maps or macroeconomic diagrams are needed. Just a real, live author.

Curiously, as with another Lear-like Shaxperotician, Harold Bloom, Vendler is acutely aware of her own conundrum. And sometimes she’s too damned astute for her own good.

One of the reasons she is recognized as such a penetrating and perceptive commentator on poetry is her remarkable ability to dissect a poem like a medical student with a cadaver. She finds the liver, kidneys and intestines with great skill and dexterity. She can probe the brain’s functions, at least to the extent that one can learn about animate matter from the inanimate. But no matter how vast her knowledge of anatomy and no matter how swift she is with a scalpel, she still can’t bring that corpus to life.

She admits as much, too, although I’m sure she’d never admit that she admits it. “A psychological view of the Sonnets (whether psychoanalytically oriented or not) stresses motivation, will and other characterological [sic] features, and above all needs a story on which to hang motivation,” she writes in her Introduction. “The ‘story’ of the Sonnets continues to fascinate readers, but lyric is both more and less than story. And, in any case, the story of the Sonnets will always exhibit those ‘gaps’ and that ‘indeterminacy’ … intrinsic to the sonnet sequence as a genre. A coherent psychological account of the Sonnets is what the Sonnets exist to frustrate.” (3)

Not only does she have to state that her reading cannot bring a coherent narrative to the poems–an enterprise that generations of Shaxperoticians have only undertaken with marginal, if any, success–but she then hypothesizes without any justification that the author created his poetic series in part for the perverse purpose of confounding his readers! The motive of the author is unknowable, she says, because one of the author’s overriding motives was to obfuscate his motive.

“[I]t does no good to act as if these lyrics were either a novel or a documentary of a lived life,” she asserts, again without reason or probable cause. (2)

As she does when she writes, “[C]ontent by itself (as it is usually defined) cannot possibly be the guide at work in determining the author’s choice of words and syntactic features.” (xiv)

Or when she states, “Lyric poetry, especially highly conventionalized lyric of the sort represented by the Sonnets, has almost no significant freight of ‘meaning’ at all, in our ordinary sense of the word.” (13)

New York humorist Fran Lebowitz once described a certain well-heeled set of her friends from Southern California with the priceless four-word description, “Their tan is audible.”

Well, if suntans can be carried across telephone wires, it’s a small stretch to suppose the 12-point Garamond typeface that carries Vendler’s pronouncements must have been blessed with a holy oil of critical incantations.

To mangle a phrase first uttered by Vendler’s Shakespearean counterpart: Reason not the need; need not the reason.

The Invisible Man

Concessions come in fancy packages in The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Vendler knows there’s a storyline to be found uniting the sonnets and making them a single text, not 154 separate poetic exercises and quill-waggings. Here’s the closest she comes to admitting as much, however:

“Still, there is a factual minimum account of Shakespeare’s compositional acts in any given poem on which all readers of a text must agree.” (14)

Untie the ribbon and unwrap the shiny paper, and you might have something to ponder. It’s a sad commentary on the state of Shaxperotics today, however, that Vendler not only has to bury her admission, but she then goes nowhere with the observation.

Just as quickly as she reminds the reader that, yes, the author of the Sonnets may have actually been trying to convey something more than a series of disjointed musings, she returns to whittling the knotty dogwood of Stratford town. The reader is told again and again about the “fictive speaker” of the Sonnets as if it were a fact of history, not the artful dodge that it has always been.

The extent that Vendler relies on the fictionality of the Sonnets’ narrator, in fact, is in itself an admission: Try as she may to swat the pesky author away from his writings, he continues to leave his fingerprints everywhere. So, in the one work in the Shakespeare canon where there are no fictional characters or mythological topoi to hide behind, she has to invent a fiction.

What’s most frustrating of all is that she is so clearly adept at wielding her scalpel. Not for convenient evasions or unbecoming denials is she known today as perhaps the nation’s most revered and even feared poetry critic. Yet convenient evasions and unbecoming denials would be my briefest paraphrase of the propositional content of The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets’ Introduction.

Like her eloquent admonitions against seeking out storyline in the Sonnets, the fiction of the fictive speaker first appears before the reader fully vested–and, of course, without any introduction–in the book’s Conventions of Reference section.

“When I refer to ‘Shakespeare,’ I mean the author who invented the text spoken by the fictive speaker, and who structured and ornamented that text for his own aesthetic ends,” she writes. “‘Shakespeare’ stands always in an ironic relation to the fictive speaker, since the written poem exists on a plane other than the temporal ‘now’ of the imagined speaker’s moment.” (xii-xiii)

That there’s irony to be found in abundance is clear. But I’m not so sure it’s the author of the Sonnets who’s standing in ironic relation to the supposed fictive speaker. The author of The Art may be a more proximate source.

To Vendler’s credit, she also quotes one of the most fluent critics of critics in literary history. A selection from Alexander Pope’s letter to Joseph Addison, warning about the “underlying auxiliars to the difficulty of work,” begins her Introduction to The Art.

In his famous “Essay on Criticism,” Pope deftly calls out for the ideal literary critick — as his age spelled it. The qualities he seeks highlight perfectly what is so lacking in the world of the Stratford paradigm today:

But where’s the Man, who Counsel can bestow,
Still pleas’d to teach, and yet not proud to know?
Unbiass’d, or by Favour or by Spite;
Not dully prepossest, nor blindly right;
Tho’ Learn’d, well-bred; and tho’ well-bred, sincere;
Modestly bold, and Humanly severe?
Who to a Friend his Faults can freely show,
And gladly praise the Merit of a Foe?
Blest with a Taste exact, yet unconfin’d;
A Knowledge both of Books and Human kind;
Gen’rous Converse; a Soul exempt from Pride;
And Love to Praise, with Reason on his Side?

Where is she indeed?

“As I see it,” Vendler writes, “the poet’s duty is to create aesthetically convincing representations of feelings felt and thoughts thought.” (16)

In Prof. Vendler’s aesthetics, it appears to be the duty of the critick to deny those feelings and thoughts to the last syllable of recorded time.

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