The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets

by Helen Vendler

Hardcover, 1998




Cambridge, Mass. [u.a.] : Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1998.


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 complete text of each poem, as printed in the 1609 edition and in a modernized version - 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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member lisanicholas
Vendler's discussion of Shakespeare's sonnets revolutionized my reading of sonnets, Shakespeare's and those of other poets. Brilliant!
LibraryThing member Caomhghin
It's undoubtedly a wonderful survey of the Sonnets. It is easy today to view poetry as some natural outgushing of emotion. Some verse is like this but you don't want to read that kind. Shakespeare was an artist and he worked in words. When it comes to emotions he examines, displays, analyses or even mocks them but all the while he is manipulating our reaction to language.

Vendler is particularly fine here in examing the sonnets as constructed works of art. Sometimes the manipulation is a way of displaying deeply felt emotion but at other times he is having fun with words - and very often he is doing both. He was well aware he was working in the sonnet sequence genre so he also manipulates the reader's expectations of that too. Vebndler is very acute in seeing to the full meaning of the poem, showing how Shakespeare is sometimes working within the traditional structures, and sometimes creating his own structures. She maps his meaning onto the structure sometimes even graphically. She shows the rhetorical, dramatic, psychological and verse structure. She sees a lot of the sonnets as a sort of one side of a conversation. Half of a dialogue where we are sometimes given the other speaker's words, sometimes have them summarised and sometimes have to guess at them from the poet's own words. Not that they are dramatic in any of the usual senses. Frequently they represent the poet trying to understand what is happening to him or trying to justify the beloved's behaviour.

Was Shakespeare really working out Baroque word constructions. Well yes. We have magnificent rhetorical creations. Vendler links the puns, couplet ties, rhyming words and all the other ways Shakespeare enriched his best poems.

Vendler not only makes her case for each example but links them with the language, the words he chooses and the part of the sonnet where he places them. Read the sonnet, then read Vendler and you will get so much greater riches from even the weakest of them.
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