Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Form and Meaning in Lyric Poetry

Cover of The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets by Helen Vendler.
The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets by Helen Vendler.

I’m just reading Helen Vendler’s The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Amazon affiliate link). I think she is my favourite interpreter of poetry, and this might be her greatest work. Every page is revelatory.

One of her major themes is that a consideration of ‘form’ in lyric poetry is vital for a full understanding of the poet’s expression: ‘A set of remarks on a poem which would be equally true of a prose paraphrase of that poem is not, by my standards, interpretation at all.’ (Helen Vendler, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Introduction, note 5, page 40).

Vendler demonstrates that lyric poetry of the type represented by these sonnets has very little of interest to impart if we concentrate purely on the propositional ‘meaning’ on the surface:

‘I have insomnia because I am far away from you’ is the gist of one sonnet; ‘Even though Nature wishes to prolong your life, Time will eventually demand that she render you to death,’ is the ‘meaning’ of another. These are not taxing or original ideas, any more than other lyric ‘meanings’ (‘My love is like a rose’, ‘London in the quiet of dawn is as beautiful as any rural scene,’ etc.). Very few lyrics offer the sort of philosophical depth that stimulates meaning-seekers in long, complex, and self-contradicting texts like Shakespeare’s plays or Dostoevsky’s novels.

Vendler goes on to discuss how the poem’s ‘linguistic strategies’ need to be taken into account to yield a comprehensive interpretation of lyric poetry.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet form

The 14-line sonnet form as worked out by Shakespeare in his collection of sonnets consists of four parts: three four-line ‘quatrains’ and one ending ‘couplet’. As Vendler illustrates, Shakespeare (in a totally new way) manipulates the relations between these four parts, putting them in a wide range of logical relationships with each other.

Sometimes the parts are successive and equal, sometimes they contrast with each other, sometimes they’re analogous, at other times logically contradictory. The four ‘pieces’ of any given sonnet may also be distinguished from one another by changes of agency (‘I do this; you do that’), of rhetorical address (‘O muse’; ‘O beloved’), of grammatical form (a set of nouns in one quatrain, a set of adjectives in another), or of discursive texture (as the descriptive changes to the philosophical), or of speech act (as denunciation changes to exhortation). Each of these has its own poetic import and effect.

What Vendler demonstrates is that these formal features represent an ‘inner emotional dynamic’, as the fictive speaker of the Sonnets ‘sees more’, ‘changes his mind’, ‘passes from description to analysis’ and so on. In other words, these formal devices are ‘designed to match what he is recording – the permutations of emotional response’.

I found these perceptions invaluable in appreciating the extraordinary range of expression in Shakespeare’s Sonnets. There seems to be an inexhaustible energy of creativity behind them, and once you take into account the ways that the formal and propositional elements interact to create wider perspectives of meaning, the true nature of Shakespeare’s genius emerges.

I wonder if this also accounts for the experience I had while reading through the complete sonnets in sequence – which I can only describe by saying that I fell in love with them. Reading Vendler’s analysis this makes total sense. Shakespeare’s Sonnets enact the emotional/logical confusion, perplexing variety and breadth of vision that accompanies love itself.

As Vendler asserts, ‘no poet has ever found more linguistic forms by which to replicate human responses than Shakespeare in the Sonnets’.


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