The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets


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 ...

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Alastair Fowler
The rapid adumbration of Shakespeare's variety is as brilliant as anything Vendler has written. But in commening on each individual sonnet in turn, she surpasses herself, again and again making fresh observation familiar. In almost any other critic this would be a tour de force. But in her it is simply honest empiricism, free from any agenda but that of being receptive.
Times Literary Supplement
[Best of 1998 issue]

If you are a writer who still uses English words (rather than chockablock bricks of jargon), this is the book for you. Professor Vendler takes Shakespeare's sonnets one by one and word by word. She talks about what poems do and how they do it--their architecture, narrative, music, and language--so, along with the aper&#231us and sharp insights, there are nifty charts and graphs. There is also a CD of Vendler reading the sonnets aloud [available with the hardcover edition only], lest we forget that words are noise as well as ink
— Dave Hickey

Books in Review
[The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets] adds enormously to our understanding and prods us to continue to make our own discoveries…[It] grafts new feathers onto the wings of our understanding, lifting us closer to Heaven's gate, and it once more confirms Vendler's status as one of the smartest critics around.
— Jay Ragoff
Boston Review
[The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets is] a heady journey into the sounds, structures, and strategies of the sonnets, led by a guide as perceptive and rigorously instructive as one could wish for...Anyone glancing at just a few of the essays will benefit from Vendler's microscopic examinations. To read the book from start to finish, however, is to receive a thorough education in how to look at a poem. One feels that when Shakespeare wrote the line, 'A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,' he hoped one day for a reader who would see in this image what Vendler sees: 'the emotionally labile contents of any sonnet as they preserve their mobility within the transparent walls of prescribed length, meter, and rhyme.' This outstanding work of criticism has made those walls and what lies behind them very clear.
— Robert Atwan
Boston Sunday Globe
This eagerly awaited work has been nine years coming, an understandable period considering the magnitude of Helen Vendler's project...In her valuable introduction, Vendler declares that the sonnets represent "the largest tract of unexamined Shakespearean lines left open to scrutiny." Readers like me, who thought they were relatively familiar with these poems, will discover just how unfamiliar their various sequences turn out to be…It is consistent with Vendler's total immersion in the sonnets that she has learned them all by heart, as an enabling means of support for the 'evidential' criticism--in which "instant and sufficient linguistic evidence" is produced to back up every critical remark--she so unfailingly and brilliantly practices.
— William H. Pritchard
Dallas Morning News
There is so much more to these sonnets than meets the eye, Vendler's insights into their poetics are more than useful: they are indispensable.
— Tom Mayo
Harvard Review
[A] magisterial work...[and] an invaluable contribution to the serious study of Shakespeare's sonnets by a preeminent critic of lyric poetry, widely viewed as the best close reader of poetry writing today.
— Michael Shinagel
London Review of Books
Helen Vendler's long study of the art of Shakespeare's Sonnets is that purely aesthetic study of poetic language in action...Reading it is like being offered a huge plate of oysters, or doing a Spot-the-Ball competition, or playing obsessively with a Rubik's Cube that always comes out right after the effort of following a tight technical argument...It is Vendler's supreme critical virtue that she can write from inside a poem, as if she is in the workshop witnessing its making...Again and again, I want to haul out examples of this supreme critical imagination at work, but it should be apparent that criticism of the Sonnets, and by extension, critical accounts of poetry, will never be the same again. This is an epic, innovatory study which ought to mark a new beginning for criticism.
— Tom Paulin
Los Angeles Times
Though intricate and technical, Vendler's analysis of the sonnets is never boring...Her meticulous structures of analysis are a gift: They quietly allow one's own interpretive faculty to rise. By clearing up all the mechanical obstacles to understanding, your own apprehension of the poem emerges whole, and you've only to recognize it...Vendler's myriad attentions to the minute patterning of words and sounds yield...mysterious glories. She diligently, even stringently, employs her technical surveys, and what emerges from beneath their grid is surprising, substantial, evanescent.
— Mona Simpson
New Republic
This book is a great achievement, the work of an author with an almost devout passion for good poems, a passion that the academy has not succeeded in killing.
— Frank Kermode
New York Review of Books
Helen Vendler...has produced here what is probably the least irrelevant and most critically illuminating of all extended commentaries on the Sonnets.
— John Bayley
New York Times
Reading the sonnets knowing that Ms. Vendler is about to have her say serves to sharpen your awareness of the poetry considerably. In fact, with her reading over your shoulder, so to speak, you see deeper into the poetry than ever before. Each essay forces you to reread the sonnet under discussion and come a little closer to understanding this guy Shakespeare in the poem.
— Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
New York Times Book Review
Helen Vendler discloses, with great patience and ingenuity, how similarly adequate to the perceived splendor and urgency of the sonnets are their rhetorical conventions, devices that "work" as multifariously for lyric poetry as the stage contrivances of the Elizabethan (and Jacobean) theater did for the plays...Vendler is confident that "the sonnets will remain intelligible, moving and beautiful to contemporary and future readers." They will, if such readers also read Vendler's book. For hers is the most intricately inquiring and ingeniously responding study of these poems yet to be undertaken...Hers will prove to be the most valuable critical performance in recent American literature on classic texts...The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets is an authentic act of contemporary criticism as well as a reading of the most cherished lyric poetry in the English language. It constitutes a ground of poetic apprehension that cannot be gainsaid, and it offers the opportunity to enjoy the art of poetry where we all agree it must be found, as one enjoys most what one understands best.
— Richard Howard
Philadelphia Inquirer
Vendler's careful and sympathetic examination of the poems' organizing principles (such as the 'strategies of unfolding' that Shakespeare uses to shift a sonnet's emotional terrain, sometimes repeatedly, as the poem proceeds) yields surprising insights...Vendler proposes that her book serve as a supplement to annotated texts such as the Penguin and the Yale editions, but she is probably selling herself short. Her volume is fuller than the Penguin, and more inviting than Stephen Booth's impressive but rather forbidding Yale edition. A reader who has never tried the sonnets in their entirety, or at least looked at them in college, would have no trouble with this engaging and enlightening edition.
— Gregory Feeley
The Guardian
A few pages of this marvelous study convince us that "no poet ever found more linguistic forms to replicate human responses than Shakespeare in the Sonnets."
Times Literary Supplement
The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets by Helen Vendler is a superb close reading of the sonnets one by one. It is also an invaluable master class on how to read a poem, how to attend to the patterns of sound within a poem, how to explore the way in which sense and sound combine in the sonnets.
— Colm Tóibín
Toronto Globe and Mail
[Featured in "The Globe 100" for 1998]

Vendler stresses Shakespeare's hyperconsciousness as a writer, a quality she seems to share. She approaches her detailed study with the utter scrupulousness of a true scholar, explicating the poems as poems. Her strict emphasis on poetics and her thoroughness separate her study from its predecessors.
— Philippa Sheppard

Washington Post
Vendler has lived with these works all her life, and spent much of the past nine years working on this hefty book. The result is more than a reliable guide, it is a portable critical encyclopedia...In short, this is just the book for anybody wishing to spend a little quality time with our greatest poet.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674637115
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/1997
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 696
  • Product dimensions: 6.84 (w) x 10.29 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

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

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Table of Contents

Conventions of Reference



Appendix 1: Key Words

Appendix 2: Defective Key Words

Words Consulted

Index of First Lines

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