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April 2010

Writing Well

Installment Twelve A:

Over Niagara Falls in an Inner Tube - or - A Vendleresque Analysis of
Shakespeare's Sonnet 116

Preface:

In my accompanying Installment Twelve in the Writing Well series, Through the Seven Levels of Ambiguity and Into the Secret Hiding Places of the Muse, I mention that Shakespeare’s sonnets (as opposed to his plays) were simply too complicated to use for our explorations into ambiguity, since most readers have trouble decoding the complex sense of even the “easiest” of the sonnets. I underlined my point by breaking the mildly pseudo-academic tone of that Writing Well essay by saying that Shakespeare’s sonnets “are an absolute bitch to decode and to understand.”

I’ll stand by that crude statement.

The following is a paraphrased analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 as taken apart and reassembled using the tools (and mind) of Helen Vendler.

Ms. Vendler, the author of The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1997), is the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University, where she has had a position since 1981.  Interestingly (at least, perhaps, for those who read the accompanying Writing Well essay about William Empson), although Ms. Vendler eventually earned her PhD in English and American Literature from Harvard, her A.B. from Emmanuel College was in chemistry and the Fulbright Fellowship that sent her to Harvard was for mathematics.

Besides being somewhat of an exercise in logical and mathematical thinking, Vendler’s form of analysis of the sonnets is also a wonderful example of the New Criticism’s type of “close reading.” I was trained a bit in close reading in the late 1960’s, before the cavalry charge of Theory – led by Derrida, DeMan, Foucault, et. al. – swept over everything in its way and occupied literary criticism for two generations and more while exiling the practice of close reading along with the very ideas of authorship or “meaning” in text.

I still love the discipline of close reading and use it constantly. But please note that I’ve chosen Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 for analysis below because it’s relatively “easy.” A few sonnets, such as Sonnet 94 – They that have pow’r to hurt, and will do none --  are of such definitively indecipherable multiply ambiguous hyper-complexity that no one – not even Helen Vendler – has returned from its swamps and thickets with full faculties intact.

Also please note that the misnumbering of Sonnet 116 below is an artifact of the Quarto which made the original mistake.

SONNET 116, THE 1609 QUARTO VERSION

119
(note -- all but one copy of the Quarto version got the number of the sonnet wrong)

 L

Et me not to the marriage of true mindes
Admit impediments,loue is not loue

Which alters when it alteration findes,
Or bends with the remouer to remoue.
O no,it is an euer fixed marke
That lookes on tempeſts and is neuer ſhaken;
It is the ſtar to euery wandring barke,
Whoſe worths vnknowne,although his higth be taken.
Lou's not Times foole,though roſie lips and cheeks
Within his bending ſickles compaſſe come,
Loue alters not with his breefe houres and weekes,
But beares it out euen to the edge of doome:
  If this be error and vpon me proued,
  I neuer writ,nor no man euer loued.

Sonnet 116 --Modernized Version

LET me not to the marriage of true minds

 

Admit impediments. Love is not love

 

Which alters when it alteration finds,

 

Or bends with the remover to remove:

 

O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,

         5

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

 

It is the star to every wandering bark,

 

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

 

Love ’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

 

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

  10

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

 

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

 

  If this be error, and upon me prov’d,

 

  I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.


 

Background on sonnets in general and Shakespeare's sonnets in particular:

Shakespeare came late to the sonnet form.. By the time Shakespeare's sonnets were published on May 20, 1609 -- seven years before Shakespeare's death and probably in a pirated edition by printer Thomas Thorpe -- interest in sonnets were already beginning to fade in Europe and England.

There's a new argument that Shakespeare oversaw the editing and publication of his sonnets, but the evidence is very flimsy. We know that he had circulated some of them privately, which was the habit of poets with such work. My own guess is that he had no part in the publication since he was still a working actor and playwright in 1609 and as open-minded as Jacobeans (and the Elizabethans before them) were about homosexual activity (King James I was recorded as "nibbling on the younge menne of the courte" even though he gave his wife ten kids) and about homoerotic poetry, sodomy was still illegal and a wide reading (or misreading) of poems meant only for the literary elite almost certainly would have embarrassed Shakespeare.

We have no recorded comment from Shakespeare on the published collection of his sonnets so we'll never know his true feelings about the book.

The classical Petrarchan sonnets had evolved into the two-part "modern" Italian sonnets but the English four-part sonnets -- three quatrains and a rhyming couplet -- were the type modified by Shakespeare. As sonnets expert Helen Vendler of Harvard writes  -- "The Shakespearean sonnet form, though not invented by Shakespeare, is manipulated by him in ways unknown to his predecessors. Because it has four parts -- three isomorphic ones (the quatrains) and one anomalous one (the couplets), it is far more flexible than the two-part Italian sonnet."

The Shakespearean sonnet as fields of force:

Vladimir Nabokov once wrote about the Russian chess masters he'd known (Nabokov himself was a chess master), that these few men didn't see the pieces on the chessboard as pieces with certain powers of movement or as symbols of people, but rather as fields of energy and calculated velocity.

This understanding of chess is similar to the physicist's modern view of the atom not as a bunch of billiard balls whirling around, but rather as a pulsing, expanding, and contracting series of force-fields.

Helen Vendler wrote -- "The speaker of Shakespeare's sonnets scorns the consolations of Christianity -- an afterlife in heaven for himself, a Christian resurrection of his body after death -- as fully as he refuses (except in a few sonnets) the learned adornment of classical references -- a staple of the continental sonnet."

The result was that the sonnets were, in Shakespeare's hands (and mind), a way of working questions and issues out. Rather than a fixed declaration or narrative device -- as he used sonnets at the end of Henry V, in Romeo and Juliet, and in his other plays -- the sonnet-cycle was fundamentally structured by an evolving inner emotional dynamic.

In other words, the Speaker -- who is not William Shakespeare unpacking his heart in words like a whore, but a fictional persona of the lone-thinker created by Shakespeare, reflecting Shakespeare's questions and thinking habits, but no more Shakespeare than one of his fictional characters such as Hamlet or Falstaff or Cleopatra --  is shown through the sonnets to "see more than before," "to change his mind," "to pass from description to analysis," to "move from negative refutation to positive refutation" -- all phrases from various sonnet scholars -- and more.

The important fact here is that a Shakespearean sonnet, more than any other form of verse known before him and perhaps after, was a system in constant motion, never immobile for more than an instant, and constructed with several subsystems -- which I think of rather like the pulsing forcefields of the electron in constant motion around the atom's nucleus (i.e. the questions being resolved) -- moving independently (but as a result of careful planning) within the whole.

So, if Vendler and her predecessors such as Dr. Johnson, William Hazlitt, Goethe, etc. are correct, the sonnets stand as a record of a mind (again, not simply Shakespeare's mind, but the mind of the persona Speaker he created as the voice of his sonnets) working out positions without the help of any classical pantheon or systematic doctrine.

Given this idea -- almost a visual schematic – Vendler explains that “we can see the first quatrain of each of his sonnets as a presentation of not one but a rapid succession of intellectual, emotional, or ideological positions.” But his movement amongst these positions is not random. Even in the sloppiest of his sonnets (and some of the earliest ones, including the ones in which he plays hidden word games on "hate" and "Hathaway," the name of his wife who was 9 years older than Shakespeare, are sloppy in comparison to his best sonnets) Shakespeare -- or more properly, his fictional Speaker -- gives us a wide epistemological field in which to play.

By the second quatrain, Vendler shows us, Shakespeare – working through his Speaker -- usually queries, challenges, contradicts, or subverts his first position or positions (along with subverting what scholars call his "discourse-field"). This is more than simple antithesis. At times in a single sonnet, there can be half a dozen or more warring positions, metaphors, emotions, or truth statements subverting and contradicting one another at once.

By the third quatrain, the Speaker (usually) advances to his subtlest and most comprehensive (and probably most truthful) position. Most other sonneteers saved the rhyming couplet that ends the sonnet for "resolution of the argument" -- more frequently through successful refutation than through declaration. But since Shakespeare used the third quatrain for such resolution, he was free to use the couplet as a coda -- and a coda, Vendler explains, “that can then stand any number of relationships: summarizing, ironic, expansive, even contradictory to the "final" conclusion in subtle and devastating ways.”

So thinking of a Shakespearean sonnet as a sort of four-part atom-smasher whirling to higher and higher energy levels in each compartment, we can also see the device as sort of funnel-shaped cyclotron or trigger mechanism for a fusion bomb-- narrowing in Q3 to a vortex of highly condensed perceptual and intellectual forces that will be either constricted further or expanded almost violently via the closing couplet.

The question of Shakespeare's sexual identity:

I wish I had a dollar for every time in the past few decades that a high-school English teacher or college professor before freshmen announced excitedly, titilatingly, (triumphantly!) that William Shakespeare was a "gay poet."

The happy certainty (professor-wise) is absolutely correct except for the fact that it's absolutely wrong. Whatever we wish to believe in our gender- and sexual-orientation-obsessed era, those who actually study Shakespeare well and deeply don't believe for a second that after hiding his true convictions on so many things -- war, politics, religion, sexuality, marriage, kingship, love -- through 36 and more plays, he would unpack his heart in words ("like a whore" -- Hamlet) in the sonnets.

Those stunted modernists who are so certain they've discovered another "gay poet" forget that although it's wrong to read the 154 sonnets as if they were a play or novel -- since the sonnets exist as small universes unto themselves as well as part of a larger whole -- they are fictional and dramatized scenarios, as are the Speaker, the Young Man, and the Dark Lady who people these explorations in thought and love.

So in the end, I agree with the Shakespearearean scholar Stephen Booth who went on record in 1977 saying -- "William Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual. The Sonnets provide no evidence on that matter."

More to the point of clearing our minds of cant before beginning our Vendleresque close reading of Sonnet 116 (yes, I will get to it sooner or later), we should remember that even if the "young man" sonnets were written to the young, pretty, and weirdly effeminate Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton (the "Hatchlands portrait" of whom was thought to be of a beautiful woman of the era until 2002), the sonnets still describe a visual sexual attraction felt by the Speaker toward the Young Man, not today's "gayness" idea of forms of male-to-male sexual activity.

As one scholar wrote --" Because two different causes of sexual passion -- homosexual infatuation consummated in the eye's intercourse with an image, and heterosexual infatuation consummated in the penis' intercourse within the ‘bay where all men ride’ --are so idiosyncratically present together in Shakespeare's speaker, it seems at first extraordinary that they should have been euphemized by so many commentators into conventional friendship and conventional (if adulterous) heterosexual practice."

Shakespeare (and not just his Speaker persona) insists in both the sonnets and most of his plays , such as Act III scene ii of The Merchant of Venice, that the eye is the chief sexual organ for human beings. So I'd suggest to all the joyously proclaiming high-school English teachers and college profs that they shouldn't mix Shakespeare's treatment of any sort of erotic attraction with our current era's obsession with sexual behavior and consummation.

Still, for those -- like the Victorians and other entire eras who rewrote the pronouns in the sonnets to banish even the spectre of homosexual love there -- we should remember how the Speaker speaks directly to the young man, in some pretty racy language, how disappointed he -- the Speaker  -- is about how Nature has prepared the Young Man for love --

But since she pricked thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love, and thy love's use their treasure.

(Note -- "their treasure," i.e. women's, not the Speaker's.)

As scholar Stanley Wells notes -- "If Shakespeare himself did not, in the fullest sense of the word, love a man, he certainly understood the feelings of those who do."

But I'd remind Wells that Shakespeare had already done that by getting so brilliantly into the minds of Juliet, Cleopatra, Ophelia, Rosalind, and so many other women characters in his plays.

(One final note here to retitilate the English teachers and their hoping-to-be-titilated students: the startlingly effeminate Wriothesley (almost rhymes with 'grizzly'), Lord Southampton, when he was 17 -- and although we know he later had a mistress -- broke his engagement to one Elizabeth de Vere, the daughter of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, and for declining to proceed with the marriage had to pay a "colossal forfeit" of 5,000 pounds, more than $6,000,000 in today's money. Young, pretty Wriothesley really didn't want to marry that woman.)

What We're Going to Do with the Poem:

Why analyze this sonnet  . . . or any sonnet?

Poet W.H. Auden answered this in the form of two questions in his The Dyer's Hand:

"The questions which interest me most when reading a poem are two. The first is technical: "Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work?" The second is, in the broadest sense, moral: "What kind of guy inhabits this poem? What is his notion of the good life or the good place? His notion of the Evil One? What does he conceal from the reader? What does he conceal even from himself?"

Auden, as would be true of any poet, understood that we can't answer the second question unless we first answer the first -- i.e. how the contraption works. (Although I don't think we're going to catch William Shakespeare off base in the sonnets so that he finally reveals what he's heretofore concealed "even from himself." It's far more likely that we'll find layers and levels of of emotions and thoughts that the Speaker in the poem, Shakespeare's surrogate, concealed from himself. His fictional-construct self. But odds are overwhelming -- in my estimate -- that if we're able to find those deeply hidden things "concealed even from himself," Shakespeare put them there for us to find . . . like a parent hiding Easter eggs for his children.)

Either way, we've come full circle to our attempt at Vendleresque close reading of Sonnet 116.

####

Sonnet 116 --Modernized Version

LET me not to the marriage of true minds

 

Admit impediments. Love is not love

 

Which alters when it alteration finds,

 

Or bends with the remover to remove:

 

O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,

         5

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

 

It is the star to every wandering bark,

 

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

 

Love ’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

 

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

  10

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

 

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

 

  If this be error, and upon me prov’d,

 

  I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.


 

What shall we do first?

A lot of people think that literary criticism carries unbearably grating jargon with it -- and, of course, it does -- but much of that jargon is the equivalent of a NASA scientist's or medical surgeon's professional vocabulary. That is, it's necessary to get the job done.

So let's grit our collective teeth and do it . . . let's interrogate the poem.

Poem, what are you?

Yes, yes, we see that you're a sonnet -- so that part of the contraption is understood, your bones and frame as it were -- but what are you?

What, you want multiple choice questions? (sigh)

All right -- are you a declaration and proclamation or rebuttal and refutation? Is your driving internal aesthetic positive-powered or negative-powered? Declare yourself.

I see . . . four hundred years of common folks' analysis and use of this lovely poem in their sermons and parental advice and love letters and wedding services (innocently not knowing it was written to a Young Man) say without a doubt that the poem is driven by positive energy and is both a proclamation and definition of true love.

Can four centuries  -- actually 401 years now -- of consensus be wrong?

It is if our close reading is correct.

The iambic prosody of the poem shows the pressure of rhetorical refutation running through it. It's not a positive proclamation for or happy definition of  . . . love or anything else it's discussing . . . but rather a series of rebuttals and refutations rising to a rather savage climax of negativity.

Prove it, you say?

OK, let's just read the thing closely and see if anything stands out.

Sonnet 116 --Modernized Version

LET me not to the marriage of true minds

 

Admit impediments. Love is not love

 

Which alters when it alteration finds,

 

Or bends with the remover to remove:

 

O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,

         5

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

 

It is the star to every wandering bark,

 

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

 

Love ’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

 

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

  10

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

 

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

 

  If this be error, and upon me prov’d,

 

  I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

 

Hmmm . . . one nor, two no's, two never's, and four not's in this sonnet. That's a whole lot of negative going on. How'd we miss it the first time through?

Of course, it is possible to make a positive definition of something by stressing all the things it's not, and there's some of that going on here, but the prevalence of negation in the poem is the sign that that this sonnet is not a definition, but rather a rebuttal.

A rebuttal of what, you ask?

Well, all  decent rebuttals, whether in a debate, in a courtroom, or in rhetoric, encapsulate the argument they refute. Let's assume that the sonnet is rebutting something the Young Man has said and punctuate the opening of the poem in terms of rebuttal -- specifically the emotional kind of rebuttal where the Speaker is going to repeat the dishonest discourse of his interlocutor -- in this case his beloved Young Man -- by mimicking it, even by quoting it directly --

LET me not to the marriage of true minds

 

Admit "impediments":Love is not love

 

Which "alters when it alteration finds,"

 

Or "bends with the remover to remove,"

 

O, no!

 

So the Young Man has been sending our Speaker vague talk about "altering and removing." What the hell is that about?!?

Well, anyone who's been dumped in a romantic relationship should recognize that hypocrisy. It's the old "I've been thinking . . . we've been getting sort of, I don't know, intense recently, and I think it'd be good for both of us if we took a little time off . . . you know, gave ourselves a little space . . ."

What???!!! screams the lover who's still in love . . . the dumpee. Space? Time alone??? Who wants space??  (The only space a true lover in love wants with the object of his love is negative space.)

The Young Man was from a more articulate age, so let's allow Helen Vendler to translate the embedded message that the Speaker was mimicking in the first quatrain's rebuttal into a more comprehensive (if only deduced) message from the Young Man. It probably went roughly as follows . . .

"You would like the marriage of minds to have the same permanence as the sacramental marriage of bodies. But this is unreasonable -- there are impediments to such constancy. After all, persons alter; and when one finds alteration, one is himself bound to alter as well; and also, people (or some qualities in them) leave, and one's love is bound to remove itself when the qualities of one's lovers remove. I did love you once, but you have altered, and so there is a natural alteration in me."

A sane lover would see the young man's reasonable speech as what it is -- a euphemistic screen for the Young Man's own infidelity. That is -- one's lover has clearly found someone else. But Shakespeare, more than any other human (except perhaps for Proust), has shown us just how and why no lover is sane. Nothing's clear to a lover (or a madman or poet) except the urgency of his or her illusion, since all love is nothing more (Shakespeare has explained in A Midsummer Night's Dream and in these sonnets and elsewhere) than a disease and distortion of the senses and the misplacement of inappropriate importance in a person or object.

But instead of getting the message and moving on, the Speaker does what we all do -- Whaddya mean by this talk of altering and removing? What the hell are you talking about??? 

The doomed dumpee is trying desperately (and hopelessly, of course) to reason the dumper back into love with him.

So the mimicking First Quatrain rebuttal we quoted above, ends in the rather emphatic and discombobulated "O no!" (When cool reason fails, volume steps in.)

But mere denial through mimickry and volume is unsatisfactory, mostly because it's simply accepting the terms ("altering", "removing") already established by the Young Man.

So in the Second Quatrain the Speaker follows the rules of oratory by moving from negative refutation "O no!" to positive refutation.

That is, while the Speaker is flailing away at the self-exculpating iron laws and cold equations of the Young Man -- i.e. "To find alteration is to alter; to see a removal is to remove" – he is also trying to couch his rebuttal in new terms, specifically by moving to the equation of "O no, it is [rather] X"

O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,

         5

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

 

It is the star to every wandering bark,

 

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken

 

That shows him!

The Second Quatrain, Vendler shows us, moves to Petrarch's image of love being the North Star, the ever-fixéd mark . . . the guiding pole star that isn't shaken even by tempests. However stormy this relationship is, our love will be the fixed North Star to both our wandering little ships.

In other words, the Speaker is insisting to his beloved, we may err by wandering, but cannot, thanks to the fixed North Star of the nature of true love itself, ever be permanently lost.

In still other words, you have your cold equations, my darling Young Man, but love does not -- can not -- fall within your cinical and grimly calculable materialist laws. Petrarch -- the father of all sonnets -- says it can't!!

It's beginning to sound repetitious now because the third quatrain will repeat the desperate formula of "Love is not X, but rather Y."

Love ’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

 

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

  10

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

 

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

 

Here the Young Man's most terrible two words of his Iron Law and Cold Equations -- alter and bend -- undefined in the Young Man's utilitarian and self-serving rhetoric, are finally unpacked (sorry, that's the way we litcritics like to talk) in all their full and awful significance.

The remover who bends turns out to be the grim reaper, Time. The grim reaper Time with his bending sickle. What alters are Time's brief hours and weeks.

(Notice here that the desperate and offended Speaker -- he's by far the  older of the two lovers, of course, past his prime – he won't even dignify time’s real relationship-killing ravages of seasons and years and decades but tries to minimize it with a sneering brief hours and weeks. "Time and beauty are so important to you," the Speaker is all but screaming at the Young Man, "because you haven't had your youth and beauty stolen from you by Time!")

Even more desperate now than in the second quatrain, the rejected Speaker hauls out the biggest of Big Guns for his side of the let’s-stay-in-love argument . . . God.

"But bears it to the edge of doom . . ."  According to the sacramental liturgy of marriage, which the Speaker has all along been trying to apply to this non-marital "marriage of two minds", only the Day of Judgment is the proper measure of love's time.

(Note: if you doubted that interrogation of the poem would, as W.H.Auden demanded, tell us of this poet's -- or at least his character's -- view on the Evil One, doubt no more. Before 12 lines are up, the Speaker has invoked God on his side . . . he's ag'in the Evil One and the abandonment of love before the Day of Judgment has come.)

Here the speaker is calling not on Petrarch -- dumb pagan poet -- to support his argument, but is now calling on St. Paul as witness that love bears all things. (Actual scholars inform me that the Geneva Bible that Shakespeare knew had "endureth" as the verb; the Authorized Version only later, 1611, after this sonnet was written and published, substituted "bears.")

But Shakespeare was never opposed to using synonyms. The result to the Young Man is the same -- What then is all this talk of removal? God Himself tells us that love bears all things.

A digression here: There are various ways to turn these sonnets into schematics and diagrams. Helen Vendler shows us that if one were doing that here for the third quatrain -- what's called the "reinscription" part of a rebuttal where the equation is repeated but changed, raised in importance and irrefutability as it were, we could see a vertical line for the Petrarchan "fixed star" argument and a horizontal line for the Christian Pauline form of stolid fidelity in endurance.

Finally -- the couplet --

If this be error, and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

Other than becoming almost wild in its never-nor-no negative shouting, what purpose does the rhyming couplet serve in the Speaker's rebuttal?

Close reading skills or not, I probably couldn’t have answered that question, but Vendler’s analysis shows that the couplet here "is at once a legal challenge in equity and a last refutation (and implicit condemnation) of the position of the young man."

Legal challenge in equity?

Well, the Young Man's statement was "I did love you once, but now impediments have arisen through alterations and removes." The Speaker is using the couplet to show, in legalistic terms, "that the performative speech-act of Platonic fidelity in quasi-marital mental love cannot be qualified,  since by definition, if it is qualified, it cannot be love."

Translation: "Don't say you 'loved me once' you skunk-weasel. If it was ever real love, it can't, by definition, be qualified, altered, or removed as you’re trying to do. So QED and ergo sum patooey to youeey." (Sorry – this going over the Niagara Falls of a Shakespearean sonnet in a Vendlearean inner tube takes its toll on one’s sanity and solemnity. I’ll take a break here and be more serious when I come back.)

All right . . .

What's more, returning to this logical and legalistic last-stand argument for love enduring – the Speaker is saying in the couplet that if he himself is in error on the subject of what true love is, then no man has ever loved -- certainly the Young Man hasn't, if he's babbling about alterations, impediments, and removals.

The couplet entertains what Vendler and others scholars call a "deconstructive notion" here of its own self-dissolution -- the impossibility of error in the desperate Speaker's rebuttal is proved by the visibly contrary-to-fact hypothesis I never writ.

In simpler terms -- "You take one more step toward leaving me behind, my love, and I'll kill myself retroactively. I’ll drown my Book. More to the point, the beautiful words I wrote in praising you will have never been written, since no false or failed love could have brought them into being."

And what about the fixed star from the second quatrain -- that Petrarchan absolute? In Helen Vendler's simpler language --

" . . . of course the hyperbolic, transcendent, and paradigmatic star is the casualty of the refutational reinscription contained in the third quatrain. The vertically conceived star cannot be reinscribed in the matrix of the metonymic hours and weeks of linear sublunary mortality. Stars are not present at the edge of doom; the burdened pilgrimage to that utmost verge is human, stoic, and linear. The star lingers, semi-effaced, a rejected model."

Note here that if this is starting to make sense to you, you have the close-reading sickness.

But finally -- and in other words -- if this close reading of Sonnet 116 as a "differential model of refutation, reinscription, and authorial rethinking" is correct, then 400 years of rosy-cheeked happy interpretation of the sonnet as a happy "positive description" of love is dead wrong. Roadkill wrong. Totally, completely, absolutely, smellingly dead wrong and rotted from the head.

A way of judging whether millions of people over four centuries -- or one close reading -- is correct is to look at Sonnet 116's place in the sonnet cycle. Such setting-into-context is not the final arbiter -- we did say that each sonnet is its own little cosmos complete unto itself -- but since the sonnets do unfold as a dramatic dialogue, with a dramatic (although not novelistic) structure, looking at what comes before and what comes after can help.

In Sonnet 115 -- a poem so weak that it's actually (and deliberately) ungrammatical – Vendler and others such as Stephen Booth show us that the introduction of new words to the sonnet cycle is the dark clue. Those words include Judgement, knew, reason, reckoning, fearing, incertainty, and "doubting of the rest."

At first Sonnet 115 seems just another love poem, but even the unanchored and ungrammatical aspect of it are actually introducing doubt and fear. More such ominous words (ominous for the future of this love relationship) are creep, change, tan, blunt, and divert.

The Young Man is in the no-return process of changing his mind and going against his earlier protests: the Speaker is too old for him. Time's changes -- not yet visible in the Young Man, all too prevalent on the aging poet Speaker -- can and will and are killing the youth's love.

If we shift to Sonnet 117 and the following sonnets, the chute really opens above us. The Young Man will be attempting to project the blame for his own faithlessness -- now confessed -- on the Speaker and the Speaker, taking his cue as spurned lovers so often do, acts out (and confesses to acting out) his own infidelities.

But -- if our Vendleresque close reading is correct (and it is) -- the love between the two men (be they as sexually straight as the proverbial boring arrow or as gay as Uncle Bertie’s hatband) who wish a "marriage of minds" in previous warm sonnets, ends forever in the much-beloved and perennially-misunderstood Sonnet 116.

(Note: yes, this was the easy sonnet to deconstruct using the Shining abilities of Helen Vendler’s mind. But whatever you do, Danny, don’t go in Sonnet 94.)

(Webmaster's Note: Between installments of WRITING WELL, visitors to this web site interested in discussing writing issues can talk to each other and to me on the new ON WRITING WELL strand in the Dan Simmons Forum. While I will answer questions there from time to time, my hope is that these Writing Well installments might serve – at least partially – as a template for discussion so that we can move more slowly toward the usual huge questions of “How do I write a masterpiece and where can I get it published?”)

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