Helen Vendler Spots That “King” Word…

My friend and colleague William Boyle over at the Shakespeare Adventure Page has pointed out that Harvard professor Helen Vendler, in her book The Art of Shakesepare’s Sonnets, makes some perceptive observations about the “King” word in the final line of Sonnet 87.

Sonnet 87 - All Lines Lead us to KING

Sonnet 87 - All Lines Lead us to KING

The gist of it is that the entire sonnet moves relentlessly toward this loss of kingship:

Thus have I had thee as a dreame doth flatter,
In sleepe a King, but waking no such matter.

Professor Vendler notices that no less than ten of the fourteen lines end in -ING, thereby foregrounding or leading to “King” and “waking” in the last line.

She also points out that “mistaking” (mista-KING) in line 10 and “making” (ma-KING) in line 12 add momentum toward the target word KING:

“In sleepe a KING, but wa-KING no such matter.”

"The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets" by Helen Vendler

"The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets" by Helen Vendler

Okay…but so what?  Well, in Professor Vendler’s book there is no answer to “so what,” because she is not concerned with any biographical or historical context.

Not long before my book THE MONUMENT appeared in 2005 (demonstrating how the Sonnets comprise “the living record” of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton as an unacknowledged prince who deserves by blood to become King Henry IX), another friend and colleague, Elliott Stone, sent samples of my work to Vendler and asked for an opinion.

"The Monument" by Hank Whittemore

"The Monument" by Hank Whittemore

Her answer was that she knew nothing of any biographical or historical context for any of the Shakespeare sonnets and, moreover, she herself was concerned only with the “rhetorical” devices or aspects of these little poems — regardless of the palpable fact that they are intensely autobiographical and related to real, specific circumstances and events in the poet’s life.

Without Professor Vendler realizing it, however, her observations of the rhetorical devices in Sonnet 87 lend support to the suggestion that the author, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, is recording the permanent loss of kingship by Southampton, his son by Queen Elizabeth.  In his dreams he had seen Southampton as a King, but now the dream has disappeared.

The moral here is that in reading the Sonnets we can have the rhetoric and the reality behind it.   We don’t have to choose; we can have both!

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