THE SUBTITLE of former Harvard president Neil L. Rudenstine’s new book, Ideas of Order, announces that it is “A Close Reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” But it is not really a “close reading” in the usual sense—and that is the heart of its strengths. Rudenstine instead interprets the sonnets as a sequence, paying special attention to how the poet develops his increasingly pessimistic concerns about the honesty and durability of romantic love in these 154 lyric poems.
“Close reading” was the favored term of the New Critics in the 1930s to describe and denote the method of interpretation they advocated to replace the philological criticism and belletrism then dominating the study of literature. They wanted to study poetry not just as an instance of language, but as art. However, they insisted that literary study should be more like a science than like mere book-reviewing, with a rigorous consideration of a poem as a self-enclosed object possessing its own internal coherence. At its best, close reading is the literary equivalent of microscope work in a biology lab: scrutinizing every element of a poem, no matter how minute, and its impact on the poem’s range of meaning. The technique, which has long outlasted the doctrine that gave it rise, has forcefully shaped the way poetry is taught in the English-speaking world in both high schools and colleges. Entire class sessions are often spent on a handful of short lyric poems. It is somewhat unusual to find a syllabus assigning an entire volume of poetry by a single poet that is taught as a continuous whole rather than as a set of discrete texts.