That thou art blamed shall not be thy defect,
Sonnet 70 continues the argument of sonnet 69, where the meaning of truth
and beauty was inverted under the influence of the idealistic youth whose
outward ‘parts’ need ‘nothing’ to make them perfect. But because his deeds
were inconsistent when reviewed in other’s thoughts, his mind had the ‘rank
smell of weeds’. The contradiction has its counterpart in the belief in a male
God as an ideal being. When a male God represents absolute goodness, the
illogicality frequently surfaces in the believers’ evil deeds. Angelo’s lust for
holy Isabella in Measure for Measure is to the point.
For slander’s mark was ever yet the fair,
The ornament of beauty is suspect,
A Crow that flies in heaven’s sweetest air.
So thou be good, slander doth but approve,
Their worth the greater being wooed of time,
For Canker vice the sweetest buds doth love,
And thou present’st a pure unstained prime.
Thou hast passed by the ambush of young days,
Either not assailed, or victor being charged,
Yet this thy praise cannot be so thy praise,
To tie up envy, evermore enlarged,
If some suspect of ill masked not thy show,
Then thou alone kingdoms of hearts shouldst owe.
In sonnet 70, the Poet argues that it is not a ‘defect’ if the youth is
‘blamed’ (70.1) for the inversion of truth and beauty. The logic of truth and
beauty entails that ‘slander’ will always ‘mark’ the ‘fair’, and the ‘ornament
of beauty’ is always ‘suspect’. Such suspicion is like a black ‘crow’ in ‘heaven’s
sweetest air’ (70.4).
So the Poet encourages the youth to ‘be good’ (70.5), because ironically
the outcome of the slander is to ‘approve’ the greater worth of his ‘outward
parts’. Because ‘Canker’ is attracted to the ‘sweetest buds’ (70.7), youth’s
idealistic beauty presents an ‘unstained prime’ or ideal target.
The Poet’s irony is revealed when he wonders how the youth could have
survived unstained through his ‘young days’ (70.9). How is it his beauty was
not ‘assailed’ or, as the ‘victor’, he was not ‘charged’ (70.10)? The ‘praise’
the youth received ‘cannot be so thy praise’ because the effect of his selfish
beauty is to generate ‘envy, evermore enlarged’ (70.12).
In the couplet, the ‘kingdoms of hearts’would only be the youth’s if he
did not arouse suspicion by having his eyes ‘masked’. How can he be praised
when praise of the ideal is so easily unmasked? He would be ideal if he were
not so susceptible to ill praise. Both of the youth’s eyes, the mind’s eye and
the eye of Eros, need to be focused on the same goal for heart’s ‘thought’
and ‘beauty’ of mind to be reconciled.
The ‘their’ at 69.4 and 70.6 is changed to ‘thy’by most editors, who miss
the reference back to ‘those parts of thee’ in 69.1. As they do not understand
the Sonnet logic, editors alter ‘their’ to ‘thy’ to reinforce the idea that
Shakespeare had an intimate relation with a youth of his acquaintance. By
contrast, the word ‘end’ (69.3) seems to be a genuine mistake. As ‘n’ could
be inverted to form ‘u’ in Jacobean typesetting, and in a number of cases is
inverted accidentally in Shakespeare’s works, then ‘end’ is a miss-setting of
the three letters for ‘due’. Unlike the emendations driven by the editors’
inadequate understanding of the Sonnet philosophy, the compositors mistake
is a believable error.
No longer mourn for me when I am dead,
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vildest worms to dwell:
Nay if you read this line, remember not,
The hand that writ it, for I love you so,
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O if (I say) you look upon this verse,
When I (perhaps) compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse,
But let your love even with my life decay.
Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
And mock you with me after I am gone.
O lest the world should task you to recite,
Comment on Sonnets 71 & 72
What merit lived in me that you should love
After my death (dear love) forget me quite,
For you in me can nothing worthy prove.
Unless you would devise some virtuous lie,
To do more for me than mine own desert,
And hang more praise upon deceased I,
Than niggard truth would willingly impart.
O lest your true love may seem false in this,
That you for love speak well of me untrue,
My name be buried where my body is,
And live no more to shame nor me, nor you.
For I am shamed by that which I bring forth,
And so should you, to love things nothing worth.
Sonnets 71 and 72 are united as a pair that considers the worth of the Poet’s
verse. Over their 28 lines, the Poet is at pains not to give undue ‘worth’
(72.14) to lines of verse. The concern of the two sonnets is resolved in the
sonnet trio 73/74/75, which relates the youth’s potential for being ‘content’
(74.1) to what the Poet’s verse ‘contains’ (74.13). Together the five sonnets
elaborate on the double meaning of the word ‘content’ (1.11) in the first
sonnet of the set.
In sonnet 71, the Poet advises the youth not to mourn for him when
he is ‘dead’ (71.1). The ‘surly sullen bell’ will give due ‘warning’ that the
Poet has ‘fled from this vile world’ to dwell with the ‘vildest worms’ (71.4).
The Poet satirises the youth’s idealistic vision that needs the world to be ‘vile’
to justify expectations of a heaven after death. But the Poet, whose
philosophy validates the world, is content to join the ‘vildest’worms.
The Poet asks the youth, when he reads ‘this line’ (71.5), to ‘remember
not, the hand that writ it’ (71.6), if in thinking on him it ‘should make you
woe’ (71.8). For the Poet there is no sorrow because he appreciates the logic
of increase, which validates the continuity of human life. If the youth
remembers the Poet sadly, he has been too influenced by the Churches that
ring ‘surly sullen’ bells (71.2).
Again, if the youth ‘looks upon this verse’ (71.9) when the Poet is buried
in ‘clay’, the Poet asks him not to ‘rehearse’ his ‘poor name’ (71.11). Rather
the youth should let his ‘love’ decay with the Poet’s death (71.14). The Poet
realises that the youth’s idealism will bury him time and again (‘rehearse’)
instead of allowing an appreciation of the logic of immortality through
In the couplet, the Poet facetiously invokes the ‘wise world’, which is
wary of the Poet’s natural logic. Such a world, which prophetically has
refused to appreciate Shakespeare’s philosophy, would ‘mock’ the youth for
mourning the Poet ‘after I am gone’.
In sonnet 72, the Poet expresses his doubt that the youth will understand
him before he dies. He tells the youth to ‘forget me quite’ (72.3) lest
the world asks him to ‘recite’ (72.1) what ‘merit liv’d in me’ for the youth
to ‘love after my death’. The youth’s ‘dear love’ proves costly (see 31.6)
because the Poet knows too well that the youth does not understand him,
so can ‘nothing worthy prove’ (72.4).
Ironically the idealising youth would have to ‘devise some virtuous lie’
(72.5) to do justice to the Poet’s ‘own desert’ (72.6). The youth’s ignorance,
and that of 400 years of Shakespeare scholarship, would have to ‘hang more
praise’ on the dead Poet than ‘niggard truth’would be prepared to ‘impart’
about his natural worth. That modern scholarship can produce books on
the vague concept of Shakespeare’s ‘genius’ rather than provide a systematic
account of his philosophy evident in the Sonnets is a fulfillment of the Poet’s
Better then, the Poet thinks, that the youth’s ‘true love’ should not ‘seem
false’ (72.9) when compared with the Poet’s worth. How can the youth, who
has not sufficiently addressed his idealistic selfishness, do anything but speak
‘untrue’ of the Poet when he tries to ‘speak well’ (72.10). So the Poet’s
‘name’should be buried with his ‘body’ that no more ‘shame’ will be brought
to him or the youth (72.12).
In the couplet, the Poet says he is ‘shamed’ by what he ‘brings forth’,
because of the ignorance it elicits from the ‘wise world’. And the youth
should be shamed too, because he loves ‘things nothing worth’. The Poet’s
body and his name are worth nothing if the content of his poetry does not
bring contentedness to a world that invents another world to escape the
supposed ‘vile’ one.
By the standards of content for the whole set, the youth’s ‘true love’ turns
‘false’ (72.9) if he idealises the Poet’s ‘name’ and ‘verse’. It is not the Poet’s
renown or skill with verse that enables him to be profound. Only when
‘love’ and the ‘wise world’ (71.13) are reconciled can poetry have a worthy
content to express. This is the content out of Nature and the sexual dynamic
developed in the increase sonnets as the basis for the rest of the set. The
youth’s tendency is to ‘love things nothing worth’. He, like all adolescent
minds, is too easily obsessed with wormless immortality to appreciate the
natural source of the Poet’s poetry.
That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twi-light of such day,
As after Sun-set fadeth in the West,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self that seals up all the rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death bed, whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.
But be contented when that fell arrest,
Comment on Sonnets 73 & 74
Without all bail shall carry me away,
My life hath in this line some interest,
Which for memorial still with thee shall stay.
When thou renewest this, thou dost renew,
The very part was consecrate to thee,
The earth can have but earth, which is his due,
My spirit is thine the better part of me,
So then thou hast but lost the dregs of life,
The prey of worms, my body being dead,
The coward conquest of a wretch's knife,
Too base of thee to be remembered,
The worth of that, is that which it contains,
And that is this, and this with thee remains.
Sonnets 73, 74, and 75 are a threesome connected by the ‘but’ of 74 and the
‘so’ of 75. Sonnets 73 and 74 are considered together followed by sonnet 75.
Because of its lyrical progression of images, sonnet 73 is regarded as one
of the great sonnets. Images of late autumn (73.1-4), the twilight of day
(73.5-8), and glowing embers (73.9-12) arouse a ‘stronger’ love for life in
the youth who realises that, like the aging Poet, he ‘must leave ere long’.
But Shakespeare counteracts the idealistic element in sonnet 73 with the
greater realism of sonnet 74. Images of autumn, sunset, and fire, give way
to images of jail (74.1-4), earth (74.5-8) and worms (74.9-12).
In sonnet 73, the Poet likens his aging years to autumn with its ‘yellow
leaves’ (73.2), the cold wind in the ‘boughs’ (73.3) and evokes the image of
choirs of birds now gone from bare branches (73.4). Then he pictures
himself in the ‘twilight’ of the day after ‘Sun-set’ (73.6), as ‘black night’ or
‘death’s second self ’ (73.8) takes away the light.
The Poet then compares his dying days to the ‘glowing’ fire in which
‘the ashes of his youth doth lie’. He is ‘consumed’ by the fire that once
‘nourished’ his youthful days. Significantly Shakespeare uses a cascade of
natural imagery to evoke the relation of aging years to youthful energy. The
only hint of ecclesiastical thought occurs in the negative metaphor of ‘ruined
choirs’. (Some Christian commentators, beguiled by the artistry of the
sonnet, imagine they hear a series of sympathetic religious attributions.)
In the couplet, as the Poet approaches death, he notes with irony that
the youth’s love is made ‘more strong’. The youth, instead, should love the
life ‘well’ that he ‘must leave ere long’. The Poet’s quiet acceptance of the
idea of death as a natural event should awaken the idealising youth to the
natural processes he is inclined to neglect out of fear of death. Throughout
sonnet 73 Shakespeare ironically critiques religions that use the psychology
Sonnet 74 begins where sonnet 73 left off. The youth is told to be
‘contented’ with the ‘arrest’ that will take the Poet away ‘without all bail’
(74.2). The Poet takes the youth back to the first increase sonnet that set
out the logical conditions for contentedness. He adds that his ‘life’ has ‘in
this line’ some ‘interest’, which will stay with the youth as a ‘memorial’
(74.4). The reference back to the ‘lines’ of sonnet 18 recalls the logical
relation between the lines of descent and the lines of poetry. Without
descent there is no poetry.
So when the youth ‘renews’ his life through increase, which is the interest
on the capital of his life, he renews the ‘very part was consecrate to thee’
(74.6). Shakespeare facetiously uses the religious sense of ‘consecrate’ to
emphasise that the youth will find true immortality through increase. The
‘earth can have but earth’, which is his ‘due’, because the Poet’s ‘spirit’ is the
better part of him (74.8). Again the sonnet contextualises religious allusions
within the content of the Poet’s natural logic.
The youth, then, stands to lose only the ‘dregs of life’, or ironically be
the ‘prey of worms’ (74.10). The Poet is conquered by time’s ‘knife’ and is
too ‘base’ to be ‘remembered’ (74.12). The irony is that religious idealism,
which denies the body’s worth during a person’s life, prays to the body like
a shrine when it is consigned to the earth.
In the couplet, the Poet restates the lesson of the increase sonnets and
sonnets such as 55. The worth of the Poet’s lines as a ‘memorial’ resides in
‘that which it contains’. The ‘this’ that remains with the youth, recalls the
‘this’ from sonnet 18, where the Poet says ‘so long lives this, and this gives
life to thee’ (18.14). The increase sonnets (1 to 14), and the poetry and
increase sonnets (15 to 19) insist that, without the lines of increase, the Poet’s
lines have no worth. So ‘this’ is the ‘worth’ that Shakespeare Sonnets contain.
Some commentators interpret ‘this’ as a reference to the sonnet’s ability
to confer poetic immortality. But for the Poet, poetic immortality is conditional
on the attitude to ‘life’ that the poetry ‘contains’. In sonnet 74, as in
sonnet 18, the content of the verse ‘remains’ with the youth only if his lines
of descent provide a future audience to read the lines of poetry. The Poet
knows this is the only way the ‘spirit’ of any thought will ‘live’ after the body
becomes the ‘prey of worms’. The idea is reinforced in sonnet 75, where
the Poet says the youth is ‘to my thoughts as food to life’.
So are you to my thoughts as food to life,
Sonnet 75 is the third of three connected sonnets. Together they examine
youth and age, first one way in sonnet 73 and then another in sonnet 74
before the Poet is reconciled in sonnet 75. Sonnet 73 considered the youth’s
overly romantic love for the Poet and his work. Sonnet 74 gave the Poet’s
mature response that his work cannot be more than what it says or ‘contains’.
In sonnet 75, the Poet considers the ‘strife’ between the youth’s capacity to
increase and inspire (his ‘treasure’) and the irony that the Poet’s own maturity
is ‘clean starved’ of youthful energy. (The sonnet should also be read as the
Poet reflecting on his own youthful days.)
Or as sweet seasoned showers are to the ground;
And for the peace of you I hold such strife,
As twixt a miser and his wealth is found.
Now proud as an enjoyer, and anon
Doubting the filching age will steal his treasure,
Now counting best to be with you alone,
Then bettered that the world may see my pleasure,
Some-time all full with feasting on your sight,
And by and by clean starved for a look,
Possessing or pursuing no delight
Save what is had, or must from you be took.
Thus do I pine and surfeit day by day,
Or gluttoning on all, or all away.
For the aging Poet, the youth’s idealistic energy is ‘to my thoughts as
food to life’ (75.1). His contribution is, in a suitably erotic image, like ‘sweet
season’s showers are to the ground’ (75.2). The youth’s guileless simplicity
is a ‘wealth’ that the Poet, miser like, is reluctant to forgo. He sees the irony
in his concern that ‘the filching age will steal his treasure’ (75.6). He both
wants the youth for himself and needs to share with the ‘world’ his ‘pleasure’
in the youth (75.8).
The Poet does not deny the ‘strife’ (75.3) between youth and age.
Paradoxically when the youth has the greatest capacity to increase or be life
sustaining he is philosophically immature. Because youth and age are
logically part of human nature, the Poet reconciles the romanticism and
fertility of the youth with the requirements of his mature vision. Though
his mature state of mind is ‘no delight’ (75.11), it does enable him to write
effective poetry with deep content. So, in the couplet, ‘day by day’ his mind
is either a ‘glutton’ for the energy of youth or he ‘pines’ for it when he writes
with the maturity of old age.
The youth represents both romantic innocence and sexual prowess. The
Poet returns to the potential of youth because he understands that without
increase there would be no human beings and so no poetry. Poetry can only
express a desire secondary to the physical requirement to increase. The
recurring touchstone in Shakespeare’s work is the irredeemable logic that
increase in Nature is the constant factor in human existence. By holding to
that umbilical cord, his writing, however fantastic or tragic, never loses touch
with reality. The argument of sonnets 73, 74, and 75 illustrates the dynamic
of Shakespeare’s thought. Their poetry capitalises the energy inherent in
human life by appreciating the relationship of maturity to youth.
Why is my verse so barren of new pride?
In sonnet 76, next to halfway through the set, the Poet acknowledges that
he repeats his constant theme without ‘variation’. ‘You(th) and love’ are his
unvarying ‘argument’ (76.10) for a consistent logic. While some of the more
lyrical sonnets such as 18, 116, and 129 are better known, Shakespeare
organised all 154 sonnets into an exact expression of his philosophy.
Commentators’ inability to explain the Sonnet philosophy leads directly to
their misinterpretation of individual sonnets.
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new found methods, and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth, and where they did proceed?
O know sweet love I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument:
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
For as the Sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.
In sonnet 76, the Poet asks why his ‘verse’ is ‘barren of ‘new pride’. The
association of ‘barren’ and ‘pride’makes the question rhetorical. The logical
relation of sexual pride and barren verse has already been considered in the
increase sonnets and the poetry and increase sonnets. Yet the Poet is aware
that to many ears his poetry does not have ‘variation or quick change’ (76.2).
The Poet is not inclined to ‘glance aside’ to ‘new found methods’ or
‘compounds strange’ (76.4). He has no need for contradictory beliefs dressed
up as poetry, which are at odds with Nature.
Instead, the Poet’s ‘invention’ springs from ‘noted weeds’ (76.5), or the
commonly disparaged increase sonnets that begin the set, so closely is the
Poet’s philosophy modeled on his understanding of life. ‘Every word’ doth
almost reveal or ‘tell’ (76.7) his name. The ‘words’, because they respect
natural logic, effectively show their ‘birth’ (76.8). The Poet’s practice of
basing his words on the ‘birth’ or increase dynamic is a challenge to those
who idealise and romanticise the creative process.
The Poet identifies the ‘youth’ and ‘love’ as his constant ‘argument’
(76.10). The Sonnets, after the identification of the source of love in sonnet
9, challenge the youth, as does sonnet 76, to spend ‘again’ his sexual
potential, which has been ‘spent’many times before (76,12). In the couplet,
the ‘spending’ of the sexual process is like the rising and the setting of the
sun. The ‘Sun’, which is ‘daily new and old’, is the life cycle that is always
‘telling what is told’. It informs the Poet’s consistent philosophy of love.
The line, ‘every word doth almost tell my name’ (76.7) points back to
the ‘WH’ heading 76.1 and the ‘Wh’ of 76.3 and 76.5. It recalls the initials
‘Mr. W. H.’ from the Dedication. As the 1st and 9th letters of ‘WILLIAM
SHAKE-SPEARE’they correspond to the numbers 1 and 9 associated with
the Poet in the structure of the Sonnets. Then, ‘showing their birth and
where they did proceed’ (76.8), recalls the ‘begetter’, or Poet, of the
Dedication, and the journey of the reader ‘…in setting forth’ through the
Sonnets. The references back to the encrypted Dedication suggest sonnet 76
was added as the set received its final shape. (See Volume 1, Part 5.)
Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties were,
Sonnets 77 and 78 are at the halfway point of the set of 154 sonnets. By
examining the youth’s relationship to true ‘learning’, sonnet 77 prepares the
way for the 9 rival poet sonnets (78 to 86) that begin the second half. Their
position in the sequence to the youth is a timely reminder that, if he ignores
the Poet’s sound philosophy, he can be no more than a rival poet, skilled
only in rhyme and rhetoric. Although the 9 sonnets relate the lesser poet
to the numbering for the youth, (126 = 1+2+6 = 9), the rival poet sonnets
are a subsidiary group in the set.
Thy dial how thy precious minutes waste,
The vacant leaves thy mind's imprint will bear,
And of this book, this learning mayst thou taste.
The wrinkles which thy glass will truly show,
Of mouthed graves will give thee memory,
Thou by thy dials shady stealth mayst know,
Time's thievish progress to eternity.
Look what thy memory cannot contain,
Commit to these waste blacks, and thou shalt find
Those children nursed, delivered from thy brain,
To take a new acquaintance of thy mind.
These offices, so oft as thou wilt look,
Shall profit thee and much enrich thy book.
In Sonnet 77, the mirror and the sundial (‘glass’ and ‘dial’) will ‘show’
(77.1) the youth, as his beauty begins to age, how ‘thy precious minutes
waste’ (77.2). The ‘vacant leaves’ or empty pages of his book will ‘bear’ the
‘imprint’ of his vacant mind if he does not mature. The Poet offers him ‘this’
book of sonnets so that he can get a ‘taste’ for ‘learning’ in depth (77.4).
The Poet then develops the image of time passing. The mirror, like an
open ‘mouthed grave’ (77.6), reveals the wrinkles of age and the sundial’s
‘shady stealth’ records ‘time’s thievish progress to eternity’ (77.8).
The Poet then reintroduces the imagery of a book. The continuation
of life, which the youth’s entombed memory ‘cannot contain’ (77.9), is
celebrated in the Poet’s ‘waste blacks’, or mortal ink (77.10). If the youth
‘commits’ himself to the message of the ‘waste blacks’ then his writing will
be like ‘children nursed’ and ‘delivered from (his) brain’ (77.11). He will form
a ‘new acquaintance’ with his own ‘mind’ (77.12) based on the
increase/truth and beauty dynamic in Nature.
In the couplet, the Poet contrasts the ‘offices’ of his Nature based verse
with the traditional ‘offices’ of the Church. In contrast to biblical thought,
the Poet’s poetry and argument convey a value that will ‘much enrich’ the
youth’s ‘book’. The image of continuing life (‘children nursed, delivered
from the brain’) derives from the increase/truth and beauty dynamic. Sonnet
77 gives the conditions for the youth to either remain a lesser poet or
become a Poet of the stature and maturity of Shakespeare.
The distinction between ‘vacant leaves’ (76.3) and ‘waste blacks’ (76.10)
is significant. Editors change ‘black’ to ‘blank’ because they think both
phrases refer to the same unmarked book. The youth’s book has ‘vacant
leaves’ because he wastes his ‘minutes’. By contrast, the Poet’s book has ‘waste
blacks’ because he places no undying value on the written word. He gives
priority to the processes of life that words cannot ‘contain’.
So oft have I invoked thee for my Muse,
Sonnet 78 is the first of the group of 9 sonnets (78 to 86) that examine the
youth’s relation to the lesser or rival poets. Traditional claims that sonnet 81
was not one of the group, and so was somehow misplaced in the set when
it was published in 1609, ignore its logical connection by a ‘so’ to sonnet
80. Most approaches to the Sonnets, particularly those with excessive focus
on biographical claims, ignore the logical connectives.
And found such fair assistance in my verse,
As every Alien pen hath got my use,
And under thee their poesy disperse.
Thine eyes, that taught the dumb on high to sing,
And heavy ignorance aloft to fly,
Have added feathers to the learned's wing,
And given grace a double Majesty.
Yet be most proud of that which I compile,
Whose influence is thine, and born of thee,
In others' works thou dost but mend the style,
And Arts with thy sweet graces graced be.
But thou art all my art, and dost advance
As high as learning, my rude ignorance..
In the Sonnets, the number 9 is associated with the youth (126 = 1+2+6
= 9). He requires a 1 to add to his 9 to gain the unity associated with the
Mistress. The Mistress’ 1 (28 = 2+8 = 10 = 1+0 = 1) would give him the
unity he requires (9+1 = 10 = 1+0 = 1). The implication is that he will be
a lesser poet, concerned only with ‘style’ and ‘grace’, if he does not appreciate
his logical relationship to her. The lesser poets do not understand the
significance of the increase/truth and beauty dynamic in Nature. If the youth
could see the connection, he would ‘enrich thy book’ (77.14).
In the first line of sonnet 78, and of the group, the Poet calls the youth
‘my Muse’. Significantly the Muse appears only in the truth and beauty
sequence to the youth (sonnets 20 to 126). The Muse is the counterpart of
the Rose, and they characterise truth and beauty respectively.
So, the Poet has often invoked the youth as his ‘Muse’ (78.1), and derived
‘fair assistance’ in his verse. By contrast, every ‘alien pen’ (78.3), who attempts
to impress the youth with his skill, ‘disperses poesy’ or lowers the level of
poetic insight. The logical inter-relation between the mature Poet and
Master Mistress is basic to the ‘content’ of his poetry.
Through ‘thine eyes’ (78.5) the youth’s Muse has taught the ‘dumb’, and
those with ‘heavy ignorance’, to ‘sing’ and ‘fly’ (78.6). Her ‘added feathers’
have given the Poet’s ‘grace’ a ‘double Majesty’ (78.8). The Poet’s inspiration
derives from the logic of truth and beauty evident in the youth’s ‘eyes’. The
Poet suggests the youth should be ‘most proud’ of what he has ‘compiled’
(78.9) in the sonnets. After all, they were brought to life or ‘born’ (78.10)
partly through the inspiration of the youth. The influence of the Muse on
the rival poets, by comparison, only ‘mends the style’ and creates Arts with
‘sweet’ or simple ‘graces’ (78.12).
In the couplet, the ‘art’ the Poet gains from the youth’s ‘eyes’ lifts the
Poet’s ‘rude ignorance’ to ‘high learning’. The irony is that although the
youth inspires the Poet, the youth remains at the level of lesser poets. For
the Poet, truth and beauty are evident in the youth’s ‘eyes’, the rival poets
notice only the ‘sweet graces’ of youth’s external form and so write inferior
Whilst I alone did call upon thy aid,
In sonnet 79, the second of the lesser or rival poet group, the Poet makes
a clear distinction between his poetry and that of the rivals. The Poet sees
the youth as but one of three major elements in the Sonnets. As the Master
Mistress, the youth is in a logical relation to the other two entities, Nature
(the sovereign mistress) and the Mistress. By contrast, the rival poets focus
exclusively on the external qualities of the youth. The Poet accuses them
of intentionally robbing or stealing the youth’s qualities and reflecting them
back in their poetry as if they were their own virtues or inventions.
My verse alone had all thy gentle grace,
But now my gracious numbers are decayed,
And my sick Muse doth give another place.
I grant (sweet love) thy lovely argument
Deserves the travail of a worthier pen,
Yet what of thee thy Poet doth invent,
He robs thee of, and pays it thee again,
He lends thee virtue, and he stole that word,
From thy behaviour, beauty doth he give
And found it in thy cheek: he can afford
No praise to thee, but what in thee doth live.
Then thank him not for that which he doth say,
Since what he owes thee, thou thy self dost pay.
Implicit in the distinction between the Poet and the rivals is a criticism
of a too literal acceptance and exploitation of the ideal. This is a constant
theme in Shakespeare’s plays and finds its definitive expression in the Sonnets.
Shakespeare positions the youth in the set as the idealistic adolescent who
is to be persuaded to recover his logical relationship with the Mistress and
Nature. The Poet avoids the inconsistencies in systems of thought and belief
that elevate the single male to the status of an idol, as do the rival poets, by
embellishing his better qualities.
Sonnet 79 begins with the Poet acknowledging the youth’s ‘gentle grace’
(79.2). When the Poet was young, what he wrote was naturally faithful to
the graces of youth. But as he has aged and his poetry has matured his
‘gracious numbers are decayed’ (79.3). The youth now seems like a ‘sick
Muse’ (79.4) in danger of remaining an immature poet. (Remember, the
youth in the Sonnets can be both a distinct individual or an aspect or persona
of the Poet.)
The Poet realises that his mature vision does not reproduce the youth’s
‘lovely argument’ (79.5). While the youth might look to the ‘worthier pen’
(79.6) of the rival poets to ‘praise’ the youth's qualities, the Poet suggests that the
lesser poet (‘thy Poet’, 79.7) ‘robs’ those qualities from the youth and uses
them to ‘pay’ (79.8) him a compliment.
The Poet is unrelenting in his insistence that the rival poets can do no
more than ‘lend’ and ‘steal’ (79.9) false praise and beauty from the youth’s
‘cheeks’ (79.11). What is, for the Poet, alive in the youth, becomes in the
poetry of the rivals empty verses of no lasting worth. In the couplet, the
Poet facetiously advises the youth not to thank the other poet. What the
rival owes the youth in poetry, the youth has already paid dearly for by
accepting false praise.
O how I faint when I of you do write,
Knowing a better spirit doth use your name,
And in the praise thereof spends all his might,
To make me tongue-tied speaking of your fame.
But since your worth (wide as the Ocean is)
The humble as the proudest sail doth bear,
My saucy bark (inferior far to his)
On your broad main doth wilfully appear.
Your shallowest help will hold me up afloat,
Whilst he upon your soundless deep doth ride,
Or (being wracked) I am a worthless boat,
He of tall building, and of goodly pride.
Then if he thrive and I be cast away,
The worst was this, my love was my decay.
Or I shall live your Epitaph to make,
Comment on Sonnets 80 & 81
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten,
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I (once gone) to all the world must die,
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men's eyes shall lie,
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o'er-read,
And tongues to be, your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead,
You still shall live (such virtue hath my Pen)
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.
Sonnets 80 and 81 form part of the group of 9 rival poet sonnets (78 to 86).
Traditionally, though, because sonnet 81 does not mention the lesser poets,
most commentators have decided that sonnet 81 does not belong to the
group. Yet thematically it is related to sonnet 80 and is logically connected
to it with an ‘or’. In sonnet 80 it seems that the Poet has capitulated to the
rivals, but then sonnet 81 reasserts the logic the Poet articulates throughout
the set. The two sonnets have to be read together to appreciate the irony
with which the Poet praises the rivals in sonnet 80.
In sonnet 80, the Poet claims he ‘faints’ when he writes of the youth,
because he knows ‘a better spirit’ uses the youth’s ‘name’ (80.1). The better
or rival poet ‘spends all his might’ (80.3) praising the youth, making the Poet
‘tongue-tied’ when he tries to speak of the youth’s ‘fame’ (80.4). The Poet’s
facetious regard for his rival’s praise of the youth conceals his scorn for a
The Poet continues to exaggerate the standing of the rival poet while
diminishing his own status. In imagery of barely concealed eroticism, he
notes that, in the eyes of the rival, the youth’s ‘worth’ is as wide as the
‘Ocean’ (80.5). Hilariously, the rival uses an image used in sonnet 56 by the
Poet of the Mistress. He pursues the metaphor by comparing his ‘boat’ with
the rival’s. The Poet’s ‘saucy bark’ (80.7), which is ‘inferior’ to the rival’s
‘boat’, appears ‘willfully’ on the youth’s ‘broad main’ (80.8).
The Poet’s size is so slight that his draught is ‘shallow’, while the rival
rides on the youth’s ‘soundless deep’ (80.10). Compared with the rival’s ‘tall
building’, which is of ‘goodly pride’, the Poet has a ‘worthless boat’ (80.13).
The comparison is so outlandish, that it reveals Shakespeare’s scorn for those
who would indulge in ego-serving praise instead of writing poetry with
In the couplet the Poet reflects that if the rival ‘thrives’ while he is ‘cast
away’ at least his decay was caused by the quality of his ‘love’. Elsewhere, as
in sonnet 32, the Poet asserts the superiority of poetry based on love’s natural
logic over selfish flattery and style.
Sonnet 81 responds to the unlikely situation sketched in sonnet 80. The
Poet describes the outcome if he is not ‘wracked’ (80.11) in the show-down
with the rival. He presents two ways in which the youth’s ‘name’ (80.2) will
live. If the Poet lives and the youth dies young, the Sonnets will become his
‘Epitaph’ (81.1). Or, if the youth survives and increases when the Poet dies
and rots in the ‘earth’ (81.2), the youth will be remembered by his offspring
and the Poet will be forgotten (81.4).
Either way, as argued in the poetry and increase sonnets, the youth will
have a form of ‘immortal life’ (81.5). But the Poet accepts that when dead
he will die to ‘all the world’ in a ‘common grave’ (81.7), while the youth
will be ‘entombed in men’s eyes’ (81.8).
The ‘monument’ for the youth will be the Poet’s ‘gentle verse’, but only
on the logical condition that ‘eyes not yet created’ (81.10) and ‘tongues to
be’ will ‘o’er-read’ and rehearse his ‘being’. The Poet invokes the logical
condition given in sonnet 11, that only through increase can truth and
beauty survive when all those ‘breathers’ currently alive are ‘dead’ (81.12).
In the couplet, the youth ‘still shall live’ because of the ‘virtue’ of the
Poet’s ‘Pen’. The Poet’s pen was introduced in sonnet 16, where ‘Pen’
doubles as writing tool and penis. The youth will live ‘where breath most
breathes’, not in an idealised world beyond earth, but where breath still rises
in the ‘mouths of men’.
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Roger Peters Copyright © 2005