Shakespeare’s Sonnets 78 – 90
Summary: the poet senses competition from rival poets who have also fallen under the spell of the “fair youth”. But having been the first to praise him in poetry, his verses have the prior claim. Besides, the youth’s “sweet graces” (in contrast with other poets’ work) are central to these sonnets.
Note: other than the reference to “thy sweet graces” (12), praise of the “fair youth” is limited to one single virtue: “Thine eyes”. So though he is directly addressed eight times (“thee … thee … Thine … thine … thee … thou … thy … thou …”), we learn little of his charms.
Question: do you agree that the sonnet tells us more about the poet than the object of his affection?
Summary: the poet reminds the youth that though his verse “now” appears to be “decay’d” and perhaps old-fashioned in comparison with rival poets’ work, nonetheless these rival poems reflect only the fair youth’s exterior charms – his “behaviour” and his “beauty” – and add nothing. In effect they’re merely paying off a debt.
Note: the opening six lines betray some uncertainty which metaphor the poet favours: sonnets are “numbers”, the youth’s presence a “lovely argument”. But from line 8, an extended metaphor of money dominates the piece: “robs … pays … lends … stole … give … afford … thank … owes … pay”.
Question: how far does the metaphorical field of money undermine or reinforce the poem’s theme?
Summary: the poet feels his poems in praise of the “fair youth” are eclipsed by those of his rival, leaving him “tongue-tied”. Yet he believes there is room for both admirers in the youth’s life – and if the poet is abandoned, he’ll console himself that his ruin was the consequence of his love.
Note: the extended metaphor of sailing (“ocean … sail … bark [= boat] … main [= waters] … afloat … deep … boat”) is delayed until line 5, but then dominates the poem. The comparison between the poet himself and his rival pervades the poem as far as line 13.
Question: does the poet’s preoccupation with his rival undermine the impact of his own feelings?
Summary: the poet cannot predict who will live longer – himself or the “fair youth”. But he believes that though he may himself be forgotten, the youth will live on in “Your monument”, namely “my gentle verse”. The immortality of the verses praising the youth has been a consistent theme of the Sonnets: see, for example, Sonnet 19.
Note: the poem’s theme of memory is conveyed through an extended metaphor of burial: “epitaph … earth … rotten … earth … grave … entombed … monument” evoke images of the gravediggers’ scene in “Hamlet” or the last scene of “Romeo and Juliet”.
Question: the poet says the youth will live on in verse, but how much do we learn about him here?
Summary: the poet acknowledges that the “fair youth” has every right to read poems written by rivals of his, lately given to praising him. But the youth should remember that rhetorically grandiose displays are not needed, since the youth’s beauty can most accurately be conveyed in “true plain words”.
Note: the poem closes on a metaphor drawn from the visual arts: the “fair youth” has been depicted in exaggerated terms amounting to “gross painting”. This figure is anticipated in the repetition of “fair” (line 4, 5 and 11), and in the image of a “fresher stamp” or imprint in line 8.
Question: how far does this poem do what it advocates, and praises the youth in “true plain words”?
Summary: the poet repeats that his poems have deliberately avoided exaggerating the virtues of the “fair youth”, purely because he does not “painting need”. Besides, no poem can measure up to the task. The poet argues that recognising this – and staying silent – is no “sin” but “most my glory”.
Note: the poet’s argument that verse cannot adequately convey the youth’s beauty, and should not try, is undermined in the closing couplet. Having heard the youth’s criticism (“This silence for my sin you did impute”) and explained himself, he closes the sonnet with a rhetorical flourish that breaks his silence.
Question: what is the effect of the self-correction (“or thought I found”) in line 3? Was the poet wrong?
Summary: the poet repeats that exaggeration is unnecessary in describing the virtues of the “fair youth” – though poets can be forgiven for embellishing their subjects with “some small glory”. But in this case, to be accurate is to write well – though the praise itself does not always seem to be valued.
Note: the poet seems to be addressing the youth and describing his attractions. But in practice sonnets 82 – 4 focus on ideas about art and creativity: should art (and by extension poetry) seek to embellish – or should it (as Hamlet says) “hold the mirror up to nature” and say plainly what it finds.
Question: how far does this sonnet seem to undermine its apparent purpose and criticise the youth?
Summary: verses by others in praise of the “fair youth” are plentiful, and privately the poet echoes their songs of praise. But he remains silent, partly because he prefers to offer the “fair youth” his love before anything else, and partly because, by contrast with others, “words come hindmost”.
Note: the poet – unlike his rivals – does not overwhelm the youth with praise, says this sonnet, though he thinks highly of him. Indeed, the sonnet has little to say about the youth, and is chiefly preoccupied with the relationship between the poet and his rivals, competitors it seems for the youth’s attention.
Question: which single line in this sonnet in your opinion best summarises the argument being made?
Summary: the poet denies that his rival’s grandiloquent style silenced him, and dismisses the idea that any inspiration on his rival’s part left him dumb-struck. Rather it was the appearance and personality of the “fair youth” himself in those poems that “enfeebl’d” the poet and left him tongue-tied.
Note: the poem opens with a mix of metaphors, ranging from images of galleons in “full sail” to thoughts as “ripe” as fruit yet ready for the grave. But once these two rhetorical questions have been answered plainly (“No”), the poet’s register becomes plainer and more serious, and the closing couplet clarifies his dilemma.
Question: how far do the pronouns in this poem reinforce the poet’s central theme in your view?
Summary: the poet renounces any claim on the “fair youth”, believing that the youth deserves better than himself and must be allowed to correct his mistake in giving himself to one below his station. In coming to terms with this, the poet feels almost as if he has awoken from a dream.
Note: images of possession, denoting love but evoking ideas of property, underwrite the first twelve lines of the poem – “possessing … estimate … charter … worth … bonds … granting … riches … gift … patent” and so on – before the closing couplet employs an altogether more familiar figure.
Question: how far do the unusual feminine rhymes in this poem affect its impact or reception?
Summary: the poet volunteers to support the “fair youth” in any criticisms he might make of him, and to add further evidence of his own shortcomings where needed. In doing so, he “will be a gainer too” since his selfless love enables him to appreciate the benefits the youth will enjoy thereby.
Note: the poem is built on a contrast of abstract nouns. On one side, “scorn” and “weakness”, “faults” and “injuries”, and on the other, “merit” and “glory”, “vantage” and “love”. The implied comparison is summarised in the closing couplet, with its contrast of “thy right” with “all wrong”.
Question: how far do you agree that the closing couplet undermines the previous twelve lines?
Summary: the poet pledges to support any criticism the “fair youth” makes of him. Furthermore, he agrees (“knowing thy will”) to pretend not to know him if they happen to meet and not to mention his name in case their former relationship is revealed. Such is his selfless love for the youth.
Note: Shakespeare occasionally puns on his own first name in the Sonnets, and this may be an example: “I will” appears in line 2, perhaps in line 3, and plainly in lines 7 and 8: “thy will, / I will”. In the latter case, the chief theme of the poem is both accepted and challenged.
Question: one line in this poem is composed entirely of monosyllables. What impact does this have?
Summary: the poet feels at a low ebb, and implores the “fair youth” – if he must abandon him – to do so now. In that way any other griefs will diminish in proportion to this overwhelming setback – “the very worst of fortune’s might” – and, though egregious, “will not seem so”.
Note: the poem makes its appeal to four of the reader’s senses. The image of the “windy night [preceding] a rainy morrow” implies touch and perhaps sight; the poet’s expectation that he will “taste / … of fortune’s might” is self-explanatory, while the “strains of woe” evokes music, and so hearing.
Question: what is the impact of the sequence of imperative verbs that underwrites the first 11 lines?
One Hundred Word Endnote:
Shakespeare seems to have composed his 154 sonnets largely for private entertainment, circulated and appreciated among friends. Their existence was first revealed in a book by Francis Meres in 1598, and two were published in 1599, probably without their author’s permission.
The entire collection appeared in 1609, but there the certainties end. The identity of the dedicatee (“Mr W.H.”) is disputed, and anyway he is not necessarily the subject of the poems; at least two lovers are addressed, and probably more than two; and it is highly unlikely the poems were written in the order in which they are printed.