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Shakespeare Sonnet 26: "Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage"

Updated on April 27, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real "Shakepeare"
The real "Shakepeare" | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 26

The speaker in sonnet 26 is offering recognition to his art as he assumes his duty to write poems. He accepts the burden that his singular talent places on him, and he assures his Muse that will continue to accept and perform his duty without becoming a boastful braggart.

This speaker realizes that his talent is God-given, and it remains a precious gift that he must practice, in order to keep it new and viable. The speaker considers his Muse an envoy from the Divine Creator. He takes his mission very seriously as we promises to respect and honor his Creator.

Sonnet 26

Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage
Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit,
To thee I send this written ambassage,
To witness duty, not to show my wit:
Duty so great, which wit so poor as mine
May make seem bare, in wanting words to show it,
But that I hope some good conceit of thine
In thy soul’s thought, all naked, will bestow it;
Till whatsoever star that guides my moving
Points on me graciously with fair aspect,
And puts apparel on my tatter’d loving,
To show me worthy of thy sweet respect:
Then may I dare to boast how I do love thee;
Till then not show my head where thou mayst prove me.

Reading of Sonnet 26

Commentary

The speaker in sonnet 26 acknowledges his duty to write poems. His talent is his Lord, and he promises to perform his duty without becoming boastful.

First Quatrain: Addressing His Talent and Skill

Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage
Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit,
To thee I send this written ambassage,
To witness duty, not to show my wit:

The reader has witnessed in early sonnets how the speaker at times addresses his poems and at other times address he addresses his ability to write poems. In sonnet 26, it is the latter: the speaker addresses his talent as “Lord of my love.”

The first quatrain opens with the speaker telling his God-given talent that he is offering this poem to confirm his willing acceptance of the duty his writing talent has placed upon him. This speaker is not writing these quaint little verses merely to show off his intelligence, thereby puffing up his own ego; oh, no! he is writing because he recognizes his true calling, which acts, in effect, as a duty that his significant talent demands from him.

Second Quatrain: No Special Intelligence

Duty so great, which wit so poor as mine
May make seem bare, in wanting words to show it,
But that I hope some good conceit of thine
In thy soul’s thought, all naked, will bestow it;

The speaker admits humbly that he has no special intelligence; as a matter of fact, he claims his “wit” is “poor.” And compared to great duty imposed upon him by his talent in creating verse, his wit seems “bare.” But the speaker invokes the presence of this spiritual gift in hopes that its “good conceit” will inspire him to create despite his lacking “words to show it.” The speaker refers to “thy soul’s thought” as being “all naked” which indicates that the very heart of the living presence that bestows his talent is not dressed up with material colors and textures but, instead, is pure because it is unadorned.

And the speaker's invocation is like a prayer as he supplicates for guidance in using his talent for pure purposes. Also, as the reader has seen before, the speaker professes that his talent and his love are identical. Therefore, that he addresses his God-given talent as “Lord of my love” becomes even more understandable.

Third Quatrain: Remaining Humble

Till whatsoever star that guides my moving
Points on me graciously with fair aspect,
And puts apparel on my tatter’d loving,
To show me worthy of thy sweet respect:

After calling for divine direction, the speaker then submits that he will need such guidance until he can safely maneuver without it or until the “star that guides my moving / Points on me graciously with fair aspect.” The speaker tries to remain utterly humble, never taking credit alone for his creations. Instead of his own hand, he credits his “star” with putting “apparel on my tatter’d loving / To show me worthy of thy sweet respect.”

Even though the speaker acknowledges that he has this writing talent, he can never feel that he alone is the creator. As he quietly and surreptitiously avers that his talent comes from the Divine Spirit or God, he never overtly names God, but does name God’s divine agents such as the stars.

Couplet: God's Grace and Guidance

Then may I dare to boast how I do love thee;
Till then not show my head where thou mayst prove me.

After the speaker has been the beneficiary of God’s grace and guidance and through the divine maneuvering of the stars, if he can show himself “worthy of [God’s] sweet respect,” then he may boast to the world of his love of Spirit that has invested in him a special talent. But until such time as the speaker can display perfectly his divine gift, he will not “show [his] head.” For so doing, he would open himself to divine retribution, if he were wrong.

A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence

Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare." For example, Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poet's has opined:

Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Traditionally classified as "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Two Problematic Sonnets: 108 and 126

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy." Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.

Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.

In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.

Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

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  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    16 months ago from U.S.A.

    Louise, thanks for the kind words. Glad you found my commentary useful. Yes, it helps to hear the poem read aloud as well as simply reading it yourself. I always try to add a reading to fill out and enhance the usefulness of my commentaries. Thanks again, and have a blessed day!

  • Coffeequeeen profile image

    Louise Powles 

    16 months ago from Norfolk, England

    I loved reading your analysis of this sonnet. I've always loved Shakespeare. I like the video too. It's good to be able to hear this sonnet as well as read it. Thankyou. =)

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