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Shakespeare Sonnet 38: "How can my Muse want subject to invent"

Updated on December 12, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real Shakespeare
The real Shakespeare | Source

Introduction: Welcome 10th Muse

As he creates a fine distinction between his talent and his "Muse" in Sonnet 38, the speaker is simply posing the notion that he own special muse/talent renders his works unique. This uniqueness, he believes, will be reflected in the ability of his works to profess a freshness as time passes by.

Unlike those earlier bards who called on the nine Muses for inspiration, this bardic speaker possesses the audacious confidence that his own tenth Muses will assist his creations in outshining those reliant on the other nine Muses.

Reading of Shakespeare 38

First Quatrain: "How can my Muse want subject to invent"

The speaker opens Sonnet 38 by addressing his talent, asking how his Muse could lack something worthy to write about as long as the speaker possesses such strong and capable talent.

The speaker avers that his talent resembles living waters that "pour[] into [his] verse / [their] own sweet argument."

This speaker/poet's own talent informs his verse with such sweetness and quality that is "too excellent / For every vulgar paper to rehearse."

The speaker seems to be boasting, but, in fact, he is merely elucidating the fact that his poems yield a high quality, not like lesser works with which inferior poems must struggle.

Second Quatrain: "O! give thyself the thanks, if aught in me"

The speaker then advises his talent (which, of course, also co-exists with the speaker’s very soul) to give credit to itself, if the poet/speaker has anything worthy to say.

This speaker reckons that when talent is present, anyone would be capable of writing: "For who’s so dumb that cannot write to thee, / When thou thyself dost give invention light?"

Because this poet/speaker's strong talent sheds such a vigorous light of creation, he, therefore, cannot fail to produce worthy art that he is sure will endure down through the ages.

Third Quatrain: "Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth"

Many earlier poets have invoked the Muses when beginning a poem. Homer began The Iliad with "Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus," and The Odyssey with "Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero." Edmund Spenser begins The Faere Queene with "Lo I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske."

But then the speaker calls on his writing capabilities to stand in place of the "tenth Muse." And he therefore believes that this 10th muse remains ten times more important than the accompanying nine: "Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth / Than those old nine which rimers invocate."

This poet does far more than merely create rimes; he knows himself to be a genuine poet.

This speaker remains confident that the poet who relies upon his own God-given talent will create works far superior to those craftsmen who in earlier time relied upon a group of nine Muses for their inspiration and guidance.

The speaker/poet remains steadily sure of his own talent and that its strength and ability will stand his works in good stead as the years pass. He recognizes that he is up to the task of poetry creation that will remain universal even as it creates his own personal dramas.

The Couplet: "If my slight Muse do please these curious days"

The speaker then becomes more humble by asserting that if his "slight Muse" can create poetry that is pleasant for his own enigmatic times, he himself may incur the pain of the arduous labor, but his talent/soul will receive "the praise."

This humble at last speaker acknowledges that his mind and ability apart from his poetic talent are small and must put forth great effort, but his talent is able to shine through his mental dullness to hoist his creations to greatness.

A Brief Overview of the 154-Sonnet Sequence

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 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 (Erroneously "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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


Submit a Comment
  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    23 months ago from U.S.A.

    The 17th Earl of Oxford was able to perform extremely complex mental gymnastics. The result is a poetry that shines on many levels of awareness.

    Thanks for your response, Mark!

  • Mark Tulin profile image

    Mark Tulin 

    23 months ago from Santa Barbara, California

    Loved this sonnet. Loved the fact that this poet could articulate and have the awareness of the processes at work in his poems. Despite his dullness of mind his talent shone through.


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