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Shakespeare Sonnet 38

Updated on June 19, 2019
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

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 38

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 muse will assist his creations in outshining those reliant on the other nine muses.

How can my Muse want subject to invent

How can my Muse want subject to invent
While thou dost breathe, that pour’st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
For every vulgar paper to rehearse?
O! give thyself the thanks, if aught in me
Worthy perusal stand against thy sight;
For who ’s so dumb that cannot write to thee,
When thou thyself dost give invention light?
Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rimers invocate;
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date.
If my slight Muse do please these curious days,
The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.

Reading of Shakespeare Sonnet 38

Commentary

The speaker is dramatizing a fictional distinction between his talent and his "Muse."

First Quatrain: Question to the Muse

How can my Muse want subject to invent
While thou dost breathe, that pour’st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
For every vulgar paper to rehearse?

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." He 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: Advising His Talent

O! give thyself the thanks, if aught in me
Worthy perusal stand against thy sight;
For who ’s so dumb that cannot write to thee,
When thou thyself dost give invention light?

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: Earlier Invocation

Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rimers invocate;
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date.

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: Humble and Creative

If my slight Muse do please these curious days,
The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.

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.

Source

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 poets 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.

Three Problematic Sonnets: 108, 126, 99

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.

Sonnet 99 might be considered somewhat problematic: it features 15 lines instead of the traditional 14 sonnet lines. It accomplishes this task by converting the opening quatrain into a cinquain, with an altered rime scheme from ABAB to ABABA. The rest of the sonnet follows the regular rime, rhythm, and function of the traditional sonnet.

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."

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford: The Real "Shakespeare"

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

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  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    2 years 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 

    2 years 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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