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Shakespeare Sonnet 48: "How careful was I when I took my way"

Updated on March 6, 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 Shakespeare
The real Shakespeare | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 48

Sonnet 48 finds the speaker exploring the nature of those who write drivel and pass it off as art. This artist/speaker also has a selective word or two for those who will remain incapable of comprehending his art because of their own dull-witted mind-set.

As a dedicated artist and poet, this speaker has taken vow to dedicate his art to love and truth. He knows that only the hate-filled and false will fail to appreciate his efforts.

Sonnet 48

How careful was I when I took my way
Each trifle under truest bars to thrust,
That to my use it might unused stay
From hands of falsehood, in sure wards of trust!
But thou, to whom my jewels trifles are,
Most worthy comfort, now my greatest grief,
Thou, best of dearest and mine only care,
Art left the prey of every vulgar thief.
Thee have I not lock’d up in any chest,
Save where thou art not, though I feel thou art,
Within the gentle closure of my breast,
From whence at pleasure thou mayst come and part;
And even thence thou wilt be stol’n, I fear,
For truth proves thievish for a prize so dear.

Reading of Sonnet 48

Commentary

The speaker in this sonnet dramatizes the effects of an audience whose poverty of intelligence and faith might culminate in disdain for his dedicated art.

First Quatrain: Taking Great Care in His Art

How careful was I when I took my way
Each trifle under truest bars to thrust,
That to my use it might unused stay
From hands of falsehood, in sure wards of trust!

The first quatrain finds the speaker articulating that he has always taken great care as he makes his way through the extensive depository of literary devices such as metaphors, similes, images, and other poetic tools offered the poet/artist by the literary world of art.

The speaker has long determined that he will focus on only the most profound issues of human life, and he will employ the choicest words to create the best works of which he is capable.

This speaker/poet has always sought truth while keeping his art from the "hands of falsehood." He has always insisted that his readers be able to trust his art implicitly, and that he would not let his creations deteriorate into poetastry as so many artists are wont to do.

Second Quatrain: But the Vulgar Reader

But thou, to whom my jewels trifles are,
Most worthy comfort, now my greatest grief,
Thou, best of dearest and mine only care,
Art left the prey of every vulgar thief.

In the second quatrain, the speaker addresses the vulgar reader who remains incapable of comprehending the authenticity of this speaker’s poetry; he wishes to castigate and inform those who think his "jewels trifles are." However, this speaker does remain aware that there will always be those individuals who despise the genuine in favor of the mediocre. To this dedicated artist, such an unacceptable attitude is his "greatest grief."

The counterfeit art aficionado who has merely a superficial interest and understanding is a vulture who preys on art as a "vulgar thief." This speaker cares first and foremost about the truth of his art, but he knows that not every supposed poetry lover is dedicated to understanding and truth as he is.

This speaker's art remains his "most worthy comfort" and his "best of dearest and mine only care." He lives in the presence of mind that the "vulgar thief" will be dismissed in time.

Third Quatrain: No Concern with Profanity and Poetasters

Thee have I not lock’d up in any chest,
Save where thou art not, though I feel thou art,
Within the gentle closure of my breast,
From whence at pleasure thou mayst come and part;

The speaker will not concern himself with the profane attitudes of poetasters and charlatans. He remains well aware that he will always be faced with these degraders and hollow minds. However, the speaker will not allow such dreck and dreck-makers to divert him. He knows that his most important feelings are kept in "the gentle closure of [his] breast."

False lovers "come and part," but this speaker will not be hampered by the fickle, the pusillanimous poseurs and others who lack his commitment.

The Couplet: The Mine-Field of Delusion

And even thence thou wilt be stol’n, I fear,
For truth proves thievish for a prize so dear.

The couplet allows the speaker to summarize his exploration through the mine-field of the deluded false artists and false art lovers. These degraded, feint-hearted poseurs will always end up out of touch, for "truth proves thievish for a prize so dear."

Truth will always snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and will always prove to be stronger and more resilient than the falsehoods that fill the minds of poetasters and amateurs who gape beyond their ability.

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

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