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Shakespeare Sonnet 51: "Thus can my love excuse the slow offence"

Updated on March 23, 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

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 51

Continuing his exploration of the relationship between his physical encasement and his spiritual essence, the speaker in sonnet 51 again employs the use of the animal metaphor. The animal body of physicality moves slowly and with great effort and much time while the mind can flit hither and yon easily and quickly.

Sonnet 51

Thus can my love excuse the slow offence
Of my dull bearer when from thee I speed:
From where thou art why should I haste me thence?
Till I return, of posting is no need.
O! what excuse will my poor beast then find,
When swift extremity can seem but slow?
Then should I spur, though mounted on the wind,
In winged speed no motion shall I know:
Then can no horse with my desire keep pace;
Therefore desire, of perfect’st love being made,
Shall neigh—no dull flesh—in his fiery race;
But love, for love, thus shall excuse my jade,—
‘Since from thee going he went wilful-slow,
Towards thee I ’ll run, and give him leave to go.’

Reading of Sonnet 51

Commentary

As in sonnet 50, this speaker continues the use of the horse metaphor, as he explores the contrast between body and soul.

First Quatrain: A Continuing Thought

Thus can my love excuse the slow offence
Of my dull bearer when from thee I speed:
From where thou art why should I haste me thence?
Till I return, of posting is no need.

That sonnet 51 continues the idea posed in sonnet 50 is implicit in the coordinating adverb, "thus," which begins the opening clause, "Thus can my love excuse the slow offence."

The "slow offence" is inherent in the nature of the physical as opposed to the mental or spiritual. As thought can silently but swiftly move far distances, a physical entity takes great effort and time. The speaker’s body is metaphorically likened to a beast of burden, that is, a horse that carries a rider. The body is a "dull bearer." When the speaker tries to "speed" from his muse, his body is a mere impediment that only the mind or soul can transcend.

The speaker then questions, "From where thou art why should I haste me thence?" And the speaker then remarks that sending a letter is not necessary. Sometimes this speaker likes to insert a measure of levity into his commentary.

Second Quatrain: Allusion to Pegasus

O! what excuse will my poor beast then find,
When swift extremity can seem but slow?
Then should I spur, though mounted on the wind,
In winged speed no motion shall I know:

In the second quatrain, the speaker alludes to Pegasus, the winged-horse symbol of poetry, to ask, "what excuse will my poor beast then find, / When swift extremity can seem but slow?" Even the swiftness of thought will seem slow when the speaker’s mind is moving away from his muse.

Riding the winged horse finds no motion, though the speaker seems to ride the wind. Despite airy, high-flown thoughts, he makes no headway when he deigns to flee his muse.

Third Quatrain: Slow Body vs Swift Mind

Then can no horse with my desire keep pace;
Therefore desire, of perfect’st love being made,
Shall neigh—no dull flesh—in his fiery race;
But love, for love, thus shall excuse my jade,—

Again, in the third quatrain, the speaker avers, "no horse with my desire [can] keep pace." His slow body cannot match his swift mind, even if the desire is ensconced as "perfect'st love." Even though the "dull flesh" like a horse "[s]hall neigh" through a "fiery race," the speaker's love, that is, the love that is from the soul, "shall excuse my jade." Though the speaker becomes world-weary or jaded, his pure soul will transcend that dismal state.

The Couplet: Living in Soul

‘Since from thee going he went wilful-slow,
Towards thee I ’ll run, and give him leave to go.’

The speaker declares that from the body’s reckoning of slow and stubborn movement from his muse, he will choose to traverse the field swiftly home toward his muse. Thus this speaker will allow the body to sink into silent tranquility, and he will live in his soul. In the tranquility of the soul resides the muse, and this speaker’s duty is to his muse.

This speaker/poet is happiest when he is thinking of love; he is most content when he is creating his sonnet worlds that hold his love, precious letters from his soul. The impediment of the beast of burden, horse-like body, cannot hold sway over the immortal soul.

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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