Shakespeare Sonnet 59
Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford
Introduction: Pondering the Nature of Originality
What implications follow from the premise that there is no such things as originality? Why should an artist even bother, if he cannot, in fact, truly create anything new?
This speaker's mind has truly taken a turn for the bizarre. He is, of course, roaming into territory from which can return only with speculations. Clearly, his own pride is at stake here.
No doubt this speaker has long thought himself creating original works. And it is likely that someone has pointed out to him that originality is impossible according to biblical lore.
Instead of dismissing such a notion, however, the speaker muses on it and creates a little sonnet-drama. What does he have to lose? If there is truly no originality in creation, at least his poems are new, therefore, original to him?
The speaker still has to knowledge that his little dramas are well-crafted and likely to please reading audiences many years hence.
If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguil’d,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burden of a former child!
O! that record could with a backward look,
Even of five hundred courses of the sun,
Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first in character was done!
That I might see what the old world could say
To this composed wonder of your frame;
Whe’r we are mended, or whe’r better they,
Or whether revolution be the same.
O! sure I am, the wits of former days
To subjects worse have given admiring praise.
Reading of Sonnet 59
First Quatrain: “If there be nothing new, but that which is”
In sonnet 59, the claim, “there is no new thing under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9), finds expression in the speaker’s assertion, “If there be nothing new, but that which is / Hath been before,” and he says if this is true, how odd it is that we become enthralled after bringing forth a re-creation.
It seems odd at first that a creative artist would consider himself creative, if in fact he was merely creating what he earlier already been created. Is that not the very definition of plagiarism?
But plagiarism applies to form not content or ideas. One cannot copyright an idea, only the form in which the idea is displayed or exposed.
This speaker's concern is, in fact, somewhat trivial. As long as he is not directly or indirectly influenced by an already written text before him, he is not subject to his notion of a "beguil’d” brains are merely giving birth a second time to a “former child.”
Second Quatrain: “Oh that record could with a backward look”
The speaker yearns to look back in some “antique book” and see the corresponding sonnet that came before his own. He wonders what the earlier version would be like, what people thought and said about the older version.
Because “mind at first in character was done,” he has to wonder how many returns of that sun, under which there is nothing new, perhaps “five hundred courses” or even more, might have elapsed since the similar artist created a similar verse, which now renders his own a mere “second burthen.”
Third Quatrain: “That I might see what the old world could say”
The concerned speaker muses on what “the old world could say” about the sonnet form, “wonder of your frame.” He wonders if his generation has improved on the form or if they were actually better at it long ago.
Or there is also, of course, the possibility that the former and the latter are equal in stature.
The artist cannot help but wonder about the technical advances that he observes. He may be tempted to think his own modern methods are surely superior.
However, the speaker knows that he has no way of judging them, since written records are deleted from the cosmos after several hundred centuries have passed.
The Couplet: “Oh sure I am the wits of former days”
In the couplet, “Oh sure I am the wits of former days, / To subjects worse have given admiring praise,” the speaker quips that his attempt to match wits with earlier forms of his art is not as impractical as one might first think.
The clever speaker asserts that worse subjects have been admired, even praised.
This speaker then finds solace in all of his musings, even if he cannot make absolute conclusions. His muse is still in tact, even if he cannot claim absolute originality in his creations.
The speaker can remain fairly assured that the notion of no two things in the cosmos are ever exactly alike is playing in his favor.
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."
© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes