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Shakespeare Sonnet 59: "If there be nothing new, but that which is"

Updated on December 12, 2017
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: 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.

Sonnet 59

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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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