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Shakespeare Sonnet 61

Updated on September 14, 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 61

In sonnet 61, the speaker wishes to blame his lackadaisical attitude on the muse. He seems to wish he could control the muse in ways that ultimately he knows are not possible or even desirable.

As the speaker muses on his relationship with the inspiring muse, he eventually comes around to the mundane fact that he alone is responsible for his actions. The speaker knows he must take up the pen and forge ahead, with or without the supposed inspiration of the imagined muse.

Sonnet 61

Is it thy will, thy image should keep open
My heavy eyelids to the weary night?
Dost thou desire my slumbers should be broken,
While shadows like to thee do mock my sight?
Is it thy spirit that thou send'st from thee
So far from home into my deeds to pry,
To find out shames and idle hours in me,
The scope and tenor of thy jealousy?
O, no! thy love, though much, is not so great:
It is my love that keeps mine eye awake:
Mine own true love that doth my rest defeat,
To play the watchman ever for thy sake:
For thee watch I, whilst thou dost wake elsewhere,
From me far off, with others all too near.

Reading of Sonnet 61

Commentary

In this sonnet, the speaker has found that his muse is playing coy once again, and he finds it difficult to sleep, wondering where she is, as he poses three questions only he can answer.

First Quatrain: Questioning the Muse

Is it thy will, thy image should keep open
My heavy eyelids to the weary night?
Dost thou desire my slumbers should be broken,
While shadows like to thee do mock my sight?

Shakespeare sonnet 61 finds the speaker commencing with an opening yes/no question, asking if it is the wish of his muse to keep him from sleeping. The speaker is attempting to ascertain if it is the muse’s desire that even though he is exhausted, he should lie awake envisioning her, instead of drifting off to much-needed sleep.

The speaker is refusing to take all the fatigue on himself, assigning it to the "weary night." His own mental awareness streams out into the environment as he attempts to brush the muse image from his brain. He is examining his melancholy in order to determine the cause, as he explores the images that are likely sustaining his ambiguity.

The speaker then poses his second question that resembles the first; he now wonders if the muse wants to break his sleep and offer only hints that fail to complete his own fledging thoughts. He feels that his muse is even mocking his efforts, and he must confront the effrontery of such action.

Although this query bears a strong resemblance to the first, the second question contains a darker estimation of the muse. Instead of simply being an image, it turns into a bunch of "shadows," and instead of simply being kept awake by the shadows, those shadows "mock [his] sight."

Second Quatrain: Insulting the Muse

Is it thy spirit that thou send'st from thee
So far from home into my deeds to pry,
To find out shames and idle hours in me,
The scope and tenor of thy jealousy?

The third question professes scathing implications. The speaker queries his muse, whom he seems to insult by accusing her of being "far from home" when he knows intuitively that she is always within his own genuine self, even if she sends her spirit to look into his "shames and idle hours."

The question implies that the speaker is feeling guilty vis-à-vis his own lax attitude toward his work. Nevertheless, it is much easier and also face-saving to lay the blame for his own lackadaisical attitude on the muse’s absence.

In this way, the speaker is asserting to the muse that if she would remain with him and stop this constant fleeing, he would always be able to create. Thus he lays the blame for his faltering at the feet of his muse. It is her absence that is the problem. He then furthers his criticism by calling that absence the result of the muse's jealousy.

Third Quatrain: Accepting Responsibility

O, no! thy love, though much, is not so great:
It is my love that keeps mine eye awake:
Mine own true love that doth my rest defeat,
To play the watchman ever for thy sake:

The speaker then answers his earlier queries, as he recognizes that the liability is all his alone. He cannot permit himself to be influenced by a muse that he can reject at will. The speaker can receive only a certain amount of inspiration from his muse because "[the muse’s] love, though much, is not so great" as his own.

The speaker then concedes that he is the only one who is responsible for his own inspiration: "It is my love that keeps mine eye awake." He says, "Mine own true love that doth my rest defeat." The speaker accepts his own culpability in his lackadaisical behavior.

The Couplet: Reason and Accountability

For thee watch I, whilst thou dost wake elsewhere,
From me far off, with others all too near.

The couplet finally has the speaker again divulging that he has become too dependent on a fake image of the muse, as if she were capable of "wak[ing] elsewhere" and "with others all too near."

By stating flatly his own absurd image, the speaker is now giving it an airing that will permit him to overcome his lame excuses and embrace his desired accountability for his own behavior.

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

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