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Shakespeare Sonnet 78: "So oft have I invok’d thee for my Muse"

Updated on May 8, 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 78

The speaker in sonnet 78 compares his substantial Muse to that of other artists. He reveals that most examples of the engagement of a muse remains for cosmetic purposes of style and outward appearance in the art.

This speaker, however, employs his superior Muse for the purpose of creating content-rich, vital art filled with his favorite topics: love, beauty, and truth. Instead of merely constructing a beautiful, well-crafted sonnet form, this speaker is dedicated to establishing content of substance. This gifted, talent-rich speaker knows he is gifted and talented, he knows he can concoct sonnet forms, but more important for him is that he inform his art with vitally important words of truth.

Sonnet 78

So oft have I invok’d thee for my Muse
And found such fair assistance in my verse
As every alien pen hath got my use
And under thee their poesy disperse.
Thine eyes, that taught the dumb on high to sing
And heavy ignorance aloft to fly,
Have added feathers to the learned’s wing
And given grace a double majesty.
Yet be most proud of that which I compile,
Whose influence is thine, and born of thee:
In others’ works thou dost but mend the style,
And arts with thy sweet graces graced be;
But thou art all my art, and dost advance
As high as learning my rude ignorance.

Reading of Sonnet 78

Commentary

The speaker in sonnet 78 addresses his Muse with appreciation for her ever constant influence and power that elevates his art above lesser artists.

First Quatrain: Meshing of Theme and Subject

So oft have I invok’d thee for my Muse
And found such fair assistance in my verse
As every alien pen hath got my use
And under thee their poesy disperse.

In the first quatrain of sonnet 78, the speaker is addressing his subject, "love," which he reveals that he has so often "invok’d for [his] Muse." The sonnets all mesh together the theme and subject, concentrating on the speaker’s talent for poetry creation and his fascination for and interest in "love" and "truth."

At times, the speaker addresses the poem itself and at other times he focuses on his subjects. Here is addressing his favorite subject "love." The speaker claims that "love" has provided him aid "in [his] verse." Other subjects from time to time are attracted to his "alien pen," but under the influence of love, which he takes as his Muse, he is able to bring forth his "poesy."

Second Quatrain: The Singing of Angels

Thine eyes, that taught the dumb on high to sing
And heavy ignorance aloft to fly,
Have added feathers to the learned’s wing
And given grace a double majesty.

The speaker's favorite subject is akin to the singing of angels; even more astoundingly, the eyes of love have "taught the dumb on high to sing." The remarkable healing power of love even teaches "heavy ignorance" "to fly." The "lofty" rarified air of love even "add[s] feathers to the learned’s wing." Those who are already bright become brilliant through this all pervading, shining love.

This love furthermore "give[s] grace a double majesty." These hyperbolic statements serve to underscore the exceptional quality of life that true, unconditional love offers as it effects and flourishes in the hands of a master craftsman the art of poetry.

Third Quatrain: Pride of Accomplishment

Yet be most proud of that which I compile,
Whose influence is thine, and born of thee:
In others’ works thou dost but mend the style,
And arts with thy sweet graces graced be;

The speaker then imparts to his Muse, his love, that she can be "proud" of what the speaker does in her favor; his Muse remains the "influence." His inspiration has always come directly from the Muse. The speaker's Muse can experience pride in the knowledge of all the positive creations she has assisted him in creating. They will forever remain brilliant examples of the high quality of this Muse.

While comparing his inspiration from his Muse to that of other artists, this superior, talented speaker deems the others to lack substance. In other poets’ art, the Muse serves simply to correct "style," and even though the Muse’s "grace" may be well represented, it lacks the substance of the accomplished craftsman.

The Couplet: Style and Substance

But thou art all my art, and dost advance
As high as learning my rude ignorance.

The speaker reveals the difference between mere style and substance. While other artists rely on the Muse for cosmetic purposes, this speaker says, "thou art all my art." This gifted speaker's art represents all aspects of the Muse’s power, and thus his art "do[th] advance / As high as learning my rude ignorance." As usual, the speaker remains humble, giving credit to higher power, for he, as a poor servant, must always remain in certain "rude ignorance."

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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