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Shakespeare Sonnet 79: "Whilst I alone did call upon thy aid"

Updated on May 28, 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 79

This speaker/poet has repeatedly demonstrated how obsessed he is with poetry creation. It is, indeed, ironic that he finds he can write even about complaining about not being able to write. This kind of devotion and determination finds expression over and over again. While this speaker waits for what he believes to be true inspiration, he goes ahead and writes whatever he can to keep his creative juices flowing. The speaker of sonnet 79 is addressing his Muse directly, attempting to sort out once again his own individual offerings from that of the muse's contributions.

Sonnet 79

Whilst I alone did call upon thy aid
My verse alone had all thy gentle grace;
But now my gracious numbers are decay’d,
And my sick muse doth give an other place.
I grant, sweet love, thy lovely argument
Deserves the travail of a worthier pen;
Yet what of thee thy poet doth invent
He robs thee of, and pays it thee again.
He lends thee virtue, and he stole that word
From thy behaviour; beauty doth he give,
And found it in thy cheek; he can afford
No praise to thee but what in thee doth live.
Then thank him not for that which he doth say,
Since what he owes thee thou thyself dost pay.

Reading of Sonnet 79

Commentary

The speaker of sonnet 79 addresses his muse directly, sorting out once again his own contribution from that of the muse.

First Quatrain: Bereft of the Muse

Whilst I alone did call upon thy aid
My verse alone had all thy gentle grace;
But now my gracious numbers are decay’d,
And my sick muse doth give an other place.

In the first quatrain of sonnet 79, the speaker declares that when he depends solely on his muse for writing his sonnets, the poems "had all thy gentle grace." But the speaker now finds himself bereft of his muse, that is, another one of the pesky periods of writer’s block is assailing him. His "sick muse" is letting him down, and he is failing to accumulate the number of sonnets he wishes to produce.

Second Quatrain: Search for a Better Argument

I grant, sweet love, thy lovely argument
Deserves the travail of a worthier pen;
Yet what of thee thy poet doth invent
He robs thee of, and pays it thee again.

The speaker, who is an obsessed poet. admits that "sweet love" deserves a better "argument" than he is presently capable of providing. He knows that such work demands "a worthier pen." But when the speaker finds himself in such a dry state, destitute of creative juices, he simply has to ransack his earlier work to "pay[ ] it thee again."

To be able to offer at least some token, the speaker has to "rob" what the muse had earlier given him. The act does not make him happy, but he feels that he must do something other than whine and mope.

Third Quatrain: Crediting the Muse

He lends thee virtue, and he stole that word
From thy behaviour; beauty doth he give,
And found it in thy cheek; he can afford
No praise to thee but what in thee doth live.

Even such a thieving poet "lends thee virtue." The speaker metaphorically likens his reliance on the muse to the crime of theft. But he makes it clear that he gives the muse all of the credit for his ability even to steal. It is the "behaviour" and the "beauty" of the muse that lends this speaker his talents.

The speaker says he cannot accept praise for any of the works, because they all come from the muse: they are "what in thee doth live." His talent and his inspiration that find happy expression in his works he always attributes to his muse. On those occasions that the speaker becomes too full of himself, he pulls back humbly, even though he knows he has let the cat out of the bag.

The Couplet: Undeserving of Musal Gratitude

Then thank him not for that which he doth say,
Since what he owes thee thou thyself dost pay.

Finally, the speaker avers that he is not deserving of any gratitude or even consideration by the muse. He insists that, "what he owes thee thou thyself dost pay." All that the speaker may owe his muse is already contained in that muse, including any gratitude he may want to express.

Such a description of his "muse" indicates that the speaker knows the muse is none other than his own Divine Creator. His humble nature allows him to construct his sonnets as prayers, which he can offer to his Divine Belovèd.

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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