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Shakespeare Sonnet 80: "O! How I faint when I of you do write"

Updated on October 6, 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.

Shakespeare Sonnet Titles in My Article Titles

The Shakespeare Sonnet sequence does not feature titles for each sonnet; therefore, each sonnet's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford


Introduction and Text of Sonnet 80: "O! how I faint when I of you do write"

In sonnet 80, the speaker addresses the Divine, the Over-Soul, although he never uses any term to indicate so, save the word “spirit” in the first quatrain, which is here referring to the individual soul, not the Over-Soul.

The speaker uses the same the technique that he has employed before: he segments his self into parts in order to praise wihile still remaining humble.

The speaker is undoubtedly aware of the concept of the religious trinity which explains the nature of the Divine Creation's Ultimate Reality as tripartite: the force outside of nature, the force informing nature, and the force inside nature.

The Hindus refer to this force as Sat-Tat-Aum, and the tradition of the Judeo-Christian religion refers to it as "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

O! how I faint when I of you do write

O! How I faint when I of you do write
Knowing a better spirit doth use your name,
And in the praise thereof spends all his might,
To make me tongue-tied, speaking of your fame!
But since your worth—wide as the ocean is,—
The humble as the proudest sail doth bear,
My saucy bark, inferior far to his,
On your broad main doth wilfully appear.
Your shallowest help will hold me up afloat,
Whilst he upon your soundless deep doth ride;
Or, being wrack’d, I am a worthless boat,
He of tall building and of goodly pride:
Then if he thrive and I be cast away,
The worst was this;—my love was my decay.

Sonnet 80

First Quatrain: “O! How I faint when I of you do write”

In the first quatrain, the speaker exclaims, “O! How I faint when I of you do write.” He is overcome with a weakness that keeps him humble.

This speaker is essentially dividing his consciousness into two parts, referring to one as “I” and the other as “he.” The “better spirit” refers to the muse or his native talent; he separates his various “selves” in order to explore them.

The entity becomes tripartite, representing the physical, mental, and spiritual levels of being that all unite to produce fine art.

The speaker’s self qua self becomes “tongue-tied” when “speaking of the fame” of the Over-Soul’s Divinity. He spends “all of his might” praising the Divine, and thus he transforms into a humble servant as he compares his lesser talents to those of the Over-Soul or Super Muse.

Second Quatrain: “But since your worth—wide as the ocean is”

The speaker then avers that the value of the Divine is “wide as the ocean,” clearly an understatement (litotes of classical rhetoric), yet suitable for his purposes.

The humble speaker then metaphorically likens himself to a small boat which competes with a much larger vessel.

The speaker asserts that the Divine includes and recognizes all from the humblest to the “proudest.” His own small boat, which he labels a “saucy bark” and claims its inferiority, still finds favor enough to “appear” with the “proudest” on this all-encompassing sea.

This sea, of course, metaphorically represents the art world and by extension the entire cosmos.

Third Quatrain: “Your shallowest help will hold me up afloat”

Addressing the Divine, the speaker avers that even the smallest aid offered by His Greatness “will hold me up afloat.” This upliftment happens simultaneously with his other self “rid[ing]” “upon your soundless deep.”

While the muse remains silent, the speaker is permitted voice by the same grace that creates the muse and his own creative self.

The talented speaker thus demonstrates the unity of the muse and his own creative self, even as he has separated them, merely for the purpose of examining them.

Again, the speaker displays his humility by claiming, “I am a worthless boat,” at the same time averring, “He (his self that functions as the muse) appears “of tall building and of goodly pride.”

This convenient splitting allows the speaker to remain humble yet retain his pride.

The Couplet: “Then if he thrive and I be cast away”

The couplet ties the tripartite self together again with the speaker’s usual and most important subject—“love.”

If the writing self, who is the most ordinary self, fails while his muse succeeds, then the ordinary self gets the better part of it all because he has remained true to his love, and they continue united as they venture forth aging together.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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