Shakespeare's sonnet 78. True love and its positive effects on writing

Seminar Paper, 2008

6 Pages, Grade: 1,3

Francesca Cavaliere (Author)



1 Introduction

2 Legal Ownership vs. Illegal Imitation

3 Inferiority in style vs. superiority in love

4 Artificial Style versus Simplicity

5 References to erotic love

1 Introduction

Sonnet 78 is taken from the collection of “Shakespeare’s sonnets” according to Duncan Jones probably dedicated to William Herbert (Duncan Jones, 85). It is the first sonnet of the group of the rival sonnets running from Sonnet 78 to 86 (Duncan Jones, 65). A common aspect in these sonnets is that rival poets challenge the poet in his poetry for the young man’s favour. A subtheme in the rival poet series is the poet’s expression of love, balanced against the artistic style of others. It will therefore be interesting to have a closer look at how the lyrical speaker tries to win the fight for the young man’s affection over his rivals in this particular sonnet and which strategies he applies to prove that, despite his inferior talent, he is worthier than his rivals. By responding to these questions, there will be given evidence for the thesis that the speaker’s superiority to his contestants lies in his honest affection to his beloved. The young man thus being supposed to value the poet’s lines not for their outmoded “style” but for the love they express.

After having presented some formal aspects of the sonnet, I will go on in a more or less chronological order starting with the 1st quatrain. The focus will be put here on the speaker’s claim of legal ownership standing in opposition to the dishonest imitator status of the rivals. The second main paragraph will then centre on the speaker’s dependence on his muse opposed to the superior poetic talent of the rival poets. I will then proceed with the contrast between the simplicity of the speaker’s verse and the artificial style of the rival poets. A final focus will be put on the idea of erotic love expressed by the speaker.

On the first glance the Sonnet 78 seems to follow the English sonnet structure consisting of 3 quatrains and one final couplet. The 14 lines follow a constant iambic pentameter and a regular rhyme scheme: alternating rhyme (abab, cdcd, efef) in the 3 quatrains and the last two lines in the couplet rhyming together (gg). There can, however, be identified a caesura after the first two quatrains, separating octave and sestet according to the Italian sonnet structure. The semantic opposition between octave and sestet is syntactically reflected by the full stop at the end of line 8 (Duncan Jones 95/96).

2 Legal Ownership vs. Illegal Imitation

In the first quatrain the speaker points out his legal ownership of the young man whereas the rivals are reduced to dishonest imitator status. Throughout the poem the speaker directly speaks to his beloved in a second – person address. The first line of the sonnet starts with an inversion of the normal word order: “So oft have I invoked thee for my muse”. This fronting of the adverbial group: “so oft” puts the emphasis on the frequency of the action indicating that it had become a traditional habit for the lyrical speaker to call upon the young man as his muse. The speaker thus refers to a kind of customary law indicating that he alone is entitled to call upon the young man which at the same time suggests dishonesty in the imitating rival poet (Booth, 269). The alliteration: “my muse” (1) underlines that the speaker of the poem and the addressee form an inseparable unit and is therefore opposed to the alliteration “thee their” (4). The rivalry is also revealed by other antithetical relationships that can be identified between “I” and “others”, “my art” and “(their) arts (Vendler, 351).

The former mentioned idea of speaker and young man belonging together is even extended to the concept of possession which is revealed by a separate reading of the nouns: “my muse” (1) and “my use” (3) linked to each other by the alternating rhyme scheme. This notion of ownership is reinforced by the frequent use of the possessive pronoun “my” which is repeated altogether 5 times in the poem: “my muse” (1) , “my verse” (2) , “my use” (3) , “my art” (13 ), “my rude ignorance” (14). In line 3: “As every alien pen has got my use” the writing instrument “pen” serves as a pars pro toto for the rival poets who have started to imitate the speaker in his habit and therefore abused his unique position. The indefinite pronoun “every” is employed here as a hyperbole with an ambiguous meaning. On the one hand, it could be interpreted as the speaker’s attempt to modestly play down his own talent by stating, that almost everyone is able to imitate him. On the other hand, the exaggeration on the number of rivals could also put into question the talent of the rivals as traditionally quantity and quality are seen as two notions excluding each other. In line 4 the pronoun “their” replaces “every pen” as if it were grammatically plural which again highlights the uncertainty about the actual number of rivals (Booth, 271). A further vagueness is the meaning of the term “alien” in this context which in its first meaning could simply refer to non- English authors. It can, however, also be interpreted in the meaning of hostile stranger having a much more negative connotation then. According to an extreme interpretation “alien” could even refer to anyone other than the speaker of the poem, which then again would confirm the speaker’s unique position (Booth, 269).

Another aspect that distinguishes the speaker from his rivals is expressed in the metaphor “under thee” (4) which serves as a totum pro parte meaning under your authority, protection or by your inspiration. This directly relates to the custom of authors seeking patronage from members of the nobility (Booth, 270). It is made obvious that the rivals have not yet come under the young man’s protection as they “disperse” their poetry whereas the speaker “compiles” his verses (Vendler, 352). The word “compile” (9) derives from the latin root: “compilare” - originally meaning to steal. This underlines the proposition of the 1st quatrain: “The poems of the thieving poets are to the speaker’s as the speaker’s poems are to the beloved” (Booth, 271).

3 Inferiority in style vs. superiority in love

In the 2nd quatrain the speaker presents himself as originally inferior to his rivals in terms of poetic talent, only, however, to draw the reader’s attention to the positive effect of the young man’s inspiration on his poetry. The unequal relationship in talent is depicted in the form of an antithesis between the qualities of ungifted poets: “dumb” (5), “ignorance” (6) and those that are used to describe the identity of the rival(s): “learned” (7) and “grace” (8). Synechdochally standing for the whole person, the adjectives “the dumb” (5) and “the learned” (7) have been nominalized. Furthermore, there can be identified a semantic opposition between the nominalized adjective “the dumb” and the verb “sing” (5) .

A very similar antithesis can be found between “heavy” (6) and “aloft to fly” (6) in the following line. As well as a heavy person can hardly be expected to soar “aloft” into the sky, a mute person is far from being able to “sing”. All these metaphors express the positive effect the young man has on untalented poets/ or the speaker himself who by the youth's inspiration are elevated to the level of the learned scholars of line 7. It is worth noticing in this context that “learned” scholars like the rivals at Shakespeare’s time were often said to be dull poets which might indicate the irony that is operating here (Booth, 271).

Another aspect to be taken into consideration is the fact that the verb “sing” is completed by the adjective group: “on high” (5) which in its literary sense means to sing “loudly”. It, however, also suggests the location of the singer or respectively the poet who sings his song/ poem “in the heights like a bird or an angel” (Booth, 271). The idea of height is also reflected in the prosody of the phrase: “thine eyes that taught the dumb on high to sing” (7). When reading the sonnet out aloud one is forced to raise the voice for the two – line relative clause interrupting the altogether 4 line sentence span. This so called syntactic lift serves to underline the soaring of the speaker (Vendler, 352). It is made obvious in the final line that the poet equates himself with the “dumb “ and “ignorant” in the 2nd quatrain by the phrase: “my rude ignorance” (14). The speaker’s total dependence on the young man’s inspiration is also illustrated in the phrase: “thou art all my art” (13) as this implies that the speaker sees himself merely as mediator between his muse and his poetry, even though normally it is supposed to be the other way round (Booth, 272).

4 Artificial Style versus Simplicity

In a next step, the lyrical speaker tries to reveal that the young man’s inspiration is completely ineffectual for the rival poets as it only creates a stylistic overload in their verses. This uselessness is expressed in the bird metaphor that had already been anticipated by the concept of “high” in the preceding lines: “have added feathers to the learned’s wing” (7). This expression is taken from falconry referring to the widespread practice of repairing a bird’s wing by adding extra feathers to it and thus improving its ability to fly high (Booth, 270). The formulation: “In others’ works thou dost but mend the style” refers back to this bird metaphor which can be proven by the fact that the terms style and feather are semantically related. Style derives from Latin “stilus” and means writing instrument. It is thus a synonym for pen which again derives from latin “penna”, meaning feather (Booth, 269).

Moreover, the characterization of the rival poets by the attributes “grace” and “majesty” reveals them to be members of the nobility. The conclusion the speaker draws from this is that through the inspiration of the young man the rival’s verse is added “a double majesty” (8). The polyptoton and alliteration “arts with thy sweet graces graced be” (12) presents a verbal proof of this “double majesty” (Booth, 271 f). The polyptoton, furthermore, lays ground for the assumption that the rivals’ verse has become artificially overloaded in style. The rivals’ exaggerated style stands in contrast to the simplicity of the speaker’s poetry which is shown in the homonymic pun in the couplet “thou art all my art” (13) using the same form “art” for the verb and the object (Vendler, 352).

Despite their simplicity the speaker’s poems flatter the young man most as only they are completely defined by the young man’s inspiration. This is expressed in the superlative form of the adjective “most proud” (9) and is even more explicitly addressed in line 10: “Whose influence is thine and born of thee”. The noun “influence” here can be seen as a metaphor for the powerful impact the young man has on the speaker, as this term is normally used in astrology to describe the power of a planet or star over human life (Booth 271).


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Shakespeare's sonnet 78. True love and its positive effects on writing
University of Potsdam  (Anglistik)
Shakespeare's Sonnets
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shakespeare, true
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Francesca Cavaliere (Author), 2008, Shakespeare's sonnet 78. True love and its positive effects on writing, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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