So is it not with me as with that Muse
Stirr’d by a painted beauty to his verse,
Who heaven itself for ornament doth use
And every fair with his fair doth rehearse
Making a couplement of proud compare,
With sun and moon, with earth and sea’s rich gems,
With April’s first-born flowers, and all things rare
That heaven’s air in this huge rondure hems.
O’ let me, true in love, but truly write,
And then believe me, my love is as fair
As any mother’s child, though not so bright
As those gold candles fix’d in heaven’s air:
Let them say more than like of hearsay well;
I will not praise that purpose not to sell.
The poet now begins an analysis of what he might or might not say of his beloved. He does not wish to follow the example of those poets who force comparisons with everything that is fair, beautiful, strange or rare. Instead he wishes to extol the virtue of truthfulness. Since his love is indeed beautiful, what need is there of over praise? Why not say at the outset that, quite simply, you, my love, are yourself, you outshine all praise. He who attempts to say more is like a costermonger trying to sell his wares from a barrow. But this poet will remain aloof from such gross pandering. The fact that his love is fair is enough for him, and he will not enlarge his praise by false and ludicrous comparisons.
The criticism of ‘that Muse’ is fairly general, but it is quite possible that it applies to an individual rather than to a style of writing. Later in the sequence sonnets 76-86 deal with the threat from a rival poet or poets and this sonnet here is a perhaps a foretaste of what is to follow later.
It is more natural to suppose that the sonnets were written as a response to or as a contribution to the easy discussions of a group of young men, some of whom might have enjoyed a privileged position in relation to the cynosure of the group, the young nobleman who has been encouraged in the previous sonnets to repair his house (i.e. to marry and have children). The poetic criticism levelled here might apply to many poets, Petrarch, Sydney, Daniel, even Shakespeare himself (although we should not assume that it will be a poet well known to our anthologies). It is a clever way of turning the tables on conventional poetry, at the same time showing that one’s own poems are just as inventive. It also has the more serious motive of investigating the nature of love – ‘What is it that makes my loved one so special, so exalted in my eyes above the conventional norms of beauty. What is it that makes him so supremely himself?’
Leave a Reply