How can my muse want subject to invent,
While thou dost breathe, that pour’st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
For every vulgar paper to rehearse?
O! give thy self the thanks, if aught in me
Worthy perusal stand against thy sight;
For who’s so dumb that cannot write to thee,
When thou thy self dost give invention light?
Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate;
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date.
If my slight muse do please these curious days,
The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.
The poet is perhaps responding to a complaint that his output seems to be failing, and that he has for a while produced nothing new. The sonnet ties in with several others which praise the youth as the source of all inspiration. 53,78, 83, 84, 98, 99, 100, 103 all work on this theme in various ways.
Set at this point in the sequence, between sonnets of separation and despair, this sonnet helps to reinvest the youth with the previous beauty and fascination which perhaps had been waning under the influence of his faults. We are reminded once again of his surpassing excellence, his being, his very self, his own sweet argument which gives inspiration to all writers, a more powerful draught of inspiration than that provided by the outworn and outmoded old Nine Muses whom poets so tediously invoke to give life to their songs.
It is possible that this is a side swipe at the dependency on classical forms and material which were the staple of so much English writing of the period. Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence is noticeably free of classical references. Yet we know from his poems, Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, and his plays featuring Greek and Roman subjects, that he was familiar enough with the classical world to dramatize and use it when he wished.
One effect of the absence of classical allusion in the sonnets is that it brings the speaker closer to the reader. There are curtains and barriers between the two, but they stem more from emotional and linguistic complexity than from book learning. The Petrarchan and Elizabethan tradition of sonnet writing prefers that the beloved is a chaste and unassailable fair one, a Diana, and that the lover is a mad Leander prepared to swim the Hellespont to reach her and fling himself at her feet. Yet she remains icy and detached in virginal purity, her beauty inflaming him to still more acts of folly.
For whatever reason Shakespeare did not subscribe to this tradition. Either he wished to parody it, or he found it too constricting and insufficient to portray the emotions which battered him. There are often direct non-parodic echoes to sonnets of other writers, as here (see notes), and these echoes show how deeply Shakespeare was immersed in the literary traditions of his day, picking elements from it that suited his purposes.