A reading of a Shakespeare sonnet
Sonnet 21 in Shakespeare’s Sonnets takes us further into the Bard’s world of personal feeling – specifically, his feelings for the Fair Youth. How should we interpret and analyse Shakespeare’s Sonnet 21 in terms of his clearly burgeoning affection for the Youth?
So is it not with me as with that Muse,
Stirred 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 fixed in heaven’s air:
Let them say more that like of hearsay well;
I will not praise that purpose not to sell.
In summary, Sonnet 21 is a rejection of the poetic metaphor: a statement (such as we’ll also find later applied to the ‘Dark Lady’ in the somewhat more famous Sonnet 130) that similes and comparisons are often inappropriate when describing one’s beloved (though they are inappropriate for different reasons in that later sonnet).
In lines 1-4, Shakespeare sets himself apart from ‘that Muse’, which is often interpreted as being an early reference to a ‘rival poet’ who will also be the subject of a number of sonnets later in the sequence. So, for ‘that Muse’ read ‘that other poet inspired by his Muse’. This other poet is inspired by a false and overly adorned version of his beloved, and what’s more, is prepared to risk blasphemy by using heaven itself to praise his beloved’s beauty (e.g. by excessively praising his beloved as possessing ‘heavenly beauty’, we suppose). Every beautiful thing (‘fair’ here is a noun meaning fair or beautiful thing, as it is in the more famous Sonnet 18) is likened to his beloved, to the point of excess.
In lines 5-8, Shakespeare says that this other poet makes grand and lofty comparisons (‘proud compare’) between his beloved and everything he can think of, yoking them together in a somewhat contrived ‘couplement’. Some of the beautiful things used in comparison to the poet’s beloved are the sun and moon, expensive gems, spring flowers, and other rare things which heaven contains within this ‘rondure’ (i.e. rounded thing) we call Earth.
In lines 9-12, Shakespeare changes direction a little: there is in fact a little ‘turn’ or volta at this point, as with Petrarchan sonnets (but rare in Shakespearean sonnets). Shakespeare says that as his love is true, he wants only to write truly – not falsely, i.e. by drawing silly and excessive comparisons as this other poet does. Then his beloved, the Fair Youth, might believe that his love is true. (‘Any mother’s child’ simply means ‘anyone’, since we’re all mother’s children.) It’s important for the Bard’s love to be true than for it to be bright and showy: indeed, if it’s too bright then it loses some of its truth.
In the concluding couplet, Shakespeare says: let those who like to listen to hearsay and gossip say more than this if they want (tongues will always wag, after all); but I will not praise, since I do not wish to sell my beloved. This last line is a clever conceit: why go about bragging in exaggerated terms about how beautiful someone is when you want them for yourself?
It should be apparent, as we go through and analyse Sonnet 21, that Shakespeare has feelings for the Fair Youth, and these are intensifying. In Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary, Don Paterson speculates that this reference to selling something may be a reference to the earlier sonnets, which were probably written for a commission (in order to persuade the Fair Youth, whoever he was, to marry and sire an heir). Now the Bard is free of such financial chains and can speak his mind. No need to praise the Fair Youth inordinately – he will simply describe him as he is.
Sonnet 21 shows Shakespeare doing two things: rejecting the overly poetical comparisons favoured by other poets writing in praise of a person’s beauty, and, in doing so, revealing his own deepening love for the beautiful young man he is writing about.
Continue to explore Shakespeare’s Sonnets with our short overview of Sonnet 22.