A reading of a Shakespeare sonnet
‘Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage …’: so begins Shakespeare’s Sonnet 26, which is the focus of our analysis here. It’s seen as something of a triumph among the early sonnets in the sequence, and is worth unpicking and summarising carefully for that reason.
Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage
Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit,
To thee I send this written embassage,
To witness duty, not to show my wit:
Duty so great, which wit so poor as mine
May make seem bare, in wanting words to show it,
But that I hope some good conceit of thine
In thy soul’s thought, all naked, will bestow it:
Till whatsoever star that guides my moving,
Points on me graciously with fair aspect,
And puts apparel on my tottered loving,
To show me worthy of thy sweet respect:
Then may I dare to boast how I do love thee;
Till then, not show my head where thou mayst prove me.
The opening words of the sonnet, ‘Lord of my love’, and the reference to the poem as ‘this written ambassage’ in the third line, reveal the poem’s central conceit: it is being offered as a formal letter or missive written by an ambassador to a noble lord (hence those opening words).
In summary, Sonnet 26 sees Shakespeare addressing the Fair Youth, whom he loves, as if the Youth were his liege lord and Shakespeare were his vassal or loyal servant. Shakespeare flatters the Youth’s lordly ‘merit’, saying that such merit makes it easy for him, Shakespeare, to perform his duty towards his ‘lord’. Modestly, Shakespeare claims that he has written Sonnet 26, this ‘ambassage’, to pledge his bound duty to the Youth, rather than to show off his cleverness with words (‘wit’). Note the way ‘witness’ prepares us for ‘wit’, implying – through their etymological link – that Shakespeare is not being entirely honest when he claims that this poem is merely a way of announcing his loyal service, since he is going to use it as a way of showing off his wit too.
In lines 5-8, Shakespeare says that his poor wit makes this ‘message’ he is delivering seem bare and unexceptional, since he lacks the skill with words to show how deeply he honours his duty to the Youth. This is something that we see in many of the Sonnets, of course: Shakespeare saying eloquently that he is really bad with words. But Shakespeare maintains that his only hope is that the fine wit of the Youth, his ‘lord’, will use his superior wit to read ‘some good conceit’ or clever idea into the poor words the poet has used. The reference to nakedness in line 8 may seem confusing at first, because the syntax is ambiguous, but ‘all naked’ must refer to the ‘it’ (i.e. the poet’s poor wit) mentioned at the end of the line, since it looks back to the ‘bare’ quality of his poor message.
In lines 9-12, the naked conceit is continued, with talk of ‘apparel’ or clothing. Shakespeare says that he’ll wait until the stars that astrologically govern his life point favourably at him, and bless him with the respect of the Fair Youth, until he’ll declare his love for the Youth.
In the concluding couplet, Shakespeare says that until that happens, he will not dare to boast how much he loves the Youth, in case the Youth should test his love (‘prove’ is used in the old sense of ‘test’, as in the proverb ‘the exception proves the rule’).
In Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary, Don Paterson suggests that Sonnet 26’s position in the cycle may be interpreted as significant: it could be a sort of ‘envoi’ or farewell piece to the first 25 sonnets, or a ‘dedicatory epistle’ for the remaining sonnets addressed to the Fair Youth, of which there are precisely one hundred left to go. It’s a tempting idea, and certainly the conceit of addressing his muse as a ‘lord’ chimes with the dedications Shakespeare appended to his two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece (which were in fact dedicated to actual noblemen).
However we analyse the significance of the placing of Sonnet 26, most critics agree that it’s one of the best of the early sonnets – perhaps the finest so far, with the exception of the celebrated Sonnet 18. What do you think of the dedicatory ‘lord of my love’ conceit Shakespeare uses in this sonnet?