A Short Analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 38: ‘How can my Muse want subject to invent’

A summary of Shakespeare’s 38th sonnet

We continue our exploration and analysis of Shakespeare’s sonnets this week with, predictably enough after Sonnet 37 last week, Sonnet 38. This is another poem about the Bard’s poetic inspiration, and explores the Fair Youth’s role as Shakespeare’s ‘muse’.

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.

A brief paraphrase of Sonnet 38 before we roll those interpretive sleeves up any further: ‘How can my muse lack inspiration or new material as long as you, Fair Youth, are alive? You are the very reason I can write poetry, and are too excellent and fine to be the subject of lesser “vulgar” poets’ work. Feel free to take the credit if you find anything in my work that’s worth reading; after all, who is so stupid and bad at writing that they cannot write to you, when you make it easy for them? Be the tenth Muse, ten times more valuable than the nine from ancient times that inferior poets invoke for inspiration. And whoever comes to you for inspiration [i.e. me, Will Shakespeare], help him to write timeless poetry that will survive forever. If my rather modest powers of creativity are pleasing in these strange times, the painful labour of poetic creation is mine to bear, but you will be the one who is praised.’

The nine Muses, of course, were the personification of artistic inspiration in ancient Greece: not just poetry but music, dance, history, and other artistic disciplines and pursuits. The notion of the Fair Youth as a ‘tenth Muse’ is notable, not least because the nine Muses were female, and the most famous person garlanded with the sobriquet ‘tenth Muse’ was Sappho, the ancient Greek female poet from the island of Lesbos, who, thanks to the homoerotic nature of her poetry, gave us the word ‘lesbian’. So in referring to the Youth as the ‘tenth Muse’, Shakespeare is returning to an idea presented in the 20th sonnet (that the Youth has ‘a woman’s face’) but also the homoerotic nature of his attraction to the young man.

Of course, it’s possible to take a ‘homoerotic analysis’ of Shakespeare’s Sonnets too far, and see gay symbols everywhere. But in light of Sonnet 20 in particular, Shakespeare’s bestowal of such a title on the Fair Youth is suggestive at the very least. But we shouldn’t let such an interpretation cloud us to the primary meaning of Sonnet 38: namely, that the classical muses who have inspired poets for countless centuries since ancient times have now been superseded – by one young man in England, living in the Elizabethan era. It’s high praise to live up to – but then such flattery is part and parcel of the Elizabethan sonnet sequence.

The meaning of Sonnet 38 is reasonably straightforward, although lines 3-4 are a little less clear than the rest, partly because it almost sounds as if Shakespeare is contradicting himself: he goes from saying that the Fair Youth is such a great source of inspiration that nobody could fail to be inspired by him, to saying that the Youth is too ‘excellent’ for more ‘vulgar’ poets to benefit from. Which is it, then? But after that, the sonnet gets into its stride. Whilst it’s by no means a classic sonnet, Sonnet 38 holds its own in the sequence – and the reference to ‘Eternal numbers to outlive long date’ remains fairly well-known.

One Comment

  1. Thanks for your analysis of this intriguing sonnet.

    Following on from previous comments I’ve made about sonnet numbering, Sonnet 38 is full of numbers. The poet Sappho, as you note, was the poet nominated by PIato as the 10th muse, and who left later poets the enduring Sapphic stanza, consisting of 38 beats.