A commentary on a classic Shakespeare sonnet
‘I grant thou wert not married to my Muse’ is the 82nd sonnet in Shakespeare’s sequence of 154 sonnets charting the romantic drama that’s played out between the poet, the Fair Youth, the Dark Lady, and the rival poet. In this poem, Shakespeare genteelly criticises his contemporaries who excessively praise beauty in their poems, arguing that when a poet is writing about the beauty of the Fair Youth, Shakespeare’s way – telling the truth and speaking plainly – is much more effective. Before we offer some words of analysis of Sonnet 82, here is the poem.
I grant thou wert not married to my Muse,
And therefore mayst without attaint o’erlook
The dedicated words which writers use
Of their fair subject, blessing every book.
Thou art as fair in knowledge as in hue,
Finding thy worth a limit past my praise;
And therefore art enforced to seek anew
Some fresher stamp of the time-bettering days.
And do so, love; yet when they have devised,
What strained touches rhetoric can lend,
Thou truly fair, wert truly sympathized
In true plain words, by thy true-telling friend;
And their gross painting might be better used
Where cheeks need blood; in thee it is abused.
First, a brief paraphrase of Sonnet 82 that can act as a summary of its meaning: ‘I’m prepared to acknowledge that you were never married to my poetry, so you’re free to read other poets – who have also written about your beauty – without anyone accusing you of dishonour. You’re clever as well as attractive, and know all too well that your beauty exceeds my ability to capture it in words, so you’re well within your rights to seek out other, younger poets who can offer a more up-to-date depiction of your beauty and worth. And please do so, by all means –but when these newer poets have come up with whatever strained devices their rhetoric can inspire, you’ll realise that you were most faithfully captured in the plain and true words that I, your honest friend, wrote for you. And you’ll realise that these other poets’ over-the-top descriptions are more effective when they’re writing about less beautiful people (who need a bit of exaggerated praise) than when they’re writing about you, who don’t require excessive praise. In fact, when poets like them exaggerate your beauty with their words, they do you a real disservice.’
Sonnet 82 is one of several poems from this section of the Sonnets which address the issue of poetic rivalry between Shakespeare and a number of his contemporaries, whom the Bard depicts as inferior to himself in capturing the Fair Youth’s beauty because they insist on using poetic conceits which are inadequate for the task at hand. Or perhaps ‘inadequate’ is the wrong word: their poetic artifice exceeds what is required. As Shakespeare will go on to say in the sonnets that ensue, the best way of paying homage to the Fair Youth’s beauty is by simply describing him as he is – to lay on the praise with a trowel is to cheapen him. To do so is to ‘gild the lily’, to borrow a phrase that originated in Shakespeare’s own play King John (where the actual line runs ‘to gild refined gold, to paint the lily’). So, there’s a paradox at the heart of Sonnet 82: Shakespeare ‘confesses’ that his own poetic abilities are inadequate (‘Finding thy worth a limit past my praise’), suggesting that these other poets are better-equipped with their fancy new techniques, but in fact Shakespeare’s approach, it emerges, is the better one when it comes to immortalising the Fair Youth.
The words ‘true’ and ‘fair’ recur throughout the sonnet, and are the core of the poem’s meaning: the best way to honour the Fair Youth’s fairness is to be true to it, and the best way to be true to his beauty is to avoid the temptation to ‘paint’ or adorn it with artificial flattery it doesn’t need.
If you found this analysis of Sonnet 82 useful, you can discover more about the Sonnets here.