A Short Analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 83: ‘I never saw that you did painting need’

A commentary on Shakespeare’s 83rd sonnet

Sonnet 83 continues the theme Shakespeare treated in the previous sonnet, by comparing his own poetry about the Fair Youth with the poetic efforts of some rival poets. Before we move to an analysis of Sonnet 83, here’s a reminder of the poem:

I never saw that you did painting need,
And therefore to your fair no painting set;
I found, or thought I found, you did exceed
The barren tender of a poet’s debt:
And therefore have I slept in your report,
That you yourself, being extant, well might show
How far a modern quill doth come too short,
Speaking of worth, what worth in you doth grow.
This silence for my sin you did impute,
Which shall be most my glory being dumb;
For I impair not beauty being mute,
When others would give life, and bring a tomb.
There lives more life in one of your fair eyes
Than both your poets can in praise devise.

The argument of Sonnet 83 essentially follows the same one made in the previous sonnet, but we’ll offer a brief paraphrase of the sonnet’s meaning, by way of summary, all the same. ‘I didn’t think you needed any excessive praise, and so I never adorned your beauty with extra praise. I found (or at least I thought I did) that your actual beauty transcended any description of it that a poet might devise. This is why I’ve been sleeping on the job, because I’ve always assumed that, as long as you live, you would show up any poet’s attempts to put your worth into words, by showing how far they fall short of your actual worth. You interpreted my silence as a fault, but my refusal to over-praise you will in fact prove to be my triumph, because you’ll come to realise that unlike the others, who praise you too much in order to bring you to life (and in doing so, actually kill you on the page), I am right to remain silent, so I don’t do your beauty a disservice. There is more life in one of your beautiful eyes than both of the poets who write about you can possibly come up with in their verse.’

If you’ve read our analysis of the previous sonnet, then you’ll probably agree that the two are quite similar in their meaning, and so we have little to add to our commentary on the general content of these poems. In summary, Shakespeare argues that the best way to pay homage to the Fair Youth’s beauty is to describe him in plain terms 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’).

The word ‘not’ in l. 11 makes the line’s meaning a little difficult to analyse at first: ‘For I impair not beauty being mute’ can be paraphrased as ‘For I don’t impair your beauty by being silent’. That said, it’s not the Bard’s best line, because the sense he’s trying to impart is, at least as we read it, being rather roughly forced into the iambic pentameter rhythm of the sonnet. And ‘tender’ in l. 4 is a reference to the legal term for ‘an offer’, as in money being ‘legal tender’ – though ‘barren’, suggesting sterility and childlessness, looks back to the earlier sonnets, beginning with Sonnet 1, which addressed the theme of procreation. This is worth bearing in mind. Otherwise, though, this poem is pretty straightforward. How much it adds to the Sonnets when we’ve already had Sonnet 82 is a moot point.

If you found this analysis of Sonnet 83 useful, you can discover more about the Sonnets here.

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