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Sonnet 86

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Sonnet 86
The 1609 Quarto Version

Was it the proud full ſaile of his great verſe,
Bound for the prize of (all to precious) you,
That did my ripe thoughts in my braine inhearce,
Making their tombe the wombe wherein they grew?
Was it his ſpirit,by ſpirits taught to write,
Aboue a mortall pitch,that ſtruck me dead ?
No,neither he,nor his compiers by night
Giuing him ayde,my verſe aſtoniſhed.
He nor that affable familiar ghoſt
Which nightly gulls him with intelligence,
As victors of my ſilence cannot boaſt,
I was not ſick of any feare from thence.
   But when your countinance fild vp his line,
   Then lackt I matter,that infeebled mine.

Edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones[1]
Was it the proud full sail of his great verse,
Bound for the prize of all-too-precious you,
That did my ripe thoughts in my brain in-hearse,
Making their tomb the womb wherein they grew?
Was it his spirit, by spirits taught to write
Above a mortal pitch, that struck me dead?
No, neither he, nor his compeers by night,
Giving him aid, my verse astonished.
He, nor that affable familiar ghost
Which nightly gulls him with intelligence,
As victors of my silence cannot boast;
I was not sick of any fear from thence.
But when your countenance filled up his line,
Then lacked I matter, that enfeebled mine.

–William Shakespeare

Sonnet 86 is one of 154 sonnets written by the English playwright and poet William Shakespeare. It is a part of the Rival Poet subsection of the Fair Youth sonnets in which Shakespeare writes about an unnamed young man and a rival poet competing for the youth's attention. While the exact date of its composition is unknown, scholars generally agree that the Rival Poet series was written between 1598 and 1600 and published along with the rest of the sonnets in the 1609 Quarto.

Within the sonnet, the speaker contemplates his inability to articulate his admiration for the Fair Youth, a fault he attributes to his jealousy of the Fair Youth's appearance in the poems of the speaker's Rival Poet. Sonnet 86 is notable within the Rival Poet subsection of sonnets because it allegedly provides important clues as to the historical identity of this Rival Poet. The sonnet is written in the typical Shakespearean sonnet form, containing 14 lines of iambic pentameter and ending in a rhymed couplet.

Paraphrase[edit]

The poem, in which the speaker rhetorically asks why he has lost his ability to write poetry, uses boating references while staying closely connected to the poetic structure of a sonnet.

Below is a paraphrase, written in contemporary English and in prose.

Was it his ambitious poetry, which was written to win you, that stopped my ability to think? Did it cause all of my ideas to die as soon as they were born? Was it his heaven given ability, writing which was blessed by the gods, that stopped me in my tracks? Neither he nor his companions who helped him were able to stop my poetic ability. Neither he nor the Muse which aids him each night can claim to have silenced me. For I am not afraid. However, when your beauty was gifted to him then I was lost and destroyed.

Structure[edit]

Shakespeare's sonnets follow the fourteen line pentameter rhyme scheme of the 'English' or 'Surreyan' sonnet form. A sonnet originally referred to any short lyric.[2] In 1573, George Gascoigne tried to define the word sonnet. This definition, stated below, creates the structure format within which Shakespeare often wrote.

"I can best allowe to call those Sonnets which are of fourtene lynes, every line conteyning tenne syllables. The first twelve do ryme in staves of foure lines by crosse metre, and the last twoo ryming together do conclude the whole." [3]

The sonnet, which was very popular during the early 16th century when sonnets were translated and brought over from Italy, was not as popular when Shakespeare wrote his 154 sonnets (see Shakespearean sonnet). While conventional English sonnet form described by Gascoigne is seen in Sonnet 86, the Petrarchan sonnet form, which requires a pause between the first eight lines and the last six lines is also evident. At the end of line eight Shakespeare uses a period to bring the sonnet to a stop, changing the sonnet's direction by moving away from rhetorical questions to a more decisive tone within the sestet, which seems to answer the distress of the octave. [4]

Below is an example of where, and on which words, syllabic stress should be placed, within this sonnet. Using the first line of Sonnet 86, the un-stressed and stressed syllables are highlighted. The X represents an un-stressed syllable and the / represents a stressed syllable.

Iambic Pentameter of a line of Sonnet 86
Stress x / x / x / x / x /
Syllable Was it the proud full sail of his great verse

Context[edit]

Sonnet 86 is well known as the final sonnet of The Rival Poet sonnets, in Shakespeares 1609 edition of sonnets. The rival poet series, Sonnets 78-86, is generally thought to be written around the years of 1598–1600, based on vocabulary evidence and similarities found with the plays that were also written during this time period.[5] There is no exact answer as to who this rival poet is since nearly every well-known poet contemporary with Shakespeare has, at some time, been suggested as the "rival poet".[6] Among the poets considered to be the rival poet, George Chapman and Christopher Marlowe, colleagues and literary competitors to Shakespeare, are generally considered to be two of the most likely contenders.[7]

Many of these potential identifications have been made using alleged clues found in Sonnet 86. The second and third quatrains in particular have garnered much attention in this regard. The description of a poet "by spirits taught to write" has led several critics, including Katherine Duncan-Jones and William Minto, to name George Chapman as the likeliest candidate. This is due to his supposed spiritual inspiration by the ghost of Homer.[8] Another scholar, Richard Levin, connects the line "Above a mortal pitch, that struck me dead?" to Christopher Marlowe's play Tamburlaine,[9] saying that the reactions described in both are similar to each other.

In a different reading, Shakespearean scholar Eric Sams has interpreted this reference to spiritual communion as an allusion to Barnabe Barnes, a notorious English occultist and poet,[10] while others contend that the significance of the spirit is simply an allusion to poetic genius and that it contains no reference to an actual personage.

Exegesis[edit]

Overview[edit]

While scholarly debate abounds as to the identities of the persons contemplated in the sonnet, there is general consensus as to Sonnet 86's role within the Rival Poet subsection of the Fair Youth sonnets. As Joseph Pequigney notes, "Sonnet 86 is written in the past tense, as distinct from the present tense of the eight previous sonnets, to signal the end of the episode," that is, the Rival Poet series of sonnets.[11] As the final sonnet in the series, it is also the sonnet in which Shakespeare claims his ultimate victory over the rival poet, the situation "resolved in Shakespeare's favor" as he relentlessly mocks his opponent.[12] Though he admits to having experienced a poetic hesitation, Shakespeare maintains that it was not the Rival Poet who caused it. Katherine Duncan-Jones writes: "Undaunted by the splendour of his rival's verses, the speaker quails only at [his rival's] appropriation of the young man's favour."[13]

Quatrain 1[edit]

The sonnet begins with the speaker rhetorically asking whether it was the "great verse" of his rival poet that had prevented the speaker from expressing his own "ripe thoughts." According to Duncan-Jones, "the speaker claims to be unable to voice his thoughts of love; they are ready for utterance (ripe), but remain buried (in-hearsed) in his brain because he is intimidated by his rival."[14] However, as Harold Bloom contends, this intimidation is apparently not caused by the artistic skill of his rival. In the opening lines of the sonnet, "[Shakespeare] charmingly suggests an inhibition through jealousy, not of superior poetic powers, but of encountering the Fair Young Man's portrait in a rival's verses."[15] The significance behind the apparent flattery of this rival's art seems open to interpretation. Kenneth Muir writes: "Whether "the proud full sail of his great verse" is sincere admiration or a hint that it is bombastic is still debated,"[16] though contemporary scholars tend to gravitate toward the latter, more sarcastic interpretation. Pequiney, amongst others, asserts that this verse is a derogatory adversion to the ostentatious craft of his opponent, belittling the rival's delusions of grandeur.[17]

Quatrain 2[edit]

As noted above, many of the alleged clues as to the identity of the rival poet have been discovered within this quatrain. While Duncan-Jones and Minto interpret references of the poet "by spirits taught to write" as allusions to George Chapman, other scholars have posited poets from Marlowe to Gervase Markham as contenders. Eric Sams, for one, relies heavily on these descriptions of spiritual communication to reinforce his argument for Barnes as the Rival Poet, noting Barnes' scandalous occultism in 16th century England.[18] In addition to these claims (which assume the existence of a historical counterpart), there are also scholars who argue that the significance of the spirit is overstated and that it simply refers to poetic inspiration. As these diverse interpretations attest, a definitive identification of the Rival remains far from determined. Bloom writes, "Nearly every contemporary with Shakespeare has been put forward, including Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Samuel Daniel, and Edmund Spenser".[19] Structurally, this quatrain both extends and answers the question previously advanced by the sonnet's speaker. He again asks whether it was the spirit of his rival that extinguished the speaker's inspiration, then responds that it was certainly not. Within this response, Shakespeare simultaneously attacks the merit of the Rival's output, "underscoring his "spiritual" composition, not to say his quackery,"[20] while thoroughly rejecting its influence on the speaker's own poetry. An accurate reading of the eighth line ("Giving him aid, my verse astonished.") must take note that the word "astonished" is herein found with its earliest definition: "bereft of sensation; stunned, benumbed," in describing the status of the speaker's "verse."[21]

Quatrain 3[edit]

In the third quatrain, after again questioning the integrity of his rival's work, Shakespeare continues to affirm his fearlessness in the face of his rival's poetry. Lines nine and ten lend themselves to the same ambiguous interpretation found in the previous quatrain, with many scholars reading them as a reference to a specific poet. Of the "affable familiar ghost" found in line nine, Duncan-Jones writes: "The phrase seems to carry an allusion to some well-known relationship between a poet and his Muse or inspiring genius, such as Chapman's with the spirit of Homer." [22] Shakespeare, however, mocks this relationship, stating that the Rival has been "gulled" by whatever spirit he may be communicating with and even this creative alliance is unable to claim the victory of the speaker's silence.[23] The final line of the quatrain ("I was not sick of any fear from thence.") sets the stage for the couplet, alluding to the fact that, while his fear did not come from "thence," i.e., the rival poet, there is indeed a fear that has disrupted his poetic output.[24]

Couplet[edit]

The couplet of Sonnet 86 finally allows the reader a glimpse of the speaker's true vulnerability. It is here that he sets aside his attack on the Rival Poet in order to admit the true cause of his work's impediment. Pequigney writes "Shakespeare finishes the episode by acknowledging what had long been evident, that the focus and cause of the contention was centered on the youth, not on literary laurels." [25] Bloom calls this couplet "a climactic, if dispiriting, close for the speaker," as it demonstrates that while the speaker may have defeated the Rival Poet on the grounds of artistry, there is still competition between the two for the favor of the Fair Youth.[26] In terms of the Rival Poet's identity, Sams uses the penultimate verse to strengthen his argument for Barnes, reading line 13 as a reference to Barne's 1593 work Parthenophil and Parthenophe. Sams writes: "One phrase in Sonnet 86 echoes Barnes, namely "when your countenance filled up his line." Barnes's sonnet to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton includes the actual words "your countenance." Thus Southampton's favour is solicited for the love−lyrics of Parthenophil and Parthenophe, so "that with your countenance graced they may withstand" envy and criticism. The word "countenance" has indeed "filled up" Barnes's line—to overflowing, since it adds an extra syllable."[27] Shakespeare's verse, on the other hand, conforms to a traditional iambic scansion. This interpretation also reads this line as a final blow against the Rival Poet, demonstrating Shakespeare's superior mastery of the sonnet form.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Duncan-Jones, Katherine (2010). Shakespeare's Sonnets (Revised ed.). London: Arden Shakespeare. p. 283. ISBN 1-4080-1797-0. 
  2. ^ Duncan-Jones, Katherine (2010). Shakespeare's Sonnets (Revised ed.). London: Arden Shakespeare. p. 59. ISBN 1-4080-1797-0. 
  3. ^ Gascoigne, George (1573). Certayne Notes of Instruction. 
  4. ^ Duncan-Jones, Katherine (2010). Shakespeare's Sonnets (Revised ed.). London: Arden Shakespeare. p. 96. ISBN 1-4080-1797-0. 
  5. ^ Jackson, Macd. P. (April 2005). "Francis Meres and the Cultural Contexts of Shakespeare's Rival Poet Sonnets". Review of English Studies 56: 2. 
  6. ^ Acheson, Arthur (1922). "X". Shakespeare's Sonnet Story (Hathi Trust Digital Library ed.). London: Quaritch. p. 265. 
  7. ^ Levin, Richard (1985). "Another Possible Clue To the Identity of The Rival Poet". Shakespeare Quarterly 36: 213–214. doi:10.2307/2871194. 
  8. ^ Duncan-Jones, Katherine (2010). Shakespeare's Sonnets (Revised ed.). London: Arden Shakespeare. p. 282. ISBN 1-4080-1797-0. 
  9. ^ Levin, Richard (1985). "Another Possible Clue To the Identity of The Rival Poet". Shakespeare Quarterly 36: 213–214. doi:10.2307/2871194. 
  10. ^ Sams, Eric (1998). "Who was the Rival Poet of Shakespeare's Sonnet 86". Connotations (8.1): 129. Retrieved 2014-09-22. 
  11. ^ Pequigney, Joseph (1986). Such Is My Love. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 123. 
  12. ^ Pequigney, Joseph (1986). Such Is My Love. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 123. 
  13. ^ Duncan-Jones, Katherine (2010). Shakespeare's Sonnets (Revised ed.). London: Arden Shakespeare. p. 283. ISBN 1-4080-1797-0. 
  14. ^ Duncan-Jones, Katherine (2010). Shakespeare's Sonnets (Revised ed.). London: Arden Shakespeare. p. 283. ISBN 1-4080-1797-0. 
  15. ^ Bloom, Harold (2008). The Sonnets. New York: Bloom's Literary Criticism. pp. xv. 
  16. ^ Muir, Kenneth (1979). Shakespeare's Sonnets. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd. p. 158. 
  17. ^ Pequigney, Joseph (1986). Such Is My Love. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 123. 
  18. ^ Sams, Eric (1998). "Who was the Rival Poet of Shakespeare's Sonnet 86". Connotations (8.1): 129. Retrieved 2014-09-22. 
  19. ^ Bloom, Harold (2008). The Sonnets. New York: Bloom's Literary Criticism. p. 27. 
  20. ^ Pequigney, Joseph (1986). Such Is My Love. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 123. 
  21. ^ "astonished, adj.". OED Online (Oxford University Press). September 2014. 
  22. ^ Duncan-Jones, Katherine (2010). Shakespeare's Sonnets (Revised ed.). London: Arden Shakespeare. p. 283. ISBN 1-4080-1797-0. 
  23. ^ Pequigney, Joseph (1986). Such Is My Love. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 124. 
  24. ^ Bloom, Harold (2008). The Sonnets. New York: Bloom's Literary Criticism. pp. xv. 
  25. ^ Pequigney, Joseph (1986). Such Is My Love. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 124. 
  26. ^ Bloom, Harold (2008). The Sonnets. New York: Bloom's Literary Criticism. p. 27. 
  27. ^ Sams, Eric (1998). "Who was the Rival Poet of Shakespeare's Sonnet 86". Connotations (8.1): 128. Retrieved 2014-09-22.