Sonnet 80

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Sonnet 80
Detail of old-spelling text
Sonnet 80 in the 1609 Quarto
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O, how I faint when I of you do write,
Knowing a better spirit doth use your name,
And in the praise thereof spends all his might,
To make me tongue-tied, speaking of your fame!
But since your worth, wide as the ocean is,
The humble as the proudest sail doth bear,
My saucy bark, inferior far to his,
On your broad main doth wilfully appear.
Your shallowest help will hold me up afloat,
Whilst he upon your soundless deep doth ride;
Or, being wreck’d, I am a worthless boat,
He of tall building and of goodly pride:
Then if he thrive and I be cast away,
The worst was this; my love was my decay.





—William Shakespeare[1]

Sonnet 80 is one of 154 sonnets written by the English playwright and poet William Shakespeare. It is a member of the Fair Youth sequence, in which the poet expresses his love towards a young man, and the third sonnet of the Rival Poet subsequence.


Knowing that a better poet is praising the youth, the poet feels inadequate. However, since the youth's value is as big as the ocean there is room for both poets to sail the ships of their verse on it: the impressive galleon of the rival poet and the small vessel of the speaker.


Sonnet 80 is an English or Shakespearean sonnet. The English sonnet has three quatrains, followed by a final rhyming couplet. It follows the typical rhyme scheme of the form, abab cdcd efef gg and is composed in iambic pentameter, a type of poetic metre based on five pairs of metrically weak/strong syllabic positions. The 10th line exemplifies a regular iambic pentameter:

  ×     / × /   ×    /    ×    /    ×    / 
Whilst he upon your soundless deep doth ride; (80.10)
/ = ictus, a metrically strong syllabic position. × = nonictus.

The meter demands a few variant pronunciations: the 2nd line's "spirit" functions as 1 syllable (possibly pronounced as spear't, sprite, sprit, or spurt[2]), the 7th line's "inferior" as 3 syllables, and the 9th line's "shallowest" as 2.[3]

The sonnet exhibits some common metrical variations, for example, an initial reversal in the 2nd line:

  / ×   ×  /  ×    /     ×   /    ×    / 
Knowing a better spirit doth use your name, (80.2)

Reversals can also occur mid-line, as occurs in line 5; and some may be optional, as the possible initial reversals in lines 1 and 13. Also possible is the rightward movement of the first ictus (the resulting four-position figure, × × / /, is sometimes referred to as a minor ionic):

×   ×     /    /    ×    /  ×  / ×  / 
On your broad main doth wilfully appear. (80.8)


  1. ^ Pooler, C[harles] Knox, ed. (1918). The Works of Shakespeare: Sonnets. The Arden Shakespeare [1st series]. London: Methuen & Company. OCLC 4770201. 
  2. ^ Booth 2000, p. 262.
  3. ^ Booth 2000, p. 274.


First edition and facsimile
Variorum editions
Modern critical editions