Alack! what poverty my Muse brings forth,
That having such a scope to show her pride,
The argument all bare is of more worth
Than when it hath my added praise beside!
O! blame me not, if I no more can write!
Look in your glass, and there appears a face
That over-goes my blunt invention quite,
Dulling my lines, and doing me disgrace.
Were it not sinful then, striving to mend,
To mar the subject that before was well?
For to no other pass my verses tend
Than of your graces and your gifts to tell;
And more, much more, than in my verse can sit,
Your own glass shows you when you look in it.
�The poet again parades his modesty, portraying himself as an indifferent poet who cannot adequately sing the worth of his beloved. But of course the poem itself contradicts this stance, and the poet, despite his disclaimers, is probably well aware of the relative merits of his verse when set against the youth’s own frivolity and the worth of a lasting and true relationship. Yet he shows his generosity by degrading his talents to a humble level and putting the youth on the customary high pedestal. The closing couplet is perhaps double edged in that the ‘more, much more’ which the mirror shows is the effect of the encroachment of lines and wrinkles. The following sonnet pretends to deny this perception, saying it is unworthy of notice. But alas, the face which Narcissus saw, when he gazed at his own image reflected in the water, was the face of time and death.
The 1609 Quarto Version
ALack what pouerty my Muſe brings forth,
That hauing ſuch a skope to ſhow her pride,
The argument all bare is of more worth
Then when it hath my added praiſe beſide.
Oh blame me not if I no more can write!
Looke in your glaſſe and there appeares a face,
That ouer-goes my blunt inuention quite,
Dulling my lines,and doing me diſgrace.
Were it not ſinfull then ſtriuing to mend,
To marre the ſubiect that before was well,
For to no other paſſe my verſes tend,
Then of your graces and your gifts to tell.
And more,much more then in my verſe can ſit,
Your owne glaſſe ſhowes you,when you looke in it.
1. Alack! what poverty my Muse brings forth,brings forth = gives birth to. Compare Macbeth, speaking to Lady Macbeth:………….Bring forth men children only,
For thy undaunted mettle should compose
Nothing but males. Mac.I.7.72-4.2. That having such a scope to show her pride,such a scope = such spacious and rich opportunities and themes (i.e. the beloved youth in all his glory).
to show her pride = to show off her excellence, to be ostentatiously showy.3. The argument all bare is of more worthThe argument = the subject matter;
all bare = when it is naked and unadorned. Some editors put commas after ‘argument’ and ‘bare’, emphasising that this line is to be taken in conjunction with the following one. As it stands one temporarily takes it to mean that the argument itself is bare of extra worth and line 4 has to be adapted to fit that meaning. Since Q gives Then,which is frequently emended to than, (the spellings were interchangeable, see lines 12 & 13 ), we could take it that in this case the emendation is wrong, and that it is correctly ‘then’, the demonstrative adverb of time. The whole would then mean ‘The subject matter which my Muse brings forth (i.e.descriptions of you) is naked and stripped of extra worth even at those very times when it is adorned with my poetic fancies’. This sense would be helped by placing a comma after then, as below:
The argument all bare is of more worth,
Then, when it hath my added praise beside!
Note that the poet and his Muse eventually become one and the same. Retaining the current pointing and wording, the two lines may be glossed as ‘The subject matter (you) is more worthy, standing on its own, than when it is adorned with my poetic flourishes’.4. Than when it hath my added praise beside!See the note above. added praise beside – beside is tautological, but it adds to the sense of a heaping up of encomiums, and provides the necessary rhyme.5. O! blame me not, if I no more can write!My Muse of line 1 has now become the poet himself, the ‘I’ who can no longer write, whose inspiration has all dried up. Throughout this group of four sonnets, the idea of a tired Muse has been only a thin disguise for a tired love and a sluggard desire to be inspired.6. Look in your glass, and there appears a faceyour glass = your mirror. ‘Glass’ occures ten times in the Sonnets. Apart from Sonnet 5, where it means the substance ‘glass’, ‘mirror’ is its usual meaning. In 126 it probably also means ‘hour-glass’.7. That over-goes my blunt invention quite,over-goes = surpasses, excels, out-does.
my blunt invention = my dull powers of fancy and poetic creation, my poor poetic talent.8. Dulling my lines, and doing me disgrace.dulling my lines = making my lines appear to be boring by comparison.
doing me disgrace = making me appear graceless, disgracing me by making me appear inadequate; affronting me and my efforts by your reflected glory.9. Were it not sinful then, striving to mend,Were it not sinful = would it not be sinful if I were to etc.
striving to mend = as a result of striving to improve (your image, the description of you).10. To mar the subject that before was well?To mar the subject = to do damage to you, the subject of my verse.
that before was well = you who, before I started to praise you, were already excellent in your own person.11. For to no other pass my verses tendno other pass = no other aim or issue.
tend = strive, aim for.12. Than of your graces and your gifts to tell;
your graces and your gifts = your elegant and graceful person and your talents. Elsewhere in the Sonnets the word gifts is used in the sense of talents, qualities which nature has bestowed (11, 60), and in 87 it refers to the gift of love and friendship which the youth has bestowed on the poet.
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting, 87
There is a slight possibility that here it also refers to pecuniary and perhaps other material gifts. There is a story, first recorded by Rowe in 1709, but unverifiable, that Southampton gave Shakespeare a gift of £1000 to buy a property. (S. Schoenbaum, Shakespeare’s Lives, Oxford 1993, p.90). In today’s terms (400 years later) this would be an enormous sum of money, equivalent perhaps to £200,000, and it would certainly have merited praise and gratitude. The story is not entirely improbable in that Southampton is known to have been profligate. He is reputed to have lost 1800 crowns at a Parisian tennis match when celebrating the birth of his first child. (P. Quennel, Shakespeare, London 1963, p.118, footnote 2.)13. And more, much more, than in my verse can sit,more, much more – see the introductory comment above. The more that he sees may not be to his liking.
in my verse can sit = than can be placed in my verse, than my verse can contain. to sit is simply to be present at, or in.14. Your own glass shows you when you look in it.glass = mirror, see above, line 6. The thought is that the youth’s reflection in the mirror, the reality that he sees there, is far richer than anything that the poet can say of him in verse. The philosophical problem is that an image in the mirror is no more ‘the thing itself’ than is the image depicted, described, delineated and painted in verse. The narcissistic fulfilment of himself, achieved by gazing in the mirror, may therefore be as fatuous and unfulfilling as listening to the songs of poets who sing his praises.