So is it not with me as with that Muse,
Stirred by a painted beauty to his verse,
Who heaven itself for ornament doth use
And every fair with his fair doth rehearse,
Making a couplement of proud compare
With sun and moon, with earth and sea’s rich gems,
With April’s first-born flowers, and all things rare,
That heaven’s air in this huge rondure hems.
O! let me, true in love, but truly write,
And then believe me, my love is as fair
As any mother’s child, though not so bright
As those gold candles fixed in heaven’s air:
Let them say more that like of hearsay well;
I will not praise that purpose not to sell.
The poet now begins an analysis of what he might or might not say of his beloved. He does not wish to follow the example of those poets who force comparisons with everything that is fair, beautiful, strange or rare. Instead he wishes to extol the virtue of truthfulness. Since his love is indeed beautiful, what need is there of over praise? Why not say at the outset that, quite simply, you, my love, are yourself, you outshine all praise. He who attempts to say more is like a costermonger trying to sell his wares from a barrow. But this poet will remain aloof from such gross pandering. The fact that his love is fair is enough for him, and he will not enlarge his praise by false and ludicrous comparisons.
The criticism of ‘that Muse‘ is fairly general, but it is quite possible that it applies to an individual rather than to a style of writing. Later in the sequence sonnets 76-86 deal with the threat from a rival poet or poets and this sonnet here is a perhaps a foretaste of what is to follow later.
It is more natural to suppose that the sonnets were written as a response to or as a contribution to the easy discussions of a group of young men, some of whom might have enjoyed a privileged position in relation to the cynosure of the group, the young nobleman who has been encouraged in the previous sonnets to repair his house (i.e. to marry and have children). The poetic criticism levelled here might apply to many poets, Petrarch, Sydney, Daniel, even Shakespeare himself (although we should not assume that it will be a poet well known to our anthologies). It is a clever way of turning the tables on conventional poetry, at the same time showing that one’s own poems are just as inventive. It also has the more serious motive of investigating the nature of love – ‘What is it that makes my loved one so special, so exalted in my eyes above the conventional norms of beauty. What is it that makes him so supremely himself?’
The 1609 Quarto Version
SO is it not with me as with that Muſe,
Stird by a painted beauty to his verſe,
Who heauen it ſelfe for ornament doth vſe,
And euery faire with his faire doth reherſe,
Making a coopelment of proud compare
With Sunne and Moone,with earth and ſeas rich gems:
With Aprills first borne flowers and all things rare,
That heauens ayre in this huge rondure hems,
O let me true in loue but truly write,
And then beleeue me,my loue is as faire,
As any mothers childe,though not ſo bright
As thoſe gould candells fixt in heauens ayre:
Let them ſay more that like of heare-ſay well,
I will not prayſe that purpoſe not to ſell.
1. So is it not with me as with that Muse,I do not follow the typical inspiration of the type of poetry which…. Muse = one of the nine goddesses of poetry. The name can stand symbolically for the poet him(her)self, or for a poem, or for a style of writing.2. Stirred by a painted beauty to his verse,Stirred by a painted beauty = (who is) inspired by a woman who uses cosmetics; inspired by a painting of a beautiful woman? The accusation that those who inspired love sonnets were sirens disguised as beauties is unjust, since most poets of the Renaissance and earlier did not think that their womenfolk were only superficially fair, or that they covered their ugliness with cosmetics. It is more likely that the painted beauty is a reference to the extravagant and artificial conceits which the accused poets are in the habit of using in their verse (as described in the next few lines). Hence one could paraphrase it as ‘Who is stirred to use artificial comparisons in his verse’.3. Who heaven itself for ornament doth useWho = the poet (Muse);
for ornament doth use = makes use of to enhance his descriptions of his loved one. There is a suggestion here of blasphemy, as if the beloved is being exalted to the level of God by the irreverent accused writer.4. And every fair with his fair doth rehearse,every fair = every beautiful object;
doth rehearse = puts on the stage, tiresomely repeats in conjunction with his own beloved.5. Making a couplement of proud compareJoining the two together in a stately description. (The two things are his fair loved one and the various items which follow in the next two lines). compare = comparison.6. With sun and moon, with earth and sea’s rich gems,In fact Shakespeare uses similar imagery in the sonnets. In 7 the beloved is the sun; in 35 he is compared to roses, a silver fountain, the moon and sun; in 52 to jewels; in 1 he is the world’s fresh ornament/ And only herald to the gaudy spring; frequently he is a rose, also a lily; more extravagantly, in 53 and 68 he is the object from which all other things derive their beauty.7. With April’s first-born flowers, and all things rare,first born flowers – the first flowers of the spring are more beautiful because of their rarity, and they are always especially welcome because they herald the spring. First born children were also traditionally thought to be the most precious.
rare = precious, rarely found.8. That heaven’s air in this huge rondure hems.rondure = roundness, sphericity. A neologism probably coined by Shakespeare. The repeated ‘h’ sounds make the line difficult to speak, as though mimicking the hugeness of the task of enclosing all the earth’s wonderful richness in the hemisphere of the surrounding air, or the sphere of the universe.9. O! let me, true in love, but truly write,A declaration of truth in love, which must be matched by an equal fidelity in writing.10. And then believe me, my love is as fairLines 10-12 are the pay off as it were to the criticisms of ‘that Muse‘. This poet will not degrade his beloved with false comparisons. Instead he will speak truthfully, and doing so, he declares that his love is as fair as etc. etc.11. As any mother’s child, though not so brightany mother’s child is proverbial for anyone.12. As those gold candles fixed in heaven’s air:
those gold candles fixed in heaven’s air = the stars. He uses an exaggerated description as a mockery of the style of ‘that Muse‘.13. Let them say more that like of hearsay well;Let those who love gossip and unsubstantiated (usually false) reports say more if they wish.14. I will not praise that purpose not to sell.I am not a dishonest salesman, and am not going to indulge in praising that which I have no wish to part with. that refers toI at the start of the line. Hence, ‘I, who have no intention of selling you, will not indulge in vacuous praise.’ A salesman, then as now, was considered to be mendacious.