William Shakespeare – Sonnet 76
Why is my verse so barren of new pride,
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods, and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth, and where they did proceed?
O! know sweet love I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.
This sonnet reverts to the theme of No. 38, that the beloved is the only fit argument and substance of the poet’s verse, and that his love for the youth invests all that he does with undying beauty. 105 and 108 also deal with the sameness and unchanging nature of love. But this one is mainly introductory to the rival poet(s) sequence (78-80 & 82-6) which follows almost immediately. In fact the sequence runs continuously from this sonnet right through to 86 if we exclude 77 and 81, which are special numbers. 77 is a climacteric, a crucial number in any human life, according to Elizabethan thought. 81 is also fraught with potential danger, being exactly 9 times 9, and deemed by some to be a grand climacteric, alongside 63 (7 x 9) . The three sonnets, 63, 77 and 81 all deal with the ending of life and love, either for the poet, or the beloved, or both of them. They therefore stand outside any embedded sequence in the sonnets, with the result that 76 may be taken as the start of a sequence running right through to 86, all dealing with the threat posed by a rival poet or poets.
It remains uncertain why the sequence should start here. KDJ points out that 38 is exactly half of 76, and 38 is a sonnet linked thematically with this one. There are at least three key words shared by the two sonnets, argument, invention and verse, and the content and placing of the two cannot be accidental. But there is no explanation available for the significance of the number 38. Shakespeare was 38 in 1602, and there may be some relevance in that fact, especially as age, decay, baldness, loss of beauty, decrepitude and death feature so much in the sonnets. It remains an open question when the sonnets were written, or what span of time they cover, either in their composition or in living experience. Certainly it would be fascinating if we could solve that puzzle, but no information that we have at present is likely to be sufficient to resolve the questions for us.
The 1609 Quarto Version
WHy is my verſe ſo barren of new pride?
So far from variation or quicke change?
Why with the time do I not glance aſide
To new found methods,and to compounds ſtrange?
Why write I ſtill all one,euer the fame,
And keepe inuention in a noted weed,
That euery word doth almoſt fel my name,
Shewing their birth,and where they did proceed?
O know ſweet loue I alwaies write of you,
And you and loue are ſtill my argument:
So all my beſt is dreſſing old words new,
Spending againe what is already ſpent:
For as the Sun is daily new and old,
So is my loue ſtill telling what is told,
1. Why is my verse so barren of new pride,
so barren of new pride = so unadorned with new ideas and conceits. barren suggests an unproductive desert, or a womb unable to conceive. Poets often refer to their verses as their children.
pride – OED.II.7. gives: Magnificent, splendid, or ostentatious adornment or ornamentation. The metaphor is one of ornamentation in general, especially of clothing – the verse is bare of new styles of literary decoration. The clothing metaphor is further developed in line 6. Pride as clothing occurs also in Sonnet 52
Or as the wardrobe which the robe doth hide,
To make some special instant special blest,
By new unfolding his imprison’d pride. 52
It also has the sexual meaning of being on heat (in pride), or of being swollen, as in Sonnet 151
But, rising at thy name, doth point out thee
As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride,
He is contented thy poor drudge to be, 1512. So far from variation or quick change?
So far from = so far removed from, so different from (verses which display the qualities listed).
variation = variation of style, syntax, grammar etc.
quick-change – possibly a metaphor from dancing or music. Both variation and quick-change seem to be musical terms, but OED gives the former in its musical sense as dating from only 1801. (OED.14.a.) However for OED.11.a. there is the following:
‘An instance of varying or changing; an alteration or change in something, esp. within certain limits………
1611 Cotgr., Nuance, change, alteration; and particularly, a variation, or change of notes in singing.’
Interestingly, under quick-change, although not as a separate entry, but as a compound with ‘quick’, OED gives the following: ‘quick-change, attrib. as epithet of an actor or other performer who quickly changes costume or appearance in order to play a different part; v. intr., to perform a ‘quick change’; trans., to change (clothes) quickly;’ The uses cited are early 19th cent. but one suspects that in the world of the theatre its use was known much earlier, and Shakespeare, as an actor and playwright, would have been well acquainted with all the techniques and quick-changes need for any production.
3. Why with the time do I not glance asidewith the time = in accordance with the fashion of the times.
glance aside – figuratively, be deflected in a different direction, as a projectile striking a surface. OED 1 gives the following example from 1590: Sir J. Smyth Disc. Weapons 30 Most of their volees of arrowes should have…glaunced or lighted upon the piques. But the additional meaning of ‘to look briefly away’ must also be present.4. To new-found methods, and to compounds strange?
new-found methods = newly discovered methods, or ways of composing, new styles of verse.
compounds strange = artificially constructed words, neologisms, literary and rhetorical devices, odd combinations of metre and rhythm in poetry. compound words were those with a pre-fix added to the ‘simple’ or basic word. A method was also a medical cure or nostrum. In this case it would be a cure for barrenness and tedious repetition. The idea is augmented by the use of compounds strange, which suggests the physician or the apothecary mixing strange potions in his workshop from simples (herbs) and other ingredients. compound as a noun is used with various meanings in Shakespeare, but most commonly in the medicinal sense:
There is thy gold, worse poison to men’s souls,
Doing more murders in this loathsome world,
Than these poor compounds that thou mayst not sell. RJ.V.1.80-2.
OED.2.a. gives the meaning of a substance made by mixing other simple substances as dating from 1611, with an example from Cymbeline,
These most poysonous compounds. Cym.I.5.9.
but the above from Romeo & Juliet pre-dates it by at least ten years.
5. Why write I still all one, ever the same,Why write I still = Why do I always write; why do I continuously write? Here, as elsewhere, still = always;
all one, ever the same = one and the same thing every time. all one possibly includes a pun on ‘alone’, in the sense that ‘I alone am writing in this style, whereas everyone else is following current fashion’.6. And keep invention in a noted weed,invention – a technical term in rhetoric, being the first element and prime mover in the creation of a speech. The original meaning derives from Latin invenire ‘to find out, discover’ and involves, in rhetoric, the selection of a topic for discourse. Shakespeare’s use here indicates the meaning ‘style of writing’, and it matches that in Sonnet 38:
For who’s so dumb that cannot write to thee,
When thou thy self dost give invention light?
noted weed = well known garment or style of dress.7. That every word doth almost tell my name,That = so that;
tell = declare, speak out. Perhaps also with reference to a clock ‘telling’ the hour, so that the monotonous ticking of a clock is hinted at. Note that tell is an emendation of Q’s fel, so perhaps ‘spell’ was intended. (Although telling of line 14 introduces an echo of tell in this line).8. Showing their birth, and where they did proceed?Showing their birth – their resemblance to each other shows their parentage;
and where they did proceed = the lines of their inheritance, or genealogical tree, from which they derived their characteristics.9. O! know sweet love I always write of you,The rhetorical finery of the first two quatrains gives way to the direct simplicity of these two lines, as if to underline the fact that new found methods are essentially false and artificial, whereas ‘true love is a durable fire, in the mind ever burning, never sick, never old, never dead, from itself never turning’. It does not need to re-state itself in new forms.10. And you and love are still my argument;still my argument = always and forever the subject of my verse. argument = subject matter.11. So all my best is dressing old words new,all my best = all my best verse, efforts, inventions; the better part of me.
dressing old words new – suggests re-using old garments, or clothing old words in new clothing, i.e. the same thoughts in a new poem.12. Spending again what is already spent:The imagery is essentially that of money, which has already been spent, but which is being re-circulated for other purchases, or is valueless once expended, as if purchases were being made from an empty coffer. There is also an innuendo of sexual emissions and repeated intercourse.13. For as the sun is daily new and old,The sun dies at night, but is reborn the following morning. Each morning it is therefore like a new-born babe, but in the evening it reaches old age. Sonnet 7 describes the sun’s pilgrimage from youth to age.14. So is my love still telling what is told.
my love = my love for you; you, the beloved.
still telling what is told = always recounting the same old story. The phrase also suggests the repetetiveness of a tolling bell.
The couplet insists that love does not change, that it is the same essentially, but always renewing itself, like the sun (and the Phoenix) and that there are no other ways to celebrate it.