William Shakespeare – Sonnet 78

So oft have I invoked thee for my Muse,
And found such fair assistance in my verse
As every alien pen hath got my use
And under thee their poesy disperse.
Thine eyes, that taught the dumb on high to sing
And heavy ignorance aloft to fly,
Have added feathers to the learned’s wing
And given grace a double majesty.
Yet be most proud of that which I compile,
Whose influence is thine, and born of thee:
In others’ works thou dost but mend the style,
And arts with thy sweet graces graced be;
   But thou art all my art, and dost advance
   As high as learning, my rude ignorance.

Strictly speaking this is the second in the series of rival poet sonnets, which runs from 76 to 86, with the interruption of 77 and 81, two climacteric sonnets, which are dedicated to mortality. The background to this group of sonnets seems to consist in the growth of rivalry for the young man’s praise of poetic offerings. Were other poets writing sonnets to the youth, which were being received with adulation, or was he simply giving more attention and praise to any production from other poets, rather than devoting his energies to an appreciation of the love sonnets of the speaker? For they, after all, are the only thing that matters in this life (so the poet seems to say). They are the all in all of art, while others are merely arid learning embellished with a bit of grace, a grace which belongs to the beloved anyway.

It is not known who, if any, the rival poet or poets might have been. All poets of whom we have knowledge who were alive at the approximate time (1590 – 1608) have been suggested. References to learning and the learned are taken to imply that some one of a University background is intended, such as Marlowe, Nashe, Greene, or Middleton, whereas the mention of grace (your grace) could be taken to imply nobility – hence a name such as Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford springs to mind. But finally we have to admit that we are in the dark about this, as with so much else in the Sonnets. We do not have sufficient evidence in the shape of surviving letters or other personal documents to be able to make even an informed guess. But the general tone of this group of sonnets does suggest that the poet has been hurt by his apparent rejection. He dislikes the imputation that his poems are of little worth, but even more (or so he pretends) he dislikes having his love belittled and thrust into a corner. That is what irks and injures him, and not their lofty style and bombastic learning, which he can live without. What strikes him to the heart is that his inspirational skill, which only sets out truth and reality, has failed him. Surely the youth must think over once more the attitudes he has adopted and abandon once and for all his galling frivolity.

The 1609 Quarto Version

So oft haue I inuok’d thee for my Muſe,
And found ſuch faire aſſiſtance in my verſe,
As euery Alien pen hath got my vſe,
And vnder thee their poeſie diſperſe.
Thine eyes,that taught the dumbe on high to ſing,
And heauie ignorance aloft to flie,
Haue added fethers to the learneds wing,
And giuen grace a double Maieſtie.
Yet be moſt proud of that which I compile,
Whoſe influence is thine,and borne of thee,
In others workes thou dooſt but mend the ſtile,
And Arts with thy ſweete graces graced be.
   But thou art all my art,and dooſt aduance
   As high as learning,my rude ignorance.


1. So oft have I invoked thee for my Muse,So oft = so often;
invoked thee for my Muse – called upon you as a Muse to inspire my verse. It was customary in antiquity to call upon the Muse to assist the poet in his creation. The most famous examples are from Homer in the Iliad and Odyssey:
Sing, oh Muse, of the wrath of Achilles 
Iliad 1.1.
Sing to me , oh Muse, of the man of many wiles Od.1.1.
And of course Virgil in the Aeneid:
Musa, mihi causas memora, quo numine laeso
Quidve dolens regina deum tot volvere casus
Insignem pietate virum, tot adire labores
Impulerit. Tantaene animis caelestibus irae? 

Bring to my mind, oh Muse, the causes, through what injured power of godhead, or brooding on what slights, the Queen of the Gods involved in so many disasters the man so notable for virtue, and drove him into such toils.

Renaissance learning was based on the literature and philosophy of Greece and Rome and poets naturally followed some of the models. Shakespeare’s sonnets are remarkable for their lack of classical allusion, although this theme of the beloved youth supplanting the old nine Muses of antiquity as the chief source of inspiration has already been raised in Sonn.38.
Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate;
2. And found such fair assistance in my verseThe beloved, as an alternative Muse, gives inspiration to the poet. fair – refers to the youth’s beauty and to his excellence as an aid to the poet’s inspiration.3. As every alien pen hath got my use

As = so that; so that it seems as if.
every alien pen = every stranger who writes anything. It is not clear what exactly is meant by alien in this context. Perhaps it means ‘all those who are not admitted to the intimate circle of your friends’. An extreme interpretation would be ‘anyone other than me, since I alone, through my love for you, am entitled to call upon your aid’. There are only two other instances of the use of the word in Shakespeare:

Thy place in council thou hast rudely lost,
Which by thy younger brother is supplied,
And art almost an alien to the hearts
Of all the court and princes of my blood 

It is enacted in the laws of Venice,
If it be proved against an alien
That by direct or indirect attempts
He seek the life of any citizen 

In the above alien is a noun, whereas here it is an adjective, so the precedent is not helpful. The Q text has Alien in italics, (see above), which suggests some special use, but the italicization of words in Q is notoriously difficult to relate to any particular philosophy or modus operandi. One is therefore driven back to the general conclusion that alien means ‘all and sundry who do not belong to the enchanted circle (of me and you), remote, strange, hostile. KDJ suggests that it might refer to writers translating non-English (alien) works.

hath got my use = has started to copy me; has usurped my position. The meaning of the phrase is not certain, although use usually means ‘habit, custom, practice’. The pen referred to is a quill pen, but it stands for the writer, the rival poet or poets. There is also potential for a bawdy interpretation of pen, use and under thee in the following line. See Partridge p.163, who quotes The Merchant of Venice:
I’ll mar the young clerk’s pen MV.V.1.237
when Gratiano responds to his wife, who has threatened to sleep with the clerk. (Also Partridge p.211, under, and use, p.214).4. And under thee their poesy disperse.under thee = under your authority, by your power or inspiration, through your patronage. It is suggested that the phrase relates directly to the custom of authors seeking patronage from members of the nobility. Both Southampton and Pembroke, the two chief contenders for the position of the beloved youth, were well known patrons of literature. poesy – an old word for poetry.
disperse = scatter abroad, give out, make known to a wider audience.5. Thine eyes, that taught the dumb on high to singthe dumb; heavy ignorance; the learned; grace – these are all personifications of qualities which are improved by contact with the youth. Thus the dumb = a dumb person, those without the power of speech. But here, it probably also refers directly to the speaker, the poet, as also does heavy ignorance, for, in the closing couplet, that is how he categorises himself. The word dumb is not used in Shakespeare with the sense ‘stupid, ignorant’, a meaning which is probably later. OED gives some early examples in Latin, but nothing substantial till the 19th. century. A typical use in Shakespeare is given below.

No, so God help me, they spake not a word;
But, like dumb statues or breathing stones,
Gazed each on other, and look’d deadly pale
. R3.III.7.24-6.

on high to sing – as angels sing in the heights of heaven. on high could also mean ‘aloud’. The poet was considered to be a singer, and his/her verse referred to as song. See the quotations from Homer in the note above to line 1.6. And heavy ignorance aloft to fly,heavy ignorance = those who are slow of wit and know little. (See previous note). A dull and lumpish person would not be expected to soar aloft into the sky. All these metaphors are referring to ungifted poets.7. Have added feathers to the learned’s wingAdding feathers to the wing of a bird of prey to make it fly better was called ‘imping’. The practice of falconry was much more widespread then than it is today.
the learned = people of learning, scholars. Scholars are often said to be dull poets. There may be a reference to specific learned poetasters of the day, such as Nashe or Chapman.8. And given grace a double majesty.grace = people of gracious and elegant manners and style of writing; people of Christian grace and virtue.
a double majesty – the first majesty is the natural elegance of their verse, the second is the additional majesty and grace added by using the beloved as a source of inspiration.9. Yet be most proud of that which I compile,In this quatrain the poet claims that his verse is more deserving than that of all the other poets since it owes its inspiration entirely to the beloved. It is not just a case of embellishment or improvement, but of life and being. compile =compose, create, put together.10. Whose influence is thine, and born of thee:whose influence = the directing force of which. whose refers to his verses. influence is an astrological term relating to the power and motive force of a planet or star over human life. Cf. Sonn 15
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;

The youth therefore exercises power over his lover’s inspiration in the same way that the planets and stars rule over mortal life.11. In others’ works thou dost but mend the style,In other’s works = in the verses of other poets;
thou dost but mend the style = you do no more than improve the quality of their verse.12. And arts with thy sweet graces graced be;arts = poetic skills.
graced – pronounced grac13. But thou art all my art, and dost advance

You are all my art. The poet obviously enjoys the pun on art, (= are) which, in addition, seems to say ‘You are art also, and your art creates mine and makes it what it is’. But it also echoes lines from other sonnets, such as
For nothing this wide universe I call,
Save thou, my rose; in it thou art my all.
You are my all the world, 112.
dost advance = you raise to the top, improve, bring to the forefront of success.14. As high as learning, my rude ignorance.

At this point the poet seems to equate himself with the dumb and ignorant of lines 5-6. Until, that is, he comes under the influence of his beloved, who then puts him on the level of the learned scholars of line 7. Before that he had been in the pits, a mere ignoramus struggling to write. The point is that whereas he is, or was, dumb and ignorant, but by the youth’s inspiration was elevated to the status of chief poet and admirer, the other’s were already learned, and have merely polished their verse a little. An achievement no doubt to be accredited to the youth, and worthy of comment, but nevertheless superficial and nothing compared with the wonders he has created with this poet’s verse, in which he is the all in all.


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