William Shakespeare – Sonnet 79
Whilst I alone did call upon thy aid,
My verse alone had all thy gentle grace;
But now my gracious numbers are decayed,
And my sick Muse doth give an other place.
I grant, sweet love, thy lovely argument
Deserves the travail of a worthier pen;
Yet what of thee thy poet doth invent
He robs thee of, and pays it thee again.
He lends thee virtue, and he stole that word
From thy behaviour; beauty doth he give,
And found it in thy cheek: he can afford
No praise to thee, but what in thee doth live.
Then thank him not for that which he doth say,
Since what he owes thee, thou thyself dost pay.
�This sonnet continues the questioning of the merits of the rival sonneteer(s) or poet(s), on the assumption, as it seems, that it is known that he (the rival) has already taken the favoured place which the writer thought was reserved for himself alone. It is interesting that this sonnet reflects the ideas of 38, but seen from the perspective of an observer looking upon another poet. In 38 the argument was that the fair youth himself provided the motive and subject for everything which his lover, the poet, could write. Here the argument is that the beloved is equally potent to do the same for other poets too. The writer therefore reminds the youth that he should not be praising these rival poets, but that they should be thanking him for paying their debts.
The 1609 Quarto Version
WHilſt I alone did call vpon thy ayde,
My verſe alone had all thy gentle grace,
But now my gracious numbers are decayde,
And my ſick Muſe doth giue an other place.
I grant ( ſweet loue )thy louely argument
Deſerues the trauaile of a worthier pen,
Yet what of thee thy Poet doth inuent,
He robs thee of,and payes it thee againe,
He lends thee vertue,and he ſtole that word,
From thy behauiour,beautie doth he giue
And found it in thy cheeke: he can affoord
No praiſe to thee,but what in thee doth liue.
Then thanke him not for that which he doth ſay,
Since what he owes thee,thou thy ſelfe dooſt pay,
1. Whilst I alone did call upon thy aid,When I was the only one who called upon you as the inspiration for my poetry.2. My verse alone had all thy gentle grace;all thy gentle grace = all your beauty and elegance. gentle often has the meaning of ‘coming from gentle stock, being nobly born’.3. But now my gracious numbers are decayed,my gracious numbers = the elegant phrases and metre of my verses. As in Sonn.17:
If I could write the beauty of your eyes
And in fresh numbers number all your graces
The term ‘numbers’ was often used to refer to the metrical units and lines of poetry, (OED 17b), hence to poetry in general.
decayed = fallen to ruin and penury; reduced in quantity and worth.4. And my sick Muse doth give an other place.my sick Muse = my inspiration, which clearly is now become sick and feeble. The word Muse was used for poetic inspiration in general, or to indicate one or all of the nine Muses of classical antiquity.
doth give another place = yields its (her) supremacy to another.5. I grant, sweet love, thy lovely argumentthy lovely argument = you, as the subject of a poem, (whom we all know as the loveliest of beings).6. Deserves the travail of a worthier pen;travail = toil. Note however that the original meaning of labour, suffering, (OED.1.) is here absolutely predominant, without any of the associated meaning of ‘making a journey’, as in
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired; 27
When what I seek, my weary travel’s end, 50
pen = implement for writing, but, by transference, the writer himself. A pen in those days was a goose quill. For the bawdy implications, see the note on pen in the previous sonnet, line 3.7. Yet what of thee thy poet doth inventYet what of thee = yet whatever material concerning you;
thy poet = evidently the newly adopted poet, the rival. Possibly used in a general sense as ‘Whatever any poet invents about you’.8. He robs thee of, and pays it thee again.He robs thee of – in other words, he does not invent it at all, but merely steals it.
and pays it thee again – i.e. he gives you what was your own already (there is a strong suggestion of duplicity here, of stealing someone’s possessions and then flogging them back to the victim).9. He lends thee virtue, and he stole that wordThe implied accusations of theft and trickery continue. The usurping poet pretends to lend something (virtue) which he had already stolen from the youth.10. From thy behaviour; beauty doth he give,The apparent ending of the sentence, or at least the sense of part of the sentence, in the middle of this and the following line, evokes the sensation of a breathless catalogue of crimes which the usurper commits. There are so many crimes that the speaker does not have time to arrange them in a proper and intelligible sequence, and they all come tumbling out in his speech.11. And found it in thy cheek: he can affordand found it in thy cheek – your cheek (face) is the type and pattern of all that is beautiful, hence the poet found that beauty there and uses it as his theme.
afford = give, present, offer. But since so much of the language of the previous lines is of lending, paying, robbing and stealing, it is inevitable that this word conjures up associations of penury. The rival poet is poor in imagination, rich only in that the beloved provides him with the material sustenance for his verse, and rich only in so far as he has stolen so much.12. No praise to thee, but what in thee doth live.but what in thee doth live = except that which you already possess, except that which is naturally inherent in you.13. Then thank him not for that which he doth say,Then thank him not = so do not thank him
that which he doth say – i.e. for his verses.
14. Since what he owes thee, thou thyself dost pay.The financial imagery which was started in lines 8-9 continues here, giving the impression partly that the relationship between poet and patron in this case is entirely mercenary, one sided, and to the disadvantage of the youth. He even has to pay the rival poets debts for him.