William Shakespeare – Sonnet 83
I never saw that you did painting need,
And therefore to your fair no painting set;
I found, or thought I found, you did exceed
The barren tender of a poet’s debt:
And therefore have I slept in your report,
That you yourself, being extant, well might show
How far a modern quill doth come too short,
Speaking of worth, what worth in you doth grow.
This silence for my sin you did impute,
Which shall be most my glory being dumb;
For I impair not beauty being mute,
When others would give life, and bring a tomb.
There lives more life in one of your fair eyes
Than both your poets can in praise devise.
This sonnet is closely linked to the preceding one, especially by the opening two lines, which pick up the idea of painting from the closing couplet of 82. In addition there is the repeated idea of the limits of possible praise being exceeded by the youth’s natural merits, and the ‘devising’ of rhetorical artifices in the hope of praising him.
The 1609 Quarto Version
INeuer ſaw that you did painting need,
And therefore to your faire no painting ſet,
I found ( or thought I found) you did exceed,
The barren tender of a Poets debt:
And therefore haue I ſlept in your report,
That you your ſelfe being extant well might ſhow,
How farre a moderne quill doth come to ſhort,
Speaking of worth,what worth in you doth grow,
This ſilence for my ſinne you did impute,
Which ſhall be moſt my glory being dombe,
For I impaire not beautie being mute,
When others would giue life,and bring a tombe.
There liues more life in one of your faire eyes,
Than both your Poets can in praiſe deuiſe.
1. I never saw that you did painting need,painting = description, such as is found in poetry. Also with a hint that the youth does not need to embellish his face with cosmetics.2. And therefore to your fair no painting set;to your fair no painting set = did not attempt to paint your beauty, did not set your beauty off in a painting (as one shows off the beauty of a jewel by its setting), did not attempt any further improvement on your fairness (by describing it with extravagant similes).3. I found, or thought I found, you did exceedor thought I found – the qualification suggests disillusion with the youth. It implies that he loves flattery, and is not interested in genuine devotion.
you did exceed = your merits were superior to, you were above the need of, or desire for.4. The barren tender of a poet’s debt:barren tender = fruitless and profitless offer.
a poet’s debt – the poet presumably owes the praise that he includes in his poetry to the youthful beauty of the young man. The writer’s modesty compels him to claim also that the offering is worthless. It may be implied however that the ‘barren tender’, the offering of empty verse, is made by the rival poet(s), whose exaggerated praise misses the mark, and who are doing the youth a disservice by falling far short of his actual worth.
A poet might also be indebted to a wealthy patron for financial assistance, although the help was often no more than honorary.5. And therefore have I slept in your report,And therefore I have been remiss by not reporting you to the world through my verse. slept implies being asleep when one should have been attentive and on duty.6. That you yourself, being extant, well might showThat = in order that;
you yourself, being extant = you yourself, in your own person, while you are still alive, while you are here present.
well = easily, effectively.7. How far a modern quill doth come too short,a modern quill = a shallow, trite style of writing. quill = quill pen, a goose feather, was the main writing implement in use for many centuries. Here used to mean the writer himself who uses the quill. modern in Shakespeare usually means, ‘trite, commonplace’. As used by Jacques in As You Like It describing the seven ages of man:
…..And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances, AYL.II.7.153-6.justice = magistrate; saws = proverbs; modern instances= commonplace examples.
However the meaning of ‘up to date’ seems appropriate as well here, since the rivals are accused of using all the new forms of poetry that may be devised by the wit of man.
doth come too short = falls short of (proclaiming adequately your excellence).8. Speaking of worth, what worth in you doth grow.These two lines, 7-8, are syntactically complex. They convey the general meaning ‘An ordinary writer would, when speaking of your worth, fall short of an adequate description’. SB points out that the construction deliberately and wittily falls short of expressing the thought fully, (one would expect an additional phrase, such as ‘when he attempts to describe what worth etc.’), as if underlining the failure of the second rate poet and his shortcomings. JK thinks that the uncharacteristic awkwardness of syntax suggests a questioning of the youth’s worth. In fact the break of sense in the middle of the line does almost cause the reader to think that ‘What’ is the start of a question – ‘What worth is there in you after all?’9. This silence for my sin you did impute,This silence = my silence in not writing your praises, which, as I stated, was to allow you to shine forth and show up the inadequacies of the poets and flatterers surrounding you.
for my sin = as a sin of omission on my part;
you did impute = you laid to my charge. ‘You imputed to me my silence as a sin’. The usual construction is ‘to impute (something, a crime, a fault) to (someone)’.
…Impute it not a crime
To me or my swift passage, that I slide
O’er sixteen years WT.IV.1.4-6.10. Which shall be most my glory being dumb;i.e my silence in this case will be my glory.
being dumb – this merely reiterates the fact of his silence. ‘I shall be a glorious dumb statue’.11. For I impair not beauty being mute,For, in this condition of silence, I do not by attempting to describe or praise your beauty, fail in the attempt, and hence do damage instead.12. When others would give life, and bring a tomb.would give life = undertake, promise, or hope to give life’
and bring a tomb – instead succeed in enclosing you in a tomb. One tends to think back to sonn. 81, where he described his own verse as if it were a mausoleum.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read
and even further, to sonn.23:
O, let my looks be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love and look for recompense
More than that tongue that more hath more express’d.
Dumb silence can speak with more eloquence than artificial verse. But not all verse is artificial, and some speaks from the heart. There is a vibrant contrast between what the true heart speaks and what the poet schooled in rhetoric can devise. (The latter being the hall mark of the rival poet(s)).13. There lives more life in one of your fair eyesOne suspects here an echo from a proverbial saying, such as ‘There is more wit in his little finger than there is in your entire brain’.14. Than both your poets can in praise devise.
both your poets – probably the speaker and his rival, although it could imply two rival poets. Since the speaker currently claims that he is dumb and silent (although the presentation of this poem alone undermines that claim), or that he only writes the truth, not rhetorical praise, it could be that two other poets (others would give life, l.12) were engaged in devising conceits with which to amuse the youth and win his allegiance. The word devise is used here and in the previous sonnet.
…yet when they have devised,
What strained touches rhetoric can lend,
It is suggestive of trickery and deception, or, at the very least, false praise. As in sonn.72:
Unless you would devise some virtuous lie,
To do more for me than mine own desert,
And hang more praise upon deceased I
Than niggard truth would willingly impart
a sonnet which also discusses the art of showing things in a false light with false praise.