Who is it that says most, which can say more,
Than this rich praise, that you alone, are you,
In whose confine immured is the store
Which should example where your equal grew?
Lean penury within that pen doth dwell
That to his subject lends not some small glory;
But he that writes of you, if he can tell
That you are you, so dignifies his story.
Let him but copy what in you is writ,
Not making worse what nature made so clear,
And such a counterpart shall fame his wit,
Making his style admired every where.
You to your beauteous blessings add a curse,
Being fond on praise, which makes your praises worse.
Although a continuation of the rival poet(s)’ sequence this sonnet introduces new material by investigating the reality of all comparisons. The youth is beyond compare, as attested in 18, and any praise of him is merely a repetition of what he is (38 & 39), and the miracle of his perfection foreshadows all attempts past and future to provide an exemplar who could match him (53 & 59). To a certain extent therefore the poem is a re-hashing of old ideas, but here the implication is, more or less, that all language is useless, for what after all is the point of asserting time and again that ‘you are you’, and how could language itself, something entirely isolated and separate from the youth’s existence, do anything but provide an empty shell as an example of the thing itself? The conclusion therefore is that all poetry in this context is worthless, especially that of the rival poet(s), who flatter to deceive. But the youth himself is (deliberately it seems) brought in to undermine the conclusion – perhaps he is not the perfect exemplar described in the first four lines, for he has a sickly interest in this false praise that is heaped on him, and this flaw in his character only makes the situation worse, for the more he welcomes it, the more of it is generated and thrown upon him.
The meanings of some of the lines, especially 1-4, have always proved especially difficult to ascertain, and have taxed the minds of the best commentators in the past. I provide some alternative interpretations below, but do not claim to have any magic key to unlock their true meaning. The best that can be done is to try to retain in suspension in one’s mind some of the most likely readings, and to proceed from there.
The 1609 Quarto Version
WHo is it that ſayes moſt,which can ſay more,
Then this rich praiſe,that you alone,are you,
In whoſe confine immured if the ſtore,
Which ſhould example where your equall grew,
Leane penurie within that Pen doth dwell,
That to his ſubiect lends not ſome ſmall glory,
But he that writes of you,if he can tell,
That you are you,ſo dignifies his ſtory.
Let him but coppy what in you is writ,
Not making worſe what nature made ſo cleere.
And ſuch a counter-part ſhall fame his wit,
Making his ſtile admired euery where.
You to your beautious bleſſings adde a curſe,
Being fond on praiſe,which makes your praiſes worſe.
1. Who is it that says most, which can say more,Lines 1 – 4 are ambiguous, complex, opaque and elusive all at the same time. They could be read as a series of four questions, each beginning with an interrogative pronoun Who?, Which?, In whose?, Which?. The meaning would then be (approximately) – Who amongst your admirers praises you most? Which person can say more than this in praise of you, that you are absolutely and inescapably yourself? In what person is there walled up such a store of wit (as to praise you adequately)? Which poet could provide a copy such as might equal you in all your perfection? Editorshowever generally do not give this interpretation, and variously split the lines with question marks after most, you or grew, and take in whose as referring to the youth. Lines 3 and 4 are then taken as placed in apposition to you of line 2, and descriptive of the youth’s excellent qualities.
The Q punctuation unfortunately is not helpful, for here where a question mark or two might be useful in indicating the sense of the lines, none are given, whereas in some other sonnets, e.g. 76, they are spread quite prolifically. Another interpretation is obtained by taking the which of this line to refer back to the poet who says most, and the meaning then becomes ‘Whoever that person is who seems to be saying most, cannot in effect say more than this simple statement, that etc’ A somewhat awkward interpretation, but the best that can be managed. Some editors follow the suggestion of Malone by placing a question mark after most and you, thereby focusing attention on the preliminary phrase ‘Who is that person or poet who is most fulsome in his praise? How can he in fact say more than the truthful praise that you are yourself?’ Then, if we take lines 3-4 as merely being descriptive of you, the sentence pans out as given in the note to 3 below.2. Than this rich praise, that you alone, are you,See above. you alone are you contains echoes from the Catholic Mass – tu solus sanctus, tu solus altissimus, tu solus dominus – you alone are holy, you alone are the most exalted, you alone are the Lord. It therefore treads a thin line between blasphemy and praise, a feature which has already been noted in earlier sonnets, 8, 34, 52, 74, and occurs later in 105 & 108.3. In whose confine immured is the storeIf we take the antecedent whose to be you above, then 3-4 can be read as meaning ‘within the confining limits of your person is walled in (immured) the reservoir (store) from which an example or copy might be built up as if to equal you in growth and stature’.4. Which should example where your equal grew?See above. example = provide an example of, exemplify.
5. Lean penury within that pen doth dwellLean penury = poverty, which is thin i.e. lean (through lack of food); that pen = the pen of that writer who etc.; that poet.6. That to his subject lends not some small glory;to his subject = to his theme or subject matter. But with a suggestion perhaps of a monarch ennobling his subjects by his mere presence.
lends = gives, provides. As in 82:
What strained touches rhetoric can lend,7. But he that writes of you, if he can telltell = narrate, give an account. There seems to be an undercurrent of accounting, financial and legal phraseology – store, penury, lends, writes, tell, copy, writ, add.8. That you are you, so dignifies his story.so = in that way, simply by doing that.
dignifies his story = adds dignity to his poem, description9. Let him but copy what in you is writ,what in you is writ = your features, the way you appear and may be described (written down) – this takes up again the biblical echoes of lines 2 and 8. The young man is as beautiful as Holy Writ.10. Not making worse what nature made so clear,clear = bright, serene, glorious, shining, unspotted, innocent. (All these meanings are given in Onions’ Shakespeare Glossary).11. And such a counterpart shall fame his wit,counterpart = copy, replica of you.
fame = make famous. His inventive ingenuity will be made famous by the copy he makes of you simply by describing you as you are (saying you are you).12. Making his style admired every where.style – primarily refers to style in writing, but with a pun on ‘stylus’, a writing instrument, the equivalent of ‘pen’ of line 5. Possibly a bawdy pun – his prick is everywhere admired.13. You to your beauteous blessings add a curse,beauteous blessings – these could be the youth’s innate qualities, or, more specifically, they could refer to the blessings he bestows on various authors by his patronage. (See 82, line 4). The latter in some ways seems more appropriate to what follows, since an author’s dedication of a book to a patron usually contained undiluted praise.
curse = fault, blemish. Perhaps a suggestion of womanish frailty, since women traditionally require praise of their beauty, and curse = the menstrual period.14. Being fond on praise, which makes your praises worse.The meaning seems to be that, being so avid of praise, the youth attracts false flattery, far worse than if the truth were told, which would itself be praise.
being fond on = being madly devoted to, being foolishly hooked on.
which makes your praises worse = which ensures that praise levelled at you is artificial and corrupt.