Shakespeare Sonnet 100: "Where art thou, Muse, that thou forget’st so long"

Updated on February 15, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 100

The speaker in sonnet 100 is again addressing his Muse. He rebukes her for remaining at leisure and away from her post in assisting him in composing his dramatic works for posterity. He reminds her of the importance of remaining steadfast in inspiring only those who truly deserve and comprehend her importance.

The speaker employs his questioning technique to prompt the Muse to action. But he finally offers her what may seem to be an egotistical urge as he insists that with her help they both will be able to provide the standard by which all future art may be judged. And by providing that standard, they both will receive credit in terms of fame and recognition.

Sonnet 100

Where art thou, Muse, that thou forget’st so long
To speak of that which gives thee all thy might?
Spend’st thou thy fury on some worthless song,
Darkening thy power to lend base subjects light?
Return, forgetful Muse, and straight redeem
In gentle numbers time so idly spent;
Sing to the ear that doth thy lays esteem
And gives thy pen both skill and argument.
Rise, resty Muse, my love’s sweet face survey,
If Time have any wrinkle graven there;
If any, be a satire to decay,
And make Time’s spoils despised every where.
Give my love fame faster than Time wastes life;
So thou prevent’st his scythe and crooked knife.

Reading of Sonnet 100

Commentary

The speaker is addressing his Muse directly, even calling her "Muse"; he audaciously instructs her to inspire only the artist who has skill and right understanding, that is, of course, himself.

First Quatrain: Chiding the Muse

Where art thou, Muse, that thou forget’st so long
To speak of that which gives thee all thy might?
Spend’st thou thy fury on some worthless song,
Darkening thy power to lend base subjects light?

The first quatrain of sonnet 100 finds the speaker chiding his Muse for keeping silent on issues that provide the Muse with "all thy might." He displays the bitter rebuke with two rhetorical questions.

The first question inquires of the Muse where she has been that she could cause herself to become so lax in offering discourse in such important matters. The second question, which requires an affirmative/negative response wants to know if this Muse has been wasting her powers in creating "some worthless song."

The speaker then accuses the Muse of debasing herself to offer "base subjects light." He subsequently admonishes her that his objectives always remain profound. His only genuine interests remain in beauty, love, and truth. He therefore deems these qualities to be far superior to all lesser subjects, and so he urges the Muse not to become unmindful of these essential facts.

Second Quatrain: Commanding the Forgetful Muse

Return, forgetful Muse, and straight redeem
In gentle numbers time so idly spent;
Sing to the ear that doth thy lays esteem
And gives thy pen both skill and argument.

The speaker offers a command to this Muse, who has become "forgetful," to return to him, in order to inspire in his creation of the vital works, instead of remaining at leisure. He wants her stop attempting to inspire those with lesser hearts and minds, for example those of poetasters. He is obviously referring to his own poetic talent as he demands, "Sing to the ear that doth thy lays esteem / And gives thy pen both skill and argument."

The speaker knows that he possesses the educated eye and ear for poetry. He knows that he is able to compose the profound lines that will continue to reverberate down through the centuries, as they carry forth the vital thoughts about his subjects. His dramatic word-paintings will speak for his own age as they continue to inspire and enlighten others with their "skill and argument."

Third Quatrain: Call to Accomplishment

Rise, resty Muse, my love’s sweet face survey,
If Time have any wrinkle graven there;
If any, be a satire to decay,
And make Time’s spoils despised every where.

The speaker then again begins to command his Muse to "Rise, resty Muse." He commands her to come out of her lazy leisure. He demonstrates what he wants her to accomplish. He is requiring her look help him proof-read his works, in order to assist him in ironing out any "wrinkle" that he might have left "graven there." The Muse must assist him in making his poems so nearly perfect that their content and form will become and remain the standard by which beauty will be judged, "every where."

One of this speaker's favorite subjects has been the process of human aging. Here he labels that theme, "a satire to decay." By placing before his memory and before that of his readers the fact that the aging and decaying process of the human physical body are seriously delicate and importantly vital matters, he believes that he is performing a vital service. And at the same time, he is sustaining truth and beauty, which are inherent in his correct thinking. His right thoughts, he believes, assist and inform his ability to dramatize all loveliness in his poetic works and always truthfully.

The Couplet: Sage Assistance

Give my love fame faster than Time wastes life;
So thou prevent’st his scythe and crooked knife.

The speaker continues to hold to the thought that if his Muse will but offer him sage assistance in perfecting his sonnets, both he and the Muse will be capable of achieving "fame faster than Time wastes life."

In order to encourage the Muse in this endeavor, the speaker promises that they both will receive credit in thwarting, "[Time’s] scythe and crooked knife." He is, of course, engaging in hyperbole. He surely must be aware that such speed remains quite impossible, but he also is convinced that his exaggeration merely reflects the truth that life can imitate art, even as art reflects life.

Shakespeare Sonnet Titles

The Shakespeare Sonnet sequence does not feature titles for each sonnet; therefore, each sonnet's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

A Brief Overview of the 154-Sonnet Sequence

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare."

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Erroneously "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Two Problematic Sonnets: 108 and 126

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy."

Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

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