Shakespeare Sonnet 103: "Alack! what poverty my Muse brings forth"

Updated on December 19, 2017
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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.

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.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real "Shakespeare"
The real "Shakespeare" | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 103

The speaker in sonnet 103 again is assuring the poem of its value and purpose. He makes it clear that the poem's value will always rest with the poem, and not in the Muse or even the writer of the sonnet.

Sonnet 103

Alack! what poverty my Muse brings forth
That having such a scope to show her pride,
The argument, all bare, is of more worth
Than when it hath my added praise beside!
O! blame me not, if I no more can write!
Look in your glass, and there appears a face
That over-goes my blunt invention quite,
Dulling my lines and doing me disgrace.
Were it not sinful then, striving to mend,

To mar the subject that before was well?
For to no other pass my verses tend
Than of your graces and your gifts to tell;
And more, much more, than in my verse can sit,
Your own glass shows you when you look in it.

Reading of Sonnet 103


First Quatrain: "Alack! what poverty my Muse brings forth"

The first quatrain of sonnet 103 finds the speaker exclaiming enthusiastically that despite the inspiration of the Muse the sonnet ultimately must rest on its own laurels. The speaker does not wish to devalue the Muse; after all, he has suffered through many a session because of her apparent absence.

However, the value of the Muse will never be able to infuse the sonnet with any argument that can become "all bare" while projecting her own worth above that of the sonnet itself. The pride of the Muse must always remain muted if the sonnet is to reflect clearly its own pride of accomplishment.

The speaker, that is, the creator of the sonnet, must also remain carefully in the background in order for the brilliance of the poem to retain the power of shining brightly forth.

The spiritual strength of the speaker’s subjects remain untainted by a lazy Muse or a gifted writer. By remaining steadfastly devoted to crafting truth throughout his works, the poet/speaker succeeds because of the merit of his subjects, not the trinkets and tinsel of music and artistry.

Second Quatrain: "O! blame me not, if I no more can write!"

The speaker then begins to beg his poems not to hold him accountable if he can "no more write!" He personifies his sonnet and dramatizes the situation by telling it to "look in your glass." It will see for itself that its subjects of beauty, truth, and love will "dull[ ] [his] lines and do[ ] [him] disgrace."

By having the poem look in the mirror, the speaker is insisting that the sonnet become more self-aware, seeing what is there, instead of imagining false qualities that will result in too much self-aggrandizement.

The subject of art is always of central importance, and this speaker is assured that his choices remain so significant that his attempt at "invention" is merely "blunt[ed]" by the already exalted nature of those choices. He admits that he does employ poetic devices, but his use of those devices serves a great function of allowing universal truths to be captured for posterity. He does not personify for decoration but for greater clarity.

Third Quatrain: "Were it not sinful then, striving to mend"

The speaker then exaggerates the artistic attempt to craft "the subject"; in no way, can he "mend" what is not broken, but he could "mar" it, if he possessed not the perfectionist yet simplifying attitude toward his subject and his art.

This creative speaker admits that he writes for none other than his chosen subjects of love, beauty, and truth, and his works, therefore, portray the "graces and [ ] gifts" of those spiritual attributes. The speaker’s methods attempt to capture only the highest value of his subjects, and his myriad ways of using poetic devices reflect only their true face, without paint and make-up.

The Couplet: "And more, much more, than in my verse can sit"

The speaker playfully invites the poem to let its mirror show its value and its beauty. The poem will reflect much more than the poet is able to capture because his subjects, being themselves timeless and eternal, will reverberate throughout time and eternity.

Again, the speaker is professing his affection for creating not only beautiful sonnets but poems that reflect his favorite poetic issues of love, beauty, and truth. Because this speaker, in fact, retains only a very limited message, he knows he must create little dramas that repeat his message in varying, colorful ways. Such a chore could become tedious and monotonous in the hands of a lesser craftsman.

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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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