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

The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 103: "Alack! what poverty my muse brings forth"

The speaker in sonnet 103 from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence 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"

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

Commentary

The speaker is confronting his sonnet, concentrating on its expression of beauty and worth above the contributions of both his talent and the inspiration of his muse.

First Quatrain: The Poem and the Muse

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!

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: Disdain for Accountability

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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.

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: Artistic Exaggeration

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;

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: Playful Invitation

And more, much more, than in my verse can sit,
Your own glass shows you when you look in it.

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.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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