Updated date:

Shakespeare Sonnet 108: "What's in the brain, that ink may character"

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

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real "Shakespeare" poet

The real "Shakespeare" poet

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 108: "What's in the brain, that ink may character"

It is likely that the misplacement of sonnets 108 and 126 from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence has resulted in the erroneous interpretation of sonnets 18-126 as being addressed to a "young man." Sonnet 108 addresses a "sweet boy," and sonnet 126 addresses "my lovely boy."

The main argument in sonnets 1-17 is that such a physically attractive creature should marry and produce heirs, who would then also be attractive, and supply the poet/speaker with unlimited material for his sonnets.

Sonnet 108: "What's in the brain, that ink may character"

What's in the brain, that ink may character
Which hath not figur’d to thee my true spirit?
What’s new to speak, what new to register,
That may express my love, or thy dear merit?
Nothing, sweet boy; but yet, like prayers divine,
I must each day say o’er the very same;
Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine,
Even as when first I hallow’d thy fair name.
So that eternal love in love’s fresh case
Weighs not the dust and injury of age,
Nor gives to necessary wrinkles place,
But makes antiquity for aye his page;
Finding the first conceit of love there bred,
Where time and outward form would show it dead.

Reading of Sonnet 108

Commentary

Sonnets 108 and 126 should possibly be grouped with the "marriage poems" 1-17, in which the speaker pleads with a young man to marry and produce lovely children.

First Quatrain: Emphasizing His True Spirit

What's in the brain, that ink may character
Which hath not figur’d to thee my true spirit?
What’s new to speak, what new to register,
That may express my love, or thy dear merit?

In the first quatrain, the speaker addresses the young man, whom he has been exhorting to marry and produce beautiful heirs. The speaker’s intention is to emphasize his "true spirit." He wants to stress his sincerity to the lad, and so he essentially says that he has, in fact, said it all, and wonders what more he can say or do to persuade.

The speaker makes clear that because he loves the young man, he has the latter’s best interests at heart. His sonnets have "express[ed] [the speaker’s] love," and they have, as well, expressed the "dear merit" of the youth. The speaker wants to assure the younger man that he believes all of the glowing attributes he has defined in the poems to be genuine.

Second Quatrain: No Old Argument

Nothing, sweet boy; but yet, like prayers divine,
I must each day say o’er the very same;
Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine,
Even as when first I hallow’d thy fair name.

The speaker then answers his own question: there is nothing new he could add, but his pleading for the young man to marry and produce heirs (heirs that would also be those of the speaker) is like praying. He must pray every day and plead every day "o’er the very same."

The speaker claims that even if often repeated he will not consider his argument old and stale, and he requests that the young lad do the same. The speaker will not deem the young man’s arguments old, meaning tiresome, and the young man will give the older man the same consideration.

The speaker then invokes the time when he "first [ ] hallow’d [the young man’s] fair name." And that first time would be in sonnet 1, where the speaker says, "Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament," and declared, "From fairest creatures we desire increase."

Third Quatrain: Continuing Beauty

So that eternal love in love’s fresh case
Weighs not the dust and injury of age,
Nor gives to necessary wrinkles place,
But makes antiquity for aye his page;

The speaker then adds on additional reason that the young man should marry: "So that eternal love in love’s fresh case / Weighs not the dust and injury of age." Then too, by procreating heirs, who can continue the beauty and love of both generations, the young father will eliminate the curse of father time-imposition that will cause those "necessary wrinkles."

Even though the speaker, the young potential father, and the heir will age, the poet/speaker will be able to frame them in the sonnets that will "make[ ] antiquity for aye his page."

The Couplet: Capturing Love and Beauty in Sonnets

Finding the first conceit of love there bred,
Where time and outward form would show it dead.

The "eternal love" that continues like a thread through the generations will become outwardly apparent if the lad will marry and produce beautiful offspring. The spiritual level will thus be represented at least for a time by those lovely physical encasements.

If the speaker succeeds in persuading the young man to marry and produce heirs, the beauty and love will continue, as the poet/speaker will be able to capture their souls in sonnets, even though their physical bodies will age and perish.

The real "Shakespeare"

The Secret Evidence of Who Wrote the Shakespeare Canon

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes