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

Updated on December 24, 2017
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.

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

Source

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 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.

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

First Quatrain: "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?

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: "Nothing, sweet boy; but yet, like prayers divine"

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: "So that eternal love in love’s fresh case"

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: "Finding the first conceit of love there bred"

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 be "[f]inding the first conceit of love there bred / Where time and outward form would show it dead."

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.

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

Comments

Submit a Comment

No comments yet.