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

Updated on April 30, 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 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

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.

A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence

Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.

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 example, Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poets has opined:

Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

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 (Traditionally classified as "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.

Three Problematic Sonnets: 108, 126, 99

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.

Sonnet 99 might be considered somewhat problematic: it features 15 lines instead of the traditional 14 sonnet lines. It accomplishes this task by converting the opening quatrain into a cinquain, with an altered rime scheme from ABAB to ABABA. The rest of the sonnet follows the regular rime, rhythm, and function of the traditional sonnet.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.

Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.

In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.

Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."


Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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