Shakespeare Sonnet 20
Introduction and Text of Sonnet 20
Sonnet 20 belongs to the group of sonnets that scholars have designated as the “young man” poems. However, the scholars have also conceded that their classifications are not ironclad. And as readers experience these sonnets, they come to realize that there is, indeed, no young man nor any person at all in these sonnets.
Clearly, sonnets 1-17 can accurately be designated at the “Marriage Sonnets,” in which the speaker is urging a young man to marry and produce offspring to ensure his legacy, but sonnets 18-126, as these commentaries will reveal, do not portray the kind of relationship that some scholars have claimed for them. In Sonnet 20, the speaker is not addressing a person, but his poetry as he often does in this group of sonnets 18-126.
A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion:
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.
Reading Sonnet 20
In Sonnet 20, the speaker is again addressing his poem, likening it to a woman’s charms, but finding it less fickle and more capable of consistently shielding love.
First Quatrain: Grace Without Fickleness
In the first quatrain, the speaker tells the sonnet that it has the grace of a woman’s countenance without the fickleness. The sonnet is the “master-mistress” of the poet’s “passion.” Thus, the speaker likens the poem to a woman companion, but he finds the poem an even more satisfying companion because the poem’s face is naturally painted with nature and not cosmetics as a human woman would be. Also, the sonnet will remain steadfast because it is “not acquainted / With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion.” Fortunately, the poem does have a “woman’s gentle heart,” metaphorically speaking, of course!
Second Quatrain: Bright and Brighter
In the second quatrain, the speaker continues to compare the attributes of the poem to those of a woman. He finds a woman to have bright eyes, but the poem’s eyes are even brighter and “less false in rolling.” And what the poem gazes upon becomes gilded: it saves for future generations the subject that is placed into it. And like a painter who controls the colors that he uses with his brushes, the poem “steals men’s eyes and women’s souls” because of the poet's amazing skill at capturing the momentous drama as it occurs.
Third Quatrain: Origin of the Sonnet
The speaker says that the poem was first created for a woman; he is, no doubt, speaking of the origin of the Petrarchan sonnets that were designed to place women on pedestals, to celebrate the love of romantic partners when it was mostly the man who was idealizing the woman. But then along comes this particular speaker by the grace of nature who realizes that such unreality causes the art form to fall; its “doting” became too fantastic to be useful.
The speaker with his new understanding of realism is defeating that outmoded purpose. The old way of mere idolization is not the present speaker’s purpose. This speaker/poet wants to make rime that truly represents the nature of the subject he chooses to immortalize. And he praises the sonnet as such a practical and useful vehicle.
The Couplet: To Make a Useful Form
Still the speaker recognizes the feminine attraction to poetry and has no wish to change that fact. The speaker however will devote his talent and skill and love of his art to make the sonnets a useful form that will hold love as “their treasure.”
Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford
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
What is the structure of Shakespeare's sonnet 20?
Sonnet 20 is an English (Elizabethan or Shakespearean) sonnet with the traditional rime scheme, ABABCDCDEFEFGG.
(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error at https://owlcation.com/humanities/Rhyme-vs-Rime-An-... . "Helpful 2
Would you give me the prosodic scansion of "Sonnet 20" by Shakespeare?
Here is a site that offers scansions of the sonnets: http://prescannedshakespeare.aruffo.com/sonnets/so...Helpful 5
© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes