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Shakespeare Sonnet 21: "So is it not with me as with that Muse"

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 21: "So is it not with me as with that Muse"

In Shakespeare’s era as now, many people thought that poetry was something that was ethereal and dainty and that poets were interested only in sugar-coating ugliness or moving it out of daily affairs. But the speaker in this group of sonnets, the "Muse Sonnets," is writing to change that perception, by affirming that true love does not have to be compared only to beautiful flowers and gemstones and the stars.

This speaker wants to reveal beauty as it appears, not as something that has been cosmeticized and, therefore, falsified. From the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, Shakespeare sonnet 21, "So is it not with me as with that Muse," finds the speaker railing against a poetic tradition that he disdains because of its failure to describe truthfully, thus depriving true beauty of its rightful place in the cosmos.

Sonnet 21: "So is it not with me as with that Muse"

So is it not with me as with that Muse
Stirr’d by a painted beauty to his verse,
Who heaven itself for ornament doth use
And every fair with his fair doth rehearse,
Making a couplement of proud compare,
With sun and moon, with earth and sea’s rich gems,
With April’s first-born flowers, and all things rare
That heaven’s air in this huge rondure hems.
O! let me, true in love, but truly write,
And then believe me, my love is as fair
As any mother’s child, though not so bright
As those gold candles fix’d in heaven’s air:
Let them say more that like of hear-say well;
I will not praise that purpose not to sell.

Reading of Sonnet 21

Commentary

Sonnet 21 resembles other sonnets of praise that portray a realistic description of the belovèd target, instead of the exaggerations that amount to falsehoods.

First Quatrain: False Beauty

So is it not with me as with that Muse
Stirr’d by a painted beauty to his verse,
Who heaven itself for ornament doth use
And every fair with his fair doth rehearse

In the first quatrain of the Shakespeare sonnet 21, the speaker says that he will not be like the poet who, while motivated by false beauty, paints artificial beauty upon his belovèd. Interestingly, the speaker is not referring to a person, but to his sonnets.

The speaker has no intention of painting a false face or façade of beauty upon his poems by comparing his subject matter to heaven. He also will not assert or claim that fake loveliness may ever equal true loveliness. He demonstrates his inner strength garnered through only positive, accurate qualities and descriptions.

This speaker desires to further his reputation by functioning as a plain speaking sonneteer; his art is too important to him to exaggerate and run the risk of being misunderstood. He has no interest in employing the use of imaginary claims of the true and the beautiful merely to enhance his poetry. This honest, clever speaker wishes to have his poetry represent truth itself, not a version of truth. He strives for the original, not the stock images that had come to dominate poetry.

Second Quatrain: Painted Beauty

Making a couplement of proud compare,
With sun and moon, with earth and sea’s rich gems,
With April’s first-born flowers, and all things rare
That heaven’s air in this huge rondure hems.

Continuing his list of ways that other poets have painted beauty on the faces of their poems, he asserts that he will not compare his sonnets’ subjects to the "sun and moon" or gemstones or the first rush of beauty of April’s blooms. While other poets pick out many of the most beautiful things on the earth to enhance their poems, he opposes such exaggeration as falsehood. He will not engage in such counterfeit speaking.

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By filtering out the aspects and qualities of existence that do not comport with a mainstream shallow notion of the good and the true and the beautiful, artists lose their grasp on reality and end up wallowing in high-flown rhetoric that never seems to land anywhere, never has the ability to engage the intellect or to inspire the heart. This speaker is interested in soul qualities, and sometimes those true aspects do not shine out from the surface of things.

Third Quatrain: From the Heart

O! let me, true in love, but truly write,
And then believe me, my love is as fair
As any mother’s child, though not so bright
As those gold candles fix’d in heaven’s air:

In the third quatrain, the speaker asserts that his heart is interested in truth. This speaker desires to feature only what is actually real, not exaggeration and artificiality. This genuine artist/speaker desires that his writing portray and dramatize only true beauty in order for his readers to accept what he says as truth. He knows that readers can see through such exaggeration and that they do not appreciate being lied to, nor do the types of readers, whom this speaker seeks out, fancy condescension and flattery.

The speaker asserts that his love, that is, his poetry—remember, there are no persons in this sequence of sonnets, 18–126, the largest section of the 154 sonnet sequence—may not be as bright as stars; nevertheless, his poetry is like his children and is as glorious to him as "any mother's child." Thus, while his poem will exude reality, it will not aspire to the same glow that one sees in the stars in the sky. Those heavenly bright "gold candles" will have no competitor in this genuine artist.

The Couplet: No Interest in False Exaggeration

Let them say more that like of hear-say well;
I will not praise that purpose not to sell.

The speaker allows that others may exaggerate—"[l]et them say more"—those who are not interested in direct or plain speaking, those who are interested only in "hear-say." This speaker has no intention of praising that which does not deserve praise. And he is not interested in selling his verse widely to an undiscriminating audience.

This speaker continues to assert his belief in the genuine, the true, the beautiful, and the lovely—all that speak directly to the heart and mind of discriminating audiences. He has no interest in acquiring a gathering of eyeballs that are easily distracted by shallowness, fakery, and condescension. He and his muse must remain above the vulgar, the mundane, and the ordinary by keeping their minds and hearts on the straight path to blessèdness.

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.

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on October 22, 2020:

Thank you, Sankhajit Bhattacharjee. The Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence is one of the giant literary feats that continues to enlighten, entertain, and delight readers, century after century. Masterfully crafted and always focused on genuine human sensibilities and concerns, these sonnets remain a vital contribution to world culture. They are often employed in the training of writers, who wish to offer their best polished pieces of discourse.

Blessings, Sankhajit, and have a great day!

Sankhajit Bhattacharjee from MILWAUKEE on October 20, 2020:

interesting piece to read

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