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Shakespeare Sonnet 26: "Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage"

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

First Edition of Shakespeare Sonnets

First Edition of Shakespeare Sonnets

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 26: "Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage"

The speaker in sonnet 26, from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, is recognizing the importance of his artist’s ability as he assumes his duty to write poems. He accepts the burden that his singular talent places on him, and he assures his muse that he will continue to accept and perform his duty without becoming a braggart.

This speaker realizes that his talent is divinely inspired, and it remains a precious gift that he must practice, in order to keep it new and viable. The speaker considers his muse an envoy from the Divine Creator. He takes his mission very seriously as he promises to respect and honor his Creator.

Artists, even those of the atheist persuasion, intuit the divine essence that prompts their ability to perform their particular art form. Even without realizing the divinity of such a force, the artist is motivated and constrained to perform to the best of his ability. That some poets become poetasters simply demonstrates that they have listened too closely to their own selfish motives rather than delving deep into the true Self for the light and spirit that moves each soul.

Sonnet 26: "Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage"

Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage
Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit,
To thee I send this written ambassage,
To witness duty, not to show my wit:
Duty so great, which wit so poor as mine
May make seem bare, in wanting words to show it,
But that I hope some good conceit of thine
In thy soul’s thought, all naked, will bestow it;
Till whatsoever star that guides my moving
Points on me graciously with fair aspect,
And puts apparel on my tatter’d loving,
To show me worthy of thy sweet respect:
Then may I dare to boast how I do love thee;
Till then not show my head where thou mayst prove me.

Reading of Sonnet 26

Commentary

The speaker in sonnet 26 explores his duty as it relates to his ability to express through poetry; thus, he acknowledges his duty to compose poems. He has become aware that his talent is his "Lord," and he promises to execute his dutiful writing tasks without becoming boastful.

First Quatrain: Addressing His Talent and Skill

Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage
Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit,
To thee I send this written ambassage,
To witness duty, not to show my wit:

The reader has witnessed in earlier sonnets that the speaker at times addresses his poems and at other times he addresses his ability to write those poems. In sonnet 26, it is the latter: the speaker is addressing his talent as "Lord of my love."

The first quatrain opens with the speaker telling his God-given talent that he is offering this poem to confirm his willing acceptance of the duty that his writing talent has placed upon him. This speaker is not writing these quaint little verses merely to show off his intelligence, thereby puffing up his own ego. Instead of mere ego grandstanding, he is writing because he recognizes his true calling, which acts, in effect, as a duty that his significant talent demands from him. He appears to abide by the Biblical injunction, "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required" (KJV, Luke 12:48).

Second Quatrain: No Special Intelligence

Duty so great, which wit so poor as mine
May make seem bare, in wanting words to show it,
But that I hope some good conceit of thine
In thy soul’s thought, all naked, will bestow it;

The speaker admits humbly that he has no special intelligence; as a matter of fact, he claims his "wit" is "poor." And compared to the great duty imposed upon him by his talent in creating verse, his wit seems "bare." But the speaker invokes the presence of this spiritual gift in hopes that its "good conceit" will inspire him to create despite his lacking "words to show it." The speaker refers to "thy soul’s thought" as being "all naked" which indicates that the very heart of the living presence that bestows his talent is not dressed up with material colors and textures but, instead, is pure because it is unadorned.

The speaker's humble invocation resembles a prayer as he supplicates for guidance in using his talent for pure purposes. Also, as the reader has seen before, the speaker professes that his talent and his love are identical. Therefore, that he addresses his God-given talent as "Lord of my love" becomes even more understandable as it remains formed out of the inner strife and searching that lead to keen attention to all things physical as well as spiritual.

Third Quatrain: Remaining Humble

Till whatsoever star that guides my moving
Points on me graciously with fair aspect,
And puts apparel on my tatter’d loving,
To show me worthy of thy sweet respect:

After calling for divine direction, the speaker then submits that he will need such guidance until he can safely maneuver without it or until the "star that guides my moving / Points on me graciously with fair aspect." The speaker strives to remain utterly humble, never taking credit alone for his creations. Instead of his own hand, he credits his "star" with putting "apparel on my tatter’d loving / To show me worthy of thy sweet respect."

Even though the speaker acknowledges that he has this writing talent, he can never feel that he alone is the creator. As he quietly and surreptitiously avers that his talent comes from the Divine Spirit or God, he never overtly names God, but does name God’s divine agents such as the stars. The ability to cognize the divine essence in creation remains one of the mainstays of artistic talent; otherwise, the creations of the artist fail to present beauty and truth, and instead, their monstrosities reveal the inner turmoil of selfishness and often become mere exaggerations in didacticism.

The Couplet: Divine Grace and Guidance

Then may I dare to boast how I do love thee;
Till then not show my head where thou mayst prove me.

After the speaker has been the beneficiary of God’s grace and guidance and through the divine maneuvering of the stars, if he can show himself "worthy of [God’s] sweet respect," then he may boast to the world of his love of Spirit that has invested in him a special talent. But until such a time as the speaker can display perfectly his divine gift, he will not "show [his] head." For so doing, he would open himself to divine retribution, if he were wrong.

The speaker remains humble despite the weight of his profound understanding. Although he knows his talent is considerably abundant, he has no desire to flaunt his ability merely for selfish aggrandizement. As he remains humble, his poetic output will remain on a steady path that will lead him to his goal of complete realization, and even though he will never know how widespread his works might have traveled, he can be assured that in composing those works, he has always performed to the best of his ability.

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

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