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Shakespeare Sonnet 79: "Whilst I alone did call upon thy aid"

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 79: "Whilst I alone did call upon thy aid"

The speaker in the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence has repeatedly demonstrated his deep obsession with poetry creation. It is, indeed, ironic that he finds he can write even about complaining about not being able to write. This kind of devotion and determination finds expression over and over again.

While this speaker waits for what he believes to be true inspiration, he goes ahead and writes whatever he can to keep his creative juices flowing. The speaker of sonnet 79 is addressing his muse directly, attempting to sort out once again his own individual offerings from that of the muse's contributions.

Sonnet 79: "Whilst I alone did call upon thy aid"

Whilst I alone did call upon thy aid
My verse alone had all thy gentle grace;
But now my gracious numbers are decay’d,
And my sick muse doth give an other place.
I grant, sweet love, thy lovely argument
Deserves the travail of a worthier pen;
Yet what of thee thy poet doth invent
He robs thee of, and pays it thee again.
He lends thee virtue, and he stole that word
From thy behaviour; beauty doth he give,
And found it in thy cheek; he can afford
No praise to thee but what in thee doth live.
Then thank him not for that which he doth say,
Since what he owes thee thou thyself dost pay.

Reading of Sonnet 79

Commentary

The speaker of sonnet 79 is once again directly facing his muse, as he attempts to sort out his own contribution from the inspiration contribution of the muse. Making such fine distinctions helps generate drama as well as useful images with which to create his sonnets.

First Quatrain: Bereft of the Muse

Whilst I alone did call upon thy aid
My verse alone had all thy gentle grace;
But now my gracious numbers are decay’d,
And my sick muse doth give an other place.

In the first quatrain of sonnet 79, the speaker declares that when he depends solely on his muse for writing his sonnets, the poems "had all thy gentle grace." But the speaker now finds himself bereft of his muse, that is, another one of the pesky periods of writer’s block is assailing him. His "sick muse" is letting him down, and he is failing to accumulate the number of sonnets he wishes to produce.

Writers have to write, and when they are faced with a blank page that seems to want to remain silent, they must cajole and pester their thought processes in order to find some prompt that will motivate the images, ideas, and context to produce the desired texts. This speaker faces his muse—which is his own soul/mental awareness—and demands results. His determination always results in product; thus he has learned never to stay silent for long. His clever talents seem to be always equal to the task of creativity.

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Second Quatrain: Search for a Better Argument

I grant, sweet love, thy lovely argument
Deserves the travail of a worthier pen;
Yet what of thee thy poet doth invent
He robs thee of, and pays it thee again.

The speaker, who is an obsessed poet, admits that "sweet love" deserves a better "argument" than he is presently capable of providing. He knows that such work demands "a worthier pen," but when the speaker finds himself in such a dry state, destitute of creative juices, he simply has to ransack his earlier work to "pay[ ] it thee again."

To be able to offer at least some token, the speaker has to "rob" what the muse had earlier given him. The act does not make him happy, but he feels that he must do something other than whine and mope. Making his own works new again, however, results in a freshness that will work time and time again, but only if it can pass the poet’s own smell test. He will not allow warmed over, obviously stale images to infect his creations.

Third Quatrain: Crediting the Muse

He lends thee virtue, and he stole that word
From thy behaviour; beauty doth he give,
And found it in thy cheek; he can afford
No praise to thee but what in thee doth live.

Even such a thieving poet "lends thee virtue." The speaker metaphorically likens his reliance on the muse to the crime of theft, but he makes it clear that he gives the muse all of the credit for his ability even to steal. It is the musal unity of "behaviour" and "beauty" that lends this speaker his talents.

The speaker says he cannot accept praise for any of the works, because they all come from the muse: they are "what in thee doth live." His talent and his inspiration that find happy expression in his works he always attributes to his muse. On those occasions that the speaker becomes too full of himself, he pulls back humbly, even though he knows he has let the cat out of the bag.

The Couplet: Undeserving of Musal Gratitude

Then thank him not for that which he doth say,
Since what he owes thee thou thyself dost pay.

Finally, the speaker avers that he is not deserving of any gratitude or even consideration by the muse. He insists, "what he owes thee thou thyself dost pay." All that the speaker may owe his muse is already contained in that muse, including any gratitude he may want to express. Such a description of his "muse" indicates that the speaker knows the muse is none other than his own Divine Creator. His humble nature allows him to construct his sonnets as prayers, which he can offer to his Divine Belovèd.

The distinction between Creator and creation remains a nebulous one. There always seems to be a difference without an actual difference—or perhaps a distinction without a difference. What is united cannot be divided unless the human mind divides them. The writer, especially the creative writer, has to understand, appreciate, and then be able to manipulate the Creator/creation unity if s/he is to continue creating. This Shakespearean speaker understands that relationship better than most writers who have ever written; that understanding is responsible for the durability and classic status of the Shakespeare canon.

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes

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