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Shakespeare Sonnet 84: "Who is it that says most? which can say more"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - The real "Shakespeare"

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - The real "Shakespeare"

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 84: "Who is it that says most? which can say more"

The speaker in sonnet 84 is once again exploring the nature of the genuine vs fake art. He contends that each human soul's abundance of truth provides the repository from which all artists may partake in producing their works.

This speaker believes that only genuine feeling can produce useful, effective, beautiful art. His interest in pursuing the reality of truth and beauty continue to motivate his poetics explorations.

(Please Note: For a brief introduction to this 154-sonnet sequence, please visit "Overview of the Shakespeare Sonnet Sequence.")

Sonnet 84: "Who is it that says most? which can say more"

Who is it that says most? which can say more
Than this rich praise,—that you alone are you?
In whose confine immured is the store
Which should example where your equal grew.
Lean penury within that pen doth dwell
That to his subject lends not some small glory;
But he that writes of you, if he can tell
That you are you, so dignifies his story,
Let him but copy what in you is writ,
Not making worse what nature made so clear,
And such a counterpart shall fame his wit,
Making his style admired every where.
You to your beauteous blessings add a curse,
Being fond on praise, which makes your praises worse.

Reading of Sonnet 84

Shakespeare Sonnet Titles


The Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence does not feature titles for each sonnet; therefore, each sonnet's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel: "When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text." APA does not address this issue.

Commentary

The speaker is examining the true ground of art, which is the human soul. He avers that the truth of the soul is indispensable for artists who aspire to be genuine, and this speaker has revealed repeatedly in his sonnets that he desires genuineness above all.

First Quatrain: A Two Pronged Question

Who is it that says most? which can say more
Than this rich praise,—that you alone are you?
In whose confine immured is the store
Which should example where your equal grew.

In the first quatrain of sonnet 84, the speaker begins with a two-part question: "Who is it that says most? which can say more / Than this rich praise,—that you alone are you?" The speaker is addressing his soul, the life force that makes each human being unique, as he has many times before, and with his rhetorical question asserts that the greatest praise one can receive is the recognition of one’s uniqueness.

The speaker then insists that each individual contains the seeds for his own growth. His art production will "equal" the value of the individual’s worth because each person is unique. The speaker, of course, is examining his own uniqueness specifically, but his claims also flourish to universality through his broad scope and study.

Second Quatrain: A Poor Writer

Lean penury within that pen doth dwell
That to his subject lends not some small glory;
But he that writes of you, if he can tell
That you are you, so dignifies his story,

The speaker then asserts that the writer who cannot afford "some small glory" to his own soul is, indeed, a poor writer. The reader has become well aware that the speaker’s obsession with the art of writing dominates his musings. This talented speaker has intuitively grasped that the soul is the true creator, being a spark of the Supreme Creator.

Therefore, the speaker can say with certainty that if the writer will contact his soul, he will find that his work "dignifies his story." The speaker, however, does also insist that the writer must be able to distinguish the soul from the ego; the writer must be able to "tell / That you are you."

Third Quatrain: From the Soul

Let him but copy what in you is writ,
Not making worse what nature made so clear,
And such a counterpart shall fame his wit,
Making his style admired every where.

The speaker claims that all the writer has to do is "copy what in [the soul] is writ." The soul is the repository of all knowledge, and if the writer will contact the soul, he will never be guilty of "making worse what nature made so clear." And furthermore, that soul-writer’s style will be "admired every where."

The speaker, as the reader has discovered in many of the sonnets, is most interested in truth, beauty, and love. And as such a genuine of the true and beautiful, this speaker continues to castigate poetasters for their betrayal of truth.

This speaker also has on many occasions rebuked pretenders who use poetic devices as mere cosmetics. This speaker holds special scorn for those who abuse love. In this sonnet, the speaker is especially concerned with truth; he insists that soul knowledge is the answer to the opening question.

The Couplet: Ego Failure

You to your beauteous blessings add a curse,
Being fond on praise, which makes your praises worse.

In the couplet, the speaker scolds the ego, who, when it fails to attend the soul, "add[s] a curse" to its own "beauteous blessings." And when the ego allows itself to become inebriated "on praise," the resulting art becomes inferior. If such art is praised, it is done so by sycophants, not true art lovers.

The Real "Shakespeare"

Shakespeare Identified Lecture, Mike A'Dair And William J. Ray

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes