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Shakespeare Sonnet 85: "My tongue-tied Muse in manners holds her still"

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 85: "My tongue-tied Muse in manners holds her still"

In sonnet 85 from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, the speaker virtually lauds his own poems while humbly attributing their worth to the muse, who remains visibly humble. This speaker has devised many little dramas in which he has shown that his humility can remain humble while at the same time demonstrate that he knows his work is special. The speaker can assert his worth while at the same time dramatize his inner humbleness that remains clothed in gratitude.

The speaker often pries apart his trinity of theme—truth, beauty, love—in order to explore each quality in depth. He does the same with the trinity of art—artist, making, art—in order to examine and craft his little dramas. As he often speaks to his poems, he is able to demonstrate the strength and beauty that each one possesses. He can do all this without appearing to be boastful: he is merely demonstrating what truly exists—not what he might wish to fabricate or obfuscate into existence, as so many poetasters do.

Sonnet 85: "My tongue-tied Muse in manners holds her still"

My tongue-tied Muse in manners holds her still
Whilst comments of your praise, richly compil’d,
Deserve their character with golden quill,
And precious phrase by all the Muses fil’d.
I think good thoughts, whilst others write good words,
And, like unletter’d clerk, still cry ‘Amen’
To every hymn that able spirit affords,
In polish’d form of well-refined pen.
Hearing you prais’d, I say ‘’Tis so, ’tis true,’
And to the most of praise add something more;
But that is in my thought, whose love to you,
Though words come hindmost, holds his rank before.
Then others for the breath of words respect,
Me for my dumb thoughts, speaking in effect.

Reading of Sonnet 85

Commentary

While appearing to remain humble, the clever speaker of all the Shakespeare sonnets has honed a skill in praising his own talent.

First Quatrain: The Quiet Composer

My tongue-tied Muse in manners holds her still
Whilst comments of your praise, richly compil’d,
Deserve their character with golden quill,
And precious phrase by all the Muses fil’d.

The speaker is addressing his sonnet, telling it that its creator remains quiet when others praise it, but he freely admits that the sonnet deserves the "praise, richly compil’d." The sonnet shines as though written with a pen of golden ink. Not only the Muse of poetry, but also all of the other Muses are filled with pleasure at the valuable sonnets that the speaker has created.

This speaker claims that his Muse is "tongue-tied," but the sonnet, as usual, demonstrates otherwise. The speaker never allows himself to be tongue-tied, and at times, when he might be struggling to find expression, he merely blames the Muse until he once again takes command of his thoughts, compressing them into his golden sonnets.

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Second Quatrain: The Role of Critics

I think good thoughts, whilst others write good words,
And, like unletter’d clerk, still cry ‘Amen’
To every hymn that able spirit affords,
In polish’d form of well-refined pen.

While the speaker admits that he "think[s] good thoughts," it is the critics who "write good words" about his sonnets. This talented speaker cannot take credit for their brilliance in exposing what a gifted writer he is. And thus, while he certainly agrees with those "good words," he can blush outwardly while inwardly "cry[ing] ‘Amen’." The speaker now is emphasizing the force of his soul on his creative power as he refers to his poem as a "hymn." To each of his sonnets, he will owe his fame, any praise they may garner him, and also the recognition he will receive for having composed them.

The speaker remains eternally in deep agreement with his words: "In polish’d form of well-refined pen." As the speaker distinguishes his ego from the sonnet itself and also his process in creating them, he will be able to attain a humbleness while at the same time completely agree that he, in fact, will always merit the praise his creations bring him.

Third Quatrain: Fond of Praise

Hearing you prais’d, I say ‘’Tis so, ’tis true,’
And to the most of praise add something more;
But that is in my thought, whose love to you,
Though words come hindmost, holds his rank before.

The speaker then tells his sonnet that when he hears it praised, he says, "’Tis so, ’tis true." But then the speaker also has something further to express regarding that praise; he would have to add some deprecating thought in order not to come off as a braggadocio.

Because the speaker’s foremost thought is always the love he puts into his sonnets, whatever his casual remarks tend to be, he knows that those remarks are much less important than those written into the sonnet. The sonnet represents the speaker's soul force, not the conversational small talk that results from responding to those who praise his work.

The Couplet: True Speaking

Then others for the breath of words respect,
Me for my dumb thoughts, speaking in effect.

While others praise his sonnets for their clever craft with words, the speaker feels that his thoughts, which remain unspoken but yet exist as the sonnet, are the ones that do the true speaking for him. Thus, he holds that whatever he crafts will remain closer to truth than what anyone—critic, scholar, or admirer—could ever add to his conveyed message.

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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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