Shakespeare Sonnet 86: "Was it the proud full sail of his great verse"

Updated on January 27, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real "Shakespeare"
The real "Shakespeare" | Source

Introduction: Text of Sonnet 86 and Paraphrase

Was it the proud full sail of his great verse

Was it the proud full sail of his great verse
Bound for the prize of all too precious you,
That did my ripe thoughts in my brain inhearse,
Making their tomb the womb wherein they grew?
Was it his spirit, by spirits taught to write
Above a mortal pitch, that struck me dead?
No, neither he, nor his compeers by night
Giving him aid, my verse astonished.
He, nor that affable familiar ghost
Which nightly gulls him with intelligence,
As victors of my silence cannot boast;
I was not sick of any fear from thence:
But when your countenance fill’d up his line,
Then lack’d I matter; that enfeebled mine.

A paraphrase of Sonnet 86 might run as follows:

Did my great poems, which possessed the great destiny of uplifting your reputation, originate with the rotting notions that fecundate the sterile soil of my mind until they possessed the ability to grow? Or was my soul given its talent to employ spirituality that moved me to die to the physical world? It was neither: not the dead ideas rotting in my brain, nor the stealth ones who roam by night. My poems receive no such help from such characters. No decaying idea nor night floating phantom brought from me the creations that I create. My intelligence is its own victory over the dumb. None of these ever frightened me or caused me to be ill. But when I first saw the bright face of my Muse, my weakness began to strengthen; what I did not have was given to me by the grace of love and beauty.

The speaker in all of the Shakespeare sonnets dramatizes and demonstrates the skills of a verbal gymnast. He performs his literary feats as an acrobat or tightrope walker would do as they perform their own dangerous acts.

This speaker knows he possesses a rare talent, and he always reveals his confidence as he continues to sway and swagger through the lines of his poems.

Reading of Sonnet 86

First Quatrain

In the first quatrain, the speaker addresses his Muse, metaphorically comparing his "great verse" to a ship in "proud full sail." He asks the question, did my poems come from the dead ideas in my brain?

The speaker then implies that he might have merely taken thoughts into his mental processes and then his brain seemed to incubate them, and they began to grow. He is merely exploring the idea, so as he continues, he poses a second question.

The speaker often suggests some notion that will later repudiate. He is once again setting his stage for his later performance that will surprise and delight his audience. His skill in dramatizing his ideas seems to become stronger with each new challenge.

Second Quatrain

The second quatrain poses the second question and offers the beginning of the answer. He asks, was I merely afforded superior writing ability by some writing spirit?

The speaker responds in the negative. He was not merely a target of some disembodied soul who uses him for his own purposes. He is assured the his talent and worth are not mere flukes.

The speaker then finishes his explanation in the next quatrain.

Third Quatrain

The speaker affirms that he is not merely a passive host for some apparition who "gulls him with intelligence." He has not been contaminated even though writer’s block occasionally has heralded his mighty effort to overcome the "victors of my silence."

This talented speaker has not been a pawn in the hands of others but has always been in charge of his own destiny.

Even this speaker's ability to create as he complains about writer's block demonstrates a rare and fertile mind at work.

The Couplet

The speaker then declares that his Muse that represents truth, love, and beauty has always provided the "countenance" that has inspired him with the ability and grace to overcome any human lack he might have experienced.

That this speaker humbly offers a tribute of gratitude to his Muse speaks volumes about the depth of character the writer of these works possesses.

Shakespeare Sonnet Titles

The Shakespeare 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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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