Shakespeare Sonnet 87: "Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing"

Updated on May 4, 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

Source

Introduction: Text of Sonnet 87 and Paraphrase

Sonnet 87

Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing
And like enough thou know’st thy estimate:
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.
Thyself thou gav’st, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me, to whom thou gav’st it, else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgment making.
Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but, waking, no such matter.

The following paragraph offers a rough paraphrase of Sonnet 87:

A final good-bye to you who are too difficult for me to keep! And I am sure you know that you are very valuable. You know how your worth is more than I can afford because my ability to keep one as valuable as you is limited. How could I keep you without your permission? And how is it that I could ever be fit to hold you? I lack such importance, and so I have no way to keep you. You gave your inspiration to me, but then apparently you did not then know your own value, or else you thought I was better equipped to accept your favors. So when you understood my poverty, you decided to abandon me. So it seems that I dreamed that I was more valuable than I thought I was, for when I woke, I realized the truth.

Interestingly, the speaker again is facing the dreaded bane of writers, writer's block. And yet even more interesting is the way this clever write goes about overcoming that problem. If his muse intends to abandon the writer, what better act then to take the initiative and abandon his muse before she can complete her get-away!

Reading of Sonnet 87

Commentary

Sonnet 87 begins a sequence in which the speaker/poet addresses his Muse, again bemoaning the fact that she sometimes seems to abandon him.

First Quatrain: Cannot Possess

Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing
And like enough thou know’st thy estimate:
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.

In the first quatrain, the speaker exclaims a defiant, "Farewell!" and then adds, "thou art too dear for my possessing." He then accuses his muse of behaving rather superciliously. His muse knows she is too precious and difficult for the speaker to hold. The speaker then explains that the high value that his muse places on her company renders it all the more proper that he should be "releasing" her.

The speaker makes it clear that he understands his claim on his muse has always been and will always be tenuous. This talented speaker is well aware that she may abandon him permanently, even as she does temporarily from time to time. Thus, he strikes out boldly by beating her to the punch—releasing her before she abandons him.

Second Quatrain: A Fluid Style

For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.

The speaker then adopts a fluid style as he asks of his muse, "For how do I hold thee but by they granting?" The speaker proclaims repeatedly that he does not deserve the "riches" that his muse has heretofore bestowed upon him. So he has no complaint that she should take back her inspiration.

Third Quatrain: Inspirational Storehouse

Thyself thou gav’st, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me, to whom thou gav’st it, else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgment making.

In the third quatrain, the speaker draws back a bit and notes that his muse probably gave him a store of her inspiration not realizing her own worth at the time. Then when she finally realized her value, she decided to take it back. She judged it better to refrain from inspiring the speaker further.

The Couplet: Go from Flattery

Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but, waking, no such matter.

The speaker then likens his early encounters with his muse to that of a dream. In his dream, the speaker had fancied he was a king, but when he woke up, he realized that he had been mistaken. And now the speaker is facing the fact that he might have written his last inspired piece of work, and he is assuaging his pain by feigning his release of his blessed muse.

A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence

Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare." For example, Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poets has opined:

Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Traditionally classified as "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Three Problematic Sonnets: 108, 126, 99

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy." Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

Sonnet 99 might be considered somewhat problematic: it features 15 lines instead of the traditional 14 sonnet lines. It accomplishes this task by converting the opening quatrain into a cinquain, with an altered rime scheme from ABAB to ABABA. The rest of the sonnet follows the regular rime, rhythm, and function of the traditional sonnet.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.

Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.

In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.

Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

    Comments

    Submit a Comment

    No comments yet.

    working