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Shakespeare Sonnet 88: "When thou shalt be dispos’d to set me light"

The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love.

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

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

Introduction: Text and Paraphrase of Sonnet 88: "When thou shalt be dispos’d to set me light"

In Shakespeare sonnet 88 from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, the speaker has stumbled up on a unique position: even his flaws reveal nothing but genuine love for truth, beauty, and spiritual honesty. His skillful rendering of that idea results in one the most intriguing sonnets in any language.

Sonnet 88: "When thou shalt be dispos’d to set me light"

When thou shalt be dispos’d to set me light
And place my merit in the eye of scorn,
Upon thy side against myself I ’ll fight,
And prove thee virtuous, though thou art forsworn.
With mine own weakness, being best acquainted,
Upon thy part I can set down a story
Of faults conceal’d, wherein I am attainted;
That thou in losing me shalt win much glory:
And I by this will be a gainer too;
For bending all my loving thoughts on thee,
The injuries that to myself I do,
Doing thee vantage, double-vantage me.
Such is my love, to thee I so belong,
That for thy right myself will bear all wrong.

A rough paraphrase of sonnet 88 might sound something like the following:

When you show my faults and your disdain, I will not argue against you. I will, in fact, argue with you for you are so valuable. I know my own weaknesses quite well, and am aware that they may show up in my work. But even if my faults appear, they attest to my life in you, and my work is credited by my deference to you. It is only love that drives my work and I am possessed by that work. That my sonnets may deliver only expressions of love and truth, I will take upon myself any flaws because you are the goal of my life’s expression.

Reading of Sonnet 88

Commentary

Admitting that he is a flawed human being, the speaker in sonnet 88, nevertheless, also claims that his blessings of talent and sincere motivation result in a valuable art.

First Quatrain: Addressing His Poem as Critic

When thou shalt be dispos’d to set me light
And place my merit in the eye of scorn,
Upon thy side against myself I ’ll fight,
And prove thee virtuous, though thou art forsworn.

The speaker addresses his poem as if it were a critic or an adversary. He tells the poem that when it has a mind to make him look superficial and without worth, he will agree with the poem. The speaker will "prove [the poem] virtuous" above his own worth. Even though the poem may, in fact, be speaking out of prejudice, the speaker, nevertheless, will argue on its side, instead of trying to defend his own position.

By giving the poem such power, the speaker relieves his own sense of lack of power at time. Of course, he feels that most of the time he retains control, but those times when power, creativity, and clarity elude him, he must rethink his ability to reason as well as his power to control the logic of his continuing to create. This speaker has made it clear that he wishes to engage only genuine thoughts and feelings that then produces genuine poetry. He has also made it clear that he has no respect for those artists who produce mere tinsel and decoration.

Second Quatrain: Aware of His Own Value

With mine own weakness, being best acquainted,
Upon thy part I can set down a story
Of faults conceal’d, wherein I am attainted;
That thou in losing me shalt win much glory:

The speaker/poet knows his own value and position, including his own weaknesses. Thus, in his art he believes he is wont to display, from time to time, remnants of those weaknesses. Even when the speaker's "story" tries to cover his flaws, he knows that they will show through the work, for he also knows his unique talent is employed for truth-telling.

But when the speaker is fortunate enough to rise above his flaws, it will be tantamount to the poem’s "losing [him]"; at least, the poem will have dispensed with the writer’s serious blemishes and therefore will "win much glory." By giving the glory to the poem, the speaker again de-emphasizes his own ego, which he knows he must keep in check, in order to remain true to truth and beauty. He knows that it is the ego that leads the human mind and heart astray, and while his level of talent might lead to an enlarged and overweening ego, he is determined not to allow it. Ego aggrandizement spells the death of all art.

Third Quatrain: The Way to Strength and Power

And I by this will be a gainer too;
For bending all my loving thoughts on thee,
The injuries that to myself I do,
Doing thee vantage, double-vantage me.

After the poem establishes itself in glory despite the faults of the poet, the poet also grows in strength and power. This clever speaker knows that because he has been "bending all [his] loving thought on" the poem, the failures that might slip into the poem to harm him will, instead, be advantageous to the poem, and doubly beneficial to the poet.

This deep-thinking speaker cannot take advantage of the poem, just as the poem cannot reflect more than the store of wealth owned by the speaker. The defects of the speaker molded by the unique talent of the poet will prove the value of each. The speaker’s confidence grows with each sonnet, and he can toast his failures as well as his best efforts.

The Couplet: Glory to Love

Such is my love, to thee I so belong,
That for thy right myself will bear all wrong.

The speaker attributes his glory to the love of the sonnet; he is always deeply interested in the theme of love—from his thematic trinity of love, truth, and beauty—and when the sonnet shines with the glory of his love, he feels he is most successful. He is then able to "bear all wrong" for the sake of the sonnet to which he has committed his talent and ability. Any wrong the speaker might commit in his poems he fully accepts, knowing that his motivation is genuine, his effort is tireless, and his spiritual understanding is impeccable.

The Secret Evidence of Who Wrote the Shakespeare Canon

The De Vere Society

The De Vere Society

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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