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Sonnet 86 by William Shakespeare

Over the years, I've heard lots of reasons or excuses for writer's block. But truly, Will Shakespeare came up with one of the best I've read yet. It's not exactly "the dog ate my homework", but it's close; in this case, it's "someone else wrote about the same subject, and that stole my ability to write". What makes it all so interesting is that he's written a rather inventive sonnet to explain why he couldn't write a sonnet. Gotta love the Bard.

Sonnet 86
by William Shakespeare

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 astonishèd.
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 filled up his line,
  Then lacked I matter; that enfeebled mine.

*inhearse: bury
**gulls: deludes
***intelligence: reports or news (assuredly a double meaning however)

Form-wise, this is your standard Shakespearean sonnet: iambic pentameter, rhymed ABABCDCDEFEFGG. This particular sonnet is from the Fair Youth sequence and is, more specifically, part of the "Rival Poet" subset of poems (generally believed to be sonnets 80-86).

This sonnet may be read independently, but is actually the completion or continuation of Sonnet 85 ("My tongue-tied muse in manners holds her still"). In Sonnet 85, Shakespeare admits to being blocked; others have been writing poems praising the fair youth; as a result, Shakespeare finds himself unable to compose. Of course, he's actually composing sonnets that a) take a dig at the rival poet, b) express jealousy over any possible relationship between the fair youth and the rival poet(s), c) express his love for the fair youth and d) sort of take a swipe at the youth for accepting the accolades of others (and any relationship benefits that might accompany them).

Sonnet 86 begins with a metaphor, comparing the rival poet's work to a ship under full sail. This is a continuation of a theme from the first of the rival poet poems, sonnet 80 - in closing this short series of poems, Shakespeare has circled back to where he started it, thereby demonstrating (to my mind, at least) that there's a narrative arc through these six poems, which were likely intended to be read together. But as I've pulled just one out for you today, I suppose I digress.

Sonnet 86 also begins with a question: The first eight lines basically boil down to "was it the rival poet's magnificent poems praising the youth that caused his writer's block?" In line nine, we get the volta or turn in a word: "No". It wasn't the rival poet or "his compeers by night giving him aid" (also referred to as "that affable familiar ghost which nightly gulls him with intelligence"). So Shakespeare here says, in effect, "I'm not afraid of any rival poet". The closing couplet provides the answer to his dry spell:

But when your countenance filled up his line,
Then lacked I matter; that enfeebled mine.

Yes, I believe you read it right. It says "when he wrote about your face, he used you up, and I had nothing to write about", more or less.

Now, the No Fear Shakespeare Sonnets will tell you that "The ghosts who visit the rival poet at night, both helping and tricking him, are very difficult to explain. They seem to refer to something in Shakespeare's time that is now unknown." The note in my copy of Shakespeare's Sonnets and Poems from the Folger Shakespeare Library seems to concur in part; it says that the poem can be read as an implication that the rival poet was consorting with the spirit world and, as one might imagine, any hint at the occult is pretty fascinating. That said, the Folger edition posits that the references to spirits might refer to the study of dead poets. Moreover, it notes that, coupled with the reference to lofty verse, it might be a clue to the identity of the rival poet being George Chapman, whose translation of The Iliad into English began to appear in print in 1598.

My copy of So Long As Men Can See by Clinton Heylin offers this further bit about the association of Chapman with "spirits", by pointing out the work of William Minto, who believed Chapman was the Rival Poet.

Addressing the nightly visitations of the 'familiar ghost' in Q86, [Minto] points out that Chapman alludes to such a figure in the dedication to his 1594 poem 'Shadow of the Night,' in language that bursts with self-importance. Reserving muse-status for the mother of knowledge, who 'will scarcely be looked upon by others but with invocation, fasting, watching; yea, not without having drops of their souls like a heavenly familiar,' Chapman brags that his own poetic insights alone are equal to the task.

Whether the Rival Poet was Chapman or not, I think it extremely likely that any references to the "proud sail" of the rival's verses was meant sarcastically or scornfully, and that the reference to night visits by ghosts is intended as a dig. If one thinks of the pre-Renaissance theory of "genius" as something that dwells outside a person, and only visits now and again (remember those bits from Elizabeth Gilbert's TED speech that I transcribed a while back?) then the notion of a "muse" or "guiding spirit" that is external is not a far stretch. That Shakespeare thinks poorly of the rival poet's muse - and is jealous - is further demonstrated by his implication that the rival poet's muse only shows up at night; calling it a "familiar" (a term associated with witchcraft) is just one more way of getting a dig in. I could be wrong about that, of course, but I don't think I am in this instance.

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( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 15th, 2009 12:58 pm (UTC)
Fascinating analysis, Kelly. I love your take on the spirit language. It gets me thinking -- no small feat when I'm still fighting jetlag!
Jul. 15th, 2009 03:11 pm (UTC)
I'm glad to have kick-started your brain a bit!
Jul. 15th, 2009 02:38 pm (UTC)
LOL - I don't know how I read it before, but reading that whole thing now as an excuse for writer's block is pretty funny.
"Oh, you lovely, lovely soul, I shall callest you my muse and writeth many stars' worth of sonnets for you!"
Later that day...
"I mean, you anti-muse who stoleth my writer's mojo! How darest you! Give it here!"
Jul. 15th, 2009 03:12 pm (UTC)
It's decidedly a poem about why he can't write, and it's most certainly linked to Sonnet 85 (also an excuse for writer's block, in which he claims his muse has skivved off somewhere). Love your modernized Elizabethan summary!!
Jul. 15th, 2009 03:07 pm (UTC)
Haven't read this one in ages. Love your analysis, Kelly.
Jul. 15th, 2009 03:13 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Jama!
Jul. 15th, 2009 05:11 pm (UTC)
It's strangely reassuring to know that even Shakespeare had writer's block and felt competitive with other writers...
Jul. 15th, 2009 07:50 pm (UTC)
Isn't it?
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 16th, 2009 04:21 pm (UTC)
"There is nothing new under the sun." (That's the Bible, not the Bard. Although I had to look it up to be certain.)
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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