So oft have I invoked thee for my Muse
And found such fair assistance in my verse
As every alien pen hath got my use
And under thee their poesy disperse.
Thine eyes, that taught the dumb on high to sing
And heavy ignorance aloft to fly,
Have added feathers to the learned’s wing
And given grace a double majesty.
Yet be most proud of that which I compile,
Whose influence is thine and born of thee:
In others’ works thou dost but mend the style,
And arts with thy sweet graces graced be;
But thou art all my art and dost advance
As high as learning my rude ignorance.

OK . . . damn.

I mean . . .

Where was I?

Oh yeah, trying to put together something coherent about that one but . . . damn. It’s hard to do that with poems like 78 that just come out of the sky and dollop some whipped cream on what you though were a good batch of sonnets. To quote one of my favorite English teachers (Mr. Benjamin, 7th Grade, Elizabeth Blackwell Junior High), “Shakespeare definitely had the lines.”

It’s easy to fail at a love sonnet. The form, when mishandled, can be goofy, and writing about love is often goofy anyway. The complicated parts of love are the most interesting to read about but sonnets can easily trip into simple, easy, and tedious descriptions of beauty. This one almost goes there in that second quatrain; “thine eyes,” etc., etc. — stop! Please spare us the long list of your beloved’s many virtues. Those kinds of things wind up sounding like too-clever versions of, “Gosh, you’re pretty!”

Shakespeare isn’t doing that here — he’s drawing a contrast between a couple things that make for a more complex observation. The beloved is wonderful, sure — she enhances everything she touches, doubling, teaching, adding. But what does she bring to his writing? Nothing. She can’t add anything to it because she is his art in its entirety.

What I love about this is that I feel Shakespeare means it. He’s not coding a “you’re so awesome” statement. He’s talking about both love and the creative process. He’s not saying here that he only writes about the beloved, but that the presence of the beloved grants him a lightness and perspective and confidence with the pen that brings something new and surprisingly beautiful out of him. In other words, he would still write if she wasn’t there, but why should he bother without the transformation within him that she compels? This is not about the beloved, but the lover, and what changes the lover can bring to the world with this new part of his life.

“But thou art all my art.”

Shakespeare had the lines.