Wednesday, May 20, 2009

400th Anniversary of Shakespeare's Sonnets

Today is the 400th anniversary of the publication of Shakespeare's sonnets by Thomas Thorpe, who may or may not have had Shakespeare's permission to publish the 154 sonnets in the collection.

As many of you already know, June is going to be (almost) all Shakespeare all the time here at Writing and Ruminating. But it seemed to me that the anniversary of such an auspicious day as this, the quad-centennial of the first publication of Shakespeare's sonnets, deserves some marking. And so, in addition to the announcement, here's Shakespeare's Sonnet 38:

Sonnet 38
by William Shakespeare

How can my muse want subject to invent,
While thou dost breathe, that pour'st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
For every vulgar paper to rehearse?
O, give thyself the thanks, if aught in me
Worthy perusal stand against thy sight,
For who's so dumb that cannot write to thee
When thou thyself dost give invention light?
Be thou the tenth muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate;
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date.
  If my slight muse do please these curious days,
  The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.


This poem is one of the "Fair Youth" poems. In it, Shakespeare claims that his own muse cannot lack inspiration so long as the fair youth lives, and claims that if the youth finds anything in the poems that is praiseworthy, he ought to thank himself for being such excellent inspiration. The form of the poem is the Shakespearian sonnet, written in iambic pentameter, and rhyming ABABCDCDEFEFGG, with the turn (or volta) occurring in the start of the ninth line, where he says "Be thou the tenth muse, ten times more in worth/than those old nine which rhymers invocate". Earlier references to a muse are more in the nature of the spirit of creativity; in line nine, he returns to the more classical conception of the Greek muses of poetry, music and literature (think Erato, Calliope, Polyhymnia and the rest), and says that the fair youth is fit to be immortalized as the tenth muse, ten times more powerful than the old Greek muses combined.

Whoever the fair youth was (and my money's on Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, patron of Shakespeare's and owner of the portrait, left, recently discovered and believed to be Shakespeare painted during his lifetime), he made quite a muse. The majority of Shakespeare's sonnets are written for him, and they are pretty wonderful poems.

I hope you'll all come back in June for Shakespeare month. (Meanwhile, I'll be working on a name and logo for it. Because I like to waste time that way.)

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