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Shakespeare Sonnet 38: "How can my Muse want subject to invent"

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 and Text of Sonnet 38: "How can my Muse want subject to invent"

As the speaker in sonnet 38 from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence creates a fine distinction between his talent and his "Muse," he is simply elaborating the notion that his own special muse/talent renders his works uniquely outstanding. This uniqueness, he believes, will be reflected in the ability of his works to profess a freshness as time passes by.

The clever speaker is, thereby, claiming a special type of genuineness that remains unique in its own special manner. Unlike those earlier bards who called on the nine muses for inspiration, his special talent bolstered by audacious confidence will create his own "tenth muse" that will assist his creations in outshining those reliant on the other nine muses.

Sonnet 38: "How can my Muse want subject to invent"

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 rimers* 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.

*Please note: In the original Shakespeare sonnets, the spelling of the poetic device is always "rime," as the first published edition in 1609 attests. The Shakespeare writer was composing his sonnets two centuries before Dr. Samuel Johnson erroneously introduced the spelling "rhyme" into English. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error."

Reading of Shakespeare Sonnet 38

Commentary

The speaker is creating and dramatizing a fictional distinction between his talent and his "Muse," with a confidence so potent that it will create a tenth muse.

First Quatrain: Question to the Muse

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?

The speaker opens Sonnet 38 by addressing his talent, asking how his muse could lack something worthy to write about as long as the speaker possesses such strong and capable talent. The speaker avers that his talent resembles living waters that "pour[] into [his] verse / [their] own sweet argument."

This speaker's own talent informs his verse with such sweetness and high quality that it remains unequalled by any of those lesser talents who currently spread their wares in search of an audience. While he seems to be boasting, he is, in fact, merely elucidating the verity that his poems yield a high quality, not like lesser works with which inferior poems must struggle.

Second Quatrain: Advising His Talent

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?

The speaker then advises his talent (which, of course, also co-exists with the speaker’s very soul) to give credit to itself, if the speaker has anything worthy to say. This speaker reckons that when talent is present, anyone would be capable of writing: when the muse/talent is present in sufficient quality and ability, anyone except the very depraved in intelligence may put pen to paper with some level of success.

Because this speaker's strong talent sheds such a vigorous light of creation, he, therefore, cannot fail to produce worthy art that he is sure will endure down through the ages. He has become well aware of his considerable ability, using it to fulfill his goal of producing meaningful, profound works. He does not makes such audacious statement merely to boast; he is merely reporting factual matters as they exist. The speaker has a nightly talent, he knows it, and therefore he has no issues with describing and even praising it as is necessary for the drama.

Third Quatrain: Earlier Invocation

Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rimers invocate;
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date.

Many earlier poets have invoked the muses when beginning a poem. Homer began The Iliad with "Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus," and The Odyssey with "Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero." Edmund Spenser begins The Faere Queene with "Lo I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske." But then the speaker calls on his writing capabilities to stand in place of the "tenth Muse." And he, therefore, commands his talent to be that "tenth Muse," adding that his Tenth Muse will then be ten times more valuable than the muses the poets of old had invoked.

This poet does far more than merely create rimes; he knows himself to be a genuine poet. This speaker remains confident that the poet who relies upon his own God-given talent will create works far superior to those craftsmen who in earlier time relied upon a group of nine Muses for their inspiration and guidance. The speaker/poet remains steadily sure of his own talent and that its strength and ability will stand his works in good stead as the years pass. He recognizes that he is up to the task of poetry creation that will remain universal even as it creates his own personal dramas.

The Couplet: Humble and Creative

If my slight Muse do please these curious days,
The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.

The speaker then becomes ever more humble by asserting that if his "slight Muse" can create poetry that is pleasant for his own enigmatic times, he himself may incur the pain of the arduous labor, but his talent/soul will receive "the praise."

This humble speaker, at last, acknowledges that his mind and ability apart from his poetic talent are small and must put forth great effort, but his talent is able to shine through his mental dullness to hoist his creations to greatness. He has essentially created a tenth muse to add to the original nine. And while as a mere human being and a man, he would appreciate "praise," he is more determined that his works are lauded, for they will outlive him.

The Secret Evidence of Who Wrote the Shakespear Works

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on April 19, 2017:

The 17th Earl of Oxford was able to perform extremely complex mental gymnastics. The result is a poetry that shines on many levels of awareness.

Thanks for your response, Mark!

Mark Tulin from Ventura, California on April 19, 2017:

Loved this sonnet. Loved the fact that this poet could articulate and have the awareness of the processes at work in his poems. Despite his dullness of mind his talent shone through.