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Shakespeare Sonnet 51: "Thus can my love excuse the slow offence"

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

First Edition of Shakespeare Sonnets

First Edition of Shakespeare Sonnets

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 51: "Thus can my love excuse the slow offence"

In sonnet 51 from the thematic group, "The Muse Sonnets," in the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, the speaker is continuing his exploration of the relationship between his physical encasement and his spiritual essence.

And once again, he is colorfully employing the use of the animal metaphor. The animal body of physicality moves slowly and with great effort and much time, while the mind can flit hither and yon easily and quickly.

Sonnet 51: "Thus can my love excuse the slow offence"

Thus can my love excuse the slow offence
Of my dull bearer when from thee I speed:
From where thou art why should I haste me thence?
Till I return, of posting is no need.
O! what excuse will my poor beast then find,
When swift extremity can seem but slow?
Then should I spur, though mounted on the wind,
In winged speed no motion shall I know:
Then can no horse with my desire keep pace;
Therefore desire, of perfect’st love being made,
Shall neigh—no dull flesh—in his fiery race;
But love, for love, thus shall excuse my jade,—
‘Since from thee going he went wilful-slow,
Towards thee I ’ll run, and give him leave to go.’

Reading of Sonnet 51

Commentary

The clever speaker in sonnet 51 continues to compare metaphorically the abilities of a horse to a human body, in his exploration of the contrasts that play out between a human being’s physical encasement and soul.

First Quatrain: A Continuing Thought

Thus can my love excuse the slow offence
Of my dull bearer when from thee I speed:
From where thou art why should I haste me thence?
Till I return, of posting is no need.

That sonnet 51 continues the idea which was originally posed in sonnet 50 is implicit in the coordinating adverb, "thus," which begins the opening clause, "Thus can my love excuse the slow offence." Again, readers encounter a sub-sequence in which the speaker must lay out his message over the span of two or more sonnets.

The "slow offence" is inherent in the nature of the physical encasement as opposed to the mental or spiritual encasements or bodies. As thought can silently but swiftly move far distances, a physical entity takes great effort and time.

The speaker’s body is metaphorically likened to a beast of burden, that is, a horse that carries a rider. The body is a "dull bearer." When the speaker tries to "speed" from his muse, his body is an impediment that only the mind and/or soul can transcend.

The speaker then asks the listening muse why he should even try to depart from the muse’s company, and then he remarks that sending a letter is not necessary. Sometimes this speaker likes to insert a measure of levity into his commentary.

Of course, sending a letter to the muse is ridiculous, but he also extends a rather paradoxical suggestion in the term "letter" because his field of endeavor is "letters," that is, literary. Any letter he would send the muse would simply be anything he writes, any sonnet, play, or other poem. Thus, he can claim a double-barreled suggestion that works on multiple levels.

Second Quatrain: Allusion to Pegasus

O! what excuse will my poor beast then find,
When swift extremity can seem but slow?
Then should I spur, though mounted on the wind,
In winged speed no motion shall I know:

In the second quatrain, the speaker alludes to Pegasus, the wingèd-horse symbol of poetry, to ask the muse what he might offer as an excuse to allow pardon for his slowness. Although he thinks he may be moving swiftly, he knows that swiftness is but a relative quality. Against a Pegasus, his own slow-moving carcass would seem to drag about.

And then too there is the fact that even the swiftness of thought will seem slow as the speaker’s mind is moving away from his muse. Riding the wingèd horse encounters no motion, though the speaker seems to ride the wind. Despite airy, high-flown thoughts, he makes no headway as he deigns to flee his muse.

The speaker’s insistence on reality extends to his mental states, which must align if mythological characters are to assist his argument. He knows that his muse remains fully aware of all states of being, and his own awareness continues to increase and open.

If a human body should move as quickly as the mind, then he would never be without inspiration, but he must rely on his mind, and he has come to realize that mental states can become mere tricks of other sensations, as the eye may play a trick as easily as the ear.

Third Quatrain: Slow Body vs Swift Mind

Then can no horse with my desire keep pace;
Therefore desire, of perfect’st love being made,
Shall neigh—no dull flesh—in his fiery race;
But love, for love, thus shall excuse my jade,—

Again in the third quatrain employing colorfully his horse metaphor, the speaker avers, "no horse with my desire [can] keep pace." His slow body cannot match his swift mind, even if the desire is ensconced as "perfect'st love."

Even though the "dull flesh" like a horse "[s]hall neigh" through a "fiery race," the speaker's love, that is, the love that is from the soul, "shall excuse my jade." Though the speaker becomes world-weary or jaded, his pure soul will transcend that dismal state.

The speaker has, thus, demonstrated the difference between the physical and spiritual levels of being. He approaches the spiritual through the mind, which he knows to move much faster than the body.

And he knows that only with soul power can the mind speed to any desired and useful plane. The speaker has again split his conscience into the hopeful and the jaded, and again he will have to take steps to reunite those splits.

The Couplet: Living in Soul

'Since from thee going he went wilful-slow,
Towards thee I ’ll run, and give him leave to go.’

The speaker declares that from the body’s reckoning of slow and stubborn movement from his muse, he will choose to traverse the field swiftly home toward his muse. Thus, this speaker will allow the body to sink into silent tranquility, and he will live in his soul. In the tranquility of the soul resides the muse, and this speaker’s duty is to his muse.

This speaker/poet is happiest when he is thinking of love—the highest point of his thematic triumvirate of truth, beauty, and love; he is most content when he is creating his sonnet worlds that hold his love, precious letters from his soul. The impediment of the beast of burden, his horse-like body, cannot hold sway over his immortal soul.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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