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Shakespeare Sonnet 77: “Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear”

The Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence remains essential in my poetry tool kit. Masterfully crafted, they dramatize love, beauty, and truth.

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 77

In Shakespeare sonnet 77 from the classic 154-sonnet sequence, the speaker is engaging the useful tools of a mirror and the empty pages of a book. He chooses these two objects in order to motivate himself to keep laboring intensely at his sonnet creation. The speaker is expressing creatively the simple wish to complete a full record of his thoughts and feelings for after he has entered his final years. He desires these mementos to serve as reminders of his early perceptions of love and truth.

Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear

Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear
Thy dial how thy precious minutes waste;
These vacant leaves thy mind’s imprint will bear,
And of this book this learning mayst thou taste.
The wrinkles which thy glass will truly show
Of mouthed graves will give thee memory;
Thou by thy dial’s shady stealth mayst know
Time’s thievish progress to eternity.
Look! what thy memory cannot contain,
Commit to these waste blanks, and thou shalt find
Those children nursed, deliver’d from thy brain,
To take a new acquaintance of thy mind.
These offices, so oft as thou wilt look,
Shall profit thee and much enrich thy book.

Reading of Sonnet 77

Commentary

The speaker is conversing with himself in sonnet 77. He is musing in a cogitative state of mind and, thus, creating a “poetself,” where he can continue to remind his creative faculty of the importance of his continued crafting of his fine poems—the ones that will result in his 154-sonnet sequence.

First Quatrain: The Poet's Persona

Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear
Thy dial how thy precious minutes waste;
These vacant leaves thy mind’s imprint will bear,
And of this book this learning mayst thou taste.

The speaker admonishes his poet’s persona that three instruments will keep him informed about his progress: his mirror will remind him that he is aging, and his clock will remind him when he wastes time, and the empty pages of his book will also remind him that he must continue to create and be productive in order to fill those blank pages with "learning." The creative speaker must continue to produce his sonnets so that he will be able to enjoy his creations into old age.

The speaker has affirmed his ability to create, but because of human inertia and habits of procrastination, he must continually remind himself of his goals. He has likely already wasted more time than he thinks can afford, but he knows he can persevere if he can muster the proper motivation. The triple prompts of an aging face staring back from the mirror, the fleeting time measured by the clock, and empty pages that needs to fill seem to be working to urge the speaker on to his creative efforts.

Second Quatrain: The Mirror and the Clock

The wrinkles which thy glass will truly show
Of mouthed graves will give thee memory;
Thou by thy dial’s shady stealth mayst know
Time’s thievish progress to eternity.

Again, the speaker refers to the mirror and the clock: the mirror will "truly show" "the wrinkles" that will develop as the speaker ages, while the clock will keep ticking off the minutes as his life speeds by. But the mirror can be used as a motivational tool if the speaker/poet will keep in mind the image of "mouthed graves." The open grave waits for the speaker who has ceased his work and can no longer create his valuable poems. The speaker creates such a gruesome image in order to offer himself motivation to spur his inner writer to greater effort that he may stop wasting his precious moments.

The speaker’s ability to urge himself on corresponds to his ability to fashion his creations. He has a talent for crafting beautiful, strong sonnets—which has become clear to him. Now he must make his effort to fulfill that talent—a different skill but one that he knows is equally important. A skill unrealized is as if the skill never existed. He, therefore, engages every moment and all of his mental energy to make sure he expresses his talent.

Third Quatrain: Command to Understand

Look! what thy memory cannot contain,
Commit to these waste blanks, and thou shalt find
Those children nursed, deliver’d from thy brain,
To take a new acquaintance of thy mind.

The speaker then shouts a command, "Look!" He commands his poetself to understand that he will not be able to remember all of the important and fascinating details of this life unless he fashions them into useful artifacts, that is, the sonnets, and "[c]ommits [them] to these waste blanks." The speaker insists that he must create his works that are like his children "deliver’d from [his] brain." As the speaker/creator saves his "children" and fashions them into poems he will "take a new acquaintance," and he will be reminded of his experiences in his old age.

The speaker appears to be grasping each moment, finding new ways to express ideas that extend universally to all artists. He has envisioned a world for his art, and he works to build that world with present metaphoric and mystical realities, in order that in his later years he can look back at his works and remember what he thought, how he felt, and even why he works so hard to create that world.

The Couplet: His Own Enrichment

These offices, so oft as thou wilt look,
Shall profit thee and much enrich thy book.

In the couplet, the speaker concludes his premise that if he makes haste and stays productive, he will be glad and "profit" much from "[his] book." The speaker predicts that his enrichment will come from two sources: the spiritual, which is the most important, and the material, as he will also be able to gain monetarily from the sale of his book. The speaker will "enrich" his memory, his heart and soul, as well as his pocketbook. The motivation must satisfy the speaker on all levels, if it is to work. The speaker has noted many times in many sonnets that he is interested in capturing only beauty and truth.

The speaker knows that only what is true and beautiful will enhance his spirit as he looks back upon his life and his works. He also knows that this sonnets will have meaning and value for others also only if they are filled with truth and beauty, qualities with which others can identity. He knows that folks will not appreciate the vulgar and the mundane when they look to experience through poetry the pure and exceptional. This speaker knows his exceptional talent will render him able to create a world that he and others will be able to appreciate down through the centuries.

The Secret Evidence of Who Wrote the Shakespeare Canon

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on September 02, 2020:

Prithviraj Shirole - thank you for your comment and the kind words. I am glad to hear you were enriched by my commentary. A useful exercise for even a casual reader is to write something in response to a work, whether it be a poem, story, novel, essay, or any work of art. By crafting a written response, even if written solely for one's own eyes, one deepens awareness for further appreciating such works.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on September 02, 2020:

Thank you, maven101, for your response.

Yes, John Keats was heavily influenced by the Shakespearean works. Legend has it that Keats had a bust of “Shakespeare” and that Keats wrote his poems sitting beside it, thinking the bust would inspire him. You are perceptive to have spotted the similarity of images and even the style of Keats both of which were inspired by the Shakespeare writer.

Prithviraj Shirole from India on August 31, 2020:

Beautiful explained the meaning of the poem. Enjoyed reading it and learned a lot. Thanks for explaining.

Larry Conners from Northern Arizona on August 31, 2020:

Thoughtful and scholarly encapsulation of Shakespeare's sonnet 77...I am reminded of Keats's "When I have Fears that I may Cease to be" when he states "before this pen has gleaned my teeming brain"...Keats was also talking to himself...His reference to unfilled books held back by "garners, the full ripened grain" reminds Shakespeare's Third quatrain.....And, of course, his "Ode to a Grecian Urn" where he states "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty"...Independent thoughts or influenced by Shakespeare..?