Shakespeare Saturdays: Sonnet 21

Shakespeare saturdays

I looked at some of Shakespeare’s collaborations last week but I’m going back to the sonnets this week. I’m exploring sonnet 21 this week and I’ll try to be brief but I’m not sure I know the meaning of the word.

DividerSonnet 21

So is it not with me as with that Muse,
Stirr’d by a painted beauty to his verse;
Who heaven itself for ornament doth use,
And every fair with his fair doth rehearse;
Making a couplement of proud compare,
With sun and moon, with earth and sea’s rich gems,
With April’s first-born flowers, and all things rare
That heaven’s air in this huge rondure hems.
O’ let me, true in love, but truly write,
And then believe me, my love is as fair
As any mother’s child, though not so bright
As those gold candles fix’d in heaven’s air:
   Let them say more than like of hearsay well;
   I will not praise, that purpose not to sell.


In the opening line of sonnet 21, Shakespeare claims at his Muse is not Stirred by a painted beauty to his verse like other Muses. It’s a satire of other sonnets, by the likes of Samuel Daniel and Philip Sidney, as Shakespeare’s speakers says that he will resist the practice of proud compare to the sun and moon, the rich gems of earth and sea, and April’s first-born flowers. He’s also satirising his own poetry because who can forget sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate… The speaker derides this type of sonnet, apparently, but he’s different because he is true in love. I’m not sure that’s fair to the other poets of the era but Shakespeare clearly wasn’t like other poets.

Sonnet 21 is a typical English or Shakespearean sonnet as consists of three quatrains followed by a couplet but this poem has six rhymes instead of seven because of the common sound used in the second and third quatrains: compare, rare, fair, and air. They count as one rhyme because they use the same sound but, honestly, I’m not sure why it matters. Also, this sonnet is not addressed to anyone in particular. It is part of the Fair Youth sonnet but it does not directly speak to a second person which is a little bit odd. I’m not sure why, perhaps Shakespeare was speaking to the reader instead of the subject, but it does make the sonnet stand out from some of the others I’ve read.

The theme of this sonnet is similar to sonnet 130, which is one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets, as that sonnet expresses a very similar sentiment to this one. In particular, lines 9-10 are echoed by the final lines of sonnet 130: And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare. I wonder if I’ll ever get around to analysing sonnet 130 on this blog.

I wouldn’t say that sonnet 21 is my favourite but I really love lines 11-12: though not so bright / As those gold candles fix’d in heaven’s air. It’s such a beautiful image as Shakespeare admits that his love will never shine as brightly as the stars shine in the night sky. He will not falsely compare his lover to the rare gems of the earth and nor will he falsely compare his own love to the stars above.


So, that’s it for sonnet 21. It isn’t the most technically or thematically interesting poem but I love pointing out the hypocrisy of Shakespeare’s message. I’m sure he was aware of his own hypocrisy but it does make me want to roll my eyes a little bit when I read the opening lines.

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