I’m back with another Shakespeare Saturday and the first sonnet of the year! I tried to keep it short but I have no self-restraint and I can’t hold myself back when it comes to a good sonnet. Sorry.
Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage
Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit,
To thee I send this written ambassage,
To witness duty, not to show my wit.
Duty so great, which wit so poor as mine
May make seem bare, in wanting words to show it,
But that I hope some good conceit of thine
In thy soul’s thought, all naked, will bestow it:
Till whatsoever star that guides my moving,
Points on me graciously with fair aspect,
And puts apparel on my tattered loving,
To show me worthy of thy sweet respect:
Then may I dare to boast how I do love thee,
Till then not show my head where thou may’st prove me.
Sonnet 26 is generally regarded as the last poem of the group of five preceding poems. It also encapsulates several themes (the function of writing poems, the effect of class differences, and love) which are seen not only in sonnets 20 to 25 but the first thirty-two poems as a whole.
This sonnet has been discussed by various critics and scholars over the years. It was also the subject of authorship and provenance debate in the eighteenth century but I’m not going to get into that today. I’m saving it for a post about the ‘authenticity’ and ‘authorship’ of Shakespeare’s works. Anyways, Edward Capell (1713 – 1781) and Edward Dowden (1843 – 1913) regarded sonnet 26 as an introduction to a certain set of poems sent to an aristocrat who had commissioned them while George Wyndham (1863 – 1913) and Henry Charles Beeching (1859 – 1919) thought that sonnet 26 was an introduction of a new set of sonnets which ended at sonnet 32. Wyndham refers to the new set as ‘group B’.1 How inventive.
Don Paterson suggested that Sonnet 26 may have been a farewell to the first 25 sonnets, or a ‘dedicatory epistle’ for the remaining one hundred sonnets addressed to the Fair Youth.2 Sonnet 26 is both an ending and a beginning but scholars have never been able to agree on what it begins.
The poem is framed as an envoy or ambassage – a submission of a vassal seeking preferment from a Lord – but it’s a pastiche or a parody of this form of writing. The speaker praises the Lord’s wit and, almost mockingly, downplays his own wit but the speaker states clearly that this sonnet, unlike some of the others, is not to show my wit but to witness duty. This section of the poem is built up deep-rooted notions of social class and the master-servant trope is actually fairly common in Petrarchan sonnets. Shakespeare literalises this theme by addressing the poem to an imagined noble and acknowledging the Fair Youth’s status in comparison to his own.
Helen Vendler has argued that the speaker’s identification of himself as a vassal invites scepticism rather than identification but other scholars have stressed the appropriateness of the metaphor in the context of the speaker’s frustrated desire for equality with his beloved.3 This is, and always will be, an unequal relationship.
From line four we fall into a familiar scene in which the poet claims that his ability is too poore to describe the Fair Youth, stating that his language seems bare and lacks adornment. He hopes that the Fair Youth’s good conceit, which can be found in his soul’s thought, will embellish the poet’s lacking expression of love. We’ve seen this before in sonnets 17 and 23 so sonnet 26 seems to follow a familiar pattern that has been established in the previous twenty-five poems.
The poem also continues the astrological theme of sonnet 25. In lines 9 and 10, the speaker states that he will wait until whatsoever star that guides him points on me graciously with fair aspect – if we continue the meaning of star from sonnet 25, which was used to refer to the lords and ladies of the court or just those with public influence, the star of this sonnet is the Fair Youth and Shakespeare, or the poet, does not seem to be one of those who are in favour with their stars. He is waiting to be blessed with the sweet respect of the Fair Youth and only then can he boast, like those of sonnet 25, about his love for the Youth.
Many scholars argue that this is one of the best sonnets in the Fair Youth sequence and I have to agree. It’s an incredibly complex poem which echoes and references early sonnets in the sequence but I also just really enjoy reading it. The slightly mocking tone at the beginning, Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage / Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit, is just wonderful and it gives me such a sense of Shakespeare as a writer. I love it.
1. George Wyndham, The Poems of Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1898) – via archive.org
2. Don Paterson, Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Faber & Faber, 2012)
3. Helen Vendler, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1997)
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