This feels to me like a public poem, a poem competing for the attention of a patron by trying to express a more genuine and heartfelt sentiment in contrast to another’s grander verse. The mention of the ‘proudest sail’ and the image of the boat, or ‘bark’, links this sonnet with Sonnet 86 which begins: ‘Was it the proud sail of his great verse, / Bound for the prize of all-too-precious you’. It has become a critical commonplace to regard this sonnet as part of a mini-sequence within the collection which are about a poetic ‘rival’ (Sonnets 78 to 84 or 86). But in fact only one of those sonnets, Sonnet 83, explicitly mentions another ‘poet’, the others are about the relationship to the ‘muse’ or the anxiety about writing more generally. Like much of what has and is still written about the Sonnets, the poems themselves become the prey of biographical assumptions before their primary poetic meaning has been allowed properly to resonate.
O, how I faint when I of you do write,
Knowing a better spirit doth use your name,
And in the praise thereof spends all his might,
To make me tongue-tied, speaking of your fame!
But since your worth, wide as the ocean is,
The humble as the proudest sail doth bear,
My saucy bark, inferior far to his,
On your broad main doth wilfully appear.
Your shallowest help will hold me up afloat,
Whilst he upon your soundless deep doth ride;
Or, being wracked, I am a worthless boat,
He of tall building, and of goodly pride.
Then if he thrive and I be cast away,
The worst was this: my love was my decay.
Click on the post below to hear Sonnet 80 being read by my colleague Charlie Ryall.
You might like to visit a similar Shakespeare for Advent project led by students at the University of Tubingen by clicking here.