Dame Judi Dench as the Countess reading a sonnet-letter.
Sonnet 26 is distinctive because it is addressed to the ‘Lord of my love’ to whom the poet feels subordinate. The sonnet is presented as a ‘written embassage’ and has the quality and tone of being like a letter in verse (reminiscent perhaps of Helen’s letter to the Countess in All’s Well That End’s Well
which is cast in the form of a sonnet). The poet puts over the conceit that his words are ‘bare’ and ‘wanting’ and are in need of the better thought and attention of his ‘Lord’ (his patron?) in order to improve and to become ‘worthy of thy sweet respect’. The use of ‘thy’ suggests personal intimacy, born out by the poet’s unambiguous promise ‘to boast how I do love thee.’ Politeness, poetry, and personality all combine to make Sonnet 26 crackle with its own sense of controlled desire (the phrase ‘all naked’ in the approximate centre of the sonnet might even suggest sexual attraction).
Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage
Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit,
To thee I send this written embassage,
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 mayst prove me.
Click on the post below to hear Sonnet 26 read by Hester Bradley, one of the Shakespeare and Creativity students at The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham.
You might like to visit a similar Shakespeare for Advent project led by students at the University of Tubingen by clicking here.