Shakespeare (1599) Sonnet 86, like several of the sonnets immediately before and after it, presents elements of a poetic rivalry between the speaker and another, anonymous poet—neither of them ever fully identified—for the favor of the equally anonymous youth. In this sonnet, the speaker proposes three questions to explore why he has been unable to speak or write when the rival poet is around. These questions and the speaker's rejection of each explanation occupy the first 12 lines. He concludes in the couplet that the youth's infidelity has rendered him speechless.
In the first quatrain, the speaker asks if it was the power of the rival's poetry (l. 1) that killed his own ability to write, leaving the speaker's ripe thoughts "inhearse[d]" (l. 3)—that is, placed on a hearse, buried in the speaker's brain. The image is of stillbirth ("their tomb the womb wherein they grew," l. 4). The tone of this quatrain is ambivalent: The speaker could be praising the rival's poetry in terms of a great galleon, or even of a fleet, but he could equally be describing it in terms that make it appear pretentious and grandiloquent. Either way, "bound for" (l. 2) is a nautical term referring to a ship approaching another with the clear intent of capture. Coupled with the images of stillbirth, this is a violent quatrain.
The second quatrain suggests that the rival poet gets a great deal of his inspiration from "spirits" or "ghosts" (ll. 5, 7, 9). It is important to note these choices in diction: William Shakespeare does not use muse, the more conventional term for inspiring spirits, but spirit, which is altogether ambiguous. In the middle of this quatrain, Shakespeare begins to answer the questions he has asked: No, neither the poet himself nor any extraterrestrial help he gets has silenced the speaker. This insistence continues into the third quatrain, where the speaker reiterates his insistence that neither the poet nor the ghost can claim to have silenced him: They "as victors of my silence cannot boast; / I was not sick of any fear from thence" (ll. 11-12).
Only the couplet, where the volta occurs, resolves the issue: When the youth deserted the speaker in favor of the rival, the speaker no longer had any subject to write about. The youth's presence in the rival's verse, "when your countenance fill'd up his line" (l. 13), demonstrates that, as far as the speaker is concerned, he has been deserted, and as a result, he lacked "matter" (l. 14), or a subject. The pun on "filling the lines" is subtle but pointed, particularly if the first quatrain is read ironically: The rival poet needed the youth's physical qualities to make his lines scan even, while the speaker crafted his lines to enhance the youth's beauties with their praise.
During the first 12 lines, the speaker's attention remains on the rival and the possibility that he has affected the speaker's writing. The speaker inserts himself into the discussion only when he rejects each explanation, reminding us that, in fact, he himself is the sonnet's subject. Inverting the syntax in lines 10 and 11 returns the rival (and the ghost) to prominence, putting the focus back on the rival so that the couplet, clarifying the beloved youth's responsibility, assumes even greater force. The strategy is designed to put the youth—and the reader—off guard so that when the responsibility for the poet's inability to write is finally assigned, we are all surprised.
Among Shakespeare's sonnets, this one is syntactically unusual because it is written entirely in past tense. Even at the end, no reason is given for the fact that apparently the rival no longer figures in the poet's landscape. In addition, Sonnet 86 features a 12-2 pattern of development, where the couplet bears the burden of the turn. However, the substantial shift of focus in line 7 gives the sonnet an inverted Italian logic. For six lines, the focus remains on the rival poet, who is proposed as the reason for the speaker's enforced silence. At that point, the speaker reappears and, for another six lines, rejects the charges. A second inversion in lines 11 and 12, this time syntactic, places the speaker squarely against both the youth (for his disloyalty) and the rival poet in the couplet. Sonnet 86 raises more questions than it answers—chief among them, what happened to the rival poet?—and the son net teases its audience with a surface that cannot be penetrated.
See also Shakespeare's sonnets (overview).
Marjory E. Lange
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