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“Sonnet 21: So is it not with me as with that Muse” by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare

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 this sonnet, Shakespeare is comparing himself to a rival poet. The rival is described as being false with his words, embellishing his verse in such a way that what he is describing appears more beautiful than it actually is. By contrast, Shakespeare seeks to “truly write,” to capture the essence of the beauty he sees and accurately portray that beauty through his words.

So this begs an important question: To whom or to what is this sonnet addressed? The answer is not clear, but there are a couple possibilities.

First, since this poem falls into the “fair youth” category, the sonnet may refer to the young man. It is possible that the rival poet was expressing an interest in the fair youth and composed grandiloquent and ornamented poetry as a way to win the youth’s affection. This would certainly have stirred a bit of jealousy in Shakespeare who would have responded by differentiating himself from his rival. If this is the case, then the closing line implies that Shakespeare is praising the youth’s beauty not for selfish gains or to attempt to “win him over,” but merely to honestly convey the beauty he sees within the youth.

The second possibility is that the subject is his poetry, that Shakespeare is in essence writing a poem about his poems. What would be the reason for Shakespeare to compose poetry? He would be claiming it is strictly to express the beauty that he sees in the world around him. Contrast this to his rival. It could be argued based upon the closing line that Shakespeare’s rival composes the embellished poems strictly to sell them. In other words, Shakespeare is creating art for the sake of art, whereas his rival is creating art solely for capital gain.

As with much of Shakespeare’s work, I think that we have a double-entendre here. My personal feeling is that the poem encompasses both interpretations. I must confess, I am ever in awe of Shakespeare’s artistic genius.

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