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This lesson explores the ”rival poet” section of Shakespeare’s sonnets (sonnet 78-86). Even though it is a short section (only 9 out of 154 sonnets) it explores the narrator’s feelings about a rival poet.

Following this lesson, you’ll take a short quiz.

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What Is a Sonnet?

A sonnet is a 14-line poem written in iambic pentameter (ten syllables per line alternating between unstressed and stressed syllables).

What Happens in Shakespeare’s Sonnets?

A collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets was published in 1609. Scholars will argue about the chronology, order, and subjects of these sonnets until the end of time, but there are some qualities of the sonnets that are definite. One of those qualities is that they focus primarily on a small group of characters: The poet (who can be thought of as a sort of first-person narrator), a fair youth (a young man who is often considered to be the subject of sonnets 1-126), the rival poet (a poet other than the narrator who has started invoking the fair youth as his muse), and the dark lady (a woman of dark complexion and even darker aspect whom the narrator has a tumultuous relationship with). The rival poet is the most minor of all these characters and is alluded to only in sonnets 78 through 86.

The Rival Poet

The rival poet section begins with sonnet 78.

This first sonnet of the rival poet section mentions, in a general way, that other poets have begun to write about the fair youth that he has been writing about all along. The narrator of the sonnet is clearly irked by other poets infringing upon his muse.’So oft have I invoked thee for my MuseAnd found such fair assistance in my verseAs every alien pen hath got my useAnd under thee their poesy disperse.’Following this, the narrator cautions the fair youth to ‘be most proud of that which I compile’ because these other poets are great artists, and even though using the fair youth as a subject makes their art better, the narrator is not an artist at all without the fair youth as his subject.

‘In others’ works thou dost but mend the style,And arts with thy sweet graces graced be;But thou art all my art and dost advanceAs high as learning my rude ignorance.’In the next sonnet (sonnet 79), the narrator goes from a plural description of the rival poet (‘every alien pen’) to a specific description:’Yet what of thee thy poet doth inventHe robs thee of and pays it thee again.’Shakespeare’s use of the singular form of ‘poet’ here and his use of the pronoun ‘he’ implies that the narrator is discussing one specific poet. In this sonnet, the narrator belittles the skill of the rival poet by saying that his poems are great but it was really the fair youth who did all the work. The fair youth is so full of beauty that the mere act of describing him made great poems:’Yet what of thee thy poet doth inventHe robs thee of and pays it thee again.He lends thee virtue and he stole that wordFrom thy behavior; beauty doth he giveAnd found it in thy cheek; he can affordNo praise to thee but what in thee doth live.Then thank him not for that which he doth say,Since what he owes thee thou thyself dost pay.

‘This sonnet can become confusing if the reader attempts to read the word ‘invent’ as meaning to ‘make up’ or ‘create from thin air.’ In this case, the word invent means to ‘find out’ or ‘discover.’In sonnet 80, the narrator compares himself to the rival poet in very self-deprecating terms.

He refers to the rival poet as ‘a better spirit’ and then claims: ‘I am a worthless boat, He of tall building and of goodly pride.’One of the most interesting aspects of the rival poet section of the sonnets is the contrast between the narrator’s characterization of himself in sonnets 80 and 81. In 80, he is a ‘worthless boat.’ In 81, however, he explains to the fair youth that in the future, when they are both dead, the narrator will be forgotten, but the fair youth will be made immortal by the narrator’s poems.’Your monument shall be my gentle verse,Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read,And tongues to be your being shall rehearseWhen all the breathers of this world are dead;You still shall live–such virtue hath my pen–Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.’The confident tone of Sonnet 81 is created in three ways. First, by the narrator’s presumption that his poetry has the power to immortalize its subject.

Second, there is suddenly no mention of the rival poet who has played a major role in sonnets 78-80. Third, it is juxtaposed with sonnet 80 whose self-deprecating tone acts as a foil. This causes the confident tone of sonnet 81 to shine that much brighter.Sonnets 82-85 are thematically similar.

The narrator has spent sonnets 78-81 indulging an inner conflict between the nature of his own poetry about the fair youth and the rival poet’s poetry about the fair youth. Now, he launches into the most pronounced theme of the rival poet section of the sonnets. He contends that other poets (the rival poet included) have done the fair youth a disservice in using hyperbole to overpraise him.

The narrator, on the other hand, has done him a service by presenting his beauty truthfully. The reason being that his beauty is so great that it doesn’t need any ‘painting’:’And their gross painting might be better usedWhere cheeks need blood; in thee it is abused.’This final couplet of sonnet 82 is continued without segue into sonnet 83 which begins,’I never saw that you did painting needAnd therefore to your fair no painting set.

‘This theme continues through sonnet 85 where the narrator states it most explicitly — without simile or metaphor to obscure his meaning — with the words ‘I think good thoughts whilst others write good words.’Also, in sonnets 82-85, the narrator discusses how — in contrast to the rival poet who has over-worded his praise for the fair youth — he himself has been silenced. He makes several allusions to himself and his verse as ‘dumb’ or ‘mute.’Finally, in sonnet 86, the last of the rival poet section, the narrator arrives at his conclusion. He begins by returning to the boat metaphor used in sonnet 80:’Was it the proud full sail of his great verse,Bound for the prize of all too precious you,That did my ripe thoughts in my brain inhearse,Making their tomb the womb wherein they grew?’In the end, the narrator concludes simply that his silence (alluded to in sonnets 82-85) is simply the result of the rival poet stealing his subject matter:’But when your countenance fill’d up his line,Then lack’d I matter; that enfeebled mine.

Conclusion

The rival poet section of Shakespeare’s sonnets (sonnet 78-86) consists of only 9 sonnets, but it is one of the most emotionally diverse and interesting portions of the 154-sonnet collection. It explores the narrator’s feelings about other poets (one, specifically) suddenly writing verse dedicated to the same fair youth who has been the narrator’s subject for so long. At times, he criticizes himself.

At other times, he praises himself. Likewise, he vacillates on the rival poet as well affording him both praise and criticism. Even the fair youth himself — whom the narrator has written praising sonnet after praising sonnet about — cannot escape this small section of eight sonnets without the narrator losing patience with him.

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