sonnetC

Where art thou Muse that thou forget'st so long,
To speak of that which gives thee all thy might?
Spend'st thou thy fury on some worthless song,
Darkening thy power to lend base subjects light?
Return forgetful Muse, and straight redeem,
In gentle numbers time so idly spent;
Sing to the ear that doth thy lays esteem
And gives thy pen both skill and argument.
Rise, resty Muse, my love's sweet face survey,
If Time have any wrinkle graven there;
If any, be a satire to decay,
And make Time's spoils despised every where.
   Give my love fame faster than Time wastes life,
   So thou prevent'st his scythe and crooked knife.

In this and the following three sonnets the poet elaborately excuses his silence and the hiatus in the production of his sonnets in praise of the youth, a hiatus which perhaps corresponds to the period of absence commemorated in the previous three sonnets. Whether this silence was a real or imaginary one it is impossible to know. The defence against the charge of failure is a conventional defence, in that it uses the standard figure of the Muse as the source of poetic inspiration. But here the Muse is blamed for having dried up. She has spent her energies in worthless pursuits and is castigated for being devoted to trivialities, being forgetful and slothful. In the following sonnets she is accused of being a truant, neglectful, incapable, and beggarly.

 

According to GBE, 'Many critics feel that Sonnets 100-103 lack any sense of commitment or emotional involvement'. (p.208). Nevertheless there is a sense of easy grace and relaxed detachment, perhaps born of necessity, which gives a pleasant charm to this group. After all the heart searching and agonies of former times the poet now has to justify his own failures. The chiding of the Muse is in itself an amusing farce, a clownish way of shifting blame away from himself. The Muse is berated instead and the poet, by his blasphemy of an ancient goddess, risks the wrath of divine punishment with studied carelessness.

The theme of lines 13-14, that verse might confer immortality on the object of devotion, has already been explored in full in 55, 63, 65 and others, and here it seems to be tacked on as a wistful afterthought. Age is taking its toll both on the lover and the beloved, and neither can withstand its ultimate overthrow.

The 1609 Quarto Version

WHere art thou Muſe that thou forgetſt fo long,
To ſpeake of that which giues thee all thy might?
Spendſt thou thy furie on ſome worthleſſe ſonge,
Darkning thy powre to lend baſe ſubiects light,
Returne forgetfull Muſe,and ſtraight redeeme,
In gentle numbers time ſo idely ſpent,
Sing to the eare that doth thy laies eſteeme,
And giues thy pen both skill and argument.
Riſe reſty Muſe,my loues ſweet face ſuruay,
If time haue any wrincle grauen there,
If any,be a Satire to decay,
And make times ſpoiles diſpifed euery where,
   Giue my loue fame faſter than time waſts life,
   So thou preuenſt his ſieth,and crooked knife.

Commentary

1. Where art thou Muse that thou forget'st so long,
Muse = the goddess of lyric poetry. According to ancient Greek tradition, there were nine Muses, all female, who inspired poets, each one devoted to a particular branch of poetry. References to them in Elizabethan literature are commonplace and conventional. (See for example Sidney's Astrophel and Stella No 3.) No serious belief in them is implied. Here the term is used in a general sense as a personification of poetic inspiration, the divine afflatus or breath which supposedly wafted itself into the poet's inflamed mind.
2. To speak of that which gives thee all thy might?
that which gives thee all thy might - i.e. the youth, and the poet's love for him, which is the entire substance of his poetry, as in Sonnet 76:

O, know, sweet love, I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;
76.

And see line 8 below.

3. Spend'st thou thy fury on some worthless song,
Spend'st thou = Are you determined to expend, waste and squander? fury = poetic inspiration. See the note to line 11 of Sonnet17:

So should my papers yellow'd with their age
Be scorn'd like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be term'd a poet's rage
And stretched metre of an antique song.

The fury or rage is the furor poeticus of poetic inspiration, which was considered to be similar to the divine inspiration experienced by seers and vates. The 'worthless songs' could of course be Shakespeare's plays, or whatever else he had been writing during the period of silence referred to. According to the love conventions of sonneteering, anything unconnected with the beloved was worthless.

4. Darkening thy power to lend base subjects light?
darkening = clouding over, lessening, obfuscating, clogging up.

thy power = your poetic gift, your inspired creations.

base subjects = vulgar themes, unworthy topics. But since the word base was often used to mean 'base born, of humble social status', there is inevitably a suggestion that the beloved is of high birth, and worthy of a poet's dedication, instead of which the speaker has debased himself and given his attentions to creatures not worthy to be noticed.

to lend base subjects light = to throw the spotlight on inferior persons, things.

5. Return forgetful Muse, and straight redeem,
straight = immediately, at once; as is just and right.
redeem = i.e make atonement for (OED.9). Also perhaps with the sense of make payment for, as one redeems a pledge from a pawnbroker. The poet has pawned his love of the youth for more trivial pursuits.
6. In gentle numbers time so idly spent;
gentle numbers = soothing, graceful verse. The musical and rhythmical quality of poetry conferred on it sometimes the apellations of 'song' or 'numbers', or 'lays', as in the next line.
7. Sing to the ear that doth thy lays esteem
thy lays = your poems. 'Lay' is an old world for a poem recited by a minstrel. See the note on the lays of birds in Sonnet 93.
esteem = value, admire, treat according to their worth.
8. And gives thy pen both skill and argument.
thy pen = your writing, your verse.
skill = technical ability in verse and writing.
argument = subject matter. This corresponds to subjects in line 4.
9. Rise, resty Muse, my love's sweet face survey,
resty = sluggish, unmoving, desirous of rest. A rare word in Shakespeare, used by him only here and in Cymbeline:

.......................................weariness
Can snore upon the flint, when resty sloth
Finds the down pillow hard.
Cym.III.6.

The poet accuses his Muse of laziness and sloth in not promoting the praise of the beloved youth, and suggests that it is time that she stirred herself and looked once again in the youth's face, from which all inspiration derives.

10. If Time have any wrinkle graven there;
Time - Time is here personified and accused of various acts of disfigurement and destruction.
graven = engraved, carved. Old age brings wrinkles to the face, especially to the forehead, a frequent theme in the Sonnets, e.g. 63

Against my love shall be, as I am now,
With Time's injurious hand crush'd and o'er-worn;
When hours have drain'd his blood and fill'd his brow
With lines and wrinkles...

11. If any, be a satire to decay,
If any = if there are any wrinkles there;
be a satire to decay = make fun of, ridicule the processes of decay and ageing.
a satire - a poem in which prevailing vices or follies are held up to ridicule. (OED.I.1.a.). The chief examples current in Elizabethan England were from classical literature, the two Latin poets, Horace and Juvenal, both of whom were well known and formed part of the school curriculum of the day.
12. And make Time's spoils despised every where.

spoils = 1. booty, spoils of war, in the sense that Time takes possession of the things he destroys as if they were seized by him in open warfare; 2. despoliation, destruction, destructive activity.
despised - pronounced despisèd. Strictly speaking, since everything decays, Time's spoils are in effect the whole world, the entire universe, which clearly the poet would not wish us to despise. Rather it is Time's actions, seizing on all these things, which we are invited to loathe and despise.

13. Give my love fame faster than Time wastes life,
Give my love fame - the Muse is still being addressed. 'Inspire my poetry so that it gives fame to my love'.
faster than Time wastes life - i.e. let my verse renew him more rapidly than time causes him to waste and decay. A similar thought of the power of verse to halt the debilitating and corrosive work of Time is found previously in Sonnet 15:

And all in war with Time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.

14. So thou prevent'st his scythe and crooked knife.

So thou prevent'st = in order that you might prevent; in hope that you might at the very least prevent; provided that you at least prevent.

prevent'st - Some editors prefer prevene'st, from the verb prevene, to prevent or forestall. See GBE p.209 for the main arguments against it.

scythe - see the illustration below. Time and Death were both often depicted carrying scythes with which to reap the harvest of mortal lives. crooked knife = a knife with a curving blade, or, a knife used for malignant purposes. Both scythes and sickles had curved blades.

 

Scythe and reaping hook (or sickle), from a manuscript of circa 1350. They would have looked much the same in Shakespeare's day, for designs of these tools remained unchanged for centuries. They have been gradually superceded, over the last 120 years, by the spread of mechanisation.