So oft have I invoked thee for my Muse,
And found such fair assistance in my verse
As every alien pen hath got my use
And under thee their poesy disperse.
Thine eyes, that taught the dumb on high to sing
And heavy ignorance aloft to fly,
Have added feathers to the learned's wing
And given grace a double majesty.
Yet be most proud of that which I compile,
Whose influence is thine, and born of thee:
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 advance
As high as learning, my rude ignorance.
Strictly speaking this is the second in the series of rival poet sonnets, which runs from 76 to 86, with the interruption of 77 and 81, two climacteric sonnets, which are dedicated to mortality. The background to this group of sonnets seems to consist in the growth of rivalry for the young man's praise of poetic offerings. Were other poets writing sonnets to the youth, which were being received with adulation, or was he simply giving more attention and praise to any production from other poets, rather than devoting his energies to an appreciation of the love sonnets of the speaker? For they, after all, are the only thing that matters in this life (so the poet seems to say). They are the all in all of art, while others are merely arid learning embellished with a bit of grace, a grace which belongs to the beloved anyway.
It is not known who, if any, the rival poet or poets might have been. All poets of whom we have knowledge who were alive at the approximate time (1590 - 1608) have been suggested. References to learning and the learned are taken to imply that some one of a University background is intended, such as Marlowe, Nashe, Greene, or Middleton, whereas the mention of grace (your grace) could be taken to imply nobility - hence a name such as Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford springs to mind. But finally we have to admit that we are in the dark about this, as with so much else in the Sonnets. We do not have sufficient evidence in the shape of surviving letters or other personal documents to be able to make even an informed guess. But the general tone of this group of sonnets does suggest that the poet has been hurt by his apparent rejection. He dislikes the imputation that his poems are of little worth, but even more (or so he pretends) he dislikes having his love belittled and thrust into a corner. That is what irks and injures him, and not their lofty style and bombastic learning, which he can live without. What strikes him to the heart is that his inspirational skill, which only sets out truth and reality, has failed him. Surely the youth must think over once more the attitudes he has adopted and abandon once and for all his galling frivolity.
The 1609 Quarto Version
So oft haue I inuok'd thee for my Muſe,
And found ſuch faire aſſiſtance in my verſe,
As euery Alien pen hath got my vſe,
And vnder thee their poeſie diſperſe.
Thine eyes,that taught the dumbe on high to ſing,
And heauie ignorance aloft to flie,
Haue added fethers to the learneds wing,
And giuen grace a double Maieſtie.
Yet be moſt proud of that which I compile,
Whoſe influence is thine,and borne of thee,
In others workes thou dooſt but mend the ſtile,
And Arts with thy ſweete graces graced be.
But thou art all my art,and dooſt aduance
As high as learning,my rude ignorance.