Sonnet 103

Shakespeare Sonnet 103

ALack what pouerty my Muſe brings forth,
That hauing ſuch a skope to ſhow her pride,
The argument all bare is of more worth
Then when it hath my added praiſe beſide.
Oh blame me not if I no more can write!
Looke in your glaſſe and there appeares a face,
That ouer-goes my blunt inuention quite,
Dulling my lines, and doing me diſgrace.
Were it not ſinfull then ſtriuing to mend,
To marre the ſubiect that before was well,
For to no other paſſe my verſes tend,
Then of your graces and your gifts to tell.
And more, much more then in my verſe can ſit,
Your owne glaſſe ſhowes you, when you looke in it.

Sonnet 103 alludes to but doesn’t draw extensively on the Narcissus motif, so prominent in the sequence’s early sonnets, particularly Sonnets 1 and 3, where the youth’s gazing upon himself and his poverty-inducing refusal to use his “aboundance” are censured. The sonnet’s exclamation, “Alack,” or ‘alas,’ plays with its origin, ‘a lack,’ as the poet laments the “pouerty” his muse produces (“brings forth”). His muse, feminine as in the classical “Musa,” has considerable potential to demonstrate “her” splendour or rhetorical power; “skope” through its etymon σκοπος from σκοπειν means both to look at and the object looked at, anticipating the later, “Looke in your glasse.” 1 Despite the muse’s potency the poet’s subject (“argument,” the essence of rhetoric’s second part, Dispositio), even without ornamentation (“all bare”), is of greater value than any further praise he might bring to it (“my added praise”). The youth is asked to absolve him from blame for not contributing more. He must look in his mirror (“glasse”) and see there his bare face, which quite surpasses the unpolished or blurred conceit (“inuention,” which is the first part of rhetoric) that the poet might offer (“blunt” was used as the opposite of ‘sharp sighted,’ while ‘to be over-gone’ in gazing meant to be overlooked or to be held spell-bound). 2 By comparison his face makes the poet’s lines lose their point or edge (“Dulling my lines”) and causes him embarassment (“disgrace”). If he were to seek to “mend” his style, would it not be “sinfull” to disfigure (“marre”) the conceit (“subiect”) that earlier was perfect, because his verses incline towards or intend (“tend”) no other outcome (“passe”) than to recount the youth’s graces and talents (“gifts”). 3 To ‘tell figures’ meant to count, while the choice of “passe,” which can mean a ‘verse,’ so close to “verses,” is presumably deliberate. When the youth looks in his mirror, it reflects back to him much more than the poet’s verse can contain: self-reflected beauty outdoes all the poet’s reflecting.


103.1. The “skope” or aim of an invention or argument was technically correct: Wilson 87-88, states “it is needefull in causes of iudgement, to consider the scope whereunto we must leauell our reasons, and direct our inuention.”

103.2. Compare Greene, Menaphon H3v, “Samela espying this faire shepheard so farre ouer-gone in his gazing, stept to him, and askt him if he knew her that hee so ouerlookt her.”

103.3. To ‘mar’ and ‘mend’ were proverbially linked: see John Harrington’s repetition of what Ariosto says of his writing habits, that “he vsed his house as he did his Verses, mend them so much, that he mard them quite” (Ariosto 421).