Sonnet 21

Shakespeare Sonnet 21

SO is it not with me as with that Muſe,
Stird by a painted beauty to his verſe,
Who heauen it ſelfe for ornament doth vſe,
And euery faire with his faire doth reherſe,
Making a coopelment of proud compare
With Sunne and Moone, with earth and ſeas rich gems:
With Aprills first borne flowers and all things rare,
That heauens ayre in this huge rondure hems,
O let me true in loue but truly write,
And then beleeue me, my loue is as faire,
As any mothers childe, though not ſo bright
As thoſe gould candells fixt in heauens ayer:
Let them ſay more that like of heare-ſay well,
I will not prayſe that purpoſe not to ſell.

The “Muse,” to which the poet takes exception and whom through “compare” he parodies to make his own point, differs from the tenth “Muse” of Sonnet 38, although the two sonnets share vocabulary, rhyme and the theme of praise. His opening disclaimer asserts that his Muse is not like some other Muse that is “Stird by a painted beauty to his verse.” To “Stir” was the standard rendering of ‘excitare,’ to arouse or awaken an emotion, an idea, and especially the action or ‘energia’ proper to a Muse. It connects with “painted,” since paint is stirred. Such a Muse is moved either by a painted replica or, given the sonnet’s position next to Sonnet 20, by someone like a courtesan, who is not naturally but cosmetically decorated. Eloquence that was merely the “vaine painting of the matter” was generally condemned: Sidney derides verse that is overly ornamental, (“that honny-flowing Matron Eloquence, apparelled, or rather disguised, in a Curtizan-like painted affectation”), while the Geneva Bible contrasts Paul’s eloquence with “that painted kinde of speach which too many nowe a daies hunt after and followe” (2 Cor. 11.6, sidenote). 1 Shakespeare derides the sonneteer, who affectedly searches for images even from the heavens to embellish (“ornament”) his comparison, and who will “rehearse” or ‘describe at length’ his “fayre” by comparison with every other “fayre” to make a “coopelment,” either a coupling in a comparison or a couplet or stanza. The rhetorical device, compar, was a favourite among sonneteers, especially in blazons where the mistress was contrasted with the sun, moon, and precious stones (compare Spenser’s Amoretti 9, “Long-while I sought to what I might compare . . Not to the Sun: for they doo shine by night . . nor to the Moone: for they are changed neuer . . nor to the Diamond: for they are more tender”). Shakespeare will resist their practice of “proud compare” and ignore the sun, moon, the “rich gems” of earth and sea, and “Aprills first borne flowers,” both ‘born’ and ‘borne.’ He will disregard “all things rare,” that are contained within the bounds of the universe (“hems”), of which another poet’s pen might make use. The image of the “rondure” or circle of the heavens as a hemmed fabric originated with Isaiah’s God who “sitteth vpon the circle of the earth, and . . stretcheth out the heauens, as a curtaine” (40.2; GV). The line anticipates the conclusion of another anti-blazon in the sequence, Sonnet 130.13-14, “And yet by heauen I thinke my loue as rare, / As any she beli’d with false compare.”

This poet is different and plain speaking. He knows the hallmark line of Astrophil, the lover of a star, “Foole saide my Muse to mee, looke in thy heart and write.” 2 Because he is “true in love,” he will “truly write” and require of the youth (or reader) that he “beleeue” him: “my loue is as faire / As any mothers childe,” the last allusion in the sequence to the youth to beget an ‘heir’ (intimated in the pun on “heauens ayer”). His praise, however, is properly qualified: the youth is not “so bright / As those gould candells fixt in heauens ayer.” The circle of fixed stars in the sky is naturally the brighter. Other poets (“them”), those who “like of heare-say well,” may write more extensively; “heare-say” intends ‘by report,’ not necessarily trustworthy report. It is a further reference to Sidney since it implies falsely painted or “hear-say pictures,” a Sidneian coinage: in Arcadia Lamon sings of shepherds whose strength of character “he could not bende / With hear-say, pictures, or a windowe looke . . or letter finely pend, / That were in Court a well proportion’d hooke.” 3 These creations, painted and not true and often produced for venal purposes, the poet dismisses. His praise is not so purposed, but given truly and freely.


21.1. Wilson 107; Sidney, Defence K4r.

21.2. Sidney, Astrophel and Stella 1.14.

21.3. Sidney, Arcadia (1593) 45r.