LOrd of my loue, to whome in vaſſalage
Thy merrit hath my dutie ſtrongly knit;
To thee I ſend this written ambaſſage
To witneſſe duty, not to ſhew my wit.
Duty ſo great, which wit ſo poore as mine
May make ſeeme bare, in wanting words to ſhew it;
But that I hope ſome good conceipt of thine
In thy ſoules thought (all naked) will beſtow it:
Till whatſoeuer ſtar that guides my mouing,
Points on me gratiouſly with faire aſpect,
And puts apparrell on my tottered louing,
To ſhow me worthy of their ſweet reſpect, thy?
Then may I dare to boaſt how I doe loue thee,
Till then, not ſhow my head where thou maiſt proue me
Sonnet 26’s opening invocation, “Lord of my loue,” was a sonneteer’s stock address to Cupid from Petrarch’s “Amor . . Signior,” to Sidney’s “my Lord Loues owne behest,’ to Spenser’s “Vnrighteous Lord of loue.” 1 Shakespeare has, however, worked the cliché to different purpose, since the “Lord of my loue” is finally identified not as Cupid but as the beloved. The poet’s “vassalage” is not unlike that of Sonnet 58 where he invokes Cupid, “That God . . that made me first your slaue . . Being your vassail bound.” Sonnet 26’s initial impression, that it is concerned with Cupid, to whom in servitude the poet’s duty is “knit,” is compounded by the later “bare” and “all naked.” The figure of the naked Cupid can be traced back to its locus classicus, Ovid’s Amores:
While you were still without guile, I loved your soul and your body. Now your figure is tainted by vices of the mind. Love is both a boy and naked (“et puer est et nudus Amor”). That he might be open to all, he has neither years nor tattered mourning apparell (“sine sordibus . . nullas vestes . . habet”). Why do you instruct the son of Venus to sell his wares for a price? Where can he hide the money? He himself has no purse. 2
The sonnet’s ovidian echoes, “soules thought (all naked),” “apparell on my tottered louing,” and its discreetly seeking remuneration, allows a cupidian or erotic reading and makes the extended arguments Booth gives in his edition of Shakepeare’s sonnets for sexual significances in the sonnet – seen by Evans in his as “strained” – far more cogent. 3
As well the poem is presented as a pastiche of ink-horn terms that might be found in an “ambassage” or submission of a vassal seeking preferment from a Lord. The plainant extols the Lord’s “merit” and, disingenuously, his own meagre abilities, his “wit.” (Compare Wilson’s parodic letter claiming to “obtestate your sublimitie, to extoll mine infirmitie.”) 4 Although subservience was a required feature of letters seeking favours, Sonnet 26’s inflated formality exposes the convention. The poet seems properly dutiful, the purpose of his dispatch being not to display his “wit” but to bear “witnesse” to his “duty.” (A “written ambassage” was a courtly device and can be found in Sidney’s Arcadia, “I remember a birde was made flie, with such art to carry a written embassage among the Ladies.”) 5 His “duty” is “so great” and his ability “so poore,” that his language may seem “bare,” lacking “words” and adornment. The sentiment is reminiscent of the dedication to The Rape of Lucrece to the Earl of Southampton: “The warrant I haue of your Honourable disposition, not the worth of my vntutord Lines makes it assured of acceptance . . Were my worth greater my duety would shew greater, meane time, as it is, it is bound to your Lordship.” Except that (“But that”) the poet’s hope is that the youth’s “good conceipt,” his fine ‘thought’ or ‘fancy’ or even his ‘opinion,’ which can be found in his “soules thought,” will dress up the poet’s “all naked” or “bare” missive of love.
The sestet picks up the astrological motif of the preceding sonnet, where the poet’s love, unlike those who boast of the “favor of the stars,” is at sufficient “remoue” to be impervious to stellar influence. The youth’s dressing is required until such time as the poet’s personal star, that which “guides” his “mouing,” shines favourably upon him (“points on me gratiously with faire aspect”); “points” means ‘directs’ or ‘influences’ the poet, but was used of the zodiacal signs especially the four cardinal points of Aries, Cancer, Libra and Capricorn. Astrologically “aspect” (ad + spicere = to look at or upon) is the manner in which a heavenly body or a conjunction of bodies looks upon the earth and its individuals, in this case “with favor.” The youth’s “conceipt,” then, is needed until the time that his star “puts apparrell on my tottered louing” (Ovid’s “sine sordibus . . vestes”), until it dresses, as a bare or plain thing might be adorned, his (unsteady) loving which is clothed in tatters. He will be shown “worthy of their sweet respect,” worthy of the countenance of “whatsoeuer star.” (Some editors emend “their” to “thy,” unnecessarily even if the mistake is made elsewhere, so that the line is made to read, ‘be shown worthy of thy respect.’) At such a moment the poet may boast of his love as others might have in Sonnet 25, but until then he dare not. Until then he vows not to “show my head,” a proverbial phrase (‘He dares not show his head [for debt or fear]’). To remain unnoticed or as an act of obeisance he will keep his head down, so that his Lord may not test him or his love (“proue”); “me” is a synecdoche for ‘my love’.
26.1. Petrarch 121; Sidney, Astophil and Stella 50.6; Spenser, Amoretti 10.1.
26.2. Ovid, Amores 1.10.12-17,
donec eras simplex, animum cum corpore amavi;
nunc mentis vitio laesa figura tua est.
et puer est et nudus Amor; sine sordibus annos
et nullas vestes, ut sit apertus, habet.
quid puerum Veneris pretio prostare iubetis?
quo pretium condat, non habet ille sinum!
Compare Ovid’s account of the birth of Adonis, “qualia namque corpora nudorum tabula pinguntur Amorum” (Met. 10. 516; Golding 10.592, “As are the naked Cupids that in tables picturde bee”).
26.3. William Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, ed. Stephen Booth (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1977) 175-78; William Shakespeare, The Sonnets, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 139.
26.4. Wilson 165.
26.5. Sidney, Arcadia (1590) 197.