Sonnet 38

Shakespeare Sonnet 38

HOw can my Muſe want ſubiect to inuent
While thou doſt breath that poor’ſt into my verſe,
Thine owne ſweet argument, to excellent,
For euery vulgar paper to rehearſe:
Oh giue thy ſelfe the thankes if ought in me,
Worthy peruſal ſtand againſt thy ſight,
For who’s ſo dumbe that cannot write to thee,
When thou thy ſelfe doſt giue inuention light?
Be thou the tenth Muſe, ten times more in worth
Then thoſe old nine which rimers inuocate,
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to out-liue long date.
If my ſlight Muſe doe pleaſe theſe curious daies,
The paine be mine, but thine ſhal be the praiſe.

Sonnet 38 is built around the parts of rhetoric prescribed, for example, in Thomas Wilson’s The Arte of Rhetorique and laid down for schoolboy exercises. The five parts, classified in Cicero’s De Inventione Rhetorica, were Invention, Disposition, Elocution, Memory and Utterance:

The finding out of apt matter, called otherwise Inuention, is a searching out of things true, or things likely, the which may reasonable set forth a matter . . in the second place is mentioned, the setling or ordering of things inuented for this purpose, called in Latine Dispositio, the which is nothing els but an apt bestowing, and orderly placing of things, declaring where euery argument shall be set . . Elocution, is an applying of apt wordes and sentences to the matter, found out to confirme the cause. When all these are had together it auaileth little, if man haue no Memorie to containe them. The Memorie therefore must be cherished, the which is a fast holding both of matter and words couched together, to confirme any cause. . . it is to no purpose if he [a man] haue no vtterance, when he should speake his minde, and shewe men what he hath to saie. Vtterance therefore, is a framing of the voyce, countenaunce, and gesture after a comely man [sic]. 1

The element of “Vtterance” will become pivotal to the sonnet.

The poet’s “Muse” is his source of inspiration, his personal genius or creative power. The opening rhetorical question asks how his muse could fail to search out a subject (“inuent”), when the young man is present and alive (“dost breath”). Besides ‘breath of life’ (compare Wilson, “God being the aucthour of mankinde, powring into him the breath of life”), 2 “breath” anticipates the inspiration (from in + spirare = to breathe into) of the youth, who “pour’st into my verse, / Thine owne sweet argument.” (To ‘pour into’ was a standard term for the Muses’ inspiration.) The poet can want no other muse than the youth who provides an “argument,” in Cicero’s and Wilson’s terms a Dispositio, “to excellent, / for euery vulgar paper to rehearse;” “vulgar” means a writing that is common or ordinary, but since Elizabethans distinguished between the classical langauges (of Latin and Greek) and the “vulgar” tongue such as English as a vernacular, the youth has a worth equal to that of the non-vulgar or classical muses. To ‘rehearse an argument’ was standard (compare Wilson, “all such arguments as were before rehearsed”); 3 “rehearse” looks forward to the elements of Memory (to rehearse is to commit to memory) and of Utterance (the poet argues the youth’s Dispositio should not be pronounced by unrefined tongues). Finally there is always a suggestion of a paper or poem, attached to a hearse, a privilege not granted to the vulgar (see Sonnet 31). The whole quatrain comprises an Elocution.

The youth is advised to thank himself if anything in the poet’s verse can stand his scrutiny; “perusal” means ‘scrutinize in detail’ rather than ‘cast eyes over a paper cursorily.’ Without the youth the poet would remain silent (“dumb”), lacking rhetoric’s final element, “Vtterance,” except that he has the youth to enlighten, in an epiphanic moment, the very “Muse” he provides (“thou thy selfe dost giue inuention light”).

The sestet picks up the “ten times” of the prior sonnet. The youth will be to the poet a tenth, non-vulgar muse beyond the original Greek nine, upon whom older classical poets, “rimers,” called (“inuocate” from in + vocare = to ‘call on’ or ‘pray to’). The poet’s prayer is that the youth’s worth will be of “ten times” greater worth than the earlier Muses. His further prayer is that whoever invokes the youth as muse might “bring forth,” as in childbirth, “Eternal numbers,” which will “out-liue” any age or long-term finite date (as in a temporal lease). Verses or metrical stresses, as the ten in iambic pentameter, were known as “numbers;” their due proportion was the mark of the rhetorican: Wilson commends the orator, who “can plainly, distinctly, plentifully and aptly, vtter both words & matter, and  . . keepe an vniformitie, and (as I might saie) a nomber in the vttering of his sentence.” 4

The poet concludes self-deprecatingly – his muse is scarcely “slight” – but, if it were to please “these curious daies,” these fastidious or censorious times (with its play on “curious” meaning ‘full of pains’), then his prayer is that, “The paine be mine, but thine shal be the praise.” The paradox works the pun on “paine,” being both ‘hurt’ and ‘punishment,’ in opposition to “praise.” The phrase, ‘thine be the praise,’ was a frequent biblical and liturgical one.


38.1. Wilson 6; the Ciceronian original is found in De Inventione Rhetorica 1.7.9, “partes autem eae, quas plerique dixerunt, inventio, dispositio, elocutio, memoria, pronuntiatio” (‘the parts, which most recognize, are invention, disposition, elocution, memory, pronouncing’).

38.2. Wilson 18.

38.3. Wilson 116.

38.4. Wilson 163.