VVHy is my verſe ſo barren of new pride?
So far from variation or quicke change?
Why with the time do I not glance aſide
To new found methods, and to compounds ſtrange?
Why write I ſtill all one, euer the fame,
And keepe inuention in a noted weed,
That euery word doth almoſt fel my name,
Shewing their birth, and where they did proceed?
O know ſweet loue I alwaies write of you,
And you and loue are ſtill my argument:
So all my beſt is dreſſing old words new,
Spending againe what is already ſpent:
For as the Sun is daily new and old,
So is my loue ſtill telling what is told,
If Shakespeare’s volume is viewed as a sequence of 152 sonnets, plus 2 anacreontic sonnets, plus a longer poem, then he has observed the occasional practice of Elizabethan sonneteers of giving their work a tripartite structure, sonnet sequence, short [anacreontic] verses, and a sustained piece, the exemplar for which was Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti and Epithalamion (see Introduction). It was customary also at a work’s half-way point to take stock by looking backwards and forwards as Shakespeare does in Sonnet 76, the middle of 152 sonnets, the precedent for which was again Spenser’s Amoretti and Epithalamion. It has been pointed out that its sections (89 sonnets, 9 anacreontic verses and 24 epithalamial stanzas) number 122. 1 Amoretti 62, which celebrates the beginning of the new year, March 25, by marking the cusp between the old and the new, at the half way point of the work introduces its second half:
The weary yeare his race now hauing run,
The new begins his compast course anew.
It continues by contrasting “old yeares sinnes” with “new yeares ioy” and concludes with a prayer to “change old yeares annoy to new delight.”
Whitney also begins the second part of his A Choice of Emblemes with an emblem entitled, “Respice, & prospice,” and the verses,
The former parte, nowe paste, of this my booke,
The seconde parte in order doth insue:
Which, I beginne with IANVS double looke,
That as hee sees, the yeares both oulde, and newe,
So, with regarde, I may these partes behoulde,
Perusinge ofte, the newe, and eeke the oulde. 2
The subscriptio is followed by a new dedication to Sir Philip Sidney. In Sonnet 76 Shakespeare’s ‘old and new’ is not annual but diurnal, “For as the Sun is daily new and old,” as he admits to “dressing old words new.” 3
The poet begins by lamenting the quality of his earlier verse, which is “barren of new pride,” lacking splendour and hackneyed. Why, he asks, is his verse devoid of “variation” and “quick change,” both terms used by rhetoricians? Thomas Wilson in The Art of Rhetorique argues that “varietie of inuention must alwaies be vsed;” “quick change,” originally a fencing term, here intends ‘lively movement.’ Puttenham in The Arte of English Poesie extols a poet’s “excellent sharpe and quick inuention” and the use of “quicke conceite.” 4 Why doesn’t he follow the times or fashion (“with the time”) and take notice of (“glance aside”) new literary modes (“new found methods” and “compounds strange”)? To “glance aside,” also a fencing term, intends ‘to look elsewhere’ (compare Sonnet 139.6, “glance thy eye aside”). 5 Both “method” and “compound” were medical terms, a “method” being a cure, a “compound” a medicine or physic that obtained a cure. In rhetoric a “compound,” the opposite of a “single,” is a word of more than one syllable; Puttenham gives “prooue” as an example of a single and “[reproòue][approòue][disproòue]” as examples of “compounds.” 6 Compounds of three syllables or more Puttenham terms “stranger feet,” a trait of foreign poetry and Latin grammarians. 7 ‘Compounds strange’ are forced neologisms or verbal constructions like “quicke change” or “noted weed.”
(Sonneteers conventionally complained about their lack of variation: compare Sidney’s struggle to find new modes of expression in Astrophil and Stella 3. 6-7:
Ennobling new found tropes with problemes old:
Or with strange similes, inricht each line.
and his parody of those who search out other models for their poetry or who import the “method” of the dictionary, “Ye that do Dictionaries method bring / Into your rymes, running in ratling rowes” [Astrophil and Stella 15.5-6]; Shakespeare’s ignoring “new found methods” and “compounds strange” is probably working a convention rather than obliquely attacking some particular poet.)
Why does his writing appear monotonous (“Why write I still all one, euer the same”)? Why does he confine his “inuention” within a “noted weed” (rhetoric’s first part is inventio or “the finding out of apt matter”)? ‘Noted’ implies well-known or habitual (see 1H4 1.2.173, “our noted outward garments”) and “weed” means garment or dress, (but playing homonymically with ‘knotted weed,’ a weed growing in a laid-out garden or ‘knot’). The result is that every word almost embarrasses (“fel”) his reputation (“name”), betraying their origin (“showing their birth”) and from where they derived (“where they did proceed”). (Editors customarily emend “fel” to ‘tel,” giving a reading of ‘every word almost bespeaks the poet’s name.’ But a case can be made for retaining “fel” meaning to ‘humble’ or ‘humiliate,’ compare Isa. 10.33, “the Lord God of hoastes shall . . fell the high minded” [BB; the GV has, “the hie shalbe humbled”].)
The poet addresses the friend as, “sweet loue,” and affirms that he writes always of him and that he and love remain (“still,” the second of three occurrences) the subject (“argument”) of his verse. The orderly setting out an “argument” is the function of rhetoric’s second part, dispositio. So his best effort is “dressing old words new” or anew; “dressing” picks up the motif of clothes from “weed” and continues the medicinal imagery of “methods” and “compounds.” In spending again what is spent, he is both re-using and exhausting again what is used or exhausted. He concludes by reverting to the example of the sun, which repeatedly (“daily”) rises anew and declines (“is . . new and old”). So is his love for the friend: it can only keep telling repeatedly (“still”) what has already been told.
76.1. Edmund Spenser, The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser, ed. W.A.Oram, E.Bjorvand, R.Bond, T.H.Cain, A.Dunlop & R.Schell (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989) 637.
76.2. Whitney 108.
76.3. Sonnet 76 shares both theme and vocabulary with Sonnet 105: 76.1, “my verse,” 105.7, “Therefore, my verse;” 76.2, “variation,” 105.10, “varying to other words;” 76.2, “quicke change,” 105.11, “in this change is my inuention spent;” 76.5, “Why write I still all one, euer the same,” 105.3-4, “praises be, To one, of one, still such, and euer so;” 76.6, “keepe inuention,” 105.11, “is my inuention;” 76.7, “euery word,” 105.10, “to other words;” 76.10, “you and loue are still my argument,” 105.9, “Faire, kinde, and true, is all my argument;” 76.12, “Spending againe what is already spent,” 105.11, “is my inuention spent.”
76.4. Wilson 205. John Marston in The Scourge of Villanie. Three Bookes of Satyres (London: James Roberts, 1598) Satire 10.54-57 lists among “fencing feates,” “counter times, finctures, slye passataes, / Stramazones, resolute Stoccataes, / . . the quick change, with wiping mandritta, / The carricado, with th’ enbrocata.” Puttenham 162 & 257.
76.5. OED glance v 2 improbably cites this as an instance of ‘dart aside.’ Shakespeare uses the phrase, “glaunce awaie,” as a fencing term in Shr. 5.2.61.
76.6. Puttenham 111.
76.7. For example, James I, Daemonologie 13, “Astronomia. Which word is compound of νομος and αστερων.”