Sonnet 77

Shakespeare Sonnet 77

THy glaſſe will ſhew thee how thy beauties were,                  wear?
Thy dyall how thy pretious mynuits waſte,
The vacant leaues thy mindes imprint will beare,
And of this booke, this learning maiſt thou taſte.
The wrinckles which thy glaſſe will truly ſhow,
Of mouthed graues will giue thee memorie,
Thou by thy dyals ſhady ſtealth maiſt know,
Times theeuiſh progreſſe to eternitie.
Looke what thy memorie cannot containe,
Commit to theſe waſte blacks, and thou ſhalt finde                blācks = blancks
Thoſe children nurſt, deliuerd from thy braine,
To take a new acquaintance of thy minde.
Theſe offices, ſo oft as thou wilt looke,
Shall profit thee, and much inrich thy booke.

Sonnet 77 is the middle sonnet of the sequence, if it is seen as one of 154 sonnets, prefacing a new half and serving as a dedicatory sonnet, to be followed immediately by invocations to the Muses in Sonnets 78 and 79. As a mirror sonnet, it observes the sonneteers’ occasional practice of inserting such a sonnet at the mid-point of their sequence. A precedent had been set in Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti and Epithalamion, where Amoretti 45 (of 89 sonnets) begins

Leaue lady in your glasse of christall clene,
Your goodly selfe for euermore to vew. 1

Sonnet 77 is also a formally constructed piece of rhetoric: the specular image of line 1 is developed in lines 5-6, the “dyall” allusion of line 2 in lines 7-8, and the use of a book as an aide-memoire of lines 3-4 in lines 9-14. The sestet, as does Sonnet 122 in more detail, works the difference between natural and artificial or local memory.

The sonnet opens with the youth’s mirror (“glasse”), which will display to him what his beauty once was (“were;” the quarto’s “were” is to be preferred to the standard editorial amendment, ‘wear,’ because of the sonnet’s temporal shifts). The friend’s sundial (“dyall”) will show him how the moments of youth, which are “pretious” because they are few, waste or wear away. The empty leaves (“vacant;” in Sonnet 122 they are “idle”) will carry on them the stamp or “imprint” of the youth’s mind, so that, recorded or incharactered (“of this booke”), he may in the future experience what had earlier been learned (“taste this learning”). The use of “taste” is Latinate and dedicatory: literary tasting had classical antecedents, foremost being Pliny’s where, having provided a sample of his own verses (‘I sing songs with minute verses [“versibus minuitis”] like Catullus once did’), he offered them as a taste of the book he would publish (‘For this taste I promise a whole book in return, which I will show you when first published. In the interim love the young man [“ama iuvenem”]’). 2

The “wrinckles” that will be ingraved on the youth’s face and plainly reflected in the mirror will prompt him to recall “mouthed graues,” graves shaped like mouths that consume all (compare MND 5.1.369, “the graues, all gaping wide”), but hinting at pursed mouths or lined mouthings in front of a mirror, Hermione’s “practis’d Smiles / As in a Looking-Glasse” (WT 1.2.116-17), and suggestive of engravings or records being recited. Similarly the “shady stealth” of the sundial’s fescue will show the youth “Times theeuish progresse to eternitie.” Time like a thief creeps slowly, furtively and without apparent movement towards the end of time (compare Sonnet 104, where the “Dyall hand” moves with “no pace perceiued”).

The sestet draws on the tradition of “The Art of Memory,” a system of mnemonic exercises, which was frequently taught as part of rhetoric and much practiced. The origin of the “Arte Memoratiue” was thought to have been the pseudo-ciceronian Ad Herennium, a treatise for orators; detailed accounts could also be found in Aquinas and Erasmus. In England the earliest instruction books were translations of European texts, Petrus Ravenna’s Artificiosa Memoria of 1491, translated by Robert Copeland as The arte of Memory (1545), and Guigliemo Gratarolo’s De Memoria Reparanda of 1553, translated by William Fulwood as The Castel of Memorie (1562). Thomas Wilson in The Art of Rhetorique also described the technique (see Sonnet 122 for further detail). 3 Practitioners of the art, rhetoricians, grammarians and others, distinguished between natural and artificial memory. The natural memory was the superior but limited, was susceptible to forgetfulness, and sometimes in need of remedy. The artificial or local memory (from locus = place) was a received system that worked through mnemonic association using either familiar places or lists. (Compare Gratarolo’s definition of the “artificiall Memory, which of it selfe is naturall, but . . is confirmed by certayne preceptes, and consisteth in obseruations, places, and Images (or figures).”) Conventionally two types of lists were provided, one based on the alphabet, the other on the names of friends. Gratarolo gives the example of the “Latyne Alphabete,’ with which things could be associated and remembered, “in such sorte that euerye one of their names shoulde beginne with some one of euerye letter: euen as yf these were the names: an Asse, a Beare, a Cat, a Dogge . .” 4 The lists that were drawn up and memorized were associated with tables of wax and paper, often portable memory aids: Wilson explains that “The places of Memorie are resembled vnto Waxe and Paper” and “That sight printeth thinges in a mans memorie, as a Seale doth print a mans name in Waxe;” 5 Gratarolo identifies a memory place with wax, paper and tables: “The place therefore is like and is compared to waxe or paper or tables (in the which of olde time many thinges were written): also the image or figure is likned to letters or writing: and the recityng of the names is compared to the readinge or recitinge of things being reade.” When the table or page is totally familiarized, the practitioner could move backwards and forwards within its rows placing what he wanted to remember with sureness: “The place is the parte seruing in stede of the Memory and receiueth thinges as the Memorie doeth, and it is multiplied by hauyng respect forward and backward to warde the right syde and towarde the left syde, vpwarde and downewarde.” 6

The poet instructs that whatever (“Looke what”) is beyond the capacity or retention-span of the youth’s memory (“what thy memorie cannot containe”) must be supplemented by an aide memoire. He must “commit” what is to be recalled to “these waste bla[n]cks,” the vacant leaves that have been scraped clean (“waste” = razed), but recalling the original sense of blank or whiteness that has not been inked. (Elizabethans committed things both to memory and to paper.) Then in the future he will find earlier written records “deliuerd from thy braine” as in childbirth and tended carefully like children (“children nursed”).

The “offices” of the couplet are either the product of the “Arte Memoratiue,” an exercise in which was technically termed an “office” (compare Petrus Ravenna, “The offyce of this arte is to excyte the mynde naturall,” or Edmund Spenser, Three Proper, and wittie, familiar Letters: “I shall be faine to supplye the office of the Arte Memoratiue”) or they are the poet’s verses, the word retaining in Shakespeare’s day the idea of an introductory song or verse. 7 (The Great Book of Common Prayer used to lay down that, before the Communion Service, an introit or “office” should be sung, which functioned as a prefatory antiphon to the service proper: “Then shall the Clerkes syng in Englishe for the office, or Introite, (as thei call it) a Psalme appoyncted for that daie.”) 8 The young man’s thoughts, engraved on paper and as often as they are gazed upon, will serve as “offices” to his profit and to the book’s enrichment. Verses were particularly valuable in the office of memory claims Gratorolo: “Verses also doe helpe muche to the stedfastnes of the Memorie by reason of the order of the composition & good makyng.” 9


77.1. The practice can also be found in, among others, Richard Barnfield, Cynthia. With Certaine Sonnets, and the Legend of Cassandra (London: Humphrey Lowndes, 1598), where in a sequence of 20 sonnets Number 11 instructs, “Looke in this glasse (quoth I) there shalt thou see / The perfect form of my faelicitie,” and in Henry Constable’s sequence, Diana. The praises of his Mistres (London: James Roberts, 1592), which comprises 20 sonnets and where Sonnetto Novo begins, “Thine eye the glasse where I behold my hart.” Others have mirror sonnets around the half-way point: Michael Drayton in Ideas Mirrour. Amours in Quatorzains (London: James Roberts, 1594) begins Sonnet 23 out of 51, “Wonder of Heauen, glasse of diuinitie;” Bartholomew Griffin in Fidessa begins Sonnet 33 out of 62, “He that would faier Fidessaes image see, / My face of force must be his looking glasse.”

77.2. Pliny, Epistulae 4.27: “Canto carmina versibus minutis /  his olim quibus et meus Catullus . . Ad hunc gustum totum librum repromitto, quem tibi ut primum publicaverit exhibebo. Interim ama iuvenem.”

77.3. Petrus Ravenna, The Art of Memory, That otherwise is called the Phenix. A boke very behouefull and profytable to all professours of scyences. Grammaryens / Rethoryciens Dialectyke / Legystes / Phylosophres & Theologiens, trans. Robert Copeland (London: William Middleton, 1545); Guglielmo Gratarolo, The Castel of Memorie: wherein is conteyned the restoring, augmenting, and conseruing of the Memorye and Remembraunce, with the safest remedies, and best preceptes therevnto in any wise apperteyning, trans. Willyam Fulwood (London: Rouland Hall, 1562); Wilson 216-21.

77.4. Gratarolo B5v & G7v.

77.5. Wilson 217.

77.6. Gratarolo H5r.

77.7. Ravenna A4r; Edmund Spenser, Three Proper, and wittie, familiar Letters: lately passed between two Vniuersitie men (London: Henry Bynneman, 1580) 63.

77.8. Church of England, The booke of the common praier and administracion of the Sacramentes, and other rites and ceremonies of the Churche: after the vse of the Churche of Englande (London: Richard Grafton, 1549) “Order of Holy Communion.”

77.9. Gratarolo F8v.

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