Sonnet 78

Shakespeare Sonnet 78

SO oft haue I inuok’d thee for my Muſe,
And found ſuch faire aſſiſtance in my verſe,
As euery Alien pen hath got my vſe,
And vnder thee their poeſie diſperſe.
Thine eyes, that taught the dumbe on high to ſing,
And heauie ignorance aloft to flie,
Haue added fethers to the learneds wing,
And giuen grace a double Maieſtie.
Yet be moſt proud of that which I compile,
Whoſe influence is thine, and borne of thee,
In others workes thou dooſt but mend the ſtile,
And Arts with thy ſweete graces graced be.
But thou art all my art, and dooſt aduance
As high as learning, my rude ignorance.

Invocations to a muse or muses are a feature of dedicatory sonnets and of Sonnet 78, which introduces the sequence’s second half. It is the first of a pair of dedicatory sonnets: its classical trope of ‘compilation’ will be developed in Sonnet 79. Sonnet 78 opens with the poet recalling how the youth has frequently been called upon (“inuok’d,” the standard term, compare Sidney, Astrophil and Stella 55.1, “Muses, I oft inuoked your whole ayde”) to inspire him and has found him ready to aid his verse (“assistance,” hinting at patronage). As a result “euery Alien pen,” either poets who have been strangers to the poet or youth or poets who have drawn on foreign sources (“pen” = poet by metonymy), have taken over or usurped the poet’s practice (“got my vse”) and have distributed in manuscript or published their poetry (“disperse”) under his name or with his patronage (“vnder thee”). Defending the English literary tradition and complaining about those who go elsewhere for inspiration was a familiar introductory resolution: Michael Drayton in the dedicatory verse to Ideas Mirrour, citing the warrant of Sidney not to steal from overseas, resolves not to

trafique further then thys happy Clyme,
Nor filch from Portes nor from Petrarchs pen,
A fault too common in thys latter tyme.
Diuine Syr Phillip, I auouch thy writ,
I am no Pickpurse of anothers wit.

John Southern’s address “To the Reader” in Pandora opens “Thou find’st not heere, neither the furious alarmes, / Of the pride of Spaine, or subtilnes of France: / Nor of the rude English, or mutine Almanes.” 1

The youth’s eyes, like those of a sonneteer’s mistress, have instructed those incapable of voice (“the dumbe”) to sing “on high,” either with elevated voice or lofty style or in the heavens. His eyes have taught ignorance, which normally weighs down (“heauie”), to rise upwards; they have, in the imping metaphor of repairing wings, “added feathers” to those already learned and thus gained a twofold glory: their own and that provided by the youth (“double Maiestie”). Pinnate imagery was a feature of invocations to the muses as the poet’s aspirations soar heavenwards. Barnabe Barnes in A Diuine Centurie of Spiritual Sonnets acknowledges in Sonnet 1 that “my Muse fethered with an Angels wing, / Diuinely mounts aloft vnto the skie” (5-6), while Thomas Lodge in the first invocatory sonnet to Phillis commands, “Rowse you my muse beyond our Poets pitches . . Vse you no Eglets eyes, nor Phenix feathers, / To tower the heauen from whence heauens wonder sallies.” William Smith in the Dedicatory Verses to Chloris complains that his “weake pend muse to flie too soone doth proue, / Before hir feathers haue their full perfection, / She soares aloft prickt on by blinde affection,” and Henry Constable invokes Diana, asking that she “Blame not my hart for flieng vp too hie, / sith thou art cause that it this flight begunne.” 2

The poet urges the youth to take pride in his compositions (“that which I compile”). To “compile” originally meant to ‘rob’ or ‘plunder:’ Cooper’s Thesaurus gives under “Compilo,” “to robbe” and, “Compilare sapientiam alicuius, per translationem. Cic. To robbe one of his wisedome,” while Henry Cockeram translates “Compilation” as “Theft.” 3 To “compile” was a literary trope of classical origin: it was identified with Vergil, known among his contemporaries as the ‘compilator,’ because he stole from Homer. Jerome recounts that ‘the Mantuan poet was known among the ancients as the ‘compilator,’ because he copied word for word certain verses of Homer.’ 4 To “compile” kept its classical echo: Spenser sees himself in the Vergilian heroic tradition when he writes in Amoretti 80, “After so long a race as I haue run / Through Faery land, which those six books compile,” and Sir Walter Ralegh in his dedicatory sonnet to The Faerie Queene, acclaims Spenser as “that celestiall theife.”

The poet urges the youth to take pride in that which he takes from him (compare Sonnet 85 where he complains of his “tong-tide Muse” and disparages “comments . . richly compil’d”). His verse is inspired by the youth (“influence,” intending in-pouring) and issues from him (“borne of thee”). By contrast, in other poets’ work the youth merely corrects their versifying (“style,” but hinting at a style or even a quill or pen being sharpened). Their “Arts” are only graceful by the addition of the youth’s “sweet graces.” In the poet’s case the youth is all his art (“thou art all my art”) and can move both forward and upward (“aduance”) the poet’s “rude ignorance,” even to the pitch to which learning has risen.


78.1. Drayton, Ideas Mirrour A2r; John Southern, The Musyque of the beautie, of his Mistresse Diana (London: Thomas Hackett, 1584).

78.2. Barnabe Barnes, A Divine Centurie of Spirituall Sonnets (London: John Windet, 1595); Thomas Lodge, Phillis: Honoured with Pastoral Sonnets, Elegies, and amorous delights (London: John Busbie, 1593); Thomas Smith, Chloris, or The Complaint of the passionate despised Shepheard (London, Edmund Bollifant, 1596); Constable, Diana 2.1-2.

78.3. Cooper, Thesaurus compilo; Cockeram, Compilation.

78.4. Jerome, Liber Hebraicarum Quaestionum in Genesim, Praefatio: “Mantuanus vates, ut cum quosdam versus Homeri transtulisset ad verbum, compilator veterum diceretur.”