Sonnet 8

Shakespeare Sonnet 8

MVſick to heare, why hear’ſt thou muſick ſadly,
Sweets with ſweets warre not, ioy delights in ioy:
Why lou’ſt thou that which thou receauſt not gladly,
Or elſe receau’ſt with pleaſure thine annoy?
If the true concord of well tuned ſounds,
By vnions married do offend thine eare,
They do but ſweetly chide thee, who confounds
In ſingleneſſe the parts that thou ſhould’ſt beare:
Marke how one ſtring ſweet husband to an other,
Strikes each in each by mutuall ordering;
Reſembling ſier, and child, and happy mother,
Who all in one, one pleaſing note do ſing:
Whoſe ſpeechleſſe ſong being many, ſeeming one,
Sings this to thee thou ſingle wilt proue none.

Sonnet 8, a sonnet of musical descant, is suitably placed as the 8th sonnet, since an “eight” is a “true concord.” The later years of the 16th century saw a growth in musical primers, including William Barley’s A Pathway to Musicke (1596) and Thomas Morley’s popular A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597). 1 Their structures are similar: a first section devoted to explaining notation and a second providing instruction on how to sing descant or divison above or below the pricksong line. The first rule according to Morley is that “in descanting you must . . seeke true cordes” (both Morley and Barley use ‘concord’ and its shortened ‘cord’ interchangeably). A “Consonant,” a sounding together, is defined by Barley as “a concord of vnlike voyces within themselues, tackt together, sweetly sounding vnto the eare.” 2 In response to the question, “Which distances make a Concord or consonant Harmony, Morley replies, “A third, a Fift, a Sixt, and an eight.” They are divided into perfect concords (“a vnison, a fift, an eight, a twelfth . . be perfect cordes””) and imperfect concords (“A third, a sixt, and their eightes”). A second, a fourth, and a seventh are discords and are “commonlie excluded from musicke.” 3 When singing descant or counterpoint, the singer “by diligent marking where in euery note standeth” must “mark” another note, a third, a fifth or eighth above the pricksong note. Sonnet 8 plays with various harmonies within and without the “eight:” in line 11 a third, “sier, and child, and happy mother,” in the fifth a “true concord,” and in the twelfth, “all in one, one pleasing note do sing.”

The sonnet begins by addressing the youth as, “Musick to heare.” He is concord itself or to the poet sweet music. (In Sonnet 128 the mistress as she plays the virginals is entitled, “my musicke.”) The opening line is antiphonal and chiastically decussated: the parallel clauses have their order of words inverted from one clause to the other. The antiphonal affords it a musical quality (Puttenham calls the device, technically an epanalepsis, an “Eccho sound” and gives the example “Much must he be beloued, that loueth much”). 4 Why, given his harmony, should the youth listen to music discordantly (“sadly”), when “Sweets with sweet warre not” and “ioy delights in ioy” (according to Morley a concord enters “with delight into the eare”)? 5 Why does he love something (music), which he receives with no gladness, or why does he accept with pleasure something that irritates him (“thine annoy”)?

A “true concord” intends both ‘with cords together’ and ‘with hearts together’ (con + corda = with hearts together). It is composed of “well tuned sounds,” that are knitted (“married”) together by “vnions;” “true” introduces a conceit that identifies music and marriage: “By vnions married,” “husband,” and “mutuall ordering.” If such concord “offend thine eare,” then the sounds gently rebuke him, because normally it would be the function of a discord, defined as a “compact of diuers sounds naturallie, offending the eare.” 6 He is guilty because he “confounds / In singleness the parts that thou should’st beare.” To ‘confound’ (cum + fundere = pour together) was to fuse or combine into one. In the youth the various parts of counterpoint, which he should carry (“beare”), are reduced to a single note. Unmarried or single he will “beare” no child.

The youth must “Marke” or take notice of how in singing counterpoint, “one string sweet husband to an other, / Strikes each in each by mutuall ordering.” Each cord, striking another, acts as complement to the other. To ‘strike’ was to play or stroke the cords of a stringed instrument (Cooper’s Thesaurus gives “Pulso, “To strike . . to play on an harpe or like instrument”); Shakespeare possibly had in mind a double-harp or barbiton which was strung doubly. The action is a “mutuall ordering,” evoking the “mutuall societie” of the Book of Common Prayer’s “Rite of Marriage,” and “Resembling sier, and child, and happy mother.” One string makes a single sound, a unison; a second makes a further unison; between them a third, a concord, is produced as in a marriage between sire and blessed mother. As a family of notes, “all in one,” they sing “one pleasing note” or harmony. Their song, though of diverse parts, seems one. But it can only be a “speechlesse song,” an ‘unvoiced song’ (with a hint at infans = speechless), if a third, a child, is not produced to make up the concord. Without it their song can only remonstrate, “thou single wilt proue none;” “proue” points to the mathematical maxim, ‘One is no number’ or ‘One is as good as none,’ which Whitney, like Shakespeare, in his motto Mutuum auxilium (“mutuall societie”) renders, “The prouerbe saieth, one man is deemed none, / And life, is deathe, where men doo liue alone.” 7


8.1. William Barley, A Pathway to Musicke (London: William Barley, 1596) and Thomas Morley, A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (London: Peter Short, 1597).

 8.2. Barley F1r.

 8.3. Morley 71-2.

 8.4. Puttenham 167.

8.5. Morley 70.

8.6. Morley 71.

8.7. Whitney 66.