O How I faint when I of you do write,
Knowing a better ſpirit doth vſe your name,
And in the praiſe thereof ſpends all his might,
To make me toung-tide ſpeaking of your fame.
But ſince your worth (wide as the Ocean is)
The humble as the proudeſt ſaile doth beare,
My ſawſie barke (inferior farre to his)
On your broad maine doth wilfully appeare.
Your ſhalloweſt helpe will hold me vp a floate,
Whilſt he vpon your ſoundleſſe deepe doth ride,
Or (being wrackt) I am a worthleſſe bote,
He of tall building, and of goodly pride.
Then If he thriue and I be caſt away,
The worſt was this, my loue was my decay.
Sonnet 80 continues the attack on the rival poet found in the preceding sonnets, employing as its starting point the classical trope of ‘setting sails to fame,’ used by Martial of Nerva, emperor and occasional poet, with whom he compares Tibullus. Nerva, ‘having borne the pierian garland, was humble enough (“contentus”) to wear that wreath and not to set sails to fame (“famae nec dare vela suae”). 1 The reference was known in Shakespeare’s day, Cooper’s Thesaurus giving a negative gloss to Martial: “Vela dare suae famae, per translationem [‘to set sails to fame by copying’]. Mart. To indeuour or attempt to get fame and praise.” 2 The image resembles that of Sonnet 86’s opening, where the fame of the rival is also presented in sailing terms.
The poet opens by lamenting his weakness (“O how I faint when I of you do write”), while the rival poet is cast as “a better spirit;” “better” is ironically self-effacing and indicates how the poet’s abilities are less favoured, as the rival, who writes more spiritedly, gains greater success in poetry and patronage. (In Sonnet 85.7 he is an “able spirit.”) The rival invokes the friend’s name as Muse, or exploits his name as his patron, or drops his name in company, always misusing his name (“doth vse your name;” there is a hint of the sexual in “vse”). He exhausts all his energy (“spends all his might”), even his sexual energy, in praise of the friend’s name, so that he might make the poet “toung-tide,” when speaking of the youth’s “fame.” The poet’s slowness of speech or silence is comparable to his “toung-tide Muse” in Sonnet 85.1.
The syntax of the second quatrain is contorted, although the sense apparent. Since both the youth’s value and largesse or what he is worth to people (“worth”) is as expansive as the “Ocean,” it can “beare” or carry the “humble as the proudest saile;” “beare” sustains the sailing metaphor with its echo of ‘bear away’ or “Beare vp” (Tmp. 3.2.3), while ‘to bear a low sail’ was to humble oneself (compare 3H6 5.1.52, “beare so low a sayle”). The rival’s “proudest saile” is one that is majestic or stands tall (in Sonnet 86.1 it is a “proud full saile”). Finally a suggestion of the ‘sexually aroused’ cannot be dismissed, if Shakespeare is punning on ‘sail’ meaning ‘to leap a mare,’ compare Cotgrave, “Saillir . . to ride, or leape one another, as the male doth the female.” The origin is the Latin salire, Cooper in his Thesaurus giving, “Salire dicuntur animalia ratione carentia [‘animals lacking reason are said to leap’]. Ouid. To leape as beasts do the females in generation.” 3 The poet’s “sawsie barke,” a ship that is venturous, daring (compare Tro. 1.3.42 where a “sawcy Boate” has “weake vntimber’d sides”) and impudent (compare Sonnet 138.13, “sausie Iackes”), ought to be able to appear “On your broad maine,” the youth as a wide expanse of sea, even though it is of lesser pride than the rival’s (“inferior farre to his”). The poet’s barque appears “wilfully,” as one which is “sawsie,” or one full of sexual passion (will = penis), or, as in Sonnet 136, one whose name is “Will.”
The friend’s least assistance (“shallowest help” with an allusion to ‘shallow water’) will keep the poet from sinking (“a floate”) and keep him free from debt (“a floate”), 4 even as the rival “vpon your soundlesse deepe doth ride” as a boat rides on the water, although ‘ride’ was also a euphemism for ‘copulate’ (compare Sonnet 137.7, “Be anchord in the baye where all men ride,” where the anchor’s action with its fluke is patently sexual). A “soundlesse deepe” is a depth of wealth without bottom or unfathomable (resisting plummetting) or “soundlesse” means silent and unresponsive.
On the other hand the poet might be “wrackt:” either ‘wrecked’ as a boat in the shallows, thus destroyed; or ruined as in ‘rack and ruin,’ thus reduced to penury; or finally ‘racked,’ tortured and grown “faint.” He would become a “worthlesse bote,” without value or money, while the rival is of “tall building, and of goodly pride;” “tall” is ‘upright’ and ‘lofty,’ a ‘tall ship’ being one of great size with topsails like a galleon; “goodly pride” is ‘handsome’ and ‘glorious,’ but also ‘furnished with goods.’ If the rival were so to flourish (“If he thriue”) and if the poet were to be “cast away,” either shipwrecked or ruined because dismissed (from service), then the worst factor would be that it was of his own making: his love was the cause of his “decay,” his ruined fortune or the dwindling of his resources.
80.1. Martial, Epigrammaton 8.70.5-8, “Pieriam tenui frontem redimire corona / contentus, famae nec dare uela suae. / Sed tamen hunc nostri scit temporis esse Tibullum.”
80.2. Cooper, Thesaurus velum.
80.3. Cotgrave, Dictionarie Saillir; Cooper, Thesaurus salire.
80.4. Compare Ariosto 43.5-7, “Three times your fathers wealth, you shall ere night / Possesse, and I will set you so aflote, / You neuer shalbe poore, to your liues end.”