I Grant thou wert not married to my Muſe,
And therefore maieſt without attaint ore-looke
The dedicated words which writers vſe
Of their faire ſubiect, bleſſing euery booke.
Thou art as faire in knowledge as in hew,
Finding thy worth a limmit paſt my praiſe,
And therefore art inforc’d to ſeeke anew,
Some freſher ſtampe of the time bettering dayes.
And do ſo loue, yet when they haue deuiſde,
What ſtrained touches Rhethorick can lend,
Thou truly faire, wert truly ſimpathizde,
In true plaine words, by thy true telling friend.
And their groſſe painting might be better vſ’d,
Where cheekes need blood, in thee it is abuſ’d.
Sonnet 82 begins with the poet conceding that the youth, his muse and patron, is not bound solely to him, their relationship metaphorically not being a monogamous one (“married to my Muse”). The youth, then, may “without attaint ore-looke / The dedicated words which writers vse.” An “attaint” (from tangere = touch, but thought wrongly to be connected with ad + tinctus = tincted or stained) was a legal term involving a conviction for a faulty verdict with a consequent stain or dishonour: in matrimony a husband was said to be “touched with his wiues default.” 1 Since the youth is not confined to the poet’s muse, he is free to look over (“ore-looke”) without fear of stain the verses dedicated to him by other writers. Their “faire subiect” is either the argument treated or the actual recipient of the dedication; “vse” implies a kind of misuse made explicit later in “abus’d.” The phrase “blessing euery booke” is a floating participial phrase and could apply to the youth (“faire subiect”), who endorses every book or the “dedicated words,” which grace the books.
The poet acclaims the youth’s right-thinking and beauty (“Thou art as faire in knowledge as in hew”), where “hew” is both natural ‘colouring’ (hue) and ‘figure’ or ‘proportion’ (hew). The youth knows his beauty to be of a measure (“limmit”) beyond the ability of the poet to praise and so is compelled (“inforc’d”) to seek again (“anew”) a “fresher stampe;” “fresher” contrasts with the poet’s old ways, while “stampe” carries a range of meanings: either an instrument for making impressions, or the impression itself such as an imprint or ‘device’ on paper, or an actual printing press, or, finally, a “stamp” or seal of approval, awarded by “time bettering dayes.” As in Sonnet 32.5 (“the bett’ring of the time”) the poet acknowledges the advances poetry might make over time.
The poet, speciously, advises the youth to accept such “fresher” stamps, but warns against the durability of their exaggerated eloquence: to ‘devise’ is to ‘invent,’ but a ‘device’ or emblematic design was often attached to dedications; “strained touches” picks up the echo of “attaint,” and, as in Sonnet 17’s “heauenly touches,” alludes to the classical image of the final touch given to a painting or statue by the finger (ad unguem = to the nail) or to the final touch given to the face when tinting with cosmetic colouring. To gain effect other writers stretch the “limmit” in their application of what Thomas Wilson, following Quintillian, calls “the colours of Rhetorique.” Wilson censures those whose rhetoric is too highly painted and criticizes the way they “sette their wordes, placing some one a mile from his fellowes, not contented with a plaine and easie composition.” He complains that some are repetitive, always “ready to beginne againe as fresh as euer they were,” while others are tedious (“so grosse for their inuention”). 2 Repeatedly the poet insists that his efforts are in “true plaine words.” Despite the attempts of others the youth will still be “truly faire;” he will still be simply depicted or represented (“truly sympathized”) by his “true telling friend,” the ever honest poet.
The couplet makes explicit the earlier image of colouring: “grosse painting” is firstly the picturing forth of other poets, “grosse” meaning unrefined or without a proper final touch. Sidney styles such poetry as “larded.” 3 Secondly the image is one of cosmetic fucus applied to cheeks, particularly sublimate and mercuric sulphide, which at court were notoriously laid on grossly or thickly. Thomas Tuke remarks that courtiers of either sex would “goe vp and downe whited and sised oer with paintings laied one vpon another, in such sort: that a man might easily cut off a curd or cheese-cake from either of their cheekes.” 4 In the youth’s lively cheeks such application of colour is not needed. Other writers should spend their efforts where they are needed (“where cheekes need blood”); they need not be spent on the youth, where they are merely superfluous and so an abuse (“in thee it is abus’d”).
82.1. Wilson 153.
82.2. Wilson 171. The ‘colours of rhetoric’ or ‘rhetorical colours’ were standard phrases for an elaborate or “painted kinde of speech” (2 Cor. 11.5; GV sidenote): compare Sidney, Arcadia (1590) 257v, where Amphialus’ defence was “painted with rhetorical colours.”
82.3. Sidney, Defence H1v, “the Lirick, is larded with passionate Sonnets.”
82.4. Tuke B3v.