Sonnet 84

Shakespeare Sonnet 84

WHo is it that ſayes moſt, which can ſay more,
Then this rich praiſe, that you alone, are you,
In whoſe confine immured is the ſtore,
Which ſhould example where your equall grew,
Leane penurie within that Pen doth dwell,
That to his ſubiect lends not ſome ſmall glory,
But he that writes of you, if he can tell,
That you are you, ſo dignifies his ſtory.
Let him but coppy what in you is writ,
Not making worſe what nature made ſo cleere.
And ſuch a counter-part ſhall fame his wit,
Making his ſtile admired euery where.
You to your beautious bleſſings adde a curſe,
Being fond on praiſe, which makes your praiſes worſe.

The quarto’s punctuation of Sonnet 84’s octet, all commas, is problematic and requires a number of decisions of the reader. The most coherent pointing is a colon after line 2’s “praise,” the remainder of the quatrain being the praise’s content, and a question mark after line 4’s “grew.”

The sonnet contrasts the youth’s singularity with any replicated praise of it. Just as God’s individuation is contained in the self-defining phrase, “I AM THAT I AM” (Exod. 3.14; compare Sonnet 121.9, “I am that I am,” for another instance of identity versus constructed identity), so here the youth’s uniqueness is reflected in the poet’s simple definition, “you alone, are you” and “That you are you.” The poet asks: ‘who is there, who writes lavishly, who can say more than this rich praise: “you alone are you?” In your frame (“confine”) is enclosed (“immured”) the abundance, that should provide the pattern (“example”), wherever a matching likeness (“equall”) of you might grow.’ The vocabulary of “confine,” “immured” or enclosed within a wall, “store” or ‘stock,’ and “grew,” all suggest an enclosed garden, a hortus conclusus, the biblical and iconographic type, whose intactness reinforces the conceit of the youth’s oneness (see Sonnet 6.6, “maiden gardens,” for further commentary).

A false polyptoton (“penurie . . Pen”) obtains in “Leane penurie within that Pen doth dwell.” The line builds on the saying of Proverbs, “vayne wordes bryng foorth onely penurie” (14.23; BB) and states a rule: ‘any pen (by metonymy, the poet), that cannot add “some small glory” either to his dedicatee or his argument (“subiect”), is a pen or poet marked by meagreness and deficiency (both of style and reward).’ But any poet (“he that writes of you”), if he were to write simply, “you are you,” would find his account graced (“dignified”) both poetically and with favours; “his” means ‘its,’ that is the pen’s, but again, by metonymy, the poet’s.

The youth is advised to let another poet “coppy what in you is writ,” to construct exactly in words what is inscribed (“writ”) in the youth, his unique “Character,” which will be developed in the next sonnet. By so doing he will avoid “making worse” or impairing (see Sonnet 83.11, “impaire”) what nature has made manifest (“so cleere”). Such a matching copy (“counter-part”) will make his genius famous (“fame his wit”) and his “stile admired euery where;” “stile” means his manner of writing and his stylus or pen.

The couplet reverses the argument: “beautious blessings” are either the talents with which the youth has been blessed, or the praises awarded him, or the patronages he awards. But to them the youth attaches a “curse:” he is infatuated with praise to the point of foolishness (“fond on praise”). 1 His addiction impairs or subverts praises offered him by rival poets: because he is flawed and lacks the natural perfection earlier ascribed to him, he cheapens any “coppy” or praise of himself.


84.1. Compare Sonnet 3.7, where “fond” is Shakespeare’s rendering of Ovid’s narcissistic “credule.”