Sonnet 85

Shakespeare Sonnet 85

MY toung-tide Muſe in manners holds her ſtill,
While comments of your praiſe richly compil’d,
Reſerue their Character with goulden quill,
And precious phraſe by all the Muſes fil’d.
I thinke good thoughts, whilſt other write good wordes,
And like vnlettered clarke ſtill crie Amen,
To euery Himne that able ſpirit affords,
In poliſht forme of well refined pen.
Hearing you praiſd, I ſay ’tis ſo, ’tis true,
And to the moſt of praiſe adde ſome-thing more,
But that is in my thought, whoſe loue to you
(Though words come hind-moſt) holds his ranke before,
Then others, for the breath of words reſpect,
Me for my dombe thoughts, ſpeaking in effect.

Sonnet 85, one of the cleverest of the sequence, expands the poet’s singular charactering of the youth foreshadowed in Sonnet 84. The “toung-tied” character of the poet’s muse, his inability to give voice to his thoughts, draws on the old proverb, “the tongue is called the Character of the mind.” 1 Being “tongue-tide,” the muse holds herself “still,” either ‘keeps herself silent,’ or ‘keeps herself unmoving’ (because ‘tied’) and hence silent, or finally ‘holds her stylus’ in a ‘mannered’ way.  The phrase, “in manners,” introduces the classical genre of a ‘mannered or characterizing poem,’ Cicero’s “poema moratum,” or Horace’s “morata recte / fabula,” ‘a tale rightly mannered or characterised.’ (Cicero in turn is drawing on Aristotelian rhetoric, where ’ηθος, manners or character, is the prerequisite of a speaker.) 2 The poet is thus being literarily proper and his muse is acting in character (“in manners”) by being silent or not characterizing the youth – other than “you are you” (Sonnet 84.8).

At the same time other “comments,” other treatments of the young man, are being richly “compiled,” ‘assembled’ but also ‘derivative’ and ‘stolen from elsewhere’ (“compiled” is from cum + pilare = to steal) thus evoking the classical example of the great “compilator,” Vergil, so called because he stole from Homer. (The term is used by the poet of himself in Sonnet 78.) Their praises ‘keep’ (“Reserue”) their “Character with goulden quill.” “Character” firstly suggests an ancient stylus which inscribes characters (P”D”6JZD = stylus or style) and secondly the ‘manner’ in which they write their praises. A “goulden quill” produces lofty language, that draws on classical precedents: compare the “golden quill,” with which Spenser inscribes his beloved on his heart (Amoretti 85.10) or the classical (“Moeonian”) quill of Homer which is out-blazoned in The Faerie Queene. 3 The praises are marked with a “precious phrase,” phrases of high esteem but especially egregious phrases, which are shaped (“fil’d”) by recourse to the other nine muses of antiquity, “all the muses” (with a play on filing or sharpening a quill). Thirdly, anticipating the coming liturgical metaphor, “Character” intends an indelible “marke in the soule, which is neuer blotted out.” 4 In pre-reformation (and Counter-Reformation) theology it was imprinted by those Sacraments that were not iterated, Baptism, Confirmation, and Orders; as Francis Mason affirms, “in Baptisme, and holy Orders, there is imprinted an indeleble Character.” 5 In the case of Baptism it gave a person his Christian individuality, overcame anonymity, and could never be defaced or scored out. Post-reformation divines contested the nature and existence of such a character: the character of Baptism was rethought as “the indelible character of his election,” 6 while the character of priesthood, in the words of James I the “Clericall character,” was denied, although James would admit to the “politike character of Regall Maiesty.” 7 Morton Eudes succinctly sums up the view in Shakespeare’s day: “there is not any such indeleble or perpetuall Character, which hindereth a Clergie man to take againe vpon him the estate of a secular man.” 8

The poet casts himself as one, whose character is like that of clerks who are charactered, but who could not read or write characters, an “vnlettered clarke.” Monasteries were notorious for illiterate clerks who attended offices or services not knowing the Latin in which the offices were chanted or sung, who exclaimed at the end of a psalm or hymn, “Amen.” The poet might “thinke good thoughts,” but cannot give voice to them. He can merely follow the “good words” of other poets and like an old clerk proclaim “Amen” or ‘it is so,’ the final endorsing of what had been sung. Ironically the poet, unlike the unlettered clerk, is able to translate the “Amen” into English, “’tis so, ’tis true,” appending it to every paean which the other “able spirit” offers up (in Sonnet 80.2 he is “a better spirit”). The rival’s praises are “In polisht forme of well refined pen.” The image of a stylus or quill (Latin = penna), that is well sharpened, is a favourite of Cicero and his successors and derives from the jeweller, who with his scalpel cuts and polishes gems (Pliny writes of ‘gems that must be cut and filed’ to make them more precious, an allusion worked into the earlier “precious phrase” that is “fil’d” by the Muses.) 9 Cicero transfers the image to the spoken word: he speaks of things that are ‘polished by me more refinedly’ and a ‘stylus that refines perfectly.’ 10 The rival poet through such literary endeavour produces “the most of praise,” its uttermost expression, to which the poet adds “something more,” a concluding endorsement. What the poet might have said, the expressing of his love, remains confined to his thoughts. His love for the youth retains its superior ranking, even though his words come after (“hindmost”). The youth, finally, is instructed to have regard for the puffed-up words of others, their “breath of words,” but to value the poet for his “dumb thoughts,” his silent words, which speak “in effect” or in reality (used generally in opposition to ‘in word’).


85.1. John Calvin, A harmonie vpon the the three Euangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke with the commentarie of M. Iohn Caluine: faithfully translated out of Latine into English, by E.P (London: Thomas Dawson, 1584) 334, “As also in an old prouerb the tongue is called the Character of the mind;” compare Culmann, Sententiae (1612) 18, “Speech is the character (the ingrauen forme, picture, or image) of the minde.”

85.2. Cicero, Caecilium 1.31.66; Horace, Ars Poetica 319-20; Aristotle, Rhetoric 1.2.3.

85.3. Spenser, Faerie Queene

85.4. Perkins, Galatians 255.

85.5. Francis Mason, The Consecration of the Bishops in the Church of England: With their succession, Iurisdiction, and other things incident to their calling: As Also of the Ordination of Priests and Deacons (London: Robert Barker, 1613) 82.

85.6. William Barlow, A Defence of the Articles of the Protestants Religion, in aunsweare to a libell lately cast abroad (London: John Wolfe, 1601) 26.

85.7. James I, A Remonstrance of the Most Gratious King Iames I. King of Great Brittaine, France, and Ireland . . Against an Oration of the most Illustrious Card. of Perron (Cambridge: Cantrell Legge, 1616) 6 & 25.

85.8. Morton Eudes, Catholique Traditions (London: W[illiam] Standby, 1609) 194.

85.9. Pliny, Hist., “gemmisque etiam scalpendis atque limandis.”

85.10. Cicero, Academicae Quaestiones 1.1.2, “limantur a me politius;” De Oratore 3.49.190, “stilus hoc maxime . . limat.”