Sonnet 86

Shakespeare Sonnet 86

VVAs it the proud full ſaile of his great verſe,
Bound for the prize of (all to precious) you,
That did my ripe thoughts in my braine inhearce,
Making their tombe the wombe wherein they grew?
Was it his ſpirit, by ſpirits taught to write,
Aboue a mortall pitch, that ſtruck me dead?
No, neither he, nor his compiers by night
Giuing him ayde, my verſe aſtoniſhed.
He nor that affable familiar ghoſt
Which nightly gulls him with intelligence,
As victors of my ſilence cannot boaſt,
I was not ſick of any feare from thence.
But when your countinance fild vp his line,
Then lackt I matter, that infeebled mine.

Sonnet 86 has been much searched to uncover the identity of the rival poet, variously Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, Barnabe Barnes, Samuel Daniel, et cetera; more recently an earlier case for George Chapman, translator of Homer’s Iliad, has been developed by Kerrigan and Evans, who focus particularly on the lucubratory elements of the sonnet. What might count against Chapman’s candidacy, however, is that he had a history of such bad luck with patrons – he continually battled peniury – that any threat he might pose to this poet is problematic.

Sonnet 86, although separated from Sonnet 80’s “proudest saile,” opens with its naval metaphor: “WAs it the proud full saile of his great verse, / Bound for the prize of (all to precious) you.” The lines picture a tall corsair with upright (“proud”) sails, “full” of wind or “spirit,” moving at pace towards its “prize.” The rival’s “great verse” is destined (“bound”) for the friend who is “all to precious,” either ‘most precious to the poet,’ or ‘most rewarding to the rival,’ because he is the more favoured (in Sonnet 84.4 he produces a “precious phrase”). The rival’s verse causes the poet’s “ripe thoughts,” those ready to bear fruit, to remain shut up in his head as in a bier or ‘hearse’ (“in my braine inhearce”). They are still-born (“Making their tombe the wombe wherein they grew”), the image of poetic still-birth being standard (compare Sidney, Astrophil and Stella 50. 1 & 11, where “the fulnes of my thoughts of thee” find “their death in birth”).

The rival poet’s “spirit” of which the poet now asks questions, is his poetic daemon (as in Ant. 2.3.20, “Thy Daemon, that thy spirit which keepes thee”), the inner genius of supernatural origin that attends poets and on which they draw.  His spirit is attended and taught by other “spirits” to write above “mortall pitch;” “pitch” is either the height to which something might rise (see R3 3.7.188, “the pitch, and height of his degree”), hence above an earthly (“mortal”) level; or it is a musical metaphor (compare Spenser, Amoretti 80.12, “my spirit to an higher pitch will rayse”); or it is a falconine image, “pitch” being the apogee a hawk reaches before swooping on its “prize,” so rendering it dead (“mortall”). Was it the rival’s spirit or his accompanying spirits that struck the poet’s thoughts “dead?”

The poet allows that neither the rival poet nor “nor his compiers by night,” who give him “ayde,” have reduced his verse to silence (“astonished”). His “compiers by night” are his nocturnal companion “spirits.” The lucubratory was the time-hallowed classical tradition of writing at night by candle light, Martial’s “nox lucubrata” or “A night that one watcheth or studieth by candle.” 1 Quintillian writes of the lucubratory ‘silence of the night, closed study, and single light.’ From Cicero onwards it was a feature of dedicatory verses: at the start of Paradoxia Stoicorum Cicero asks Brutus to accept his “parvum opusculum lucubratum” (‘small work written by night’). 2

Neither the rival nor his “affable familiar ghost” can claim any victory; “affable” means “gracious in wordes.” 3 A “familiar ghost,” an ‘intimate’ one, could firstly be a “spiritus familiaris,” “a familiar spirit, or a God of the houshold,” identified with the Lares, who as gods of the hearth kept watch by the householder particularly at night; or it could be a good angel (Milton’s Raphael is “the affable Angel”); or, more ominously, since it operates “nightly” it could be a malignant spirit, such as the “bad Angell designed also to euery one which allureth to wickednesse.” 4 The spirit “nightly gulls,” either ‘intoxicates’ or ‘deceives’ the rival night after night with inspiration (“intelligence”). The rival and his spirit have not caused the poet’s silence: he did not sicken (“sick”) or become “faint” (Sonnet 80.1) from that quarter. The couplet turns to the friend: it is only when his “countinance,” both his ‘face’ and his ‘patronage’ (“countinance” was a euphemism for patronage) either ‘filled up’ or ‘polished’ (“fild”) the rival poet’s muse or subject matter (“line”), that the poet’s attempts to write verse were found wanting: “Then lackt I matter, that infeebled mine.”


86.1. Martial 4.90.9; Cooper, Thesaurus lucubro.

86.2. Quintillian, Institutiones 10.3.25, “lucubrantes silentium noctis et clusum cubiculum et lumen unum;” Cicero, Paradoxia Stoicorum Proemium.

86.3. Cooper, Thesaurus affabilis.

86.4. Rider, Dictionarie familiaris; John Milton, Paradise Lost 7.42; Salkeld 262.