“But when your countenance fill’d up his line,/Then lack’d I matter; that enfeebled mine.”

SONNET 86

Was it the proud full sail of his great verse,
Bound for the prize of all too precious you,
That did my ripe thoughts in my brain inhearse,
Making their tomb the womb wherein they grew?
Was it his spirit, by spirits taught to write
Above a mortal pitch, that struck me dead?
No, neither he, nor his compeers by night
Giving him aid, 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 fear from thence:
But when your countenance fill’d up his line,
Then lack’d I matter; that enfeebled mine.

This is the last of the group of sonnets dealing with the threat of a rival poet taking over the dominant position of affection that the writer claims to enjoy in the beloved’s eyes. The rival poet here is given the credit of composing bombastic verse which conceivably could cow other poets into submission, rather like a fleet in full sail (the armada?) bearing down on a seemingly defenceless enemy. The image may be taken either way, as one of splendour and magnificence, or one of empty boast and hollow show which leads to failure. Specific details are then given of how the rival poet relies on supernatural help from voices and spirits which communicate with him by night, and ghostly figures which prompt him. It is difficult not to read an undertone of ridicule into this description, for Shakespeare’s attitude to his own versification is often very pedestrian and matter of fact. He disingenuously admits the superiority of his rival’s verses, at the same time undermining that superiority by writing a sonnet which is as good as that of any of his contemporaries.

This sonnet however seems to bring us far closer to the identity of a possible rival than any of the preceding ones. Many commentators think that the affable familiar ghost and the compeers by night point directly at George Chapman, translator of the Iliad, a translation much admired by Keats who wrote a sonnet in praise of it.

Lines 5-10 especially seem to refer to a particular poet, rather than to potential rivals in general. The difficulty of making a certain identification stems largely from the absence of concrete information on three essential points. a). The date of composition of any of the sonnets, including the rival poets’ sequence. b). The identity of the youth to whom the sonnets are addressed. c). The disappearance of the poems which supposedly were written as rival poems and were accepted as offerings by the youth, to the detriment of the writer of these sonnets.

In the absence of this information, which, short of miraculous discoveries, is not likely now to come to light, it is probably best to leave the identity of the rival poet in decent obscurity.

The 1609 Quarto Version

WAs 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.

Commentary

1. Was it the proud full sail of his great verse,

The image is that of a galleon (or possibly a whole fleet, see below), attempting to capture something on the high seas. In 1596 Essex had raided the Spanish port of Cadiz, captured it and carried off much booty. Such exploits were widely renowned, and other grandiose expeditions, such as one to the Azores the following year, in the hope of capturing the Spanish treasure fleet, would have caused a great stir of excitement as they set off from the Channel ports in proud full sail, with one hundred or more ships often taking part. GBE sees the reference as possibly a denigrating one, in that it has mercenary overtones, but the glory accruing to any privateer or bucaneer who damaged Spanish interests in the years after the armada was huge. The Queen herself was usually a shareholder in such expeditions, and they were launched with semi-official blessing.

proud full sail – a swelling sail, puffed out by the wind. proud and full also have sexual meanings. In Midsummer Nights Dream Shakespeare likened a bellying sail to a pregnant woman.
When we have laughed to see the sails conceive
And grow big bellied with the wanton wind.
MND.II.1.128-9. However sail could also stand for the whole fleet, (OED.4.a.)a sight and spectacle which would be far more majestic than the appearance of a single galleon Thus in King John:
So by a roaring tempest on the flood
A whole Armado of convicted sail
Is scattered and disjoined from fellowship
.KJ.III.4.2-4

The whole sonnet was possibly read on suitable occasions with ribald innuendos, an underlying set of double entendres (spirit, pitch, countenance, line, matter etc.) being available which efface its seriousness. This line for example, with a little twisting, could be read as
Was it the proud full sail of his great arse?
etc.
See also SB, additional notes, p.579, n.16.9.

2. Bound for the prize of all too precious you,

Bound for = heading for;
the prize
= the technical meaning of a ship or goods captured at sea is the predominant sense here. OED(3)2.b. cites for 1588: Greene Perimedes 9 ‘Carrying away, both vessell and marriners as a pryse’.

3. That did my ripe thoughts in my brain inhearse,

ripe thoughts – presumably thoughts which are ready to be put into a poem.
inhearse
= enclose in a tomb or coffin.

4. Making their tomb the womb wherein they grew?

In other words, they (his thoughts) die where they are engendered, in the womb of his brain. The image of thoughts as the poet’s children was commonplace, although this idea of a miscarriage was somewhat rarer.

5. Was it his spirit, by spirits taught to write

These lines. 5-10 are thought to refer to one particular poet, quite possibly George Chapman. He published seven books of his translation of Homer’s Iliad in 1598, and boasted subsequently that he was inspired by the spirit of Homer himself. ‘I am (sayd hee [Homer] that spirit Elysian,/ That … did thy bosome fill’. See GBE pp.193-4 for fuller details. The evidence is not conclusive, and it is quite possible, given the incomplete state of our knowledge, that another poet was intended. (See the comment above).
by spirits – the ghosts which prompted his imagination (spirit) and caused him to write.

6. Above a mortal pitch, that struck me dead?

Above a mortal pitch = higher than the normal flight of human fancy. The imagery is probably taken from falconry, the pitch being the topmost point of flight of the falcon before stooping. As in the following:
Between two Hawks, which flies the higher pitch
.1H6.II.4.11.

But what a point, my lord, your falcon made,
And what a pitch she flew above the rest!
2H6.II.1.5-6.

7. No, neither he, nor his compeers by night

his compeers by night – the spirits which aid him in his composition. compeer is an old word meaning a companion of equal standing. Here it is used somewhat contemptuously. If Chapman is the rival poet, the spirits or ghosts which appeared to him in nightly visions were Musaeus, Marlowe and Homer. Chapman claimed a special affinity with the night in his poem The Shadow of Night published in 1594. He therefore is one of the chief contenders of all those put forward for the title of the rival poet.

8. Giving him aid, my verse astonished.

astonished = struck dumb. Pronounced astonish

9. He, nor that affable familiar ghost

He, nor = neither he, nor. Repeating the statement of line 7.
affable familiar ghost
– the rival poet evidently claimed that the spirit that appeared to him was friendly (affable). familiar was a term which was applied to spirits, often those associated with the devil. Witches were supposed to have dealings with them, their familiars often taking the form of a cat. The use of the term here attaches to the person being referred to the dubious distinction of probably being in touch with the devil. (See OED.A.2.d & B.3)

10. Which nightly gulls him with intelligence,

nightly – evidently the familiar spirit appeared to the rival poet in the hours of darkness.
gulls him
= dupes and decieves him. Possibly also ‘stuffs him full, crams him.
intelligence = information, knowledge.

11. As victors of my silence cannot boast;

As victors of my silence = As victors who are responsible for silencing me.
cannot boast
– the subject is he, (the rival poet), and his ‘affable, familiar ghost’. They cannot boast themselves to be the victors who forced me to silence.

12. I was not sick of any fear from thence:

sick = ill, unable to write.
from thence
= from him and his spiritual assistants.

13. But when your countenance filled up his line,

countenance = face, appearance, descriptions of you. As with all words beginning with ‘count’ there is a potential for bawdy innuendo which Shakespeare was usually not slow to make use of. In All’s Well for example, the clown puns on duke and constable.

COUNTESS Have you, I say, an answer of such fitness for all
questions?
CLOWN From below your duke to beneath your constable, it will fit any question. AWW.II.2.27-30.

His reply might be paraphrased as ‘From below your dick to beneath your cunt’s table’. The irrelevance of the pun to the matter in hand does not usually count for much, as long as the pun is made. On the stage it would no doubt usually be accompanied by a suitably obscene gesture. It is hardly possible to guess what the pun would have meant here, only that it was lewd, since line could be interpreted as ‘loin’ or ‘loins’.

14. Then lacked I matter; that enfeebled mine.

matter = subject matter for my sonnets (since you had abandoned me in favour of the rival poet’s verse).
that enfeebled mine
– that (your absence) was what weakened my verse, and made it unable to stand. No doubt a bawdy meaning also intended here.

And this:  a nice take from Kelly Fineman:

Form-wise, this is your standard Shakespearean sonnet: iambic pentameter, rhymed ABABCDCDEFEFGG. This particular sonnet is from the Fair Youth sequence and is, more specifically, part of the “Rival Poet” subset of poems (generally believed to be sonnets 80-86).

This sonnet may be read independently, but is actually the completion or continuation of Sonnet 85 (“My tongue-tied muse in manners holds her still”). In Sonnet 85,

My tongue-tied Muse in manners holds her still,
While comments of your praise, richly compiled,
Reserve their character with golden quill
And precious phrase by all the Muses filed.
I think good thoughts whilst other write good words,
And like unletter’d clerk still cry ‘Amen’
To every hymn that able spirit affords
In polish’d form of well-refined pen.
Hearing you praised, I say ”Tis so, ’tis true,’
And to the most of praise add something more;
But that is in my thought, whose love to you,
Though words come hindmost, holds his rank before.
Then others for the breath of words respect,
Me for my dumb thoughts, speaking in effect.

Shakespeare admits to being blocked; others have been writing poems praising the fair youth; as a result, Shakespeare finds himself unable to compose. Of course, he’s actually composing sonnets that a) take a dig at the rival poet, b) express jealousy over any possible relationship between the fair youth and the rival poet(s), c) express his love for the fair youth and d) sort of take a swipe at the youth for accepting the accolades of others (and any relationship benefits that might accompany them).

Sonnet 86 begins with a metaphor, comparing the rival poet’s work to a ship under full sail. This is a continuation of a theme from the first of the rival poet poems, sonnet 80 – in closing this short series of poems, Shakespeare has circled back to where he started it, thereby demonstrating (to my mind, at least) that there’s a narrative arc through these six poems, which were likely intended to be read together. But as I’ve pulled just one out for you today, I suppose I digress.

Sonnet 86 also begins with a question: The first eight lines basically boil down to “was it the rival poet’s magnificent poems praising the youth that caused his writer’s block?” In line nine, we get the volta or turn in a word: “No”. It wasn’t the rival poet or “his compeers by night giving him aid” (also referred to as “that affable familiar ghost which nightly gulls him with intelligence”). So Shakespeare here says, in effect, “I’m not afraid of any rival poet”. The closing couplet provides the answer to his dry spell:

But when your countenance filled up his line,
Then lacked I matter; that enfeebled mine.

Yes, I believe you read it right. It says “when he wrote about your face, he used you up, and I had nothing to write about”, more or less.

Now, the No Fear Shakespeare Sonnets will tell you that “The ghosts who visit the rival poet at night, both helping and tricking him, are very difficult to explain. They seem to refer to something in Shakespeare’s time that is now unknown.” The note in my copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Poems from the Folger Shakespeare Library seems to concur in part; it says that the poem can be read as an implication that the rival poet was consorting with the spirit world and, as one might imagine, any hint at the occult is pretty fascinating. That said, the Folger edition posits that the references to spirits might refer to the study of dead poets. Moreover, it notes that, coupled with the reference to lofty verse, it might be a clue to the identity of the rival poet being George Chapman, whose translation of The Iliad into English began to appear in print in 1598.

My copy of So Long As Men Can See by Clinton Heylin offers this further bit about the association of Chapman with “spirits”, by pointing out the work of William Minto, who believed Chapman was the Rival Poet.

Addressing the nightly visitations of the ‘familiar ghost’ in Q86, [Minto] points out that Chapman alludes to such a figure in the dedication to his 1594 poem ‘Shadow of the Night,’ in language that bursts with self-importance. Reserving muse-status for the mother of knowledge, who ‘will scarcely be looked upon by others but with invocation, fasting, watching; yea, not without having drops of their souls like a heavenly familiar,’ Chapman brags that his own poetic insights alone are equal to the task.
Whether the Rival Poet was Chapman or not, I think it extremely likely that any references to the “proud sail” of the rival’s verses was meant sarcastically or scornfully, and that the reference to night visits by ghosts is intended as a dig. If one thinks of the pre-Renaissance theory of “genius” as something that dwells outside a person, and only visits now and again (remember those bits from Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED speech that I transcribed a while back?) then the notion of a “muse” or “guiding spirit” that is external is not a far stretch. That Shakespeare thinks poorly of the rival poet’s muse – and is jealous – is further demonstrated by his implication that the rival poet’s muse only shows up at night; calling it a “familiar” (a term associated with witchcraft) is just one more way of getting a dig in. I could be wrong about that, of course, but I don’t think I am in this instance.

—————————–

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning – an introduction to our next play, the glorious unequivocal masterpiece, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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6 Responses to “But when your countenance fill’d up his line,/Then lack’d I matter; that enfeebled mine.”

  1. cricketmuse says:

    Your R&J insights are proving helpful as I start my unit with my freshmen. If time remains at the end of the unit I will move into MSND to show that Shakespeare didn’t travel to tragedy only when it came to mix-matched love.
    Happy Pages,
    CricketMuse

  2. Minnikin says:

    The George Chapman reference/link is interesting: I wonder if Shakespeare ever read Chapman’s translation of Homer? The dates at least, concur. Like most things associated with the Bard’s life, we’ll probably never really know…

    • Minnikin: This might interest you. In Jonathan Bate’s “The Soul of the Age,” he speculates on the books that Shakespeare might have had in his library at the end of his life. He says this about Chapman: “The crabbed language of Troilus and Cressida may suggest a debt to, or parody of, the convoluted syntax and overblown vocabulary of George Chapman’s Seven Books of the Iliad, published in 1598. The arguments and insults in the Greek camp may echo the contentions of Achilles and Agamemnon in Chapman’s first book, but I rather doubt that Shakespeare would have had the patience to read Chapman all the way through.” Interesting…

      • Minnikin says:

        Bate’s comment ‘…I rather doubt that Shakespeare would have had the patience to read Chapman all the way through’ seems a little strange. I’d have thought that Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, would have read and devoured every last scrap of it. Thanks for the reference to the Bate’s book, though – it looks well worth a read.

      • Minnikin: It is — highly worth reading.

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