Shakespeare’s 154 Sonnets create a narrative with a number of characters: the Poet himself, the Young Man and the Dark Lady. Well, there’s another character, in a sequence of eight sonnets–the ‘Rival Poet’–another writer vying for the favor of the Young Man. This contest for the attentions of the Young Man (possibly the Earl of Southampton), begins with Sonnet 79:
Whilst I alone did call upon thy aid,
My verse alone had all thy gentle grace,
But now my gracious numbers are decay’d
And my sick Muse doth give another place.
I grant, sweet love, thy lovely argument
Deserves the travail of a worthier pen,
Yet what of thee thy poet doth invent
He robs thee of and pays it thee again.
He lends thee virtue and he stole that word
From thy behavior; beauty doth he give
And found it in thy cheek; he can afford
No praise to thee but what in thee doth live.
Then thank him not for that which he doth say,
Since what he owes thee thou thyself dost pay.
For this first ‘Rival Poet’ sonnet, the only thing Shakespeare’s really arguing are words, that is verse, and through the tangled layers of this sonnet Shakespeare claims that for a long time only his verse received the benefit of the Young Man’s ‘gentle grace.’ Yet Shakespeare admits that maybe his verse is not as good as it used to be: ‘my gracious numbers are decay’d / And my sick Muse…’ And so Shakespeare admits the Young Man deserves a better poet. That said, Shakespeare then goes on to claim that this new rival only steals from the Young Man; his verses might lend the Young Man virtue, but the rival only learned virtue from the Young Man himself: ‘No praise to thee but what in thee doth live.’ The same with beauty. In other words, don’t thank this rival poet for his flattery, because he’s stolen it all from you.
I’ve said this in my blog before, and I’ll say it again: these characters, the layered progressions of the relationships, the risqué nature of the love affairs (risqué for Elizabethan times), that is, the homosexual love affair, the love triangles, the interracial couplings: all these fly in the face what Elizabethans considered Romantic Love should be in poetry. So this somewhat subversive set of verse all speaks to the possibility of autobiography. And finally, though Shakespeare himself published other major works of verse to great acclaim, he never published his Sonnets. Why not?
Who was the Rival Poet? Possibly the poet George Chapman, or possibly even Christopher Marlowe. Possibly others. We’ll never know, assuming these sonnets were even inspired by a real human beings.
The image is of George Chapman, an Elizabethan dramatist, writer and poet. He, like Shakespeare, knew the Earl of Southampton. Chapman translated a lot of Ovid’s works; Ovid’s Metamorphoses was one of Shakespeare’s favorite sources for his plays. Chapman, unlike Shakespeare, never could find patrons or great success, and died in poverty.