Trysts, betrayals, heterosexual and bisexual romancing, profound expressions of undying love summarily cast aside and–love triangles! Shakespeare’s sonnets have it all. Sonnets 79 through 86 tell of a rival Poet vying for the love of the Young Man.


O, how I faint when I of you do write,
Knowing a better spirit doth use your name,
And in the praise thereof spends all his might,
To make me tongue-tied, speaking of your fame!
But since your worth, wide as the ocean is,
The humble as the proudest sail doth bear,
My saucy bark inferior far to his
On your broad main doth wilfully appear.
Your shallowest help will hold me up afloat,
Whilst he upon your soundless deep doth ride;
Or being wreck’d, I am a worthless boat,
He of tall building and of goodly pride:
Then if he thrive and I be cast away,
The worst was this; my love was my decay.

When the Poet realizes that a rival has entered the scene, he right away admits the rival is a better poet, but in so admitting that, displays his own formidable skill at poetry and creating metaphor. In this, it’s nautical:  

  • ‘since your worth, wide as the ocean is’ – your worth is wide as the ocean
  • ‘the humble as the proudest sail doth bear’ – you bear both humble and proud suitors
  • ‘my saucy bark inferior to his’ – my brazen love is less than the rival poet’s (a ‘bark’ is a boat)
  • ‘your broad main’ – your circle
  • ‘your shallowest help will hold me up afloat’ – your slightest attention to me keeps me hoping
  • ‘upon your soundless deep doth ride’ – the rival poet enjoys your deep affection
  • ‘or being wreck’d, I am a worthless boat’ – if I lose your favor, it’s because I’m worthless
  • ‘I be cast away’ – I’ll be marooned

This rivalry goes on for eight whole sonnets, where the Poet protests too much at how the rival’s poetry leaves the Poet ‘tongue-tied’. Yet, though inferior he supposedly may be, the Poet continues showing off, writing circles around anything that would be written for the next 400 years. It’s all a kind of game, I think. Perhaps there were actual events that led to this rival poet sequence–an actual competitor for the Young Man’s affection that Will Shakespeare himself was involved with. If so, then Shakespeare’s response was to write his way out of it.    

But isn’t that how Shakespeare solved everything? He wrote his way out of it. He wrote his way to success, in his plays and other verse. Wrote his way contemporary literary acclaim, wrote his way into Queen Elizabeth’ Court, to wealth and, finally, immortality.

The painting, circa 1700, by an unknown artist, is of the Spanish Armada being defeated by Elizabeth’s superior navy–you know, the Spanish Armada of goodly pride inferior to the saucy barks the British built.

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