Sunday Sonnet – 13 March 2015


Flattery will get you nowhere: that’s the gist of Sonnet 82.


I grant thou wert not married to my Muse
And therefore mayst without attaint o’erlook
The dedicated words which writers use
Of their fair subject, blessing every book
Thou art as fair in knowledge as in hue,
Finding thy worth a limit past my praise,
And therefore art enforced to seek anew
Some fresher stamp of the time-bettering days
And do so, love; yet when they have devised
What strained touches rhetoric can lend,
Thou truly fair wert truly sympathized
In true plain words by thy true-telling friend;
And their gross painting might be better used
Where cheeks need blood; in thee it is abused.

In the ‘rival poet sequence’, numbers 78 – 82, Shakespeare’s sonnet-writer (or perhaps Shakespeare himself) finds that a rival Poet is wooing the Young Man away from him. It opens with the realization that the Young Man might never have been married to Shakespeare’s verse: ‘thou wert not married to my Muse’. Like any artsy-fartsy old timer today complaining about how anything new is not as good as the old, Shakespeare spends the middle of the Sonnet describing how the rival poet’s verses are currently in vogue, quite flowery and flattering:

‘Some fresher stamp of the time-bettering days’ and ‘yet when they have devised / What strained touches rhetoric can lend.’

As you might expect, Shakespeare claims his verses are better. They may not be as showy, he admits, but they hold more truth: ‘In true plain words by thy true-telling friend’

In 16th century England as well as today, we’re often subjected to the newest, best thing. Is it always the best?

We’ll never know if there was, in fact, a rival poet, or who that poet was (the scholars and historians all have their theories). Suffice to say, the rival’s verse hasn’t survived, nor his identity. But over four centuries later, we still have Shakespeare and his sonnets.

But there’s a more important lesson here. I believe Shakespeare’s works, all the plays and poetry together, beyond storytelling or simple entertainment, are the greatest guide we have to what it means to be and act as humans. One of the lessons here is more than old versus new. It’s flattery. We’ll always have flatterers–so don’t succumb to them. Years after these Sonnets were written, an older, wiser and perhaps more succinct Mr. Shakespeare addresses flattery in one pithy quote in his late play, Timon of Athens, where the misanthropic character Apemantus says “he that loves to be flattered is worthy o’ the flatterer.”  

The image is from an anonymous 19th century artist, showing the gadfly Apemantus confronting Timon of Athens with some desperately needed truisms.