In ‘Sonnet 101,’ which is one of 154 that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime, he explores themes of writing, inspiration, and relationships. This poem, like the others in the Fair Youth series, is devoted to a young man. But, things have been changing for the speaker. He is not as excited and passionate about his subject as he used to be.
This sonnet is the second half of ‘Sonnet 100’. In the previous fourteen lines the speaker implored his muse to inspire him as she used to, he is still reaching for the inspiration that he used to have.
Sonnet 101 William Shakespeare O truant Muse what shall be thy amends For thy neglect of truth in beauty dyed? Both truth and beauty on my love depends; So dost thou too, and therein dignified. Make answer Muse: wilt thou not haply say, 'Truth needs no colour, with his colour fixed; Beauty no pencil, beauty's truth to lay; But best is best, if never intermixed'? Because he needs no praise, wilt thou be dumb? Excuse not silence so, for't lies in thee To make him much outlive a gilded tomb And to be praised of ages yet to be. Then do thy office, Muse; I teach thee how To make him seem, long hence, as he shows now.
Throughout the fourteen lines of ‘Sonnet 101,’ the speaker addresses his muse. He chastises the lack of inspiration he’s been receiving lately in regards to his beloved, the Fair Youth. He wants to know what’s going on and demands that she provide him with an explanation. In the second quatrain, he proposes some possible explanations but doesn’t like any of them. Finally, the poem concludes with the speaker telling her that she’s needed so that they might immortalize the youth together.
‘Sonnet 101 ’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line poem. The lines can be separated into three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one final two-line couplet. The poem follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and it is written in iambic pentameter. This means that Iambic pentameter means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 101 ’. These include but are not limited to examples of alliteration, caesura, and personification. Alliteration is a common, usually very effective device that allows a poet to imbue their verse with increased rhythm. For example, “Both” and “beauty” in line three as well as “depends” and “dignified” in lines three and four.
Apostrophe is one of the major literary devices used in ‘Sonnet 101’. It can be seen through the way the speaker addresses his “Muse,” a clear example of someone or something that cannot hear him or does not in reality exist.
Caesura is an important literary device that is used t help pattern the way that a reader moves through a poem. The fifth line is a good example of this technique. It reads: “Make answer, Muse: wilt thou not haply say”.
O truant Muse, what shall be thy amends
For thy neglect of truth in beauty dyed?
Both truth and beauty on my love depends;
So dost thou too, and therein dignified.
In the first four lines of ‘Sonnet 101,’ the speaker picks up where he left off talking about about his muse and his waning interest in the Fair Youth. Things are changing between him and he doesn’t feel as inspired as he used to. He addresses his muse in the first lines once more, calling it “truant”. This word refers to someone who stays away without a good explanation. It is distant from him.
The speaker wants to know what the muse is going to do to make up for her absence from him. The next line is complicated. He describes “truth” as being “dyed” by beauty. It is steeped in it. This phrase refers to the youth who is in the speaker’s mind the epitome of truth itself. He is more than worthy of the muse’s song. The speaker is trying to blame his lack of inspiration on an outer source. It is the muse’s fault that he has not been writing about the youth as he used to. He tells her that “truth and beauty” depend on his love, as does the muse. It is only due to him that she exists at all.
Make answer, Muse: wilt thou not haply say
Truth needs no color, with his color fixed,
Beauty no pencil, beauty’s truth to lay;
But best is best if never intermixed?
In the next four lines of ‘Sonnet 101,’ the speaker asks the muse to answer him and provide him with a good explanation. Perhaps, he thinks, she will say that “Truth needs no colour” when it is already attached or “fixed” to beauty (meaning the youth). It does not need to be poetically described for people to see it and know it as truth. Is truth is something inherent to its existence. The muse might also say that “best is best” when things are not mixed together. Perhaps, she will say that beauty does not need words to describe it.
Because he needs no praise, wilt thou be dumb?
Excuse not silence so, for ’t lies in thee
To make him much outlive a gilded tomb,
And to be praised of ages yet to be.
Then do thy office, Muse. I teach thee how
To make him seem long hence as he shows now.
But, the speaker has something to add to those possible responses from the muse. He says asks rhetorically if when following the logic from the previous quatrain, that the muse will the silent (dumb) because the youth does not need praise. This is not a good enough excuse, he thinks, for silence. The muse has a more important responsibility than to just praise the young man. It is her job, working through the speaker, to immortalize the Fair Youth so that all future generations know what he was like.
The speaker concludes the poem by telling the muse to “do thy office,” or do her job. The speaker will teach her how to make the youth seem “hence as he shows now”.
It is interesting to consider what the speaker, whether he is meant to be Shakespeare or not, was thinking when writing these lines. It is easy to read them as a way of shaking off some of the guilt he might feel in his lack of desire to write about the young man. He can blame it on a force beyond his control.