‘Sonnet 103,’ also known as ‘O! blame me not, if I no more can write!’ is one of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. It belongs to the Fair Youth series of poems in which the poet’s speaker, whose usually considered to be Shakespeare himself, describes and speaks to a young man. This young man is known as the “Fair Youth” and has never been identified beyond what details Shakespeare provides.
Explore Sonnet 103
The speaker spends the lines of this poem describing how his poetry doesn’t do justice to the young man’s beauty. He feels depressed and exhausted by the fact that no matter what he comes up with, he’d immediately be outdone by the Youth’s reflection in his glass, or mirror. The speaker has pretty much come to terms with this fact, but he continues to return to it in various ways throughout this series.
Throughout this poem, Shakespeare engages with themes of writing, love, and devotion. The speaker is thoroughly infatuated with the person to whom he’s directing the lines of this poem, and the others in the Fair Youth series. He contradicts his own writing, by describing how he’s incapable of writing about the young man. His verse, he knows, would not do the Youth justice. The young man’s beauty far outshines anything the speaker could put on paper.
Structure and Form
‘Sonnet 103’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line sonnet that is contained within one stanza. The lines can be separated into three quatrains and one final two-line couplet. Before the latter, the poem contains a “turn” or a volta. This means that the poet shifts their focus in some clear and obvious way.
The poem follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and it is written in iambic pentameter. 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. The vast majority of Shakespeare’s work, from his poems to his plays, was written in iambic pentameter.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 103’. These include but are not limited to examples:
- Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line of verse, for example: “O! blame me not, if I no more can write!”
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines three and four as well as lines six and seven.
- Alliteration: the repetition of words with the same consonant sound. For example, “Dulling” and “disgrace” in line four and “graces” and “gifts” in line twelve.
Alack! what poverty my Muse brings forth,
That having such a scope to show her pride,
The argument all bare is of more worth
Than when it hath my added praise beside!
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 103,’ the speaker begins by alluding to his own modesty and his inability to clearly describe and do justice to the Youth’s beauty. His “Muse” does not bring forth enough elegant or uplifting prose when he’d like it to. The subject he tries to speak on can’t be improved and doesn’t need the speaker to lavish him with praise. He knows his own worth.
O! blame me not, if I no more can write!
Look in your glass, and there appears a face
That over-goes my blunt invention quite,
Dulling my lines, and doing me disgrace.
He goes on to say that the youth, or reader, should not blame him for not being able to write anymore. He finds it difficult to write anything when he knows the youth’s face is far more beautiful than anything he could come up with. It’s exhausting to know that just the young man’s appearance in the mirror outdoes him. His perfection dulls the speaker’s lines and does him “disgrace.”
Were it not sinful then, striving to mend,
To mar the subject that before was well?
For to no other pass my verses tend
Than of your graces and your gifts to tell;
And more, much more, than in my verse can sit,
Your own glass shows you when you look in it.
In the next four lines, the speaker goes on to say that it would, in fact, be a sin if he tried to change the subject before him. He would be damaging something that’s already perfect and can’t be improved upon. While these all feel like valid excuses, it should be noted that the lines themselves, and the poem as a whole, discredit what the speaker is saying. He says he can’t write about the Youth but he’s in this moment doing just that.
There is nothing the speaker wants to do other than count the youth’s “graces” and “gifts.” But, there are many more to be seen when the youth looks in his “glass,” or mirror, than he could ever fit into his verse.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Sonnet 103’ should also consider reading some more William Shakespeare poems. For example:
- ‘Sonnet 38’— focuses on the importance of the speaker’s muse, the Fair Youth, and how integral the young man is to the poet’s writing.
- ‘Sonnet 46’ — addressed to the Fair Youth and uses the images of “eyes” and the “heart” to speak on the ways he is loved.
- ‘Sonnet 92’ —discusses the fact that the speaker is going to die happily having just known the Fair Youth.