‘Sonnet 108,’ also known as ‘What’s in the brain that ink may character,’ is one of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. It is included in a series of sonnets that honor the Fair Youth, an unknown young man the poems’ speaker (who may be Shakespeare himself) was in love with. Scholars have suggested several different possibilities in regard to who the Fair Youth was, but no single person has ever been confirmed. The mystery of the nature of the relationship is part of the allure of these sonnets.
Explore Sonnet 108
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker asks several rhetorical questions in regard to how much more there is for him to write about his love. He’s written so much and knows that he’s touched on every possible subject. Despite this, he isn’t bored. He continues to write, taking just as much pleasure from the process as ever. He and his lover, the Fair Youth, belong to one another in the same way they did when their love was young. He intends for that to remain the same as they both age, and outward appearances suggest that their love should be “dead.”
In ‘Sonnet 108,’ William Shakespeare engages with themes of aging and writing. He recognizes and knows the former is unavoidable, but he doesn’t see it as an obstacle. He believes that their love is not going to change as time progresses. It’s going to remain the same, as it has so far, and he’ll continue to write about their passion. Although many might look at them and think that wrinkles and decay should pull them away from one another, that’s not true. The writing itself is an important feature of this poem, and several others Shakespeare wrote in this series. He’s self-reflexive and is able to analyze his writing while he writes. This allows him to provide readers an insight into how he’s thinking about his words and subject matter.
Structure and Form
‘Sonnet 108’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line sonnet written in the traditional Shakespearean form. It follows a consistent rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and is written in iambic pentameter. The latter refers to the number of beats per line and where the stresses fall. In this case, each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed, and the second is 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 108’. 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: “What’s new to speak, what now to register.” (This is also an example of asyndeton.)
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the transition between lines one and two.
- Alliteration: the repetition of words with the same consonant sound. For example, “new” and “now” in line three and “love” and “love’s” in line nine.
What’s in the brain that ink may character
Which hath not figured to thee my true spirit?
What’s new to speak, what now to register,
That may express my love, or thy dear merit?
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 108,’ the speaker begins by suggesting that there’s nothing else in the world or the “brain” that he could capture with ink. He’s written so much about “thee,” the Fair Youth, and he asks what more there could possibly be. The speaker wonders what “new” things there are to speak, or novelties to describe, that can express his “love” for the youth or let him know how he feels about the Youth’s worth.
Nothing, sweet boy; but yet, like prayers divine,
I must each day say o’er the very same;
Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine,
Even as when first I hallowed thy fair name.
The speaker answers his own questions in the next lines. He calls the youth “sweet boy” and tells him that there is “Nothing” new he can find to say. But, despite this, he continues to feel compelled to speak. This relates back to themes found in ‘Sonnet 107’ in which the speaker contemplated the role the Youth has in his life and how much time he spends writing about him.
The speaker has repeated the same things day in and day out without worrying over how “old” they might appear. In the seventh line, he tells the youth that they belong to one another as much now as they did the first time the speaker “hallowed” his “fair name.” This references the first time the speaker, who is commonly considered to be Shakespeare himself, wrote about the young man.
So that eternal love in love’s fresh case,
Weighs not the dust and injury of age,
Nor gives to necessary wrinkles place,
But makes antiquity for aye his page;
Finding the first conceit of love there bred,
Where time and outward form would show it dead.
In the third and final quatrain of ‘Sonnet 108,’ the speaker summarizes what he’s said in the previous lines by saying that “eternal love” does not care about “injury of age” or how one changes as time progresses. It does care about “wrinkles place.” Instead, it “makes antiquity” into youth. True lovers know one another the same way throughout their lives. They can find the “first conceit,” or original source of love, there even when outward appearances suggest it no longer exists.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Sonnet 108’ should also consider reading some of William Shakespeare’s other poems. For example:
- ‘Sonnet 27’— dwells on exhaustion and hope and how both are associated with a young man.
- ‘Sonnet 12’— uses a series of images and metaphors to depict the ravages of time and what all young people, including the Fair Youth, are going to have to face.
- ‘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.