‘Sonnet 21’, also known as ‘So is it not with me as with that muse,’ is number twenty-one of one hundred fifty-four that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime. It is part of the prolonged Fair Youth sequence of sonnets (numbers one through one hundred twenty-six). These are generally dedicated to a young, beautiful being about whom the speaker cares deeply. The difference with this sonnet is that there is no “thee” or “thou” in the text. The lines are more general than they normally are. This sonnet is often compared to ‘Sonnet 130,’ which begins ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’.
Sonnet 21 William Shakespeare So is it not with me as with that Muse, Stirred by a painted beauty to his verse, Who heaven itself for ornament doth use And every fair with his fair doth rehearse, Making a couplement of proud compare With sun and moon, with earth and sea's rich gems, With April's first-born flowers, and all things rare, That heaven's air in this huge rondure hems. O! let me, true in love, but truly write, And then believe me, my love is as fair As any mother's child, though not so bright As those gold candles fixed in heaven's air: Let them say more that like of hearsay well; I will not praise that purpose not to sell.
The poem begins with the speaker contrasting himself against a rival poet. This person is unknown but is referenced again later on in this series of sonnets. They are known for their cliche, over-the-top descriptions of beautiful women. This is a way of writing that Shakespeare, or at least his speaker, disagrees with. He thinks that one should be truthful in their depictions and he is unwilling to make comparisons to heaven.
The poem concludes with the speaker questioning the reality of this other poet’s claims. Why would someone share the beauty of their beloved in such a way if it was true? It would only attract the envious.
‘Sonnet 21’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line sonnet that is structured in the traditional “Shakespearean” or “English” form. This means that it is made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet, or set of two rhyming lines. 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 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.
As is common in Shakespeare’s poems, the last two lines are a rhyming pair, known as a couplet. They often bring with them a turn or volta in the poem. They’re sometimes used to answer a question posed in the previous twelve lines, shift the perspective, or even change speakers. In the case of ‘Sonnet 21,’ the final two lines the speaker declares that he’s not here to sell his beloved, so he’s not going to exaggerate their features as the rival poet does.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 21’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, simile, and enjambment. A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another.
Another common technique in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. In the case of ‘Sonnet 21,’ there is an example in the transition between lines five and six as well as that between seven and eight.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “fair” and “fair” in line four and “first-born” and “flowers” in line seven.
So is it not with me as with that muse,
Stirred by a painted beauty to his verse,
Who heav’n itself for ornament doth use,
And every fair with his fair doth rehearse—
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 21’, Shakespeare makes reference to “that muse”. This is generally interpreted to mean a rival poet, someone with who Shakespeare contrasts himself with. This person does things differently than he does. They write poetry because they are “Stirred,” or inspired, to do so by beautiful women. These women wear makeup and are not naturally as beautiful as they appear to be. This poet also compares women to heaven in his verses, as well as to other beautiful things. Or, as Shakespeare says, “every fair with his fair doth rehearse”. He praises this woman, or multiple women, excessively.
Making a couplement of proud compare
With sun and moon, with earth and sea’s rich gems,
With April’s first-born flow’rs, and all things rare
That heaven’s air in this huge rondure hems.
In the second quatrain of ‘Sonnet 21,’ the speaker goes through some of the things that the other poet compares his love to. These include the sun and moon as well as the gems of the earth. Their love is set up against and said to be more beautiful than “April’s first-born flow’rs (the word “flow’rs” in this line is an example of syncope) and “all things rare”. Their love is better and more important than all the precious things on the earth.
O let me, true in love but truly write,
And then believe me: my love is as fair
As any mother’s child, though not so bright
As those gold candles fixed in heaven’s air.
Let them say more that like of hearsay well;
I will not praise that purpose not to sell.
But, Shakespeare’s speaker interjects, he does things differently. He does not make such over-the-top and unnecessary comparisons. He is true and he writes about love truly. In these lines, he suggests that in contrast to this person he really is “true in love”. He uses a simile to say that his love is “as fair / As any mother’s child”. It is comparable to the beauty of all people, all the children of mothers.
Shakespeare’s speaker adds that his love for the Fair Youth is not as bright as the stars. It is not showy or overwrought, it is genuine and real.
In the final lines of ‘Sonnet 21,’ the speaker concludes by saying that if you like the cliches that this other poet uses then you are welcome to them. He does not want to “sell” his love as this other person appears to be doing. The last line is clever, it suggests that if one’s lover were as beautiful as they are described in these cliche poems, there would be no reason to go around sharing that fact. Others might hear your words and try to take your love from you.