‘Sonnet 38’,’ also known as ‘How can my muse want subject to invent,’ is number thirty-eight of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime. It is part of the Fair Youth sequence of sonnets (numbers one through one hundred twenty-six). In this particular poem, Shakespeare explores themes of inspiration and writing that his speaker expresses through a reverential and dedicated tone.
In this poem, the speaker addresses the Fair Youth, a young and beautiful man, and describes how important he has been to the speaker’s writing. He is the best muse that the speaker could ask for. He believes that if a writer can’t write while thinking of the Fair Youth then that writer is truly speechless and dumb. In conclusion, the speaker says that if anyone finds pleasure in his works that they should thank the youth and not the writer.
‘Sonnet 38’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line sonnet that is structured in the form known as a “Shakespearean” or English sonnet. The poem is made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet, or set of two rhyming lines. They follow a consistent rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and are 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.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 38’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, metaphor, and enjambment. The first of these, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “my muse” in line one and “tenth” and “ten times” in line nine.
Enjambment is another important technique commonly used in poetry. 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. For example, the transitions between lines one, two, and three as well as between lines five and six.
A metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. There is an interesting and original example in the third quatrain where the speaker says that the youth is the tenth muse, added into the original nine from Greek mythology.
How can my muse want subject to invent
While thou dost breathe, that pour’st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
For every vulgar paper to rehearse?
In the first quatrain of ‘Sonnet 38,’ the speaker begins by addressing the Fair Youth and asking him a rhetorical question. Although the question begins in line one, it does not end until line four. He is discussing his muse or the symbolic source of his inspiration as a writer/artist. His muse, he suggests, wants nothing in the way of additional inspiration when the Fair Youth is around.
The youth fills the speaker with inspiration by just existing. He has provided him with the best subject that the speaker could’ve asked for. This taps into very similar themes from previous sonnets where the speaker discusses writing, its power, and how the youth has influenced him. He degrades himself and his paper as too “vulgar” or ordinary/simple to contain the youth.
O give thyself the thanks, if aught in me
Worthy perusal stand against thy sight.
For who’s so dumb that cannot write to thee,
When thou thyself dost give invention light?
In the next four lines of ‘Sonnet 38,’ the speaker tells the youth that he should “give thyself the thanks,” or give himself the credit. It is due to him that the speaker’s writing is worth reading. If while looking over the speaker’s sonnets the youth finds something he likes, it is all down to his own influence.
There is another rhetorical question in the next lines. He asks the youth if there is anyone more speechless than someone who can’t write “to thee”. The youth provides such a powerful force around which one can work that everyone should be able to succeed.
Be thou the tenth muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate;
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date.
If my slight muse do please these curious days,
The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.
In the final quatrain of ‘Sonnet 38,’ the speaker reaches, metaphorically, into the future and asks that whoever searches the Fair Youth out for inspiration be inspired to write eternally. The speaker believes that those “old nine,” or the original nine muses from Greek mythology, now have a tenth in their company.
The couplet concludes the poem by stepping back from this deep consideration of the future and the power of writing. He considers himself personally, saying that if readers enjoy his writing the Fair Youth should get all the praise.