‘Sonnet 76,’ also known as ‘Why is my verse so barren of new pride,’ is number seventy-six of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that the Bard wrote over his lifetime. This particular sonnet and those which are numbered 1-126 belong to Shakespeare’s famous Fair Youth sequence. These poems are devoted to a young, beautiful man whose identity remains unknown to this day. There has been a great deal of speculation about who this young man could possibly be, but no single identity has ever been decided upon.
Sonnet 76 William Shakespeare Why is my verse so barren of new pride, So far from variation or quick change? Why with the time do I not glance aside To new-found methods, and to compounds strange? Why write I still all one, ever the same, And keep invention in a noted weed, That every word doth almost tell my name, Showing their birth, and where they did proceed? O! know sweet love I always write of you, And you and love are still my argument; So all my best is dressing old words new, Spending again what is already spent: For as the sun is daily new and old, So is my love still telling what is told.
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker address is the Fair Youth through a series of rhetorical questions. He asked the young man why, unlike other writers, the speaker’s writing has remained the same. While others change, he remains the same. The speaker answers his own questions in the second half of the poem. It is, of course, due to the youth’s presence in his life that his writing has remained the same. The speaker is unable to write about anything that does not concern the Fair Youth.
Because the speaker is well aware of his own attachment to this young man and the obsessive way that his feelings control his life, he resigned himself to finding new ways to write about the same topics rather than entirely new topics.
‘Sonnet 76’ by William Shakespeare is a single stanza poem that is made up of fourteen lines. It is a good example of the English or Shakespearean sonnet (sometimes also known as the Elizabethan). This form requires that the sonnet be 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. 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 last two lines (known as a couplet) are a rhyming pair. They often, but not always, bring with them a turn or “volta” (in Italian) 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 76’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, allusion, and metaphor. The former can be seen in the last lines the poem when the speaker compares his writing, and the Fair Youth, to the rising and setting up the sun. Although the sun does not change as it rises, it is still beautiful and special.
This example of a metaphor is also connected to another technique, allusion. Lovers of Shakespeare’s sonnets will recognize the reoccurring image of the sun. With this image, Shakespeare is alluding to previous works in which he has compared the Fair Youth favorably and unfavorably to the sun.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “verse” and “variation” in lines one and two.
Why is my verse so barren of new pride,
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods and to compounds strange?
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 76,’ the speaker begins by asking a rhetorical question. This is a technique common to Shakespeare’s sonnets. He often directs these questions at the reader or has it seems as though the speaker is talking to directly yo the Fair Youth with whom he is infatuated. He asks the young man why the speaker’s own poetry is “barren of new pride,” or is lacking in new features. It is, for some reason, sticking to the same patterns of old. There is no “variation or quick change,” the speaker is noticing. He is asking the youth why this is the case.
The speaker follows this question up with a second one. He asks the youth why he, the speaker, does not change as everyone else does. There are no “new-found methods” in his life nor does he experiment with new things in his written works. This is something that he has seen other writers do but he has somehow been unable to do.
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth, and where they did proceed?
Another longer question follows. He asked the young man why he continues to write on the same topics every day. He writes “ever the same” and sticks to the same style that he has grown comfortable with. A reader should consider at this point that these past works all revolved around the youth with whom the speaker is at this moment conversing.
The speaker’s style, which he has become stuck with and can’t seem to shake off, is so familiar that anyone reading his works, especially the young man, will know just from the style that they belong to the speaker. He asks, rhetorically if his works are so clearly his own that anyone reading them could decipher the speaker’s personal information. Do they “show his birth“ or do they tell a reader who wrote the poem, and why?
O know, sweet love, I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument.
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.
In the third and final quatrain of Sonnet 76, the speaker address is the Fair Youth directly. He calls the young man “sweet love”. Clearly, by this point, the Fair Youth is well aware that the speaker writes about him continually. But, this speaker feels the need to address the youth and tell him this fact. He tells the young man that he should know that he always writes of him. The young man is still the basis for everything he creates.
The youth is the main subject of all his thoughts and actions. The speaker knows that this is not going to change anytime soon. The youth is too much a part of his everyday life. So, he resigns himself in the 11th line to find a new “dressing“ for “old words“. This will make them new as if he has changed subjects. In the final two lines of this poem, the speaker says that this change will be reminiscent of a new day. The same sunrises but small things are different.
This is far from the first time that the speaker has compared the Fair Youth to the sun, warm, or light. Sometimes these comparisons are more favorable than others. In this case, it is positive. The poem ends with the speaker saying that it is his love for the youth that keeps him saying the same thing over and over again.