‘Sonnet 78,’ also known as ‘So oft have I invoked thee for my muse,’ is number seventy-eight 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 78’ is one of a few sonnets that are concerned with another poet, usually known as the “Rival Poet.”
Sonnet 78 William Shakespeare So oft have I invoked thee for my Muse, And found such fair assistance in my verse As every alien pen hath got my use And under thee their poesy disperse. Thine eyes, that taught the dumb on high to sing And heavy ignorance aloft to fly, Have added feathers to the learned's wing And given grace a double majesty. Yet be most proud of that which I compile, Whose influence is thine, and born of thee: In others' works thou dost but mend the style, And arts with thy sweet graces graced be; But thou art all my art, and dost advance As high as learning, my rude ignorance.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker states that the Fair Youth has been such a positive influence on him that his verse has been elevated beyond anything he thought was possible. The youth is so influential that other writers have picked up on that fact and devoted their own writings to him. In the second quatrain, this speaker goes on to describe the wide-ranging effects of the influence of the youth. This is done through a series of hyperboles and metaphors that describe the youth as being able to make the mute sing, the ignorant educated, and graceful even more graceful.
In the final lines, the speaker concludes by asking the Fair Youth to appreciate the written work that he has done. He should take pride in the fact that he has provided the speaker with all the skills needed to write this sonnet and many more.
‘Sonnet 78’ 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 78’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, metaphor, and hyperbole. The latter two techniques are combined in the second quatrain. Hyperbole is an intentionally exaggerated description, comparison or exclamation meant to further the writer’s important themes, or make a specific impact on a reader. This can be seen through the speaker’s description of the youth’s eyes as having the ability to make the “dumb” or mute “sing”.
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. In this case, a reader can find an example in line seven when the speaker says that the youth’s eyes have added “feathers to the “learnèd wings,” or made the educated even more educated (fly higher).
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “found” and “fair” in line two and “given grace” in line four.
So oft have I invoked thee for my muse,
And found such fair assistance in my verse,
As every alien pen hath got my use,
And under thee their poesy disperse.
In the first four lines of ‘Sonnet 78,’ the speaker begins by addressing the Fair Youth and telling him, as he often has, that he is the speaker’s source of inspiration. The speaker explains that over time he has evoked the youth as his muse because he has assisted the speaker’s “verse”. The youth is so prevalent in the speaker’s works that other writers have started to latch on to the youth, and the techniques that the speaker uses to depict him, in their own writing. The speaker explains that now these other writers, whose pens should be “alien“ to the youth’s beauty and goodness, utilize him in their poetry.
Thine eyes, that taught the dumb on high to sing,
And heavy ignorance aloft to fly,
Have added feathers to the learnèd’s wing
And given grace a double majesty.
In the next four lines of ‘Sonnet 78,’ the speaker describes the youth’s beautiful eyes. His eyes, which the speaker has described in other sonnets up to this point, have elevated the poet’s verse beyond anything that he could’ve thought possible. Shakespeare uses hyperbole to describe, with a metaphor, the way that the youth has expanded the speaker’s ability. He compares this fact to the youth allowing the “dumb” or mute to sing the highest of notes.
He continues on, in the same manner, to say that the youth’s countenance has allowed the ignorant to leave their ignorance behind and fly into the sky of knowledge. The educated or the learnèd are bolstered in their flight and made stronger. Lastly, the speaker says that the youth has managed to make the graceful even more graceful, their majesty has been doubled.
Yet be most proud of that which I compile,
Whose influence is thine and born of thee.
In others’ works thou dost but mend the style,
And arts with thy sweet graces gracèd be;
But thou art all my art, and dost advance
As high as learning my rude ignorance.
In the third and final quatrain of this sonnet, the speaker tells the youth that he should turn some of his appreciation and pride towards the speaker’s written works. The speaker believes that the youth should take pride in the collection of poems that the speaker has compiled. They are the epitome of the youth’s positive influence on everyone. In the next lines, the speaker degrades his own writing ability by describing how much it needed to be elevated by the youth. For others, writers that the poet sees himself in competition with, those who use the “alien pen,“ their writing already had skill before the youth came into their minds. He was able to elevate they are already skillful verse. But, in the case of the speaker, his writing would be worthless without the youth.
In the final two lines, the speaker says that the youth has lifted him up out of his “rude ignorance“ and made him into the skilled, and learnèd person he is today