‘Sonnet 79,’ also known as ‘Whilst I alone did call upon thy aid,’ is number seventy-nine 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 79’ is part of a spread-out series of poems that addresses the possibility and influence of a “rival poet” or poets. This unnamed poet/poets challenge, at least mentally or philosophically, the speaker’s claim over the youth. This poem is also the second half of ‘Sonnet 78’.
Explore Sonnet 79
Summary of Sonnet 79
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker describes how there was a time when he was the only person who is writing about the youth. But, this time has passed. The speaker’s writing has decreased in quality and he knows that it’s time to make room for other writers to take his place.
He foresees a time when a rival poet, (a common theme in a certain segment of Shakespeare’s poems) will take up the speaker’s mantle. But, this speaker wants to make sure the youth understands the slight disingenuousness that will come in this transition. He informs the youth that anything the writer comes up with was put into his mind through his perceptions of the Fair Youth. The youth has a claim on the writing that is undeniable. He owns the words, the themes, and any compliments that might come at this rival poet’s hand.
Structure of Sonnet 79
‘Sonnet 79 ’ 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.
Poetic Techniques in Sonnet 79
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 79 ’. These include but are not limited to alliteration 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, “gentle grace” in line two and “decayed” and “doth” in lines three and four.
Enjambment 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 transition between lines five and six and seven and eight.
Analysis of Sonnet 79
Whilst I alone did call upon thy aid,
My verse alone had all thy gentle grace,
But now my gracious numbers are decayed,
And my sick muse doth give another place.
In the first four lines of ‘Sonnet 79,’ the speaker begins by picking up where he left off, thematically, from ‘Sonnet 78’. In the previous sonnet the speaker and discussed the influence the youth had on other poets.
Now, the speaker recalls a time when he was the only writer who looked to the Fair Youth for “aid” or inspiration. The speaker’s verse was the only one that had any claim on the youth “gentle grace“. The speaker was the only one dedicating himself to the youth, and he was the only one who would’ve called the youth his muse. But now that things have changed he believes that his poems have lost some of the poignancy that they had previously. While the youth has remained unchanged, the speaker’s skills seem to have decreased.
This means that it’s time to make room for other writers to step in and fill the gap that the speaker is leaving behind as his verse becomes less skilled. He’s going to “give another place“ in the larger oeuvre of poems written about the Fair Youth.
I grant, sweet love, thy lovely argument
Deserves the travail of a worthier pen,
Yet what of thee thy poet doth invent
He robs thee of and pays it thee again.
In the second quatrain, he continues on, saying that the youth deserves to have a “worthy or pen“ writing about him. The words that flow from it must be of a higher standard than those the speaker is able to produce at this time. He calls the youth his “sweet love,” a common endearment that the speaker often made use of. It further complicates the perceived relationship between the speaker and his intended listener and where William Shakespeare stands in amongst these characters and relationships.
The speaker reminds the youth in the two lines that no matter what any new writers say about the youth he should always remember that the words belong to him. They took their inspiration from the youth, meaning, that everything they wrote was already the youth’s to begin with. He is the source of all the skilled and unskilled words. The writer “robs thee,” the youth, and then “pays it thee again”.
He lends thee virtue, and he stole that word
From thy behavior; beauty doth he give
And found it in thy cheek; he can afford
No praise to thee but what in thee doth live.
Then thank him not for that which he doth say,
Since what he owes thee thou thyself dost pay.
In the third and final quatrain of the poem the speaker says that other writers that write about the youth will say things like you have “virtue“. But, that writer only learned the meaning of the word virtue by observing the youth. It is “thy behavior“ that taught everyone what it means to be virtuous. The same is said about beauty in the next line. As if placing himself above all other possible writers, by his clever observations about the nature of writing, the speaker tries to reveal to the youth the lack of originality that these other writers will eventually present.
Shakespeare concludes the poem by having his speaker inform the youth that he should not thank the poets for what they have to say because doing so would be paying the writer for something the youth gave out.