‘Sonnet 80,’ also known as ‘O how I faint when I of you do write,’ is number eighty 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 80’ is part of a short series within the Fair Youth sequence of sonnets that addresses the influence of a “rival poet”. This unnamed poet, or at times poets, challenge, at least mentally or philosophically, the speaker’s claim over the youth.
Sonnet 80 William Shakespeare O! how I faint when I of you do write, Knowing a better spirit doth use your name, And in the praise thereof spends all his might, To make me tongue-tied speaking of your fame. But since your worth, wide as the ocean is, The humble as the proudest sail doth bear, My saucy bark, inferior far to his, On your broad main doth wilfully appear. Your shallowest help will hold me up afloat, Whilst he upon your soundless deep doth ride; Or, being wracked, I am a worthless boat, He of tall building, and of goodly pride: Then if he thrive and I be cast away, The worst was this, my love was my decay.
Within this poem, the speaker compares his writing ability, which he sees as inadequate, to the rivals. This other writer, who goes unnamed and without much description, has more skill than the speaker does. This dynamic plays out through the extended metaphor of ships on a boundless sea that stands in for the fair youths’ good grace.
‘Sonnet 80 ’ 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, mostly, 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. There are a few moments, such as in the second foot of the second line that the pattern of stresses changes.
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 80 ’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, metaphor, and imagery. The latter, imagery, refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. For example the image of the boundless and deep sea that the speaker and rival poet are both sailing on.
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. The poet makes use of an extended metaphor in these lines by comparing the Fair Youth to an ocean.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “worth, wide” in line five and “deep doth” in line ten.
O how I faint when I of you do write,
Knowing a better spirit doth use your name,
And in the praise thereof spends all his might,
To make me tongue-tied speaking of your fame.
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 80,’ the speaker begins by saying that he gets discouraged when he writes about the youth, something that he does all the time. In the next lines, he alludes to the fact that another writer is also dedicating himself to the youth. This is a new development in their relationship and something that is making it all the more difficult for the speaker to say what he wants to say.
Shakespeare’s speaker says that this rival poet, whoever he may be, “spends all his might“ in an effort to make the speaker “tongue-tied“. Whenever the speaker, who some believe is Shakespeare, sets out to write about the Fair Youth he concentrates too much of his energy worrying about this other writer and is unable to speak accurately of the youth’s “fame”.
But since your worth, wide as the ocean is,
The humble as the proudest sail doth bear,
My saucy bark, inferior far to his,
On your broad main doth willfully appear.
In the second quatrain of ‘Sonnet 80,’ Shakespeare creates an extended metaphor that depicts the Fair Youth’s glory as a large and powerful sea. It is able to support various boats. On the sea, one can find the strong and well-maintained ship that represents the rival poet and the “saucy bark“ that represents the speaker. The speaker’s small ship, he states, is “far “inferior“ to the rivals. While degrading his own writing ability, something that the speaker often does, he manages to also compliment the youth in a complicated and skillful way. The youth is so gracious and good-natured that he is able to entertain devotees of all backgrounds and skill levels.
Your shallowest help will hold me up afloat,
Whilst he upon your soundless deep doth ride;
Or, being wracked, I am a worthless boat,
He of tall building and of goodly pride.
Then, if he thrive and I be cast away,
The worst was this: my love was my decay.
In the third and final quatrain of ‘Sonnet 80,’ the speaker continues the metaphor by comparing the Fair Youth to the sea for a few more lines. He says that even at the youth’s “shallowest“ he’s able to keep the speaker afloat. Even when the speaker goes without the youth’s attention he is still wonderful enough to maintain the speaker’s dedication.
This is all seen through the metaphor of a sea that is at one point more shallow than another. This description has another layer. It alludes to the part of the youth that the speaker has access to. As well as that which the rival poet has access to. These two things are quite different. The rival poet with all his skill is able to sail out over the youth’s “soundless deep“.
In the next lines of ‘Sonnet 80,’ the speaker adds that if, as a ship, he becomes wrecked, it’s not a big deal. He was only a small and worthless ship in the larger scheme of things. This is especially true in comparison to the rival poet. But, as is often the case, the speaker is happy to die at the hands of the Fair Youth. He is happy to say that he was destroyed because of his love for the youth. His love was his “Decay”.