‘Sonnet 84’, also known as ‘Who is it that says most, which can say more,’ is number eighty-four of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime. ‘Sonnet 84’ is one of 126 that belong to the Fair Youth sequence. The 126 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 “young man” has been determined to be the poet’s “muse”.
Some believe that the “speaker” in the poem, the person from whose perspective the poem is written is Shakespeare, while others disagree. It is possible that Shakespeare was commissioned to write these poems or was simply using a persona as inspiration.
Sonnet 84 William Shakespeare Who is it that says most, which can say more, Than this rich praise, that you alone, are you, In whose confine immured is the store Which should example where your equal grew? Lean penury within that pen doth dwell That to his subject lends not some small glory; But he that writes of you, if he can tell That you are you, so dignifies his story. Let him but copy what in you is writ, Not making worse what nature made so clear, And such a counterpart shall fame his wit, Making his style admired every where. You to your beauteous blessings add a curse, Being fond on praise, which makes your praises worse.
The speaker describes how the youth is “fond” of the praise he receives but this fondness is not serving him well. It is leading writers to write more and more about this young man, especially those who seek to copy that which exists in the real world. Those who are accurately able to do so are improving nothing. They are not adding to the youth’s glory.
‘Sonnet 84 ’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line poem that is contained within a single stanza. This poem is a solid example of an English, Elizabethan, or Shakespearean sonnet. 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 are 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 change speakers, transition to a new point of view, or contradict the lines that came before.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 84 ’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and caesura. 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, “penury” and “pen” and line five and “beauteous blessings” in line thirteen.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might precede an important turn or transition in the text. For example, line two reads: “Than this rich praise, that you alone are you—”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. 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 instance, the transition between lines one and two as well as that between lines three and four.
Who is it that says most, which can say more
Than this rich praise, that you alone are you—
In whose conf’ne immurèd is the store
Which should example where your equal grew?
In the first four lines of ‘Sonnet 84,’ the speaker begins by asking the youth a rhetorical question. This is a technique that Shakespeare was fond of using in his sonnets. He asks the young man which writer, of all those who are writing about the young man, can say “more” about him. The speaker implies that these writers lack something that he has. They are only able to tell the young man that which he is already aware of. That all beauty is “store[d]” inside him and that only he is entirely original. The speaker is aware, as is the youth, that there is no one to compare the youth against.
Lean penury within that pen doth dwell
That to his subject lends not some small glory.
But he that writes of you, if he can tell
That you are you, so dignifies his story.
The first quatrain leads the speaker into adding that only “Lean penury within that pen,” or a poor writer is going to be unable to think something that does not “lend…some small glory” to the Fair Youth. He is implying that any writer who can’t do this is unworthy to write about the young man.
He also considers the possibility that a writer “writes of you” and “tell[s] / That you are you” in accurate terms. If this is the case, the writer will have dignified “his story” but not done anything to better the youth.
Let him but copy what in you is writ,
Not making worse what nature made so clear,
And such a counterpart shall fame his wit,
Making his style admired everywhere.
You to your beauteous blessings add a curse,
Being fond on praise, which makes your praises worse.
The writer’s style will be “admired everywhere” because he has been able to copy that which is right in front of him. The speaker suggests in the last lines of this poem that the youth’s beauty leads to people writing “praises worse”. He asserts that the youth is “fond on praise” and enjoys hearing all these good things being said about him. But, it only “makes your praises worse”. This alludes to lesser and lesser writers becoming attached to the youth and being unable to add anything new.