William Shakespeare

Sonnet 85 by William Shakespeare

Read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 85, ‘My tongue-tied muse in manners holds her still,’ with a summary and complete analysis of the poem.

Sonnet 85’ also known as ‘My tongue-tied muse in manners holds her still,’ is number eighty-five of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime. ‘Sonnet 85’ is one of 126 which 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. This particular poem is one of several that discuss a “Rival poet” who also uses the Fair Youth in his writing. 

Sonnet 85
William Shakespeare

My tongue-tied Muse in manners holds her still,While comments of your praise richly compiled,Reserve thy character with golden quill,And precious phrase by all the Muses filed.I think good thoughts, whilst others write good words,And like unlettered clerk still cry 'Amen'To every hymn that able spirit affords,In polished form of well-refined pen.Hearing you praised, I say ''tis so, 'tis true,'And to the most of praise add something more;But that is in my thought, whose love to you,Though words come hindmost, holds his rank before.   Then others, for the breath of words respect,   Me for my dumb thoughts, speaking in effect.
Sonnet 85 - My tongue-tied muse in manners holds her still by William Shakespeare


‘Sonnet 85’ by William Shakespeare is one of several poems that discusses the impacts that other writers have on the speaker and the Fair Youth’s relationship. 

Within this poem, Shakespeare’s speaker describes how his style of praising the young man is different from that which other people participate in. He keeps all his praise within his mind while other people pour it out in golden words on a piece of paper. Both means of recognition should be appreciated, but, the speaker knows that he loves the young man the most.


‘Sonnet 85 ’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line poem that is contained within a single stanza. This poem is a solid example of 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 make a transition into the conclusion, bring up new ideas, or change a point of view entirely.

Poetic Techniques 

Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 85 ’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, simile, and enjambment. The latter, 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 three and four as well as that between lines six and seven. 

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For instance, “muse” and “manners” in line one and “whilst” and “write” in line five. 

A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. For example, in the sixth line, the speaker compares himself to an illiterate parish clerk whose job is to prompt the churchgoers to say “amen”. 

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-4

My tongue-tied muse in manners holds her still,

While comments of your praise, richly compiled,

Reserve their character with golden quill

And precious phrase by all the muses filed.

In the first quatrain of ‘Sonnet 85,’ the speaker refers to his own poetry as “mute”. This is an interesting description that flows throughout the rest of the poem. He compares the work of other poets, or a single rival poet, who also spend their time writing about the youth, to his own. 

This person or people spend their time trying to capture the youth’s “character”. They do their best to create praise that adequately depicts this young man. The words are “golden” and speak very highly of the young man. The poet is setting up a contrast between himself and these extravagant writers. 

Lines 5-8 

I think good thoughts, whilst other write good words,

And like unlettered clerk still cry “Amen”

To every hymn that able spirit affords,

In polished form of well-refinèd pen.

In the second quatrain of ‘Sonnet 85,’ the speaker says that in comparison he is only able to “think good thoughts”. He thinks about the Fair Youth in loving terms while the other poets put down their thoughts in writing. Shakespeare uses a simile in the sixth line of the poem to compare the speaker to a parish clerk. He is “unlettered“ or illiterate. He is only able to cry out “amen” while the others can more successfully craft words. He cries out “amen” to every “hymn that able spirits,” the other poets, create with their well-refined pens. He agrees with everything that they have to say but he goes about praising the youth differently.

Lines 9-14 

Hearing you praised, I say “’Tis so, ’tis true,”

And to the most of praise add something more;

But that is in my thought, whose love to you,

Though words come hindmost, holds his rank before.

Then others for the breath of words respect,

Me for my dumb thoughts, speaking in effect.

The poet emphasizes the speaker’s agreement with the other writers at the beginning of the third quatrain of ‘Sonnet 85.’ He says that it is certainly “so” that the youth is as wonderful and beautiful as people say. This speaker tries his best to “add something” to what has already been written. But, what is added, comes only from his mind. It is only in his thought that his loving words come out.

Plus, the speaker knows in his mind that he loves the young man more than anyone else does. In the final two lines of the poem, the speaker asks the young man to “respect” him for not speaking. He should also respect those who praise him with words. It’s clear by the end of the poem that the speaker sees something beneficial in his unspoken praise. It has a different effect, and action, that the other words do not. 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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