‘Sonnet 86’ also known as ‘Was it the proud full sail of his great verse,’ is number eighty-six of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime. ‘Sonnet 86’ is one of 126 which belongs 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”.
Sonnet 86 William Shakespeare Was it the proud full sail of his great verse, Bound for the prize of all too precious you, That did my ripe thoughts in my brain inhearse, Making their tomb the womb wherein they grew? Was it his spirit, by spirits taught to write Above a mortal pitch, that struck me dead? No, neither he, nor his compeers by night Giving him aid, my verse astonished. He, nor that affable familiar ghost Which nightly gulls him with intelligence, As victors of my silence cannot boast; I was not sick of any fear from thence: But when your countenance filled up his line, Then lacked I matter; that enfeebled mine.
The poem asks a series of questions about the speaker’s own muteness. He considers why he’s suddenly unable to write and if it is because of the rival poet’s skillful verse. The speaker muses on this topic for a time before coming to the conclusion after the “turn” in the final two lines that this is not the case. Rather, it is the Fair Youth’s appreciation of the poet that has muted the speaker’s verse.
‘Sonnet 86’ 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.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 86 ’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, metaphor, and allusion. The latter is seen through the subject matter more generally. This poem, and those which came before it, allude to an unknown rival poet. This person, who is sometimes described as more than one person, also devotes himself to the Fair Youth as his muse. The writing style of this other poet is called into question, sometimes praised and sometimes degraded.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “prize” and “precious” in line two and “womb” and “wherein” in line four. (There is also an example of internal rhyme in this line with “tomb” and “womb”.)
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. There is a good example at the end of the first quatrain where the speaker compares his brain to a “tomb” where all his lovely poetic words are dying.
Was it the proud full sail of his great verse,
Bound for the prize of all too precious you,
That did my ripe thoughts in my brain inhearse,
Making their tomb the womb wherein they grew?
In the first four lines of ‘Sonnet 86,’ the speaker begins by asking a rhetorical question. He is concerned at this moment about the effects of “his great verse”. The “he” in question is not the speaker, but a rival poet. This person wrote something “proud” and impressive about the Fair Youth that is bothering the speaker. He wonders if it is his new verse that has spoiled his own writing. It might’ve made his thoughts “ripe” and made a “tomb” for his words before they could be birthed into the world.
Was it his spirit, by spirits taught to write
Above a mortal pitch, that struck me dead?
No, neither he, nor his compeers by night
Giving him aid, my verse astonishèd.
The speaker suggests that the rival poet was “taught to write” by some “spirits”. These unknown spirits aided him in writing something that was so impressive that the speaker was “struck…dead?” This curious question refers to the speaker’s writer’s block. He is constantly comparing himself to this other person, feeling as though his writing will never live up.
He, nor that affable familiar ghost
Which nightly gulls him with intelligence,
As victors of my silence cannot boast.
I was not sick of any fear from thence;
But when your countenance filled up his line,
Then lacked I matter, that enfeebled mine.
The speaker goes on, in the second half of the poem, to say that no, everything he just considered is not true. He knows that his silence has not been caused by the rival poet and his “familiar ghost” that helps him. They are not the victors of his “silence”. They can’t “boast” that they silenced Shakespeare’s speaker. The speaker did not stop writing because he was worried about the other writer or what he’d produce.
Rather, the final two lines reveal, that it was the youth’s favorable opinion of the other writer that muted him. After he realized that the youth felt this way he has nothing more to say. His writing was “enfeebled”.