Sonnet 91: Some glory in their birth, some in their skill by William Shakespeare

Sonnet 91,’ also known as ‘Some glory in their birth, some in their skill,’ is number ninety-one of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that Shakespeare 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. Some of the sonnets are worshipful in nature, others chastise the youth for his behavior while others still express the speaker’s fear of losing the young man (as this one does).

Sonnet 91: Some glory in their birth, some in their skill by William Shakespeare

 

Summary of Sonnet 91  

‘Sonnet 91 ’ by William Shakespeare a fairly straightforward poem that expresses the speaker’s pride in his relationship with the fair youth and his fear of losing him.

Throughout the first half of this poem, the speaker takes the reader through a variety of things and accomplishments that some people are proud of. He tells the youth directly that these things mean nothing to him. Rather, he reveals, the Fair Youth’s love is more important than any possession or amount of wealth that another man could achieve. But, because the youth has such a high standing in the speaker’s mind he knows that if and when the youth decides to leave the speaker that it’s going to be life-shattering.

 

Structure of Sonnet 91

‘Sonnet 91 ’ 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.

 

Literary Devices in Sonnet 91

Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 91 ’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, caesura, and anaphora. Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “hawks and hounds” and “horse” in line four as well as “hawks or horses” in line eleven. 

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, lines one through four. All four of these lines make use of a distinctive pause in their progression, linking one “valuable” thing to the next. 

Shakespeare also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. It can be seen quite clearly in the first four lines, all of which begin with “Some”. 

 

Analysis of Sonnet 91 

Lines 1-4

Some glory in their birth, some in their skill,

Some in their wealth, some in their body’s force,

Some in their garments, though new-fangled ill,

Some in their hawks and hounds, some in their horse;

In the first four lines of ‘Sonnet 91,’ the speaker begins by listing out some of the things that people are proud of. He traces wealthy interests and high social status through images of glory, garments, and possessions. He, directing his words to the Fair Youth, tells him that there are many people who are proud of their “hawks and hounds” others are proud of their “horses”.

By listing out these various positions and states of being, this speaker is setting up a contrast. He does not count himself among the “some” in this first quatrain. A reader should also take note of the repetition of the word “some” at the beginning of all four lines of the quatrain. This is a technique known as anaphora.

 

Lines 5-8 

And every humor hath his adjunct pleasure,

Wherein it finds a joy above the rest.

But these particulars are not my measure;

All these I better in one general best.

In the second quatrain of ‘Sonnet 91,’ the speaker goes on to say that “every humor“ finds that which pleases it. People are different, some enjoy one thing and some enjoy another. In the seventh line the word “but“ brings in the speaker’s own personal belief in on the matter. He says that all the things he listed previously do not matter to him. Rather, he measures his happiness by something else. There’s one thing that’s better than all of those things that he has been speaking about. 

 

Lines 9-14 

Thy love is better than high birth to me,

Richer than wealth, prouder than garments’ cost,

Of more delight than hawks or horses be;

And having thee, of all men’s pride I boast;

Wretched in this alone, that thou mayst take

All this away, and me most wretched make.

The third and final quatrain of ‘Sonnet 91,’ the speaker reveals to the reader what that “one thing“ is that he is so interested in. Of course, it is the Fair Youth. While still speaking to the youth, the speaker says that his life is better than “high birth“. This is a reference to high social standing and respect that members of society born into wealth and glory are accustomed to.

The youth’s love is more valuable than wealth and makes the speaker feel prouder than the most expensive clothes would. It brings the speaker more “delight than hawks or horses”. The speaker knows that he has something that he can be proud of. But, there’s a risk.

The final couplet reveals that the speaker is still quite terrified of losing the Fair Youth’s love. He knows that this young man has the ability to destroy his life and make him wretched by taking away his affections. 

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