The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The first quatrain of the sonnet consists of two questions that address a supposed problem with William Shakespeare’s own verse—its utter conventionality, barrenness of thought, and monotony (it is “far from variation”). A more ambitious or imaginative lover, he says, would express himself with variety and surprise (“quick change”). The second question implies that, in keeping with the fashion (“the time”), the poet should employ better “methods” and new “compounds.” Besides being destitute of invention, it seems that he lacks a pleasing spirit of adventure. The second quatrain questions the poet’s motives or common sense in writing verses that are “ever the same” and have a familiar appearance (“noted weed”), since it can easily be known who wrote them and where they were sent (“did proceed”). In matters of love, the implication is, discretion is the soul of wit.
Having presented one side of love’s coin in the first eight lines of the sonnet, the poet turns the coin over in the third quatrain, answering the implied charge of triteness and lack of imagination. Actually, he argues, by writing always of one subject, “you and love,” he is being clever; instead of wasting his effort by trying always to invent new words, he devotes his “best” to simply dressing up the old and thereby finding continued use in what has already been used. Expressing his love in verse is in fact like spending money, and words are like coins. His subject, “you and love,” enables him to give familiar words new meaning, to reuse those that have been used before. The benefits of this kind of recycling are too obvious to argue: less effort, less waste, greater efficiency.
Lest his beloved not be convinced by this curious way of looking at his verse, Shakespeare in his final couplet points out that his method is the very principle upon which the sun operates, returning again and again, ever the same yet always new. What better model can a poet have than the sun itself? His verse repeats what has already been written, or spoken, but like the sun, it brings with it a new look, the difference being the poet’s “love.”