Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496

The principal metaphor of the sonnet equates words with coins that the poet counts out, or spends, as he writes verse. Line 2 suggests that the poet’s verse is unacceptable as currency, “far fromquick change.” In line seven, “tell” plays on the idea of counting out the poet’s name as if it were coin. The metaphor of spending continues in line 12 and concludes in the last line, where the twin actions of counting out (“telling”) and being spent (“told”) are brought together. Because “telling” also means revealing, the poet conducts a simultaneous argument, that to write verse is to reveal his love to the world, and he ends with a pun on “told,” which conflates these two meanings and conclusively demonstrates the poet’s skill in both writing and “spending,” for he brings his argument to a close at the very point where it and his love are “told”—summed up, counted out, and revealed.

The idea that lovers should not let others know their secret runs through the puns already mentioned, especially the use of “tell,” which suggests revealing a secret and hints at verbal indiscretion. The last line plays on this notion by asserting that the poet’s “love,” represented by this poem, continues to reveal publicly—so long as it is read—the fact of his love and its valued substance, which is already reckoned and revealed (“told”). If his verse is as repetitious as the sun, it is also as visible as the sun.

A third argument is evident from the first line, where “pride” suggests an animal in heat. This idea is continued in the reference to “birth” (line 8) and to spending and being spent (line 12), giving “new and old” (line 13) the additional meaning of generation. From old words come new life, as the old generation procreates the new.

The theme of the old producing the new unifies the various arguments of the poem. As an actor, Shakespeare is challenged to invent new “methods” instead of keeping “invention in a noted weed” that is “ever the same.” His “best,” however, is to dress “old words new.” As a dealer in “coin,” he is perhaps expected to make “quick change,” seek “new-found methods” and “compounds strange” so as to avoid having “every wordtell” his name—that is, reveal its commonplace value. The third quatrain asserts the poet’s superior value, the ability to spend “again what is already spent.” Writing verse confers upon him a power, like the sun’s, of continuously returning, by being read again and again, each time his verse shedding upon the world the brilliant light of his “love.” The old generates new life by simply returning (being read or “told” again). The act of writing verse goes beyond even the procreative act, however, for the old is not replaced by the new; rather, the old and the new unite forever in the poem, which is “still” reckoning and revealing what has already been revealed and reckoned.

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