To learn more about the plot of the sonnets, visit our Guide to Shakespeare's Sonnets.
"But thou art all my art, and dost advance
As high as learning, my rude ignorance...."
See in text (Sonnets 71–80)
Sonnet 78 begins the set of sonnets known as the “Rival Poet” sonnets, which span sonnets 78 to 86. These sonnets deal with the speaker’s jealousy towards an unnamed rival poet who vies for the fair youth’s attention. Here, the rival poet is introduced as an “alien pen” who uses the fair youth as inspiration to “mend [his] style.” The poet exposes his jealousy by claiming hold of the fair youth as his one true muse who heightens his “rude ignorance.”
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See in text (Sonnets 81–90)
By opening Sonnet 87 with an interjection, the speaker readily establishes the main theme of the sonnet: the speaker has relinquished the fair youth to the rival poet. This interjection marks a transition from the “Rival Poet” sequence to the “Fickle Youth” sequence, in which the speaker professes his troubled love for the fair youth, whose mercurial actions and affections bedevil the speaker.
See in text (Sonnets 121–130)
Sonnet 126 marks the end of the fair youth sequence and is often regarded as an envoi—a section at the end of a poem or sequence for closing statements. Many of the themes from the sonnet sequence are brought up in Sonnet 126, including mortality, beauty, the casting of the fair youth as Nature’s beloved, and the fickleness of Time, Death, and Nature. It is also structurally divergent from the rest of the sequence, featuring 12 lines made up of couplets. The absence of the final couplet can be read in various ways. The missing ending may represent a kind of intermission, a ghostly pause between the fair youth and dark lady sequences. It may be that, rather than using the final two lines to end on an optimistic note about how Time can be defeated, the conclusion of Sonnet 126 represents a concession to the reality of Time’s onslaught and a final farewell to the beloved fair youth.
"for I, being pent in thee,
Perforce am thine, and all that is in me...."
See in text (Sonnets 131–140)
Sonnets 40 to 42 and Sonnets 133 and 134 are thought by many to discuss the same situation as Sonnet 133, wherein the fair youth and the dark lady become entangled, leaving the speaker estranged from both of them. Notice that in both sets of poems, the speaker prioritizes the loss of the youth over the loss of the mistress. In order to protect the heart of the youth, the speaker offers to let himself be imprisoned in the “steal bosom” of his mistress so long as he is allowed to “guard” the youth. However, the speaker admits that the mistress controls him completely and that his heart makes a poor guard for the youth, since she owns both him and “all that is in” him.
"For I have sworn deep oaths of thy deep kindness,..."
See in text (Sonnets 141–154)
chThe sonnet’s sestet, the six lines following the volta, trace the speaker’s process of disillusionment with the dark lady. The speaker has placed great faith in the dark lady’s many oaths and promises—“of thy love, thy truth, thy constancy.” The speaker uses the metaphors of vision and perjury to figure the decay of these oaths. The speaker claims to have “enlighten[ed]” the dark lady, making his eyes “swear against the thing they see” and seeing her as better than she really is. In the final couplet, the speaker claims to have committed perjury—testifying against the truth—by having “sworn thee fair.” Thus the dark lady sonnets end: not in resolution and appreciation, but bitterness and disenchantment.