Sonnet 103



Alack! what poverty my Muse brings forth,

So begins Shakespeare’s sonnet number 103 (I started rereading the sonnets recently because, well because it’s Shakespeare, damn it all, and what other reason would anyone need?).

It’s a sentiment I well know. The impoverished Muse thing, I mean. There are three dozen pieces in draft mode I’ve started here, then hesitated, and left incomplete. Unable to pull the threads together into a coherent tableaux because my muse is busy somewhere else. I have numerous unfinished stories, novels and even two books in progress on my hard drive. And a basement full of hardcopy of older efforts. Novels, even – several, in fact. Awful stuff, really.

I should delete them all, except that they remind me that writing is not just talent: it’s work. And maybe one day my Muse will return and kickstart me to finish them, not simply relegate them to the “chronicle of wasted time” (Sonnet 106).

True, some of it is trash: mad ramblings, naive, amateurish, even puerile. I can’t spout high literature or tell sad tales about the death of kings. For every piece of deep cogitation – be it feigned or heartfelt – there is a piece wading in the shallows of triviality. Sonnet 110:

Alas, ’tis true I have gone here and there
And made myself a motley to the view,

It’s odd: some days I could spend the whole day writing, hardly ever leaving my chair. Some days I could pen a dozen pieces on as many topics without losing vigour, darting back and forth between them without losing a single thread. Some days the words just fall into place and every one is like a brick in a well-built home. I love those days, love crafting posts with a sense of coherency and logic, writing stories and essays with consummate ease.

And other days it’s crap. Nothing works. Words collide. Thoughts clatter about like shopping carts pushed through a Wal-Mart by anxious shoppers hunting for the bargains. That’s frustrating. Annoying. Writing consumes me. Where Descartes said “I think, therefore I am,” I would have to put it as Scribo, ergo sum: “I write, therefore I am.”

You ever get that moment – those hours, those days – when you’re speaking or writing and it all seemed to flow in your head before you started to let it out, but when you do, the words just trip all over themselves and make no sense? Or when common, everyday words you’ve used since you learned to speak forget themselves and you can’t remember them (until a few moments later, of course, after the need for them has passed…)

Some days I can type blindfolded. My fingers glide across the keys and never hit a wrong one. It’s like automatic writing, but without the clammy supernatural agency. Other days it’s like typing with mittens on. Or snowmobile gloves. Hardly a word gets punched in correctly and I spend more time pushing backspace than hitting the proper keys.

That having such a scope to show her pride,
The argument all bare is of more worth
Than when it hath my added praise beside!
O! blame me not, if I no more can write!

Shakespeare, of course, was not a blogger (conversely, few bloggers could be called Shakespeares, at least none locally) . He didn’t write about himself as Michel de Montaigne did. He wasn’t commenting on his inability to complete an “essay” as Montaigne labelled his musings or pen any lengthy works of philosophy or theology.

In Sonnet 103, he was actually decrying his poor poetic skills that left him unable to do justice to his lover. He felt inadequate to capture her beauty in mere words.

Yeah, I know. Shakespeare apologizing for his lack of talent.

Instead, he tells her to look at herself in the mirror and see the face that dulls his wit and his ability. To even attempt to do her homage with his mediocre talent would be a sin.

Look in your glass, and there appears a face
That over-goes my blunt invention quite,
Dulling my lines, and doing me disgrace.
Were it not sinful then, striving to mend,
To mar the subject that before was well?
For to no other pass my verses tend
Than of your graces and your gifts to tell;
And more, much more, than in my verse can sit,
Your own glass shows you when you look in it.

Writers often feel this, not simply lovestruck poets. Sometimes the topic cannot be done justice: It simply rises above our ability. Or sometimes the words flow out in a jumble, a cacophony rather than a stream. The Muse sometimes just isn’t in harmony with us that day. She’s singing an aria and I’m humming a pop tune.

For me, the mirror isn’t a looking glass: it’s someone else’s writing that I turn to when I need inspiration. I don’t need to look to my own efforts; instead I pick up another author – almost any will do – and read, letting their words succour me. Letting the waves of their prose and poetry carry me away, washed in the ocean of their talent. And hope that, in basking in their light, I can come back to my own humble efforts with a renewed sense of purpose.

Montaigne, of late, has been inspirational. Cicero too. I dipped my toe in Plato recently, but the Jowett translation is a bit fustian and I need a newer edition with colloquial speech. Sometimes it helps to go back to Shakespeare and Chaucer, like hitting the reset button on some electronic device. Sometimes it’s better to pick up some paperback scifi or detective story and lose myself in it.

And sometimes I just need to put the keyboard away, open a bottle of wine and sit down on the front porch and watch the world go by. My Muse will eventually find me. And if not today, well there’s always tomorrow. As Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 100:

Where art thou, Muse, that thou forget’st so long
To speak of that which gives thee all thy might?

And in Henry V:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,

Muse gets 17 mentions in the sonnets, by the way: Sonnets 21, 32, three times in 38, 78, 79, 82, twice in 85, thrice in 100, thrice in 101 and the last one in 103.