William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Why is my verse so barren of new pride,
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth and where they did proceed?
O, know, sweet love, I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
For as the sun is daily new and old,
So is my love still telling what is told.

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... Or as I like to call it, the Writer's Sonnet. I started using it as an audition piece back in college shortly after I began jotting down scraps of dialogue that slowly accreted into plays. It became mine in a way that no other monologue or sonnet ever has. It's such a clear and earnest statement of the writer's dilemma leading to such an affirming, albeit recursive, solution. If I ever wind up teaching writing, I'll be half-tempted to insist my students memorize it.

First of all it begins in that dreaded wasteland "barren of new pride" that all writers must soldier through at some point in their career. The Riverside Shakespeare glosses "pride" as "ornament", but anyone who thinks anything of their own writing knows better. Shakespeare means pride exactly as we use the word today. It's pride that gets our little fingers tip-tapping on the keyboard for yet another Everything writeup, and when it no longer feels new, the familiar stench of death descends upon us.

In line 4 the poet, while maintaining a self-effacing tack, already suspiciously seems to be to lining up his ultimate defense. Clearly "New found objects" and "compounds strange" (glossed as literary compositions) have the gentlest cast of aspersion on them.

Some have argued that lines 7 and 8 are evidence for an authorship of the canon other than Shakespeare's. (You know who I'm talking about—that idiotic, elitist Earl of Essex camp. I don't have the time, energy or inclination to sully myself in that debate.) Clearly all these verses are doing in my book is setting up the ball for a spike, because...

A sonnet about literary custom would never break the literary custom of making the 9th line the place where the horse breaks for stable. What could be more openly fatally sweetly romantic than this simplest of blank verses:

O, know sweet love I always write of you

Just the plainspokeness of it makes me think Shakespeare's talking about a love larger and further-reaching than any single "dark lady" or "young man"—the common objects of the sonnets' affections. I believe he's talking about love itself, not just romantic love, but love of humanity, warts and all. This is certainly what shaped his plays.

As for the last five lines, the author's realization that no matter what he pens he'll only always be "dressing old word's new" and "spending again what is already spent", what in the end could be more genuinely but pragmatically affirming? Lately I've been re-reading some of the non-fiction prose of novelist John Gardner, and I stumbled over a passage in which he puts it awfully well:

"Insofar as literature is a telling of new stories, literature has been 'exhausted' for centuries; but insofar as literature tells archetypal stories in an attempt to understand once more their truth—translate their wisdom for another generation—literature will be exhausted only when we all, in our foolish arrogance, abandon it.'

So keep writing. Keep fighting the good fight against the obvious odds. Realize your weaknesses as a writer are mostly shared by the rest of us: triteness, arrogance, pedantry, verbosity, and plain ol' boringness. Transform your dross into gold, and somehow, somewhere along the line, it'll make you more human.

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