Sonnet 38: Be thou the tenth Muse

How can my Muse want subject to invent, While thou dost breathe, that pourest into my verse Thine own sweet argument, too excellent For every vulgar paper to rehearse? O, give thyself the thanks, if aught in me Worthy perusal stand against thy sight; For who's so dumb that cannot write to thee, When thou thyself dost give invention light? Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth Than those old nine which rhymers invocate; And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth Eternal numbers to outlive long date. If my slight Muse do please these curious days, The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.

William Shakespeare

Sonnet 38: Be thou the tenth Muse

February 2013

Sian Phillips reading this sonnet

In its simplest form, there are three persons within a speech act: "I", "thou", and the third one; and you know the role you are playing in this little drama at each particular moment. A lyrical poem, though, gives its reader a choice:

  • you can stay in the passive role of the third person, that is, read it as a message from someone you don't know to someone else you know even less;

  • you can read it as something addressed to you personally, associating yourself with the "thou" of a poem;

  • or, if you know it by heart and can read the verse as though these were your own words, you can temporarily merge yourself with the "I" of the sonnet (and replace, in your mind, the author's original "thou" with someone more directly relevant to you).

My process for this series obviously calls for this last way of reading sonnets, at least at some point (though not exclusively): I have to be in a place from which I can say the words as though my own, taking the part of "I". But with some of them, something unusual happens with the "thou": the part of "thou" suddenly begins to feel as though taken by Shakespeare himself, and my painting readdresses his verse right back at him (with the original "thou" fading into the background).

It first happened with sonnet 26, and now again with this one. How could it not, I wonder, when "thou" of this sonnet is not (just) the source of inspiration, but almost the real author of the poem, the origin of anything worthy in it? Arguably, all this more accurately describes my painting's relationship to Shakespeare than his poem's relationship to his young friend.

For who's so dumb that cannot write to thee,
When thou thyself dost give invention light?

In this case, of course, I've called on a second Muse as well, that of Pablo Picasso, substituting his Demoiselles d'Avignon for five of the ten muses of the sonnet (and suggesting the other five by the negative spaces between them). As an aside, I cannot help but wonder whether Picasso ever imagined being in the same personal Pantheon with Shakespeare...

A more pertinent question, though, is whether it's "proper" to merge muses with whores like this, using the now almost iconic image of "the brothel of Avignon" as a visual anchor for this sonnet painting (however "tamed" and all rosy it became under my brush). But the boundary between the high and the low, between tragedy and farce, between a goddess and a whore – it's not as clear and cozy as some people would prefer it to be. As a matter of fact, it might even be non-existent, a matter of perspective, a subtle change in the point of view; and nobody, I believe, knew it better than Shakespeare did.

He doesn't seem think much of those old nine which rhymers invocate (one must assume, these are the same rhymers that rehearse their stuff on vulgar paper). The classical Muses of antiquity don't appear in the sonnets except in the context of "rival poets", which suggests that it's their invocations that occasionally bring the muses into Shakespeare's sonnets, not his own. And what about his own Muse, mentioned in the first line? Who is she? His inner spirit of inspiration? The friend himself, the tenth Muse? The whole sonnet plays out its drama around the question of whether it's the poet's own inspiration or the quality of his subject matter that makes his verse worthy perusal, and seems to conclude that it's all in the subject, until we come across the slight muse in the couplet and are left to wonder: whom did he just slight? Himself? One of the old nine Muses? His beloved (who is, we must now believe, the Muse)? There is no definitive answer, just as there is no difference between the high and the low; it's this trembling, this vibration of meaning that makes the poem alive.

Consider another bit of the sonnet where the meaning seems to vibrate between the high and the low: thine own sweet argument (discussed at length by Stephen Booth, p. 196). What one would expect from the context of this phrase would be something like thine own sweet self (the topic of the sonnets); the use of word argument seems to take it further, elevating the addressee from the role of "theme" to the role of "author", and his muse: he doesn't simply give the author the subject to write about, but in effect dictates the poem. It as if I, having established that my muse doesn't want subjects to invent while there is Shakespeare, would proceed to say that he pours "his own sweet colour harmony" into my paintings (which might well be true, by the way). Except there is another aspect to the word argument: as noted by Booth, this word also used to have obscene connotations: its French source, l'argument was a slang term for either male or female sex organs, and Shakespeare himself occasionally uses "argument" in the meaning of "vagina". In other words, Shakespeare splits the expected meaning (which is present nonetheless) and pushes it higher up and lower down at the same time, with a single word.

And, of course, in the context this "high vs. low", "eternal vs. vulgar" game, Shakespeare couldn't miss the opportunity to play the two layers, two lexical registers of the English language, its native, vernacular Germanic roots vs. the "higher" influx of vocabulary from French and Latin (the distinction used to be more obvious to the speakers then than it is now). Note, in particular, how the classical goddesses of antiquity are invocated, while the tenth muse, thou of the sonnet, should be called on, two variants of the same verb used almost next to one another. And, in a by now predictable reversal of high and low, invocation must produce something vulgar, while calling on should bring forth something eternal.

To sum up, it is this game of perspective, rather than simply the image of "ten muses", that the painting picks up as its sweet argument: both in stealing Picasso's image of brothel to depict muses and in playing with the positive and negative shapes to transform five whores into ten muses.

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