In his 32nd Sonnet Shakespeare says that if, after his death, his
friend should chance to "re-survey" his "poor rude lines;" when compared with "the bettering of the time," they may
seem "outstripp'd by every pen." The product of Shakespeare's muse, "exceeded by the height of happier men,"
may be left far behind. But Shakespeare has still one request to make:
"O, then vouchsafe me but this loving thought:
Had my friend's muse grown with this growing age,
A dearer birth than this his love had brought, To march in ranks of better equipage:
But since he died, and poets better prove,
Theirs for their style I'll read, his for his love.'"
Professor Dowden, in commenting on this Sonnet, suggests whether Shakespeare might not have "had a sense of the
progress of poetry in the time of Elizabeth." There is reason, however, to recognise an allusion more special than
Professor Dowden suggests. Moreover, this special allusion not only enables us to account for what Shakespeare says
as to "the bettering of the time;" it is also entirely in accordance with, and confirmatory of, the chronology of the Sonnets already set forth. The metaphor in the line I have italicised is drawn pretty obviously from the march of successive ranks of soldiers in military equipment. There appears, however, some incongruity when this line is compared with that preceding. The "bringing a dearer birth" to march in better equipped ranks can scarcely seem altogether suitable. There is here a remarkable combination of metaphors. But some facts in relation to a work of
Marston's furnish a pretty complete explanation.
In 1598 Marston published anonymously his Metamorphosis of Pigmalion's Image and Certaine Satyres. Marston
seems to have thought that Pigmalion's Image and the Satyres needed a connecting or harmonising link, lest he should seem to change his "hew like a camelion." He, therefore,
interposed some lines said to be "in praise of his Pigmalion," but looking back to some extent to the one poem,
and forward to the others. In this interposed poem Marston speaks of his
Stanzaes like odd bands
Of voluntaries and mercenarians:
Which like soldados of our warlike age, March rich bedight in warlike equipage:
Glittering in daubed lac'd accoustrements,
And pleasing sutes of loues habiliments.
There is no great difficulty in perceiving that we have here
in all probability the source of Shakespeare's line, "To march in ranks of better equipage." The analogy is too
close to be easily explained away. But, it may be said, is it not possible that Marston borrowed from Shakespeare? To this question the answer must be given, that the congruity which, as already observed, is absent in Shakespeare, is clearly seen in Marston. It is entirely suitable that "soldados" or soldiers should "march" richly bedecked
with military accoutrements. It may be maintained, therefore, with confidence, that Marston's poem preceded
Shakespeare's. Then, as to what Shakespeare says of "the bettering of the time," and of his being in the future
"outstripp'd by every pen," it should be observed that, in accordance with the view of Dr. Grosart (vIntroduction to
Marston's Poems, p. xxvi.), the Pigmalion owed its origin to Shakespeare's successful Venus and Adonis.
It need not be for a moment supposed that Shakespeare really thought Marston's poem superior to his own; but it is likely enough that there were those who, for reasons of their own, would give it the preference, and would proclaim the advent of a new poet whose "first bloomes of his poesie" showed that he was destined to surpass Shakespeare and the rest. As Dr. Grosart points out, Marston's book seems to have gained immediate popularity. He adduces as evidence the fact that while the Pigmalion was entered in the Stationers' Register on May 27, 1598, so soon after as September 8, is found the entry of Marston's Scourge of Vilany. Possibly, too, Shakespeare's friend, caught by the general popularity, had been eulogising the new poem as of very high promise. On this view the language of the 32nd
Sonnet presents no difficulty, while the agreement with the chronology supported by other evidence is complete.
According to this chronology, Sonnet 32 would be written in 1598, probably during the summer, when Marston's poem
was at the full height of its popularity.
How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. Sonnets. Ed. Thomas Tyler. London: D. Nutt, 1890. Shakespeare Online. 14 Jan. 2014. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sonnets/32supp.html >.
Thoughts on the Sonnets... "In literary value Shakespeare's sonnets are notably unequal. Many reach levels of lyric melody and meditative energy that are hardly to be matched elsewhere in poetry. The best examples are charged with the mellowed sweetness of rhythm and metre, the depth of thought and feeling, the vividness of imagery and the stimulating fervour of expression which are the finest proofs of poetic power. On the other hand, many sink almost into inanity beneath the burden of quibbles and conceits. In both their excellences and their defects Shakespeare's sonnets betray near kinship to his early dramatic work, in which passages of the highest poetic temper at times alternate with unimpressive displays of verbal jugglery." (Sir Sidney Lee. A Life of William Shakespeare, p. 87)