Sonnet 85: My Tongue-Tied Muse In Manners Holds Her Still

My tongue-tied Muse in manners holds her still,
While comments of your praise, richly compiled,
Reserve their character with golden quill,
And precious phrase by all the Muses filed.
I think good thoughts, whilst other write good words,
And like unlettered clerk still cry "Amen"
To every hymn that able spirit affords
In polished form of well-refinèd pen.
Hearing you praised, I say "'Tis so, 'tis true,"
And to the most of praise add something more;
But that is in my thought, whose love to you,
Though words come hindmost, holds his rank before.
Then others for the breath of words respect,
Me for my dumb thoughts, speaking in effect.

by William Shakespeare

Comments (3) This is another of the sonnets which undermines itself simply by existing. To say that 'I can say nothing' is itself to say something, and the disingenuous modesty which claims only to think good thoughts while at the same time offering, in poetic form, an offended criticism of others' poetic efforts of praise, clearly sets a higher value on his own expressions of love than the bare words of the poem admit to. There is therefore an undercurrent of thought which flows in a direction contrary to that of the main stream, for whereas the superficial meaning of the words claims that the work of other poets dedicated to the youth is golden, polished, refined and inspired, the underlying message is that it is empty breath, a hollow mockery of finical tracery and no substance. The only real eloquence, the poet seems to say, is that of the love in my breast, and the repetitive words of this poem, saying 'Amen Amen! ' to every word of praise that is ever uttered on your behalf, are more eloquent than more than all the words the other able spirits can ever produce. ...
.......... 1. My tongue-tied Muse in manners holds her still, in manners = from politeness and self restraint; holds her still = keeps herself silent, remains silent. However, since still in its adverbial use had the meaning 'always' or 'nevertheless' the line could also mean 'My tongue tied Muse continues to behave in the same manner as previously (by remaining silent as before) '. The Muses in classical antiquity were nine maiden goddesses, each overseeing one branch of poetic composition. 2. While comments of your praise richly compiled, comments of your praise = treatises praising you. A comment was an expository treatise or commentary (OED 1) . The reference here is however to poems in praise of the youth. richly compiled = put together with great learning and stylistic skill and flourishes. 3. Reserve thy character with golden quill, Reserve thy character - I have adopted the emendation of thy for their, a common error in Q. Reserve = preserve, as in 32: Reserve them for my love, not for their rhyme, (i.e. my verses) . character = appearance, characteristics. As in I will believe thou hast a mind that suits With this thy fair and outward character TN.I.2.50-1. However, character also means 'written letters of the alphabet' and is used with that meaning in 59: Show me your image in some antique book, Since mind at first in character was done. So that the whole could mean 'Commentaries praising you preserve you richly in writing'. golden quill - a quill pen, golden in the sense that it enriches what it describes. Possibly suggestive of an effete and over elaborate composition. 4. And precious phrase by all the Muses filed. precious phrase = rich phrases and sentences. phrase is here a generic term relating to any or all of the words put together by the rival poet(s) . by all the Muses filed = polished, smoothed and finished by all of the nine Muses. The drift of these four lines is to concede that richly compiled poems praising the youth are at least as precious to the youth as the rich praise of 'you alone are you'. But there is clearly an element of hyperbole which seeks to undermine the validity of these rival attempts. Since it is all so precious, refined, smoothed, gilded and inspired it is probably too good to be true. The following lines continue to sow the seeds of doubt, for they imply that the polished words are not the heralds of good thoughts, but only the breath of words. Only those whose thoughts give the lead to what they say should be respected, and that seems to be the abiding message of this poem. 5. I think good thoughts, whilst others write good words, others - 'other' of Q is a standard plural form. This appears to confirm that there is more than one rival poet attempting to secure the affections and patronage of the young man. 6. And like unlettered clerk still cry 'Amen' unlettered clerk - a low ranking cleric who cannot read or write. Education was limited to the upper classes and to the wealthy. There must have been many lay assistants in churches in country districts who could not read, but who would know the responses to prayers by heart. In Elizabeth's early days, as Shakespeare was growing up, it was difficult to find enough educated clergy for the many country parishes, and unlettered clerks probably filled the vacancies. still = always, continually. Amen - the traditional conclusion to a prayer, usually taken to mean 'Let it be so! '. A similar thought to that of this line is found in 'The Great Frost. Cold doings in London, except it be at the Lottery', (published 1608) where the countryman thanks the citizen of London in the following terms: I gladly and from my heart play the clerk, crying Amen. I have been bold and troublesome to you, Sir. Reproduced in 'The English Garner, Vol I,1877, p.93.' The work, which is a description of the great frost of 1608, is thought possibly to have been written by Thomas Dekker. 7. To every hymn that able spirit affords, hymn - paean of praise. that able spirit affords - that any gifted and inspired person provides; that that particular inspired poet provides. This line is thought probably to refer to George Chapman, one of the chief contenders for the title of rival poet. He published in 1596 The Shadow of Night - Containing Two Poeticall Hymnes. See also 86.5-12. 8. In polished form of well-refined pen. A reinforcement of the description of the output of the golden quill and precious phrases filed by the Muses in the lines above. 9. Hearing you praised, I say ''tis so, 'tis true, ' 'tis so, 'tis true - An Anglicisation of the Hebrew or Aramaic 'Amen, Amen'. Perhaps here a biblical echo is intended of something like 'Amen, Amen I say unto you. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away'.
... 10. And to the most of praise add something more; the most of praise = the best, the most superlative praise. 11. But that is in my thought, whose love to you, But that - but that which I add (the something more of the previous line) . 12. Though words come hindmost, holds his rank before. come hindmost = follow behind; holds his rank before = i.e. my thought (of love for you) precedes any words, as being of higher rank. The phrase could also hint at 'holds on to his former rank, i.e. his former prime position in your love'. The metaphor conjures up the image of a procession in which the social rank of the participants dictates their position, those of higher rank being at the front. 13. Then others, for the breath of words respect, the breath of words - i.e. the sound of the spoken words, rather than their meaning. An attempt to belittle the effect of words composed by the rival poets. But in 81 he told a different story: You still shall live- such virtue hath my pen- Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.81. The implication is that the rival poet's verses are empty because the heart does not speak in them. Compare Lear, when Kent criticises false and hypocritical speech in others and praises Cordelia for her plainess: Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound Reverbs no hollowness. KL.I.1.151-2. 14. Me for my dumb thoughts, speaking in effect. in effect = in reality; in the effect they have, or should have, on you. The suggestion is that his dumb thoughts are of more value and more effectual than all the empty words of the rival's verses.