Poetry Series IX: “Curious” in Sonnet 38

I took last week off because it was Christmas!!!!! and today is January 1st so i should be posting some new year goals, but stay tuned for that on Friday!! now we’re back to the poetry series, week 9!! I’ve really been enjoying posting the stuff I’ve worked on, and also it’s keeping my blog more active which I love, especially because everything i’m posting is very interesting to me and hopefully to you too!

i’m once again doing a close analysis of a single word in a poem, in this case, “curious” in Shakespeare sonnet 38.

Sonnet 38

How can my muse want subject to invent,
While thou dost breathe, that pour’st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
For every vulgar paper to rehearse?
O! give thy self the thanks, if aught in me
Worthy perusal stand against thy sight;
For who’s so dumb that cannot write to thee,
When thou thy self 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.

Definition

In as early as 1340, the word curious was introduced into our vernacular with much the same definition as it is used today, that is, “inquisitive” (OED 5a). However, despite that being a possible definition, it was more common to see this word used in the sense of “careful; studious, attentive” (OED 1a) for the next 400 years. It is interesting because these two definitions evolved simultaneously, with curious at once demonstrating a high “standard of excellence” of a detail oriented individual, and a person who was “eager to learn” (OED 2 / OED 5a). It seems as though at the dawn of this word, curious had extremely positive connotations, illustrating an “ingenious” individual who was perhaps very “skilled as a connoisseur” (OED 4 / OED 5). That makes it exceptionally interesting that it eventually evolved to its current definition, which can mean “surprising, strange, singular” (OED 16a). However, this was not first used until the 1700s, despite it being more well known than many earlier definitions are today.

Analysis

In the couplet of sonnet 38, Shakespeare states, “If my slight muse do please these curious days // The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise”. In the literal sense of this line, Shakespeare is using his muse (the person he is speaking to) in order to write poetry good enough to please other people in these “curious days”. Using the most common definition of the late 1500s, OED 1a, this means that he is trying to please a group of people who read poetry very carefully and studiously. In this sense, it feels as though he is writing very perfect poetry, that will be pleasing even to those who have a high “standard of excellence” (OED 2). On the one hand, this is exactly what he is trying to say about how his muse will inspire him– to write perfect poetry. However, other definitions of this word give added meaning to the couplet. Definition 5a, which was also used at this time, was “desirous of knowing what one has no right to know… prying” (OED 5a). When taken in this sense, Shakespeare is saying that people are trying to understand what they have no place in understanding. The love between himself and the muse is private, but in these “curious days”, other people are trying to interfere, and his poetry will show them this love even though they should not be trying to understand it. Because curious can also mean “anxious, concerned” (OED 1b), all of the definitions together give the sense that a group of people are studying the poem carefully because they are concerned about what they don’t understand. Had only one of these definitions been known, it would have given a very incomplete picture of Shakespeare’s true intentions with this sonnet.

let's talk

How do you think “curious” impacted the meaning of this sonnet? has this given you a new perspective on the sonnet? on shakespeare?

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