Who is it that says most, which can say more,
Than this rich praise, that you alone, are you,
In whose confine immured is the store
Which should example where your equal grew?
Lean penury within that pen doth dwell
That to his subject lends not some small glory;
But he that writes of you, if he can tell
That you are you, so dignifies his story.
Let him but copy what in you is writ,
Not making worse what nature made so clear,
And such a counterpart shall fame his wit,
Making his style admired every where.
You to your beauteous blessings add a curse,
Being fond on praise, which makes your praises worse.
Although a continuation of the rival poet(s)' sequence this sonnet introduces new material by investigating the reality of all comparisons. The youth is beyond compare, as attested in 18, and any praise of him is merely a repetition of what he is (38 & 39), and the miracle of his perfection foreshadows all attempts past and future to provide an exemplar who could match him (53 & 59). To a certain extent therefore the poem is a re-hashing of old ideas, but here the implication is, more or less, that all language is useless, for what after all is the point of asserting time and again that 'you are you', and how could language itself, something entirely isolated and separate from the youth's existence, do anything but provide an empty shell as an example of the thing itself? The conclusion therefore is that all poetry in this context is worthless, especially that of the rival poet(s), who flatter to deceive. But the youth himself is (deliberately it seems) brought in to undermine the conclusion - perhaps he is not the perfect exemplar described in the first four lines, for he has a sickly interest in this false praise that is heaped on him, and this flaw in his character only makes the situation worse, for the more he welcomes it, the more of it is generated and thrown upon him.
The meanings of some of the lines, especially 1-4, have always proved especially difficult to ascertain, and have taxed the minds of the best commentators in the past. I provide some alternative interpretations below, but do not claim to have any magic key to unlock their true meaning. The best that can be done is to try to retain in suspension in one's mind some of the most likely readings, and to proceed from there.
The 1609 Quarto Version
WHo is it that ſayes moſt,which can ſay more,
Then this rich praiſe,that you alone,are you,
In whoſe confine immured if the ſtore,
Which ſhould example where your equall grew,
Leane penurie within that Pen doth dwell,
That to his ſubiect lends not ſome ſmall glory,
But he that writes of you,if he can tell,
That you are you,ſo dignifies his ſtory.
Let him but coppy what in you is writ,
Not making worſe what nature made ſo cleere.
And ſuch a counter-part ſhall fame his wit,
Making his ſtile admired euery where.
You to your beautious bleſſings adde a curſe,
Being fond on praiſe,which makes your praiſes worſe.