What's he saying?
Why is my verse so barren of new pride, / So far from variation or quick change?"
Why don't I write about new ideas, or change the subject of my poems?
"Why with the time do I not glance aside / To new-found methods, and to compounds strange?"
Why don't I change with the times, using new poetic techniques and devices?
"Why write I still all one, ever the same, / And keep invention in a noted weed,"
Why do I always write about the same thing, in the same style?
"That every word doth almost tell my name, / Showing their birth, and where they did proceed?"
So that it's obvious that I am the author of all my poems?
"O! know sweet love I always write of you, / And you and love are still my argument;"
You should know that you and love are always the subjects of my poems;
"So all my best is dressing old words new, / Spending again what is already spent:"
All my best work involves reiterating the same thoughts in new poems:
"For as the sun is daily new and old, / So is my love still telling what is told."
My love renews itself over and over, like the sun that rises each morning.
Why is he saying it?
Sonnet 76 is the first of the "rival poet" sequence of sonnets, in which the speaker addresses the threat posed by other poets. This sequence runs from Sonnet 76 to 86, interrupted by Sonnets 77 and 81, which are part of the "climacteric" sequence, and deal with the loss of life and love. Sonnet 76 begins the "rival poet" sequence by referring back to the theme of Sonnet 38, that the fair lord is the only thing worth writing about for the poet.
The similarities with Sonnet 38 continue throughout Sonnet 76. Sonnet 38 asks, "How can my Muse want subject to invent, / While thou dost breathe"? meaning that the fair lord provides the poet with endless inspiration. The use of the words "argument," "invention," and "verse" are key words in both sonnets, linking them. "Invention" can mean the creation of thought, and in both sonnets it specifically refers to the poet's writing style. In Sonnet 38, the speaker asks, "For who's so dumb that cannot write to thee, / When thou thy self dost give invention light?"
The metaphor of clothing is carried throughout this sonnet, beginning with the use of the word "pride," which refers to new ornamental clothing. In line 3, the poet asks why he does not change "with the time," or with the current fashion. Though it refers to the style of poetry that is in fashion, there is an obvious link to clothing. The "noted weed" of line 6 is a well-known style of clothing. The idea of "dressing old words new" in line 11 uses the imagery of reviving old clothing to describe the reuse of ideas in poems.
Poets often thought of their work as a child, and that idea is represented in Sonnet 76. In line 1, the speaker asks "Why is my verse so barren of new pride," with the word "barren" connoting the state of a fruitless womb. Line 8 describes the words of his poems as "Showing their birth, and where they did proceed," as if they are his children. The phrase "where they did proceed" refers to their hereditary line which endowed them with their characteristics; in this case, their preoccupation with the fair lord.
There is also a sexual undertone throughout the sonnet, beginning with an alternate interpretation of the word "pride" in line 1; it can refer to an erection, as it does in sonnet 151: But, rising at thy name, doth point out thee / As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride, / He is contented thy poor drudge to be." Line 12, "Spending again what is already spent," has an obvious metaphor of the circulation of money, but it also hints at ejaculation and repeated intercourse.