Shakespeare's Sonnets (1923) Yale/Notes

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1. onlie begetter. Some scholars, notably Lee, argue that 'begetter' here means 'obtainer,' 'procurer'; hence the publisher T. T. is thanking W. H. for finding and delivering to him the MSS. of this sonnet collection. Lee goes further and identifies W. H. as William Hall, a stationer of the period. Mrs. Stopes, practically following Lee's interpretation of 'begetter,' identifies W. H. as William Harvey, the stepfather of the third Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's friend. The natural rendering of this phrase which recalls the 'only begotten' of the Creed, is 'the one, the only, inspirer.'

3. W. H. These initials raise a controversy which many volumes have not yet settled. If we reject Lee's interpretation and believe that a nobleman must be the inspirer of the sonnets praising a youth, the two best candidates are William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke, and Henry Wriothesley (pronounced 'Rizley'), third Earl of Southampton. Of the two, Southampton seems the better claimant, though Herbert's liaison with Mary Fitton and her subsequent career has led many (especially dramatists) to consider her the heroine of the last group of sonnets. But Herbert came to court as late as 1598 and the sonnets, as a whole, seem to have been written before that year. Southampton is the only patron Shakespeare publicly acknowledged, and the dedication of Venus and Adonis, 1593, and The Rape of Lucrece, 1594, show that the poet regarded him with gratitude and affection. If, as seems more probable, W. H. was not a great nobleman, other names have been suggested: William Hall, William Harvey (vide supra), William Hughes, William Hammond, William Hathaway. It is perfectly evident that Shakespeare must have had many friends whose very names, to say nothing of initials, Time has effaced. All that can be said with certainty of the hero of these sonnets is that he was a youth of better birth and fortune than Shakespeare and that his encouragement and friendship, at a certain period in the poet's career, won Shakespeare's praise and devotion. In his gratitude, Shakespeare, as he said, built in these sonnets an enduring monument; unfortunately for us T. T. wrote its inscription. The best short account of this whole controversy is found in Alden's variorum edition of the sonnets, pp. 464–471, prepared by Frank E. Hill.

13. T. T. Thomas Thorpe. Lee describes him as a stationer's assistant, 'holding his own with difficulty for some thirty years in the lowest ranks of the London publishing trade. He merely traded in the "copy" which he procured how he could.' See also R. B. McKerrow, Dictionary of Printers and Booksellers, p. 265 f.


1. These first seventeen sonnets are addressed to a beautiful youth whose identity is still a subject of conjecture. They urge him by flattery, expostulation, and argument to marry and perpetuate his beauty in a child.

1. 6. Feed'st thy light's flame with self-substantial fuel. Like a candle, you feed your flame by burning your own substance; or, you feed your eyes (light's flame) on the sight of yourself—you see only yourself.

1. 11. content. In this line, this word may also mean 'your whole being.'

1. 13, 14. Pity the world, or else this glutton be, To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee. This may be paraphrased: Pity the world (by perpetuating your beauty in your children) or glutton-like, you eat your beauty, due the world, by allowing it to perish in the grave and by your failure to beget children.

5. 9, 10. A reference to perfumes extracted from flowers. Compare the close of sonnet 54.

7. 9–12. But when from highmost pitch, with weary car, Like feeble age, he reeleth from the day, The eyes, 'fore duteous, now converted are From his low tract, and look another way. Cf. 'All this blanked not Pompey, who told him frankly againe, how men did honour the rising, not the setting of the sunne; meaning thereby, how his owne honor encreased, and Scyllaes diminished.' Life of Pompey in Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans englished by Sir Thomas North (1579).

8. 14. 'Thou single wilt prove none.' 'Perhaps an allusion to the proverbial expression that one is no number.' Dowden. Compare sonnet 136, line 8.

11. 11. Look, whom she best endow'd she gave the more. See, to you whom Nature best endowed she gives an added gift.

13. 1. O that you were yourself. O that you were yourself forever.

14. 12. If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert. If you would turn from living for yourself alone and would beget children.

15. 4. secret influence. Astrology taught that there emanated from the stars a power or force (secret influence) which determined the characters and the fortunes of men and states.

16. 10. Which this Time's pencil, or my pupil pen. Beeching gives the following paraphrase: 'Neither portraiture ("this Time's pencil," cf. line 8) nor description ("my pupil pen," cf. line 4) can represent you as you are, either in character or beauty.'

18. Sonnets 18–25 form a single series, praising the youth's beauty and declaring the poet's affection for him.

19. 10. antique pen. This word, pronounced 'antic,' may mean in this sonnet not merely 'old' (cf. sonnet 106. 7) but also 'a pen that plays pranks, that draws grotesque lines.'

20. This sonnet has hardly the tone in which Shakespeare, the actor, could address a nobleman of high rank.

20. 7. A man in hue all hues in his controlling. This line is a source of perpetual debate. The Quarto prints 'all Hews,' and some editors have seen here a pun on the name Hughes, even suggesting that this proves 'W. H.' to have been William Hughes. Other editors change the reading 'A man in hue' to 'A native hue' or 'A maiden hue.' Shakespeare has just said that his friend has a woman's gentle heart, an eye that is brighter than a woman's, and in this line, going a step further, he gives to him a man's complexion of such beauty that it overpowers or surpasses the handsome coloring of all others.

24. 4. perspective. An optical instrument for viewing objects, a magnifying glass. Notice the pun in the next line, 'through the painter.' Shakespeare is also alluding to the more familiar meaning of perspective. The N. E. D. cites Haydocke, 1598, 'A painter without the perspective was like a doctor without grammar.'

26. By some editors, this sonnet is regarded as an envoi to the preceding twenty-five sonnets. 'This written ambassage' (line 3) may refer to that series; but it may equally well refer to this sonnet only.

34. 13, 14. Ah! but those tears are pearl which thy love sheds, And they are rich and ransom all ill deeds. Cf. Antony and Cleopatra, III. ix. 69–71.

Fall not a tear, I say; one of them rates
All that is won and lost. Give me a kiss;
Even this repays me.

This and the following sonnet may refer to the incident described in sonnets 40–42.

35. 8. Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are. Not only the meaning of this line but the correctness of the text itself is a debated question. Q. reads 'their' for 'thy' in both instances; Bullen reads: 'Excusing their sins more than thy sins are.' The present reading is the one most generally adopted. This line and the preceding one may be paraphrased: I am corrupting myself in condoning your fault, for I am so anxious to exculpate you that I offer for you excuses out of all proportion to your sins.

35. 9. sense. Not 'reason' but rather 'the senses, the feelings.' The poet's own feelings urge him to excuse the guilt of his friend.

36. 13, 14. But do not so; I love thee in such sort As thou being mine, mine is thy good report. But do not dishonor yourself (by showing me kindness in the eyes of the world), for my love has so completely taken possession of you that your good name, your honor, belongs to me. (Note that this same couplet occurs at the close of sonnet 96.)

37. 5–7. Apparently the youth Shakespeare praises is better born, richer, and handsomer than the poet; yet these lines do not prove him to be one of the nobility.

39. 13, 14. And that thou teachest how to make one twain, By praising him here who doth hence remain. This may be paraphrased: And because, Absence, you teach me to make of one person two—my friend is away from me and yet I may call him before my memory and seem while praising him to enjoy his presence.

40. There is nothing to prove that the woman of sonnets 40–42 is the 'dark' woman of sonnets 127 ff.

40. 8. By wilful taste of what thyself refusest. Dowden paraphrases this: 'By an unlawful union while you refuse loyal wedlock'; Beeching conjectures: 'By taking in wilfulness my mistress whom yet you do not love.'

44. 14. badges of either's woe. The poet's heavy tears are the signs of woe of the two elements in his body, earth and water. In the first line of the next sonnet, Shakespeare alludes to the two remaining elements, fire and air. According to the belief of Shakespeare's day, man was composed of these four elements.

51. 11. Shall neigh—no dull flesh—in his fiery race. It is possible that the text of this obscure line is corrupt. As it stands, the thought may be expressed as follows: (Desire), no dull, plodding beast, shall neigh like a spirited horse as it rushes on its fiery race to you.

58. 6. The imprison'd absence of your liberty. Beeching paraphrases this: 'suffer your absence, which, though it represent liberty to you, means imprisonment to me.'

60. 4. In sequent toil all forwards do contend. Toiling and following each other all (the waves) strive onward.

62. 10. This line and the opening lines of the following sonnet give no definite information whatever concerning Shakespeare's age when he wrote these poems. It was a common convention of both English and Continental sonneteers to contrast their wrinkled faces and advanced years with the lovely youth of the person they were praising.

67. 7, 8. Why should poor beauty indirectly seek Roses of shadow. In this line 'indirectly' means 'dishonestly.' Shakespeare is inveighing against the fashionable practice of rouging or painting the face. This protest was a common one; it was expressed in many moods, including Hamlet's passionate outburst (Hamlet III. i. 150 ff.).

68. 3. Here the poet attacks the fashionable practice of wearing wigs. According to Stow, the custom of wearing them began in England in 1572.

69. 14. soil. The N. E. D. explains the word in this line as 'The solution of the problem.'

70. If this sonnet is addressed to the youth of sonnets 34–35, 40–42, it is plainly out of place, for here the youth's life is pronounced blameless.

71. 2, 3. This alludes to the custom of tolling the church bell when a member of the parish died, one stroke for each year of the deceased.

73. 12. Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by. The wood which fed the fire is now turned to ashes and extinguishes the flame.

77. Apparently this sonnet was either written in a blank book sent to the unknown friend, or else it accompanied such a gift. It is out of place between sonnets 76 and 78 which discuss Shakespeare's own writings.

77. 4. And of this book this learning mayst thou taste. Dowden makes the following comment: 'Beauty, Time, and Verse formed the theme of many of Shakespeare's sonnets; now that he will write no more, he commends his friend to his glass, where he may discover the truth about his beauty; to the dial, where he may learn the progress of time; and to this book, which he himself—not Shakespeare—must fill.'

77. 11, 12. Those children nurs'd, deliver'd from thy brain, To take a new acquaintance of thy mind. The meaning of these lines may be expressed: Your thoughts, written in the pages ('waste blanks') of this book, will seem new when you reread them, as children, sent out to nurse, are grown and changed when brought back to their parents.

77. 13. These offices. The habitual use, in the manner suggested by the poet, of the dial and mirror.

78. This begins a series of nine sonnets in which Shakespeare laments that his friend has turned from Shakespeare's verses to the poetry of a 'better spirit.' Cf. the next note.

80. 2. Knowing a better spirit doth use your name. No one has yet established the identity of this 'better spirit' who supplanted Shakespeare in the esteem of his friend and to whom in this sonnet and in the ones immediately following, Shakespeare acknowledges himself far inferior. Attempts have been made to show that the rival poet was Barnes, Chapman, Daniel, Drayton, Jonson, Marston; yet nothing has been proved.

83. 14. Than both your poets can in praise devise. That one of these poets must be Shakespeare is quite evident.

84. 3, 4. In whose confine immured is the store Which should example where your equal grew? You, in whom is stored up the whole sum of your unexampled beauty.

84. 14. Being fond on praise, which makes your praises worse. Being fond of receiving praise which, as it never does you justice, really detracts from you (makes your praises worse).

85. 3. Reserve their character with golden quill. This may be paraphrased: (The comments of your praise, l. 2) are written down in a form that will endure (reserve their character), in a beautiful style (with golden quill).

85. 7. able spirit. Another reference to the rival poet whose 'hymns' have proved as elusive as his name.

85. 12. Though words come hindmost, holds his rank before. This, and the preceding line, may be expressed as follows: Though my words are not equal to your praises sung by another, the loving praise in my mind outranks the tributes of everyone.

87. 3. The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing. You do not belong to me because your fine qualities give you the privilege of leaving me.

90. 6. Come in the rearward of a conquer'd woe. Attack me after I have defeated one misfortune.

94. It is interesting to compare this sonnet on self-control with Hamlet's famous praise of the man who is not passion's slave (Hamlet III. ii. 59–79).

94. 9–12. Wyndham paraphrases these lines: 'These self-contained persons may seem to lack generosity; but then, without making voluntary gifts, they give inevitably, even as the summer's flower is sweet to the summer, though it live and die only to itself. Yet let such one beware of corruption.'

94. 14. This line occurs in the anonymous play of Edward III (published in 1596), II. i. 51. Though the opinion is not unanimous, many Shakespearean scholars believe the sonnet antedates the play, to which Shakespeare has sometimes been thought to have contributed certain scenes.

96. 13, 14. This couplet concludes sonnet 36 where, as many critics observe, it is more in keeping with the general idea of the poem.

99. 7. buds of marjoram. The reference may be either to the color of the buds—reddish brown—or to their fragrance.

107. 1–4. The first four lines of this sonnet may be paraphrased: Neither my own fears, nor the divining soul of the world dreaming of the future to which the present shall give way, can overpower the duration of my love, mistakenly supposed to be subject to the fate that limits all things.

107. 5. mortal moon. Many scholars find in this sonnet definite allusions to contemporary events. Lee and others believe it celebrates the release of Southampton from prison, 1603. He was set free after the death of Elizabeth, whom contemporary poets celebrated as the moon goddess. ('The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured.') The motto of James I, who released Southampton, was 'Blessed are the peacemakers' (cf. l. 8). To others, the sonnet celebrates the defeat of the Armada, or the reconciliation of Elizabeth with Essex. It is equally possible to read this sonnet as merely one more in the series in which Shakespeare proclaims his devotion to be superior to fate and death.

108. 13, 14. Finding the first conceit of love there bred, Where time and outward form would show it dead. Finding the first love still inspired in a face whose appearance of age would make it unlovely to others.

110. 1, 2. These lines refer, probably, though not necessarily, to Shakespeare's career as an actor. They lament, as do the following two sonnets, the associations forced upon him by poverty.

112. 7, 8. None else to me, nor I to none alive, That my steel'd sense or changes right or wrong. So far as I am concerned, no one but you (and I live for you alone) can influence my callous feeling to right or wrong.

112. 10, 11. that my adder's sense To critic and to flatterer stopped are. This may be a reminiscence of Psalm 58. 4, 5: 'Even like the deaf adder, that stoppeth her ears; Which refuseth to hear the voice of the charmer, charm he never so wisely.'

113. 14. My most true mind thus maketh mine untrue. Malone explains this line: 'The sincerity of my affection is the cause of my untruth; i.e., of not seeing objects truly, such as they appear to the rest of mankind.'

114. 13, 14. In line 12, the eye has been compared to the taster for king Mind. If the eye gives him a poisoned cup, it is not such a great sin because the eye drinks the poison first.

119. 7. How have mine eyes out of their spheres been fitted. 'How have mine eyes started from their hollows in the fever fits of my disease.' Dowden.

120. 9, 10. O, that our night of woe might have remember'd My deepest sense, how hard true sorrow hits. O, that the memory of our night of suffering might have recalled (remember'd) to my inmost soul how hard a blow true sorrow strikes.

121. 3, 4. And the just pleasure lost, which is so deem'd Not by our feeling, but by others' seeing. 'And the legitimate pleasure lost, which is deemed vile, not by us who experience it, but by others who look on and condemn.' Dowden. 'And the lawful pleasure lost, which is judged vile from the point of view of others and not from any sense of shame on our part.' Wyndham.

122. In this sonnet Shakespeare explains why he gave away a blank book, a present from his friend. Compare sonnet 77.

122. 10. Nor need I tallies thy dear love to score. This line alludes to the old custom of recording by cutting notches (scores) on a stick (tally).

123. 7, 8. And rather make them born to our desire Than think that we before have heard them told. 'We regard the wonderful works of to-day as the offspring of our own will, and forget that past ages produced the very same.' Beeching.

124. 4. Weeds among weeds, or flowers with flowers gather'd. Time might weed it out with hate or gather it lovingly as a flower.

124. 13, 14. To this I witness call the fools of time, Which die for goodness, who have liv'd for crime. Scholars are not agreed as to the meaning of this obscure couplet. 'The fools of time' may be Essex and his followers; the Jesuits, condemned for plotting against the Crown; or any traitors who die piously.

125. 13, 14. Hence, thou suborn'd informer! a true soul When most impeach'd stands least in thy control. In this sonnet Shakespeare has asserted that he regards not outward appearance but the heart. Probably there is no personal reference in 'suborn'd informer'; it means any false idea or detraction of the poet's devotion.

126. The Quarto indicates by brackets that two lines are missing after the final couplet, yet this twelve-line poem, written not in sonnet form but in couplets, is complete as it stands. It serves to mark the conclusion of the sonnets addressed to the friend.

127. The dark woman of the following sonnets is as much a mystery as ever, despite the many pages that editors, critics, and playwrights have devoted to her. Some scholars and dramatists assume her to be a maid of honor of Queen Elizabeth, Mary Fitton, at one time the mistress of William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. She was evidently attractive, for she was married twice after the Pembroke affair. With the praise of dark beauty in this sonnet compare Love's Labour's Lost IV. iii. 247–265.

127. 1. In the old age black was not counted fair. 'Black' in this sonnet and in the following ones, means 'dark complexioned,' 'brunette'; while 'fair' means both 'light complexioned' and 'beautiful.'

128. 5. jacks. 'In the virginal, an upright piece of wood fixed to the key-lever and fitted with a quill which plucked the string as the jack rose when the key was pressed down. Here used as "key."' Onions.

129. 1–3. The expense of spirit in a waste of shame Is lust in action; and till action, lust Is perjur'd. Lust when put into action spends the spirit in a shameful waste; and until it acts, Lust is perjur'd.

135. In this and in the following sonnet, Shakespeare writes a series of puns on the word 'will,' using it as a proper name, as 'wish,' and as 'lust.' Used as a proper name, 'Will in over-plus; More than enough am I' (ll. 2, 3), refers to Shakespeare; 'Will to boot,' (l. 2) refers to another man, possibly to the friend of sonnet 133, l. 2.

138. In The Passionate Pilgrim, 1599, this sonnet was printed with variations from the present text in eight of its lines. In general, the present version seems the better one and probably represents Shakespeare's revision of the poem published ten years before the collected sonnets appeared.

141. 9. five wits. Common sense, imagination, fancy, estimation, memory.

144. This sonnet appeared in The Passionate Pilgrim, 1599, with some unimportant changes in text. (Cf. note on sonnet 138.) Drayton's sonnet, 'An evil spirit, your beauty, haunts me still,' published also in 1599, has certain resemblances to this sonnet. That Drayton took a hint from Shakespeare seems more probable than that Shakespeare was indebted to Drayton.

145. This sonnet seems out of place in this series on the 'female evil.' It is written in octosyllabics; and it depicts a woman quite different from that mistress, 'black in deeds,' whose baneful influence upon the poet has been described in the preceding sonnets.

146. 1, 2. Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth, Fool'd by these rebel powers that thee array. In the Quarto, the second line of this couplet is misprinted 'My sinful earth these rebel powers that thee array.' In place of 'My sinful earth,' repeated from the first line, many readings have been proposed, such as: 'Foil'd by'; 'Slave of'; 'Thrall to'; 'Starved by.' The reading of this text is as plausible as any other.

153, 154. These two sonnets are alternative versions of an epigram by Marianus, a Byzantine writer of about the fifth century A. D. There were sixteenth-century translations of this epigram both in Latin and in Italian; in Giles Fletcher's Licia, 1593, there is another very free adaptation of it.