Like as to make our appetites more keen
After the unconditional statement about love in sonnet 116 and the
challenge to the youth to prove the Poet in error in sonnet 117, sonnets
118 and 119 consider the means by which the Poet’s mature understanding
of love avoids the excesses of youthful idealism. He questions the need for
false expectations that predictably lead to unavoidable consequences. The
Poet does not claim to remove ‘sickness’. He argues only that what is already
bad enough is made worse by feeding the appetite for the excessive
‘sweetness’ of idealised perfection.
With eager compounds we our pallet urge,
As to prevent our maladies unseen,
We sicken to shun sickness when we purge.
Even so being full of your near cloying sweetness,
To bitter sauces did I frame my feeding:
And sick of wel-fare found a kind of meetness,
To be diseased ere that there was true needing.
Thus policy in love t’anticipate
The ill that were, not grew to faults assured,
And brought to medicine a healthful state
Which rank of goodness would by ill be cured.
But thence I learn and find the lesson true,
Drugs poison him that so fell sick of you.
The Poet accepts that, to remedy the needs of the body, ‘eager
compounds’ can increase the appetite and that immunisation can ‘purge’ a
‘malady unseen’ (118.3) before it takes hold. ‘Even so’, while small portions
of like compounds work for bodily needs, the Poet turns to ‘bitter sauces’
to effect a remedy (118.5) when he finds his mind is ‘full of the near cloying
sweetness’ or idealised goodness of the youth. The effect of the youth’s
cloying ‘beauty’ on the Poet’s mind requires a dose of bitterness to bring it
back into balance with the natural logic of truth and beauty. The Poet finds
‘a kind of meetness’ (118.7) or mental balance when he makes his mind ‘sick’
to counteract youth’s ‘cloying’ idealism. The ‘need’ to be ‘diseased’ is the
logical remedy to counter the imbalance (118.8).
‘Thus’ the Poet developed a ‘policy’ to ‘anticipate’ (118.9) the ‘ill’ that is
consequent on the type of idealised or absolute love associated with the
adolescent mind in adults. The ‘policy’ ensures that such love does not grow
to ‘assured faults’ or evil consequences (118.10). Mental ‘illnesses’ of the type
involving ‘rank of goodness’ can paradoxically be brought to a healthful state
by ‘ill’ (118.12). In the couplet, the ‘lesson’ for the Poet as he moves beyond
the immature phase of youth (typified by an absolute belief in the ideal), is
that more of the same ‘drug’ ‘poisons’ only ‘him’ who once ‘fell’ for the
mental ‘sickness’ of impossible love.
Many commentators have found sonnet 118 harsh and confusing because
they commit the very fault Shakespeare anticipates. When they bring their
predispositions for the absolute or the idealised male God to the sonnet, they
are confounded by the sense of ill the sonnet in turn generates in them. The
sonnet affects them just as the Poet is affected if he accepts unquestioningly
youth’s appetite for ‘cloying sweetness’. The logic of the Sonnets, based in
nature and respectful of the sexual dynamic, presents a ‘meet’ or balanced
appreciation of truth and beauty.
What potions have I drunk of Siren tears
Sonnet 118 considered the need to have a ‘policy’ that anticipates the evil
consequences of excessive dependence on the idea of absolute goodness or
perfection. Sonnet 119 presents an instance of the policy in practice. Many
times the Poet had drunk potions of ‘Siren tears’ distilled from ‘Lymbecks’
(flasks), and supposedly freed of the foul ‘hell within’ (119.2). But in his
purified state of mind, whether he applied ‘fears to hopes’ or ‘hopes to fears’,
the result was the same (119.3). So long as he held religiously to one side
of the truth dynamic by expecting to ‘win’, he found he ‘still lost’ (119.4).
Whenever he thought himself ‘so blessed never’ his heart still committed
‘wretched errors’ (119.5).
Distill'd from Lymbecks foul as hell within,
Applying fears to hopes, and hopes to fears,
Still losing when I saw my self to win?
What wretched errors hath my heart committed,
Whilst it hath thought it self so blessed never?
How have mine eyes out of their Spheres benefited
In the distraction of this madding fever?
O benefit of ill, now I find true
That better is, by evil still made better.
And ruined love when it is built anew
Grows fairer than at first, more strong, far greater.
So I return rebuked to my content,
And gain by ills thrice more than I have spent.
‘How’, he asks, had his ‘eyes’, or the relation between his physical and
mental faculties, ‘benefited’ from the ‘distraction of the madding fever’
(119.8) or an immature belief in the ideal. It seemed, instead, there was more
to be gained from the ‘benefit of ill’, which takes what ‘better is’ and,
paradoxically, is ‘by evil still made better’ (119.10). Even a ‘ruined love’when
it is ‘built anew grows fairer’ and then ‘more strong’ and ‘far greater’ (119.12).
There is evidence Shakespeare had a similar experience with Anne
Hathaway. In sonnet 145, he talks of the ‘hate’ that led to their profound
love. After she had given a full voice to ‘hate’, they were reconciled when
she said, ‘not you’. Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing express
their hates before they avow their love. And unthinking love without ‘policy’
leads to disaster for Othello and to the evil of Claudius and Gertrude in
In the couplet, the Poet’s occasional attraction to the ideal is ‘rebuked’.
He returns to ‘my content’ having gained by seeming ‘ills thrice more’ than
he has ‘spent’ on goodness. The ‘content’ is the content mentioned in
sonnets 1, 55, and 74. It is the natural logic conveyed by the Poet’s verse,
or the relation between nature, the sexual dynamic, and truth and beauty.
It is the ‘content’ inherent in every person even when they are corrupted
by an excessive appetite for an absolute God, the last logical step before
unanticipated evil consequences.
Sonnets 118 and 119 reflect the reality faced by Shakespeare in his
personal life with Anne Hathaway and in the public world of the
Reformation with its absolute loves and hates. His love of life was enhanced
‘thrice’ or three times ‘by ills’ when compared with the wishful love he
‘spent’ hoping to win while still fearing to lose his ‘blessed self ’.
That you were once unkind be-friends me now,
Shakespeare’s systematic natural philosophy gives him a perspective on
human interrelationships not available to systems of beliefs constrained by
unworldly expectations. As he lived at a time when the hypocrisy of belief
was extreme, it is easy to see why his deeply philosophic mind looked for
reconciliation in the natural logic of the world. By accepting nature as the
determining condition for life, within which human society finds its origins
and purpose, he was able to make judgments that ring true with everyday
experience. His logical insights are given dramatic expression in the plays
and a consistent poetic voice in the Sonnets.
And for that sorrow, which I then did feel,
Needs must I under my transgression bow,
Unless my Nerves were brass or hammered steel.
For if you were by my unkindness shaken
As I by yours, y'have passed a hell of Time,
And I a tyrant have no leisure taken
To weigh how once I suffered in your crime.
O that our night of woe might have remembered
My deepest sense, how hard true sorrow hits,
And soon to you, as you to me then tendered
The humble salve, which wounded bosoms fits!
But that your trespass now becomes a fee,
Mine ransoms yours, and yours must ransom me.
Sonnet 120 argues that if there is a will to redress previous wrongs then
there is a way to achieve a balance between competing interests in the
economy of nature. The youth’s former unkindness to the Poet becomes
a reason for their befriending (120.1). The sorrow the Poet felt at the time
of the youth’s ‘unkindness’ balances his own ‘transgression’ against the youth.
If the Poet remains unwilling to ‘bow’, then he has ‘Nerves’ of ‘brass or
hammered steel’ (120.4).
The Poet accepts that if he passed ‘a hell of Time’ (120.6) because of
the youth’s unkindness, then the youth must have passed a hell of a time
due to his transgressions. The Poet is a ‘tyrant’ if he does not take the ‘leisure’
to ‘weigh’ his suffering against the ‘shaken’youth (120.8). Even though their
common ‘night of woe’ is remembered in his ‘deepest sense’, or heart, where
‘true sorrow’hits ‘hard’ (120.10), the Poet responds to the youth’s tendering
of a ‘humble salve’, or healing, because it ‘fits’ logically with his own
‘wounded’ bosom or heart (120.12).
In the couplet, the youth’s previous trespass becomes a ‘fee’ or ‘ransom’.
The Poet ransoms the youth’s unkindness and the youth ransoms the Poet’s
transgression. Their common fault has been the subject of many of the
Master Mistress sonnets. The Poet gained his maturity when he regretted
his dismissal of the significance of youth in the processes of nature, and the
youth gains his maturity when he realises his excessive idealism needs the
maturity gained by the Poet in the bed of life. It is well to remember the
youth is both a person external to the Poet and the Poet’s own youth. Hence
the ‘fit’, hand in glove, of their offences. Their ‘wounded bosoms’are reconciled
when they appreciate the natural logic of life.
Throughout the Sonnets and in the plays Shakespeare puts into practice
his idea of mutual responsibility before nature. A promise of a judgment
in another life postpones what should be addressed now and, worse, has
adventitious but inexorable evil consequences.
'Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed,
Sonnet 121 continues and even intensifies the examination of prejudices
generated by the single-mindedness typical of youth divorced from natural
logic by the distortions of unrelenting idealism. A belief in absolute goodness
leads to the dismissal of humankind as inherently evil. The evilness of such
a prejudice against humankind is greater in the Poet’s view that any deed of
evil in the ordinary pursuits of life.
When not to be, receives reproach of being,
And the just pleasure lost, which is so deemed,
Not by our feeling, but by others' seeing.
For why should others' false adulterate eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?
Or on my frailties why are frailer spies:
Which in their wills count bad what I think good?
No, I am that I am, and they that level
At my abuses, reckon up their own,
I may be straight though they them-selves be bevel
By their rank thoughts, my deeds must not be shown
Unless this general evil they maintain,
All men are bad and in their badness reign.
The first line is unequivocal. It states categorically ‘tis better to be vile
than vile esteemed’. The line plays on the word evil as an anagram of vile.
The dismissal of humanity as evil (as in Genesis) is so evil that it twists the
word evil into something truly vile. It is logically wrong ‘when not to be’
vile at all is still ‘reproached’ (121.2) for being vile. If vileness does not exist
in an originating being, then how can an original state of being be vile. The
‘just pleasure’ (121.3) of life, before it was considered vile or lost, was deemed
evil not by inner feelings but by the wicked sense of ‘others’ watching
(121.4). Basic intuitions are corrupted by the loss of natural logic. Only
natural logic provides for a ‘just’ assessment of truth and beauty.
So why should ‘other’s false adulterate eyes’, or a false expectation of
sexuality, be able to say anything about the Poet’s ‘sportive blood’ (121.6)
or natural sexual enjoyment available since time began. Why should they
spy for evil motives in the Poet’s frailties, which in their consciences (wills)
or sexual envy (wills) they count as ‘bad’ (121.8), when to the Poet such
enjoyment is natural.
The Poet stands by his feelings, which are consistent with natural logic.
‘I am that I am’ (121.9) is a rebuff to the biblical ‘I am’. It challenges those
who ‘level’ at the Poet’s supposed abuses to ‘reckon up their own’ abuses
(another sexual allusion). The Poet is straight or on the level while they are
‘bevel’ (121.11) or at an angle to natural logic. The Poet’s deeds must not
be judged ‘by their rank thoughts’ (121.12) because their thoughts offer no
more than corrupted words.
If there was any doubt about the Poet or Shakespeare’s point, then the
couplet is to the point. Logically, if all men are ‘bad’ and ‘reign’ on earth
under the sin of badness then the absolutist state of mind that determines
things is itself that state of evil. As a philosopher of the Renaissance,
Shakespeare could see a way beyond religious misconceptions. While such
attitudes may have found support in pre-Renaissance science, the advances
of Copernicus and the recovery of the teachings of Aristotle challenged such
beliefs. Shakespeare’s Sonnets provide a systematic formulation of the natural
logic required to move beyond adolescent understanding.
Thy gift, thy tables, are within my brain
Sonnet 122 recalls sonnet 18 where the logical unity of the lines of life or
increase and the lines of poetry is captured in the line, ‘when in eternal lines
to time thou grow’st’. The Poet recognises that the logical condition for
lasting poetry is the perpetuation of humans through increase. So in sonnet
122, the ‘gift’ of youth (and this was so for the Poet’s own youth), or the
‘tables’ that ‘record’ his history of increase down the ages, has its logical
counterpart in the capacity of the Poet’s ‘brain’ or memory to remember
continuity through time.
Full charactered with lasting memory,
Which shall above that idle rank remain
Beyond all date even to eternity.
Or at the least, so long as brain and heart
Have faculty by nature to subsist,
Til each to razed oblivion yield his part
Of thee, thy record never can be missed:
That poor retention could not so much hold,
Nor need I tallies thy dear love to score,
Therefore to give them from me was I bold,
To trust those tables that receive thee more,
To keep an adjunct to remember thee,
Were to import forgetfulness in me.
Only by acknowledging the relationship between increase and the possibility
of memories lodged in the brain can the ‘gift’ be ‘full charactered’
(122.2) or be a record of life captured in poetry. Only then can the gift
remain ‘above’ the ‘idle rank’, or those who do not appreciate the significance
of increase. Only by perpetuating himself in concert with humankind
can the youth persist until ‘eternity’ or ‘beyond all date’ (122.4).
The ‘tables’ are the living record or notebook of the youth’s descent from
his ancestors. They contain the ‘record’ that ‘tallies’ or ‘scores’ (122.10) the
youth’s love. The eternity mentioned is not the eternity of everlasting life.
This is made clear in line 5 where the Poet adds the condition he established
unequivocally in sonnet 14. ‘Or at least’ he says, till ‘brain and heart’
or mind and body have the capacity to ‘subsist’ in ‘nature’ (122.6). Echoing
the couplet of sonnet 14, he says ‘till each (heart and brain) is razed to
oblivion’ they will continue to yield the body (increase) and mind (truth
and beauty) of the Poet. The ‘record’ (living record from sonnet 55) of the
youth will not be ‘missed’ (122.8) so long as human life is perpetuated.
The ‘poor retention’ of human life without increase (it ceases to exist)
means the brain could not ‘hold’ what it is designed to ‘hold’ (122.9).
Furthermore, the apparent problem of the logical relation of brain and heart
would not arise. The Poet does not need to tally the youth’s ‘dear love’ if
the ‘score’ or activity of love was accepted as already ‘scored’ on his brain.
The Poet was ‘bold’ even to ‘give’ the youth his ‘tables’ (122.12) or the living
record of his scoring down posterity because it is written by ‘nature’ in his
very being. The tables ‘receive thee more’ because they are ingrained in the
sexual dynamic of his body.
In the couplet, for the Poet to keep an ‘adjunct’ in his brain or mind, as
an aid to memory, would imply or ‘import’ forgetfulness of the youth’s gift.
He has no need to ‘remember’ the youth’s gift because the natural logic of
life underwrites the philosophy of the Sonnets.
No! Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change,
Shakespeare sets out the natural logic of life in his Sonnets. By accepting
Nature as the ‘sovereign mistress’ and the sexual division in nature with its
requirement for increase as basic to human nature he arrives at the natural
logic of understanding. But before the final statement of the priority of
nature over idealistic expectations of time in sonnet 126, the Poet considers
the implications for the conventions of time. Death is traditionally associated
with time’s scythe or the end of time. But, because life persists regardless of
an individual’s death, the idea of the end of time is a convention.
Significantly, the word ‘time’ is not mentioned in the 28 Mistress sonnets
because she is at one with nature.
Thy pyramids built up with newer might
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange,
They are but dressings of a former sight:
Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire,
What thou dost foist upon us that is old,
And rather make them born to our desire,
Than think that we before have heard them told:
Thy registers and thee I both defy,
Not wond'ring at the present, nor the past,
For thy records, and what we see doth lie,
Made more or less by thy continual haste:
This I do vow and this shall ever be,
I will be true despite thy scythe and thee.
In sonnet 123, time is given its correct role in the logic of life. ‘Time
boasts’ the Poet will ‘change’ into something new at death (123.1). But, as
the Poet points out, the pyramids that were built to forestall time are now
‘nothing novel, nothing strange’ (123.3). They do no more than ‘dress’ up
a dead Pharaoh who was once available to ‘sight’. The Poet concedes that
the ‘brief ’ length of human life tempts us to ‘admire’ what time has ‘foist
upon us that is old’ (123.6). But such things are mere monuments ‘born to
our desire’ to outlive nature. They make us forget that we have ‘heard’ such
tales ‘before’ (123.8).
The Poet ‘defies’ the ‘registers’ or records of time, because ‘wondering
at the present’ or ‘the past’ (123.10) does not interest him. The records left
by time do ‘lie’ about an end to time when they are used to take advantage
of the ‘continual haste’ (123.12) in which lives go by.
In the couplet the Poet makes a solemn ‘vow’ to nature that ‘this’, the
continuity of life, will persist (‘shall ever be’) ‘despite’ what time and its
‘scythe’ suggest. The words, the scenes, the acts, the plays and poems of
Shakespeare are ‘true’ to life because he refuses to accept the psychology of
time that preys on our ‘desire’ (123.7).
Throughout the Sonnets, the Poet has addressed the issue of death,
symbolised by time’s scythe. He has demonstrated that the capital made out
of time by those who would see death as an escape from the world into
another life is based on a particular idea of time with its duration of hours,
minutes, weeks, or the span from birth to death. But the end of ‘time’ is a
human construct distinct from the continuity of time in the ever-renewing
dynamic of life. The Sonnets acknowledge the specific function of time as
duration by structuring conventional periods of time into the numerology
of the set in a way that corresponds to their approximations.
If my dear love were but the child of state,
In sonnet 9 the Poet stated the logical condition for the possibility of ‘love’.
All forms of love are dependent on increase because increase ensures human
persistence in nature. The last two lines of sonnet 9 state that the youth
cannot have love for others in his heart if he commits ‘such murderous
shame’ on himself as deny the natural logic of life.
It might for fortune's bastard be unfathered,
As subject to time's love, or to time's hate,
Weeds among weeds, or flowers with flowers gathered.
No it was builded far from accident,
It suffers not in smiling pomp, nor falls
Under the blow of thralled discontent,
Whereto th'inviting time our fashion calls:
It fears not policy that Heretic,
Which works on leases of short numbered hours,
But all alone stands hugely politic,
That it nor grows with heat, nor drowns with showers.
To this I witness call the fools of time,
Which die for goodness, who have lived for crime.
In sonnet 124 the Poet reflects that if his love were considered but a ‘child
of state’, whose life was ordained by the divine right of kings and popes, it
may as well be the ‘unfathered’ bastard of ‘fortune’ (124.2). Such a bastard
love would be unnatural and prey to an understanding of ‘time’ based on
death with no logical connection to the natural cycle of life. Disconnected
from the life cycle the unfathered love would be ‘subject’ to the prejudice
and arbitrary dictates of ‘times love’ or ‘times hate’ (124.3) to be gathered
as ‘weeds among weeds’ or ‘flowers among flowers’ according to a whim of
To such prejudice the Poet says ‘no’ (124.5). The love he understands is
‘builded far from accident’. It is not dependent on the ‘smile’ from a king
or a pope (124.6). Because it is based in natural logic it does not fall under
the ‘blow’ of ‘discontent’ as the inevitable consequence of bondage or
thraldom (124.7) to the ‘state’. Such an outcome is invited when ‘fashion
calls’ time the determinant of love (124.8).
The Poet’s appreciation of love, based in nature (and the human dynamic
as part of nature) does not fear the ‘policy’ that labels people ‘Heretic’ (124.9)
when they refuse to be ‘subject’ to the unnatural expectations of ‘state’. He
associates the policy with the convention of reckoning time by the ‘short
numbered hours’ (possibly referring to the divisions in the 12 hour day for
the Church liturgy). By contrast, his love ‘alone stands hugely politic’
(124.11) as the life force not requiring the heat applied to heretics to make
it ‘grow’, nor the opposite of drowning them in showers (echoing ‘times
love and hate’).
Shakespeare may have known that Giordano Bruno was burned at the
stake as a heretic in 1600. Shakespeare possibly avoided such a fate because
his Sonnets mention no specific person or event. His philosophic turn of
mind might have saved him from the ‘policies’ of Church and State.
In the couplet, as ‘witness’ to the value of his love, the Poet ‘calls’ on
those who have been fooled by the policy of time. They think they ‘die’
for the ‘goodness’ of the love of State and Church, but in doing so they have
‘lived for crime’ against the natural logic of life.
Wer't ought to me I bore the canopy,
In the last few sonnets to the youth the Poet makes it clear his philosophy
applies to all ranks of society. As Ulysses explains in Troilus and Cressida,
whenever a level of society ignores natural logic the whole society is
weakened. Throughout the youth sonnets the Poet has examined the natural
logic of truth and beauty in relation to an immature youth who is prey to
excessive idealism. By doing so he was also able to reflect on his own development
from an idealistic youth to a mature Poet.
With my extern the outward honoring,
Or laid great bases for eternity,
Which proves more short than waste or ruining?
Have I not seen dwellers on form and favour
Lose all, and more by paying too much rent
For compound sweet; Forgoing simple savour,
Pitiful thrivers in their gazing spent.
No, let me be obsequious in thy heart,
And take thou my oblation, poor but free,
Which is not mixed with seconds, knows no art,
But mutual render only me for thee.
Hence, thou suborned Informer, a true soul
When most impeached, stands least in thy control.
The same critique can also be applied to an immature society within
which adolescent idealism, or an imbalance in the truth and beauty dynamic,
becomes excessive. Sonnet 125 focuses on the higher levels of state where
the excessive adherence to the trappings of ‘form and favour’ (125.5) is most
As in sonnet 123, the Poet is unequivocal. If he had to bear the ‘canopy’
of state to gain ‘outward honouring’ (125.2), or if he had laid massive
foundations for ‘pyramids’ (123.2) to gain eternal life, then such vanity would
be a greater shortcoming than going about intentionally causing ‘waste or
ruining’ (125.4). The Poet has seen such ‘dwellers on form and favour’ lose
everything and ‘all’ (125.6) when they pay ‘too much rent for compounds
sweet’ (the words used of the immature youth in sonnet 118) or the idealised
expectations of an overwrought imagination. They forgo ‘simple savour’,
or the offerings of nature, and are 'pitiful thrivors' because they ‘spend’
themselves on outward appearance or ‘gazing’ (125.8).
The Poet rejects such ‘pitiful’ (125.9) spending on appearances. The love
he recognises is ‘poor but free’ (125.10). It is not conditional on the trappings
of power such as canopies or pyramids without which kings and clergy
would appear as any other person. Because the Poet’s natural logic is the
logic of humankind regardless of station and faith, he is able to ‘render’ his
relationship to the youth as ‘mutual’. Logically there is nothing between the
‘me’ and the ‘thee’ (125.12).
In the couplet, the youth’s excessive idealism makes him a ‘suborned (or
paid) Informer’ for the state. The natural logic of the ‘Heretic’ Poet (from
sonnet 124) is liable to be ‘impeached’ by the idealistic youth as ‘Informer’.
Ironically though, when the Poet’s ‘true soul’ or imaginary mind is most
contrary to the dictates of state or faith, it is ‘least in thy control’. Shakespeare
used his insights to write plays that have refused to conform to any
‘suborned’ principles of state or faith.
O Thou my lovely Boy who in thy power,
In the final Master Mistress sonnet the Poet spells out the consequence for
the ‘Boy’ (126.1) if he ignores the natural logic of life. ‘Nature’, the ‘sovereign
mistress over wrack’ (126.5) will ‘Audit’ the youth’s unrealistic faith in
‘fickle time’ and its symbol, death’s ‘sickle’ (126.2). Nature, the sovereign
mistress, as the source of the Mistress or female and hence the Master
Mistress or male, has the power to ‘render’ the ‘Boy’ according to natural
logic. The title ‘sovereign mistress’ is not a proper name as she is not a
‘goddess’. Rather, the title signifies a logical state of being, out of which the
human female and male derive.
Dost hold time's fickle glass, his sickle, hour:
Who hast by waning grown, and therein show'st,
Thy lovers withering, as thy sweet self grow'st.
If Nature (sovereign mistress over wrack)
As thou goest onwards still will pluck thee back,
She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill.
May time disgrace, and wretched minute kill.
Yet fear her O thou minion of her pleasure,
She may detain, but not still keep her treasure.
Her Audit (though delayed) answered must be,
And her Quietus is to render thee.
The last few sonnets have considered the consequences of organising the
natural cycle of time into ‘hours’ and ‘minutes’. In sonnet 126 the Poet
addresses the tendency of the ‘Boy’ to be beguiled by the conventions of
time, such as the traditional cliché of ‘time’s sickle’, which cuts the day into
‘hours’ (126.2) (with a play on hourglass). The Boy, ironically for him, has
‘grown’physically mature despite his ‘waning’ regard for life due to his idealistic
obsession with death. Although his physical capacity to love has
increased, his regard for ‘lovers’ has been ‘withering’ as he grows older
Nature threatens to ‘pluck’ him ‘back’ (126.6) from idealistic fantasies of
time in memorial and keep him to her natural ‘purpose’. She will ‘disgrace’
time (126.8) for its illusory claims and even ‘kill’ the idea of the ‘minute’ to
shatter its illusory power (126.8). (Because the traditional reading misunderstands
the critique of time in sonnet 126 most modern editions emend
the ‘minute’ of line 8 to ‘minutes’.)
The Poet suggests the youth should ‘fear’ Nature because the youth is
the ‘minion’ or subject of her ‘pleasure’ or natural values (126.9). She may
‘detain’ him but her ‘Audit’ of his attitude cannot be delayed and must be
answered, otherwise her ‘Quietus’ or final reckoning will ‘render’ the youth
back into her bosom (126.12). Shakespeare first articulated this idea in Venus
and Adonis. When Venus has Adonis killed by a boar she demonstrated the
fallacy of Adonis’ idealistic expectations by showing that his blood bred not
an immortal replica of himself, but issued instead a flower of nature. The
flower, taken off by Venus in her bosom, does not supplant a child born
from the interrelation of female and male.
Sonnet 126, with its unique rhyming couplets and 12 lines, was intended
by Shakespeare to be a key sonnet in the numerological structure of the set.
Its unusual form corresponds to the encryption of the number 126 into the
Dedication (see Volume 1, Part 5).
In the old age black was not counted fair,
Sonnet 127 is the first of the 28 Mistress sonnets. It is connected to the
Master Mistress sonnets (1 to 126), and particularly to sonnet 126, by the
only appearance of the word ‘Nature’ in the 28 sonnets. Because the Mistress
is one with nature she is inherently aware of the requirements of natural
logic. Whereas the youth sequence began with the increase sonnets (1 to
14), where the idealistic male is encouraged to restore his orientation toward
the Mistress and posterity, the Mistress, as the source of the male and of the
need to increase, needs no such argument. In the Mistress sequence the Poet
launches directly into the beauty and truth dynamic.
Or if it were it bore not beauty's name:
But now is black beauty's successive heir,
And Beauty slandered with a bastard shame,
For since each hand has put on Nature's power,
Fairing the foul with Art's false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my Mistress' eyes are Raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem,
At such who not born fair no beauty lack,
Slandering Creation with a false esteem,
Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.
In the Mistress sequence, first beauty (127 to 137) and then truth (137
to 152) are defined. Beauty is mentioned 6 times in sonnet 127 with beauty
alone mentioned until sonnet 137, in which both beauty and truth occur.
From sonnet 138, only truth is mentioned. The Poet defines the concepts
of beauty (sensations) and truth (language) according to natural logic. In so
doing he critiques their illogical misuse in the traditional beliefs preceding
their recovery in the Sonnet logic.
In the ‘old age’ (127.1) what was black (the opposite of conventionalised
beauty) was not considered ‘fair’. Or if it was viewed favourably it was not
called beauty (127.2). The Poet’s natural logic makes no distinction between
‘black’ beauty and ‘fair’ because they are both forms of sensation. The
sensation of black is beauty’s ‘successive heir’ because Shakespeare’s
philosophy corrects the ‘old’ understanding in which natural ‘Beauty’ was
associated with the ‘shame’ of ‘a bastard’ (127.4).
The ‘old’ distinction between ‘each hand’ (black and fair) ‘puts on’ or
falsely assumes ‘Nature’s power’ (127.5). What is naturally foul or black is
made fair by ‘false art’ or an illogical about ‘face’ (127.6). Beauty cannot be
called beauty when a disparaged form of beauty is ‘profaned’ or lives in
‘disgrace’ (127.8). Therefore, not only do the Mistress’ ‘Raven black’ eyes
‘suit’ her, they also ‘seem to mourn’ the attitude that dismisses those who
are not ‘born fair’ (127.11). The natural beauty of the Poet’s Mistress, as
nature’s representative, effectively ‘slanders Creation’ on which such ‘false
esteem’ is based (127.12).
In the couplet, the Mistress’woeful seeming eyes ‘mourn’ the old beliefs
that have trained ‘every tongue’ to say ‘beauty’ only of that which ‘looks’
fair. Shakespeare’s natural logic corrects the error. He begins the Mistress
sequence by dismissing the literal belief in biblical ‘Creation’ and the priority
it gives to the male God.
How oft when thou my music music playst,
The repetition of ‘music music’ in line 1 of sonnet 128 connects it with the
‘music…music’ in the first line of sonnet 8. These two specifically music
sonnets are intentionally linked to the pattern of ‘8s’ structured into the
whole set. Neither is it accidental that the ‘fingers’ and ‘lips’ in the last line
of 128 anticipate the ‘lips’ and ‘hand’ of the first line of sonnet 145. Sonnet
145, uniquely in octosyllables, associates the Mistress with Anne Hathaway
(‘hate away’) and hence with the natural interval in music, the octave.
Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds
With thy sweet fingers when thou gently swayst,
The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,
Do I envy those Jacks that nimble leap,
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilst my poor lips which should that harvest reap,
At the woods' boldness by thee blushing stand.
To be so tickled they would change their state,
And situation with those dancing chips,
O'er whom their fingers walk with gentle gait,
Making dead wood more blest than living lips,
Since saucy Jacks so happy are in this,
Give them their fingers, me thy lips to kiss.
In Volume 1 it was suggested Anne Hathaway was the inspiration behind
the Mistress of the Sonnets and the logic of the whole set. Her greater
maturity could have bred in Shakespeare the objectivity to represent his
youthful idealism in the guise of the Master Mistress.
The Poet uses a stringed instrument in sonnet 8 to illustrate the increase
argument, or the need for concord between sire, child and mother. The tone
of the sonnet is deliberately literal in keeping with its prosaic purpose.
Sonnet 128, by contrast, is full of sexual innuendo and erotic suggestion. It
uses a keyed instrument with the relationship between the performer’s
fingers and the ‘Jacks’ (keys) evoking an erotic interchange between the Poet
and Mistress. Because the Poet and Mistress have no illusions about the
natural logic of their relationship, they delight in the musical by-play.
Whereas the Master Mistress needs instruction in the logic of increase and
the eroticism of mythic poetry, the Poet and the Mistress combine word play
and foreplay with consummate ease.
The placement of sonnet 128 immediately after sonnet 127 logically allies
‘music’ with the sensations of ‘black’ and ‘fair’or the dynamic of ‘beauty’. The
Poet listens as the Mistress’ ‘sweet fingers’ (128.3) play the ‘blessed wood’,
evoking the ‘wiry concord’ that overwhelms his ‘ear’ (128.4). He asks, ‘do I
envy’ the ‘Jacks’ that ‘leap to kiss’ the ‘inward of the Mistress’ hand’ (128.6),
and ‘reap a harvest’ as the ‘wood’s boldness stands’ at her ‘blushing’ (128.8)?
The Poet could exchange his ‘lips’ with the ‘tickled’ wood or ‘dancing
chips’, as ‘their’ Mistress’fingers (the Mistress’fingers are claimed by the keys
or Jacks) make ‘dead wood more blest than living lips’ (128.12). But in the
couplet, since the ‘saucy Jacks’ are happy with the Mistress’ fingers (‘their
fingers’) the Poet is content, after all, to have her ‘lips to kiss’.
Editors, unwilling to credit Shakespeare with a profound philosophy
based in nature, look for evidence of a corrupt text. Against the logic of
the sonnet, they change the ‘their’ in lines 11 and 14 to ‘thy’ to conform
with their predetermination that the Sonnets were poorly typeset.
Th'expense of Spirit in a waste of shame
Some commentators interpret sonnets 116 and 129 as a pair of Christian
sonnets that contrast heavenly love and hellish lust. But, as the commentary
on sonnet 116 shows, such a reading is prejudiced against the philosophy
of the whole set in which the mind-based excesses of religious love and hate
are resolved in natural logic of life and the capacity of the Poet to express
the beauty and truth of the mind in mythic verse. When the commentators
isolate other sonnets such as 18, 29, 73, and 146 as expression of religious
fervour, they prejudicially convert the individual sonnets.
Is lust in action, and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd'rous, bloody full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.
Made In pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest, to have extreme,
A bliss in proof and proud and very woe,
Before a joy proposed behind a dream,
All this the world well knows yet none knows well,
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
Ironically, the tendency to read Christianity or other beliefs into the
mythic logic of individual sonnets is not surprising as Genesis and the
Gospels are also founded in the erotic logic of myth. Shakespeare’s Sonnets,
though, do not foster the adolescent illusion that the products of the
imaginary soul are prior to the dynamic of life. And sonnet 129, of the all
sonnets, is furious in its dismissal of such mental fantasies. What some read
as a statement of the ‘lust’ between Mistress and Poet, even more keenly
expresses the hellish consequences of an imaginary heaven.
Sonnet 129 contrasts the natural ‘lust’ of sexual desire with the excesses
of lust perpetrated in the name of the ‘Spirit’. The first line combines both
the expenditure of sexual energy in a ‘waste of shame’ (the sinful shame of
Genesis), and of the excesses of ‘Spirit’ (129.1) or the overvaluation of the
ideal in the mind. Either way, the ‘expense’ is ‘lust in action’ caused by the
suppression of sexual desire. When the suppressed desire is ‘acted’ on it
becomes ‘perjured’ or untrue to itself, ‘murdrous’, and ‘bloody full of blame’
(129.3) or responsible for bloodshed in the name of the ideal (in sonnet 9
the idealistic youth ‘commits murdrous shame upon himself ’).
Such desire is ‘savage’ and untrustworthy as it is contrary to natural logic
(129.4). If it is ‘enjoyed’ it is ‘despised straight’ after. It is pursued beyond
‘reason’ and no sooner had than ‘hated’ like a diabolical ‘bait laid on purpose’
to make the ‘taker mad’ (129.8). With such ‘expense of Spirit’ lust is made
mad in ‘pursuit and in possession’, a ‘bliss’ in being proved wrong, a victim
of pride (proud as a sexual pun) and very ‘woeful’ in shame (129.11). If it
was once a ‘joy’ (Eden) it has become but a ‘dream’ (heaven).
The couplet considers the inevitable irony when the natural logic of life
is ignored. Despite the fact that ‘all this world’ is based on natural logic, no
one seems to ‘know well’enough how to ‘shun’ the illusion of an unworldly
‘heaven’ that ‘leads men’ to act like ‘hell’ on earth. Editors, unable to accept
Shakespeare’s profound criticism of the male-based Church, remove the
capital S from ‘Spirit’.
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Roger Peters Copyright © 2005