I grant thou wert not married to my Muse,
When Shakespeare worked on his sonnets and plays he was fully conscious
of the logical conditions for writing poetry and drama with enduring mythic
content. His insight, due to the consistency and depth of his philosophy,
enabled him to appreciate where other writers were inconsistent. He
demonstrates his awareness of the dynamic in the plays when he incorporates
plays within plays that mock the pretensions of those who do not have
the skill and learning to do justice to ideas.
And therefore mayst without attaint o’er-look
The dedicated words which writers use
Of their fair subject, blessing every book.
Thou art as fair in knowledge as in hew,
Finding thy worth a limit past my praise,
And therefore art enforced to seek anew,
Some fresher stamp of the time bettering days.
And do so love, yet when they have devised,
What strained touches Rhetoric can lend,
Thou truly fair, wert truly sympathised,
In true plain words, by thy true telling friend.
And their gross painting might be better used,
Where cheeks need blood, in thee it is abused.
The 9 rival poet sonnets (78 to 86) fulfill a similar function in the Sonnets.
They point to deficiencies in the work of the lesser poets. As a friend of
such poets, the youth is susceptible to the same inconsistencies. While his
natural qualities inspire the Poet, his reluctance to appreciate the source of
the Poet’s consistent art makes him vulnerable to the rivals’ false praise.
In sonnet 82, the Poet acknowledges the youth was ‘not married to my
Muse’ (82.1). The youth is not mature enough to be ‘married’ to the Poet’s
‘Muse’. He has not yet merited the 1 to ‘marry’ his 9 (9+1 = 10 = 1+0 =
1) to have the necessary unity to write like the Poet. The reference to the
Muse recalls sonnet 38. There the Poet argues for youth to become a ‘tenth
Muse’ to add to the 9 ‘Muses of old’ and so become a unity. The ‘9 Muses’,
who inspire mere rhymers, are associated with the lesser poets. The Poet
questions the youth’s lack of unity in the hope of freeing him from their
The Poet allows for the youth’s misguided ignorance by facetiously
blessing ‘the books’ of the ‘writers’ who praise the youth with ‘dedicated
words’ (82.3). With further irony the Poet suggests the youth is as ‘fair in
knowledge’ (82.5) as he is in looks. The youth is convinced he is beyond
the Poet’s ‘praise’. He considers he deserves a ‘fresher stamp’ (82.8), or a more
flattering impression of his better days than the Poet is prepared to give.
With sardonic humour the Poet encourages the youth (‘and do so love’)
to accept the praise of the rivals (82.9) only to then dismiss them as writers
who ‘devise...strained touches of Rhetoric’ (82.11). Their rhetoric is no
match for the ‘true plain words’ of the Poet, who is the youth’s sympathetic
‘true telling friend’ (82.12). The Poet speaks the truth, both good and bad,
about the youth. The couplet suggests the rivals’ ‘gross painting’ would be
better used on lesser subjects. It is wasted if it does not acknowledge the
youth’s inherent qualities and natural potential.
I never saw that you did painting need,
The Folio of Shakespeare’s plays was published posthumously in 1623. Half
the plays had not been previously published and a couple had possibly been
lost. While this is not an unusual fate for an artist’s oeuvre, it does suggest
Shakespeare, in his lifetime, was not particularly diligent about ensuring the
survival of his plays.
And therefore to your fair no painting set,
I found (or thought I found) you did exceed,
The barren tender of a Poet's debt:
And therefore have I slept in your report,
That you your self being extant well might show,
How far a modern quill doth come too short,
Speaking of worth, what worth in you doth grow,
This silence for my sin you did impute,
What shall be most my glory being dumb,
For I impair not beauty being mute,
When others would give life, and bring a tomb.
There lives more life in one of your fair eyes,
Than both your Poets can in praise devise.
Some commentators have assumed that because Shakespeare did not
attempt to publish all his plays, the Sonnets were also an informal selection
published irregularly in 1609. These commentaries demonstrate the opposite
is the case. The Sonnets set out Shakespeare’s philosophy in an intentionally
structured and precisely numbered set that was published under his guidance.
This suggests he valued the definitive presentation of his philosophy in the
Sonnets more than the application of it in the plays. Even so, in the Sonnets,
he leaves no doubt that he values the logic of life his philosophy celebrates
even more than its surrogate, the printed page.
In sonnet 83, the Poet considers the relation between the writing of a
sonnet and the processes of ‘life’ (83.12). Lesser poets write as if poetic
immortality was a substitute for such processes. The Poet suggests sardonically
that their verse does no more than create a ‘tomb’ for the youth. The
Poet does not confuse the poetic ‘worth’ (83.8) of the youth’s body with its
potential for the continuation of life.
The Poet ‘never saw the need’ to ‘paint’ (83.1) or enhance the fairness
of the youth because youth’s natural potential ‘exceeds’ (83.3) what the Poet
could put in words. The doubt that arises in the Poet’s mind, ‘or thought I
found’, expresses his concern at the youth’s susceptibility to poetic flattery.
The youth’s beauty is not marred by physical defects but it is limited by his
unwillingness to accept the logical implications of his body.
The Poet admits he has ‘slept in your report’ (83.5) or does not intend
to write in praise of the youth’s beauty. The youth is the living or ‘extant’
evidence for the ‘worth’, or potential for increase, which ‘in you doth grow’
(83.8). A ‘quill’ or pen comes ‘too short’ (83.7) because a pen cannot bring
about increase. But the youth, besotted with his own beauty, considers the
Poet’s silence a ‘sin’ (83.9). The Poet responds that his ‘glory’ will be in ‘being
mute’ or by saying nothing by way of flattery. He refuses to dupe the youth
by offering him immortal ‘life’ through poetry, which would be no more
than a poetic ‘tomb’.
In the couplet, the Poet affirms the priority of increase over poetry.
Recalling the argument of sonnet 14, he says ‘there lives more life in one
of your fair eyes’ (his nether eye) ‘than both your Poets can in praise devise’.
Who is it that says most, which can say more,
The arrangement of sonnet 84 mirrors the organisation of the Master
Mistress sequence. The first 4 lines present the logic of the increase
argument, followed in lines 5 to 14 by a presentation of its consequences
for the youth. Because traditional Sonnet interpretation discounts the significance
of the increase sonnets, it is perplexed by the first four lines of sonnet
84. The continuing prejudice of modern editors is revealed by the removal
of a crucial comma from the original text.
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 counter-part shall fame his wit,
Making his style admired everywhere.
You to your beauteous blessings add a curse,
Being fond on praise, which makes your praises worse.
Sonnet 84 takes the argument from sonnet 83 and presents it more
systematically. In sonnet 83, the Poet challenged the intention of rival poets
to do no more than praise the appearance of the youth. Because of the value
the Poet places on the youth’s life-giving vitality, he refuses to indulge in
such mindless flattery.
In sonnet 84, the Poet states that the ‘richest praise’ (84.2) anyone can
give the self-centered youth, is that his natural beauty ‘should example where
his equal grew’ (84.4). Because the youth was once a beautiful child, he
‘should’ perpetuate his beauty through his own child. Until he realises the
significance of posterity, his capacity to increase or ‘store’ will remain
‘immured’ or confined in the walls of his body (84.3), leaving him alone
and childless (‘that you alone, are you’, 84.2).
Most editors change the meaning of line 2 by removing the comma after
‘alone’. With the comma, ‘that you alone, are you’ reads: ‘if you stay single,
you will remain alone’. Without the comma, ‘that you alone are you’, reads:
‘there is nobody else like you’. This change from criticism to flattery is a
classic instance of the bias against the inherent meaning of the original. The
editors reveal themselves as lesser minds.
The Poet then considers the consequences, for the lesser poet, of not
appreciating the significance of the increase argument. The Poet accuses the
‘Pen’ (84.5) of the lesser poet of ‘lean penury’, or unproductive barrenness.
The sexual pun on ‘quill’ in sonnet 83 is repeated in 84 with the ‘Pen’ of
the rival unable to provide ‘some small glory’ (84.6). Rather than challenge
the youth, as the Poet does in line 2 (‘that you alone, are you’), the rival
‘dignifies his story’ (84.8), by lamely praising the youth. He thinks all he
needs to say is ‘that you are you’ (84.8).
The slavish ‘copying’ (84.9) of the youth by the lesser poet, which merely
imitates ‘nature’ (84.10), will make his ‘wit’ and ‘style’ admired ‘everywhere’
(84.12). But, in the couplet, the Poet warns the youth that if he adds such
praise to his ‘beauteous blessings’ he is accepting a ‘curse’ that will make his
My tongue-tied Muse in manners holds her still,
The rival poet sonnets anticipate the history of Sonnet misunderstanding.
Most commentators become frustrated with their inability to appreciate the
depth they sense is in Shake-speares Sonnets. Nor can they make sense of the
way the sonnets are arranged in the original edition of 1609. Wordsworth
said they were a ‘puzzle peg’, T. S. Eliot said they exhibited at best a ‘rag
bag philosophy’, while Auden said they would have been an ‘embarrassment’.
While comments of your praise richly compiled,
Reserve their Character with golden quill,
And precious phrase by all the Muses filed.
I think good thoughts, whilst other write good words,
And like unlettered clerk still cry Amen,
To every Hymn that able spirit affords,
In polished form of well refined pen.
Hearing you praised, I say 'tis so, 'tis true,
And to the most of praise add some-thing more,
But that is in my thought, whose love to you
(Though words come hind-most) holds his rank before.
Then others, for the breath of words respect,
Me for my dumb thoughts, speaking in effect.
Because the Sonnets do not conform to their beliefs or expectations, such
commentators change the meanings of words, alter the punctuation, ignore
the numbering, denigrate particular sonnets, or turn the set into an autobiographical
love story. The difficulties disappear when the Sonnets are appreciated
as a consistent expression of Shakespeare’s simple and direct
philosophy based in natural logic. The whole set can then be appreciated
as the continual refinement of a few basic ideas.
As the eighth sonnet of the rival poet series, sonnet 85 develops the
contrast between the rivals who praise the youth’s external appearance and
the Poet who harbours a loving concern for his welfare. When the rivals
use ‘precious phrases filed’ or polished by the 9 ‘Muses’ of old (85.4), the
Poet’s ‘Muse’ holds her ‘tongue’ (85.1).
The Poet is conscious that he ‘thinks good thoughts’ while the rivals
‘write good words’ (85.5). Such ‘good words’, though, have as much
meaning as well polished ‘Hymns’ to which ‘unlettered’ clerks repetitiously
cry ‘Amen’ (85.6). While the rivals’ praise of the youth may be ‘true’ (85.9),
the Poet knows he can ‘add something more’. Because ‘love’ takes first ‘rank’
he relies less on ‘words’, which should ‘come hind-most’ (85.12).
If, as the couplet concludes, the Poet was to put the ‘love’ in his thoughts
into words, it would then be apparent that the rivals ‘respect’ the ‘breath of
words’ and not their substance. The Poet’s unspoken thoughts speak ‘in
effect’ about the unspeakable, or the youth’s living potential.
Was it the proud full sail of his great verse,
In this, the last of the 9 rival poet sonnets, the Poet draws a line between
his verse and that of a lesser poet. By associating the youth with the rival
(they are both identified with the number 9), the sonnet suggests the youth
will remain like a rival or lesser poet unless he heeds the Poet’s more mature
understanding (his ‘ripe thoughts’). As the object of opposing expectations,
the impressionable youth is the focus of the Poet’s critique.
Bound for the prize of (all too precious) you,
That did my ripe thoughts in my brain inhearse,
Making their tomb the womb wherein they grew?
Was it his spirit, by spirits taught to write,
Above a mortal pitch, that struck me dead?
No, neither he, nor his compeers by night
Giving him aid, my verse astonished.
He nor that affable familiar ghost
Which nightly gulls him with intelligence,
As victors of my silence cannot boast,
I was not sick of any fear from thence.
But when your countenance filled up his line,
Then lacked I matter, that enfeebled mine.
The argument of sonnet 86, even more than in most sonnets, is divided
into three quatrains and a couplet. The first four lines acknowledge the effect
on the Poet of the rival’s ‘great verse’ (86.1). The rival writes as if the ‘alltoo-
precious’youth was the ‘prize’ (86.2). The effect, though, is not to drive
the Poet into a competition based on rhyme and style and conventional
forms of inspiration. Rather the rival’s verse causes him to reflect on the
enduring qualities in the youth. The Poet’s thoughts are turned inward
where they ripened in his ‘brain’ (86.3). The potential ‘tomb’ of his brain
became a ‘womb’ in which his ‘ripe thoughts’ grew (86.4).
The next two quatrains dismiss two traditional forms of inspiration as
possible sources for the Poet’s rejuvenation. The Poet says he was not, like
the rival, influenced by spiritual inspiration (86.5) from immortal beings
(86.6). His verse was not ‘astonished’, or led to a new realisation, by either
the ‘spirits’ of the day or their evil counterparts of the ‘night’ (86.7).
Neither was the Poet ‘sick of any fear’ (86.12) from the ‘nightly gulling
with intelligence’ (86.10), which the rival received from the ‘affable familiar
ghost’ (86.9) or Muse. The traditional poetic entities did not contribute to
the substance of the Poet’s ‘ripe thoughts’.
The couplet reveals that when the Poet saw the way in which the youth’s
‘countenance filled up (the rival’s) line’ he was ‘enfeebled’. He realised there
was a quality in the youth neither he nor the rival could express. They both
‘lacked’ the power to depict in verse the persistence of life. The life force
in the youth, or the potential for increase, was absent from the drawing of
Shake-speares Sonnets were arranged to present his natural logic. The
increase argument, missing from every other book of poetry, acknowledges
that the Poet’s verse ‘lacks the matter’ to create a new life. All a Poet can do
is write in the knowledge that, at best, he can ‘fill up his line’ with the
eroticism of the youth’s ‘countenance’. Shakespeare’s appreciation of the
limitations of poetry distinguishes his profound imagination from that of the
rival poets, and prophetically their literary descendents.
Farewell thou art too dear for my possessing,
Many commentators have read in this ‘farewell’ to a ‘dear’ friend (87.1)
Shakespeare’s admission of unworthiness. They have presumed he was
acknowledging inferiority in both station and means. However, the language
of the sonnet, with its frequent references to law and commerce, does not
support such a subjective interpretation. Words such as ‘estimate, charter,
bonds, riches, patent, misprison, judgment,’ are out of keeping with the
dissolution of a romantic relationship. The only word that supports a deeply
emotional reading is ‘dear’ in line 1.
And like enough thou knowst thy estimate,
The Charter of thy worth gives thee releasing:
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting,
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.
Thy self thou gavest, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me to whom thou gavest it, else mistaking,
So thy great gift upon misprison growing,
Comes home again, on better judgment making.
Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a King, but waking no such matter.
Once it is realised that sonnet 87 is decidedly unromantic, the meaning
of ‘dear’ comes into question. If the alternative meaning of ‘costly’ is used
(where ‘dear’ is only ironically one of affection) then consistency with the
rest of the sonnet is established. It suggests Shakespeare had a different subject
matter in mind than the aftermath of a romantic mismatch. The idea of the
youth’s costly self-regard (sonnet 31) and its consequences for natural
processes is more in keeping with the content of the other sonnets.
Sonnet 87 follows the 9 rival poet sonnets (78 to 86) where the Poet
warns the youth about the self-serving praise of the rivals and argues instead
for an understanding based in the natural dynamic of life. Sonnet 87 is a
‘farewell’ both to the immaturity of the youth, and the Poet’s youthful
immaturity. Consistent with the double address in the Sonnets to a person
and to the Poet’s persona, the sonnet is about the need to mature past
From sonnet 87 to the last of the Master Mistress sonnets, the Poet
compares the immaturity of unconditional idealism with the maturity of
marrying idealism and the dynamic of life. In sonnet 116, for instance, the
‘marriage of true minds’ is consistent with the Poet’s expectation that to
achieve a complete understanding the idealism of youth must be ‘married’
to an appreciation of the ‘determinate’ processes of life.
In sonnet 87, the Poet ‘releases’ (87.3) the youth because ‘my bonds in
thee are all determinate’ (87.4). His bonds are founded on the logic of
human nature. The mature Poet does not ‘deserve’ or desire the ‘gift’ or
‘riches’ of perpetual idealism (87.6). He reasserts his ‘patent’ or capacity for
invention, which comes from his mature understanding.
The Poet realises the ‘worth’ of the impressionable youth has been
‘misprisoned’ (87.11). His ‘better judgment’ (87.12) allows the gift to ‘come
home again’ to find its rightful place. In the couplet, the ‘dream’ or ‘sleep’
where youth seemed ‘King’ is now ‘no such matter’ to the ‘waking’ Poet.
Shakespeare’s natural logic is independent of station or influence.
When thou shalt be disposed to set me light,
In sonnet 87, the Poet said ‘farewell’ to the idealistic attitudes of the youth
and gave his reasons for preferring a love based on a more comprehensive
philosophy. Upon such ‘better judgment’ the idealism of the youth could
then ‘come home again’, or find its proper place.
And place my merit in the eie of scorn,
Upon thy side, against myself I'll fight,
And prove thee virtuous, though thou art forsworn:
With mine own weakness being best acquainted,
Upon thy part I can set down a story
Of faults concealed, wherein I am attainted:
That thou in losing me shall win much glory.
And I by this will be a gainer too,
For bending all my loving thoughts on thee,
The injuries that to my self I do,
Doing thee vantage, double vantage me.
Such is my love, to thee I so belong,
That for thy right, my self will bear all wrong.
Sonnet 88 considers the situation from the youth’s vantage. The farewell
is reversed with the Poet asking ‘when’ the youth will set him free and
enlighten him, or ‘set me light’ (88.1). If the youth is capable of overestimating
the worth of his youthful attitudes then the Poet can be equally
in error about the insights of maturity. The mature Poet accepts that his
criticism of the youth’s dreamy idealism allows the youth in turn to judge
him by the ‘story’ (88.6) he could tell of his ‘own weakness’ (88.5).
The Poet goes further. If his ‘merit’ is worthy of ‘scorn’ (88.3), he will
‘fight’ against himself to prove the youth ‘virtuous’ (88.4). If the Poet is
‘attainted’ with ‘faults concealed’ (88.7), then the youth has every cause to
reject him and so retain his own ‘glory’ (88.8). The Poet will be ‘a gainer
too, for bending all my loving thoughts on thee’ (88.10).
The process of give and take can be only for the good. The Poet is a
double beneficiary of the process of perpetual assessment of the relative
values of youth and age. If the youth gets a ‘vantage’, then the Poet gets a
‘double vantage’ (88.12). The dynamic of the Sonnets provides that neither
youthful idealism nor maturity alone is sufficient. The processes of life (the
generation of new life through increase) ensure there is a continual need to
revisit the issues from both perspectives.
In the couplet, the Poet reasserts his double relationship to youth when
he says ‘Such is my love, to thee I so belong’. The youth is a separate person
as well as a youthful stage of the Poet’s development. Both the objective value
of the youth and the subjective influence of youth evoke ‘love’ from the Poet
because he understands the natural dynamic that is the basis of love. The
mature Poet ‘bears all wrong’ because his behaviour when young establishes
the quality of his maturity.
The dynamic of truth and beauty ensures that justice is available to both
youth and age by acknowledging their common origins out of Nature
through the process of increase. Ulysses’ speech in Troilus and Cressida on
the appropriate degrees of responsibility and the dynamic of justice as the
‘endless jar’ between ‘right and wrong’ is evident in these Sonnets.
Say that thou didst forsake me for some fault,
And I will comment upon that offence,
Speak of my lameness, and I straight will halt:
Against thy reasons making no defence.
Thou can'st not (love) disgrace me half so ill,
To set a form upon desired change,
As I'll my self disgrace, knowing thy will,
I will acquaintance strangle and look strange:
Be absent from thy walks and in my tongue,
Thy sweet beloved name no more shall dwell,
Lest I (too much profane) should do it wrong:
And haply of our old acquaintance tell.
For thee, against myself I'll vow debate,
For I must ne'er love him whom thou dost hate.
Then hate me when thou wilt, if ever, now,
Comment on Sonnets 89 & 90
Now while the world is bent my deeds to cross,
Join with the spite of fortune, make me bow.
And do not drop in for an after loss:
Ah do not, when my heart has 'scaped this sorrow,
Come in rearward of a conquered woe,
Give not a windy night a rainy morrow,
To linger out a purposed over-throw.
If thou wilt leave me, do not leave me last,
When other petty griefs have done their spite,
But in the onset come, so shall I taste
At first the very worst of fortune's might.
And other strains of woe, which now seem woe,
Compared with loss of thee, will not seem so.
In the Sonnets, the complete set as Nature, with the Mistress and the Master
Mistress of the internal sequences derived from Nature, provides the logical
foundation. The Master Mistress or youth is challenged by the Poet to accept
his logical relation, through the Mistress, to Nature. Other issues are
secondary to the recovery of the youth’s natural logic. The task of the Poet
is to ensure a ‘marriage of minds’ between the self absorbed youth and the
logic of the female without destroying the youth’s idealism.
In this sonnet pair, linked logically with a ‘then’, the potential alienation
of the Poet from the youth (addressed in sonnets 87 and 88) is taken to new
depths of irony. The relationship between age and youth must eventually
lead to a separation and an acceptance of the logical status of each. The Poet
mocks the youth for wanting a complete break from the wisdom available
in his natural philosophy.
In sonnet 89, the Poet insists the youth, who has forsaken him, should
accuse him of ‘some fault’ (89.1). The Poet will then ‘comment upon that
offence’ (89.2). He will ‘speak of his lameness’, and ‘make no defence’ against
the youth’s ‘reasons’ (89.4).
The Poet says the youth cannot ‘disgrace’ him half so well as he can
‘disgrace’ himself (89.5). Because he knows the youth’s ‘will’ (89.7) he is
prepared to ‘strangle’ their friendship.
So the Poet suggests he will ‘absent’ himself from the youth’s ‘walks’
(89.9) and the Poet will ‘no more dwell’ on the youth’s ‘sweet beloved name’.
He has no wish to ‘profane’ the youth by doing his name ‘wrong’ (89.11).
In the couplet the Poet will ‘debate’ against himself, so that he does not
‘love’ that part of himself the youth ‘dost hate’. But the Poet’s relationship
to the youth is both to a person he can see and to a persona of his own
immature understanding. The couplet sums the debate the Poet has with
the younger person or the internal debate he has with his younger self.
In sonnet 90, the Poet asks the youth to ‘hate’ him ‘now’ (90.1) rather
than ‘join with the spite of fortune’ to relish the ‘after loss’ (90.4). He asks
the youth, once his ‘heart hath ’scaped this sorrow’ (90.5), not to ‘linger’
like a ‘rainy’ day that follows a ‘windy night’ (90.8).
If the youth is to leave, the Poet wishes he would not wait till the ‘last’
moment, when ‘other petty griefs have done their spite’ (90.10). Rather he
should leave ‘at the onset’ (90.11) so that the Poet knows from the ‘first the
very worst of fortunes might’ (90.14).
In the couplet, the Poet reveals that if the youth left now, the ‘strains of
woe’ from other ‘woes’ would not seem so great. If the youth remains
doggedly committed to his selfish idealism, then all the other woes of the
Poet’s old age will seem less ‘compared with the loss’ of youthful potential.
The Poet’s apparent willingness to accept all wrong is a deep irony to counter
the excessive idealism of youth. The irony prepares the way for the more
exacting statements of the following sonnets.
Some glory in their birth, some in their skill,
Some in their wealth, some in their bodies' force,
Some in their garments though new-fangled ill:
Some in their Hawks and Hounds, some in their Horse.
And every humour hath his adjunct pleasure,
Wherein it finds a joy above the rest,
But these particulars are not my measure,
All these I better in one general best.
Thy love is better than high birth to me,
Richer than wealth, prouder than garments' cost,
Of more delight than Hawks or Horses be:
And having thee, of all men's pride I boast.
Wretched in this alone, that thou mayst take,
All this away, and me most wretched make.
But do thy worst to steal thy self away,
Comment on Sonnets 91 & 92
For term of life thou art assured mine,
And life no longer than thy love will stay,
For it depends upon that love of thine.
Then need I not to fear the worst of wrongs,
When in the least of them my life hath end,
I see, a better state to me belongs
Than that, which on thy humour doth depend.
Thou canst not vex me with inconstant mind,
Since that my life on thy revolt doth lie,
Oh what a happy title do I find,
Happy to have thy love, happy to die!
But what's so blessed fair that fears no blot,
Thou mayst be false, and yet I know it not.
Sonnets 91, 92, and 93, are logically connected with a ‘but’ and a ‘so’. They
could be considered together, but sonnets 91 and 92 are considered here,
and sonnet 93 considered next. Sonnets 91 and 92 reinforce the Poet’s
concern that the youth is both a person of the world and a persona of his
youthful experiences. Sonnet 93 then compares his natural logic of body
and mind to the conceits of religion.
In sonnet 91, the Poet contrasts his interests with those of society. He
notes that some ‘glory in their birth’, or in their ‘skill’ (91.1). Some glory
in their ‘wealth’ and others in their ‘bodies’ force’ (91.2). Others glory in
their ‘garments’ or their ‘Hawks, Hounds, or Horse’ (91.4).
He accepts that every ‘humour’ or diversion brings its ‘adjunct pleasure’
by bringing ‘joy’ to each individual (91.6). But for the Poet their interests
are not his ‘measure’ (91.7). He considers he betters them with a ‘general’
interest that is ‘best’ (91.8).
The ‘love’ evident in youth is ‘better’ to him than ‘high birth’ (91.9),
richer than ‘wealth’, prouder than the cost of ‘garments’, and of more
delight than ‘hawks and Horses’ (91.11). The Poet knows that in having the
Master Mistress he can boast of ‘all men’s pride’ (91.12). The sexual pun on
‘pride’ relates the Poet’s delight to the logic of increase. Because the love of
the youth is the key to ‘all men’s pride’, as dictated by the natural logic of the
Sonnets, the Poet enjoys a vantage beyond the reach of the usual social
The couplet concludes that if the youth took ‘this alone’ away from the
Poet, he would make the Poet ‘most wretched’. Shakespeare is in no doubt
that the philosophy he articulates in the Sonnets, and uses in his plays and
poems, is the greatest treasure available to mankind. His systematic
expression of the philosophy, and the continued ignorance of its logic for
400 years, is a comment on social prerogatives.
In response, sonnet 92 reveals the reason the Poet does not need ‘to fear
the worst of wrongs’(92.5). If the youth does his ‘worst’ to ‘steal thy self away’
(92.1), the Poet knows that for ‘term of life’ the youth is assuredly ‘mine’
(92.2). The logic of human nature is such that any male youth is inherently
related to the Poet, but more particularly because his own youthful experiences
are inalienable. ‘Life’ will stay no longer than the ‘love’ (92.3) of the
youth because logically, as defined in the increase sonnets, there is no love if
all human life is done away. Life depends on youth’s willingness to love (92.4).
The Poet has no ‘fear’ of the youth’s ‘worst of wrongs’ (92.5) because
the logic of youth, and so the Poet’s own youth, is mapped into the logic
of life. The Poet’s appreciation of natural logic means that he recognises that
the least of the youth’s wrongs, his self regard, has the greatest potential for
ensuring ‘life’s end’ (92.6). The Poet’s connection to the logic of Nature
ensures a ‘better state’ of mind than that determined by the youth’s ‘humour’
The youth cannot ‘vex’ the Poet with his ‘inconstant mind’ because ironically
the ‘revolt’ (92.10) of youth provides the Poet with the required insights
for a mature ease of mind. The consequence is a ‘happy title’ (92.11) that
lets the Poet accept the logic of ‘love’ because he knows what it means to
The Poet’s understanding of the logic of love and death provides the
background logic for Measure for Measure, where the Duke conveys the same
understanding of life and death to Claudius. Then, later in the play, the
murderer Barnardine exhibits the same sentiment after spending years on
and off death row.
The couplet notes, ironically, that while there is nothing so ‘blessed’ that
it cannot also be ‘false’, logically the role of the youth’s love in the larger
dynamic of life cannot be false. The Poet ‘knows it not’ because the choice
of humankind to survive or perish does not depend on knowledge alone.
The Poet has faith in the forces of Nature to bring the selfish tendencies of
youth to audit (126.11).
So shall I live, supposing thou art true,
Sonnet 93 connects logically with sonnets 91 and 92. In sonnet 91, the Poet
rated the particular ‘love’ he shares with the youth as ‘better than’ any other
attribute or skill. His potential for ‘love’was considered in the first 14 sonnets
of the set, where it was derived from the need for human persistence.
Like a deceived husband, so love's face,
May still seem love to me, though altered new:
Thy looks with me, thy heart in other place.
For their can live no hatred in thine eye,
Therefore in that I cannot know thy change,
In many's looks, the false heart's history
Is writ in moods and frowns and wrinkles strange.
But heaven in thy creation did decree,
That in thy face sweet love should ever dwell,
What ere thy thoughts, or thy hearts workings be,
Thy looks should nothing thence, but sweetness tell.
How much like Eve's apple doth thy beauty grow,
If thy sweet virtue answer not thy show.
Shakespeare’s development from adolescent idealistic ‘love’ to a mature
understanding of ‘love’ was probably hastened when, at 18, he and Anne
Hathaway, who was 8 years older, became pregnant before marriage. In
sonnet 92 (where the youth is identified as a persona of the older Poet),
Shakespeare seems to draw on his youthful experience of love. Sonnet 92
concludes by stating that, although any youth who is ‘blessed fair’ can also
be ‘false’, the one thing the youth cannot be ‘false’ about is his natural
potential for ‘love’.
In sonnet 93, the Poet considers various causes for misunderstanding the
nature of ‘love’. Because the youth cannot, logically, be untrue to his human
condition, the Poet will continue to ‘live, supposing thou art true’ (93.1).
If the youth ‘deceived’ the Poet by having his ‘heart in other place’ (93.4),
the Poet knows he cannot deceive the requirement for human persistence.
There can be no ‘hatred’ in the youth’s ‘eye’ (93.5), as this single ‘eye’ is his
sexual eye. That ‘eye’ does not change, even though a ‘false heart’s history’
(93.7) is written in the ‘looks’ of many, with their ‘moods and frowns and
wrinkles strange’ (93.8).
Then the Poet confronts the ‘false heart’s history’. If ‘heaven’ in the
‘creation’ of the youth formed a face in which ‘sweet love should ever dwell’
(93.10), then, whatever his ‘thoughts’ or ‘heart’s working’s’ (93.11), there
should be nothing but ‘sweetness’ in his ‘looks’ (93.12). But this is not the
case. The ‘sweet’ youth of the Poet’s sonnets lacks judgment as to what is
true or false, because he denies his natural potential in love. His reason is
disconnected from his life processes.
The couplet compares the idealistic youth to ‘Eve’s apple’ whose external
‘beauty’ is tempting, but whose ‘sweet virtue’ is all ‘show’. Shakespeare turns
the Genesis story of creation around to suggest that the blight of original
sin is a consequence of an idealised heaven divorced from the processes of
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Roger Peters Copyright © 2005