“Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,/And like enough thou know’st thy estimate:/The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;/My bonds in thee are all determinate.”

Shakespeare Sonnet #87

By Dennis Abrams

SONNET 87

Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know’st 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.
Thyself thou gavest, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me, to whom thou gavest it, else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision 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.

This sonnet reads as if it were the culmination of the rival poets’ sequence which has ended in the final rejection of the poet by the youth in favour of the rival. It links closely to Sonn.90 which has the same theme of dealing with rejection. The opening word ‘Farewell!’ is almost a sufficient summary of the whole poem. The long series of loving exchanges has finally come to an end, but the poet does not attach any blame to the beloved. Instead he finds justification for the rejection in his own inadequacies and deficiencies. Nevertheless it is difficult not to bring an opposite meaning to the poem, a meaning which subverts its ostensible message. This subversion is achieved by the use of legal and financial language which throws upon the youth the suspicion that he is a calculating snob who sees in his current liaison a serious misjudgement which will damage his social standing. The overwhelming sense of loss which the poem conveys also contributes to a feeling that the youth is cruel and responsible for an enormous and cynical betrayal.

KDJ suggests that the number 87 could be important in the sequence, possibly as a glance at the structural arrangement of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, a collection which commences a group of sonnets on the theme of separation at precisely this number. Sidney could also be linked through his description of feminine endings, which are used to the full in this sonnet and Sonnet 20. See the commentary on Son. 20 for the extract from Sidney’s Defence of Poesie which defines the types of endings possible.

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The 1609 Quarto Version

FArewell thou art too deare for my poſſeſſing,
And like enough thou knowſt thy eſtimate,
The Charter of thy worth giues thee releaſing:
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting,
And for that ritches where is my deſeruing?
The cauſe of this faire guift in me is wanting,
And ſo my pattent back againe is ſweruing.
Thy ſelfe thou gau’ſt,thy owne worth then not                                                                                  knowing,
Or mee to whom thou gau’ſt it,elſe miſtaking,
So thy great guift vpon miſpriſion growing,
Comes home againe,on better iudgement making.
Thus haue I had thee as a dreame doth flatter,
In ſleepe a King,but waking no ſuch matter.

Commentary

1. Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,

too dear = too precious. Also too costly, too expensive; too damaging. An echo perhaps of:
Was it the proud full sail of his great verse,
Bound for the prize of all too precious you,
86
for my possessing = for me to possess. There is also a paradoxical sense which hovers in the background ‘You are too much loved by me (too dear) for me to be able to possess you in love’.

2. And like enough thou know’st thy estimate,

like enough = it is probable that, probably. The expression however conveys a sense of doubt. Perhaps the reasons are not those shortly to be stated, and could be even worse (e.g. the youth is faithless).
thy estimate = your worth in other’s eyes, the value people put on you, your absolute worth independently of other’s opinion.

3. The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;

The charter of thy worth = a privilege and license legally attached to you because of the qualities and excellence which are inherent in you. The word charter recalls the Great Charter, or Magna Carta, which listed the rights and privileges of the barons under King John. Shakespeare uses the word usually in the sense of ‘rights and privileges sanctioned by law’.

releasing = freedom from the duties imposed by the bonds of love.

4. My bonds in thee are all determinate.

bonds – legal agreements, usually such as are made between borrower and lender. Shakespeare also uses the word in connection with the marriage bond and bonds of kinship. Thus Cordelia to Lear:
…..I love your Majesty
According to my bond, no more nor less.
KL.I.1.91-2.
Onions gives four meanings of the word: 1. chain, fetter, usu.pl.; 2. tie of duty, obligation of affection; 3. cementing or uniting force; 4. deed by which one binds oneself to make a payment or fulfil a contract. It is often found in connection with some sort of loving relationship. Of 75 occurrences of ‘bond’ in the Shakespearian corpus, more than half occur in the Merchant of Venice, in connection with the famous bond that Shylock has of Antonio, an agreement that Antonio will pay him one pound of flesh should he default on payment of a loan. In the plural (24 uses, including 3 in the sonnets) the word often refers to a physical constraint. Other than that it describes a moral obligation, or duty of love. The other two uses in the sonnets are as follows:

Accuse me thus: that I have scanted all
Wherein I should your great deserts repay,
Forgot upon your dearest love to call,
Whereto all bonds do tie me day by day;
117

……….not from those lips of thine,
That have profaned their scarlet ornaments
And sealed false bonds of love as oft as mine,
142

In this sonnet the meaning is coloured by legal, financial and loving considerations, and one could paraphrase as ‘all contracts I have entered into to love you, (or for you to love me) are now terminated’.

5. For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?

The use of the present tense here is noticeable, suggesting that the severance has not yet taken place. One would expect For how have I held thee. If one takes these lines in their literal and physical sense, as I believe one has to on occasion, the effect of contemplating the proposed separation is extraordinarily desolate. The emptiness is almost tangible as the poet reflects on the moments of love spent together which are to be no more. The continuation also of the legal and political terminology points the contrast between a simple and direct experience of loving and embracing and that of calculating the cost and benefit, since hold suggests holding a title and granting implies issuing a charter as a permit to love.

Lines 5-12 also are unique in their continuous use of the feminine -ing ending, a repetition which seems to hammer home the finality of separation and the desolation which it brings.(See note above).

6. And for that riches where is my deserving?

that riches – riches was often treated as a singular noun, similar to French richesse. Here it refers to the wealth of loving, holding, possessing,

7. The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,

The cause of this fair gift = the justification for you granting this fair gift of yourself.
is wanting = is lacking, is absent.

8. And so my patent back again is swerving.

patent = A licence to manufacture, sell, or deal in an article or commodity, to the exclusion of other persons; (See OED.2.), where the following example is also given: ‘1597 in D’Ewes Jrnls. 573 Abuses practised by Monopolies and Patents of priviledge.’ Towards the end of her reign in 1601 Elizabeth was petitioned by Parliament to correct the abuse of patents and monopolies granted by her. She professed to be surprised that such grants should act to the detriment of her people. A well known case of a patent ‘swerving back’ to the originator (usually the Queen) was the monopoly of sweet wines which the Earl of Essex used to enjoy, and which was the chief source of his income. On his return from Ireland Elizabeth did not renew it (1600), and this led directly to Essex’s rebellion, in which Shakespeare appears to have been indirectly implicated.

back again is swerving = reverts to the grantor. swerving is unusual in this context but is perhaps pressed into service for the sake of the rhyme with deserving.

9. Thy self thou gavest, thy own worth then not knowing,

Thy self thou gavest – SB notes that this phrase and possessing in line 1 are coloured by ideas of sexual possession and sexual submission. As also had in l.13.

10. Or me to whom thou gav’st it else mistaking;

Q gives a comma after it, but the natural meaning of the line seems to follow on from the previous one: ‘Or else you misjudged me, the beneficiary of your gift’. Most editors retain the comma after it and place an additional comma after me.

11. So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,

misprision – OED gives various meanings for this, some of them involving treason and felony. However the continuation of the sentence in the following line more or less confirms that the meaning required is ‘misjudgement, error’. The error of misjudgement made is corrected ‘on better judgement making’. Compare:

What hast thou done? thou hast mistaken quite
And laid the love-juice on some true-love’s sight:
Of thy misprision must perforce ensue
Some true love turned and not a false turned true.
MND.III.2.88-91.

upon misprision growing = founded upon misjudgement, becoming more misguided owing to the preliminary misjudgement.

12. Comes home again, on better judgement making.

Comes home again = reverts to the owner;
on better judgement making = when you succeeded in making a true and more realistic judgement.

13. Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter,

Thus have I had thee – In the past then it seems I have loved and possessed you only as etc.
as a dream doth flatter – but only as in a dream, which flatters by pretending to be real. flatter also had the meaning of stroke, caress (OED.1.b.). See Sonn.33.

14. In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.

In sleep a king = being, when I sleep, like a king (who is surrounded by flatterers); when I sleep enjoying all the privileges of royalty (by possessing you).
no such matter = not a king at all; having no such privileges, finding that the situation is in no way as my dream showed it to be.

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And this:

Synopsis

The poet admits that he no longer possesses the love of the youth, whose worth is too great for the poet, who could only possess him while the youth did not recognise his own worth. His time with the youth was like a dream of greatness from which he has now woken.

Shakespeare says, in essence, that the Fair Youth is so much better than he is that Shakespeare can’t possibly deserve him. Being unworthy, Shakespeare wants to release the Youth from the relationship so that “he can have the better life that he deserves” . In the closing couplet, Shakespeare says that while the relationship lasted, he felt like a king, but now he realizes it was simply a dream.

The structure of the poem forms an interesting and logical argument and progression . In the first stanza he is saying you’re too good for me, so I understand if you want to get rid of me. In the second stanza he is saying that I am nowhere close to good enough for you, but maybe you are not aware of it. And in the third stanza he is saying you are too good for me, but maybe you didn’t realize that before. In the closing couplet, Shakespeare confesses that no matter what the cause of misjudgment, you’re released by the mistake, and “I’m left here to remember our time together” when I felt like nobility [3].

Sonnet Formation/Rhyme Scheme

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 87 follows the traditional English sonnet form with fourteen lines consisting of three quatrains and a couplet. Although it follows iambic pentameter, it breaks from Shakespeare’s usual sonnet structure with its pervasive use of feminine endings, a rhyme of two or more syllables and which often ends with an unstressed syllable.

Along with Sonnet 20, Sonnet 87 is most representative of Shakespeare’s experimentation with feminine endings. However, there is critical debate over their effect. Helen Vendler proposes that the feminine endings, similar to their intermittent use in Sonnet 126, parallel “the poet’s unwillingness to let the young man go” . She notes that 12 of the 14 lines end with feminine rhymes. The movement between feminine and masculine endings, with the feminine endings receiving emphasis, enacts a longing on the part of the speaker for the young man to stay. Atkins adopts the view that the monotony of the feminine endings creates a somber tone of loss. Lines 2 and 4 are the only lines without feminine endings and they “ending as they do in pyrrhic feet, give the same elegiac effect”.

Legal and Financial Imagery

Critics commonly agree that Shakespeare uses legal imagery as a metaphor for the relationship between the speaker and the young man. Helen Vendler and Stephen Booth are of the same opinion that the legal terms of the sonnet frame the relationship between the speaker and the young man as a contract now void because of the beloved’s realization of his greater worth. The relationship between the speaker and the young man is expressed in the language of legal financial transaction: estimate, charter, bonds, determinate, riches, and patent, into the sonnet—also dear and worth in the financial sense. Booth, in addition to the above, understands hold and granting in a legal and financial sense as well.

Michael Andrews acknowledges the metaphorical use of legal and financial imagery like Vendler and Booth. However he proposes further that the legal and financial imagery, along with a “cooly ironic” tone, disguises the speaker’s true feelings which only fully appear in the couplet: “Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter,/ In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.” The couplet reveals that the speaker understands that the young man never fully gave himself. In this interpretation the legal and financial imagery of the three quatrains are more self-protective than sincere.

Murray Krieger offers a different view of the contract theory seen within Sonnet 87. In his analysis, he focuses his attention on the use of the word “dear” within the first line. He notes that the reader’s initial deduction of the word “dear” implies the idea of affection. But this initial impression of the word on the reader is immediately confronted by the word “estimate,” which essentially uncovers the reality of the speaker’s lowly position to the young man. Kreiger furthermore notes that the legal and financial terms strongly imply the poet’s bitterness towards his position: “at having love’s world of troth reduced to the niggardly world of truth, the world of faith to the world of fact”.

Couplet

Though Vendler and Booth understand the legal imagery in a similar fashion, they differ in their understanding of the couplet. Vendler proposes that the couplet has a defective key word. Vendler identifies “gift” as the key word of the sonnet as “gift” and its variants “gives” and “gav’st” appear in all three quatrains in lines 3, 7, 9, 10, and 11. However, this key word is defective because it is absent in the couplet. Its absence in the couplet reflects the desertion of the “gift,” the young man.

Booth understands the couplet to have sexual overtones. In the phrase, “I had thee as a dream” Booth suggests that “had” means “possessed sexually” or “embraced.” Sexual dreams were a common Renaissance topic and Booth suggests that Shakespeare is playing on this usage. He cites Spenser’s The Faerie Queene 1.1.47-49, Jonson’s The Dream, Herrick’s The Vine, Othello 3.3.416-432, and Gascoigne’s Supposes, 1.2.133 as contemporary works that contain sexual dreams. Booth also proposes that “matter” in the closing line has a sexual meaning in addition to meaning “real substance.” Here he cites examples of matter being used in its sexual sense in Hamlet 3.2.111: “country matter” and Julius Caesar 1.1.23: “women matters”.

Richard Strier additionally notes the complexity of the word “flatter” not only within Sonnet 87 but within other Shakespeare sonnets as well. While the word has been used “in contexts of purely negative self-deception” as well as “in the context of providing genuine beauty,” it is utilized within this poem as an “evocation of joy that is brief and delusive, but potent while it lasts”. The phrase “as a dream doth flatter” correlates strongly with the Petrarchan view that earthly joys are briefly.

Sexuality

Opening with the exclamation of “Farewell!” sonnet 87 reads very much like a break-up poem, which would suggest a romantic theme to it, and because of the sonnet’s addressee, the suggestion turns into a homosexual romance. At the very least, Shakespeare thinks that he owes it to the youth to break up with him, due to what Pequigney calls “the narcissistic wound.” Shakespeare’s undermining of himself is proof of an apparent “wound to the ego”.

Sonnet 87 is filled with over the top, romantic language towards the young man, with lines such as “Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter.” Yet when watered down, Pequigney argues that this simply states that Shakespeare is only acknowledging that he enjoyed knowing the young man. The use of romantic language masks the idea that this is purely a platonic love between the two males. In the sonnets addressed towards the young man, such as sonnet 87, there is a lack of explicit sexual imagery which is prominent in the sonnets addressed towards the dark lady. This, as Pequigney claims, is further proof “that nothing sexually amiss is to be found in the lyrics of that Shakespeare composed for the youth.”

A. L. Rowse, another Shakespearean critic, also rejects the existence of homoerotic suggestion in sonnet 87, arguing that the language of the time is simply so far from how we communicate today. The language between two friends “might be considered sexually implicit” in today’s world, but hundreds of years earlier was simply friendly.

However, Don Paterson, poet and author of Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Faber 2010), states categorically, “the question: ‘was Shakespeare gay?’ strikes me as so daft as to be barely worth answering. Of course he was.”

——————

And finally this, from poet Kelly Fineman:

Sonnet 87 by William Shakespeare

Today, I’m posting one of Shakespeare’s sonnets – number 87 (“Farewell, thou are too dear for my possessing”).

Today’s sonnet is part of the Fair Youth sonnets (#1-126), all of which are believed to have been written for the same young man (the leading candidate for which is Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. The first 17 of the Fair Youth sonnets advise the young man to marry and have children, so that his beauty can be passed on to subsequent generations, and appear to contain nothing more than platonic love (although the fact that the Shakespeare loved the person for whom they were written is not seriously in doubt). From sonnet 18 onward, a far more romantic relationship appears to exist between author and subject, with ups and downs as the sonnets progress, including linked sonnets here and there that tell a particular “chapter” in their relationship. Read together, the sonnets tell a story of an evolving relationship, with the introduction of additional characters as the story progresses, including rival poets and the Dark Lady (for whom the last 28 sonnets were written).

This particular sonnet comes at the end of a sequence of poems talking about the importance of the Rival Poet to the Fair Youth. Rather than bidding farewell to the Rival Poet, Shakespeare appears to be releasing the Fair Youth. It reads more like the work of a wounded lover who wants to hurt the Youth and earn his pity (and reassurance from the Youth that no, he still loves Shakespeare) than it does to an actual break-up poem to me, but lots of analysis indicates that others read this as a straight-up break-up poem.

Sonnet 87
by William Shakespeare

Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know’st 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.
Thyself thou gav’st, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me, to whom thou gav’st it, else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision* 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.

*misprision: misjudgment
Form
This poem is a Shakespearean sonnet, with the rhyme scheme ABABCDCDEFEFGG, and written in iambic pentameter. Yes, even though 12 of the 14 lines of this poem have 11 syllables and not the 10 you’d typically expect. The second and fourth lines of the poem are in standard iambic pentameter; the rest contain what is known as a “feminine” or unstressed ending. It’s one of the reasons I selected this poem for the day, to discuss the fact that sometimes one can have a feminine ending in iambic pentameter without it changing the name or nature of the metre.

Analysis
This poem sounds an awful lot like a break-up poem; at the very least, the speaker (who I will assume is actually Shakespeare) thinks that he owes it to the youth to break up with him, and is operating from the “woe is me, I’m not good enough for you” position. The conceit (here a word which means “extended metaphor”) which is in place for the poem is a comparison of the Fair Youth to a piece of property, which sounds like it ought to be demeaning, but isn’t because of how Shakespeare goes about it.

He says, in essence, that the Fair Youth is so much better than he is (either in social position or otherwise) that Shakespeare can’t possibly deserve him. (Cue Wayne and Garth bowing and saying “We’re not worthy!”) Being unworthy, Shakespeare wants to release the Youth from the relationship so that he can have the better life that he deserves. In the closing couplet, Shakespeare says that while the relationship lasted, he felt like a king, but now he realizes it was simply a dream.

The structure of the poem forms an interesting argument/progression:

First stanza: You’re too good for me, so I understand if you want to be rid of me
Second stanza: I am nowhere near good enough for you, but maybe you didn’t realize that before
Third stanza: You are too good for me, but maybe you didn’t realize that before
Closing couplet: No matter what the cause of misjudgment, you’re released by the mistake, and I’m left here to remember our time together when I felt like a king.

*cue Donkey from Shrek singing “I’m all alone, with no one here beside me . . .”*

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My next post will be Sunday evening:  an introduction to our next play, Richard II.

Enjoy your weekend.

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2 Responses to “Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,/And like enough thou know’st thy estimate:/The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;/My bonds in thee are all determinate.”

  1. GGG says:

    Do you pick up any link to Bottom in these lines?

    Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter:
    In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.

    Although Bottom cherished his dream for what it was, without the bittersweet mourning tone of this poem.

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