Shakespeare, Sonnet #107
Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.
The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured
And the sad augurs mock their own presage;
Incertainties now crown themselves assured
And peace proclaims olives of endless age.
Now with the drops of this most balmy time
My love looks fresh, and death to me subscribes,
Since, spite of him, I’ll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o’er dull and speechless tribes:
And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent.
Of all the sonnets this is the most difficult to give an adequate summary of, or to delve into its many meanings. It appears to be pregnant with hidden mysteries, and references abound to what appear to be contemporary events, situations and personalities. The majesty of the opening lines fills one with a sense of impending revelation, which indeed follows in the next two quatrains, but unfortunately, as soon as the spotlight of analysis is turned upon them, all the hidden meanings cloak themselves in mist, and the references to peace, mortal moons, the augurs and the balmy times evaporate into uncertain generalisations with no footing anywhere.
Nevertheless, since this has always been seen as an obvious dating sonnet, the effort must be made to place it somehow or other at a specific moment in history. I make out a case below for 1605, (notes to lines 5-8), since this was the date of a lunar eclipse (and a solar one also, a fact which must have kept the soothsayers exceedingly busy). Other recent commentators have opted for 1603 and 1604, and the early date of 1588 which was at one time proposed, based on the alleged reference to the crescent formation of the Spanish Armada, seems now generally to have been abandoned as unworkable. Coupled with the fact that Sonnets 99 and 104 refer respectively to 1599 and 1604, it seems appropriate that we have here also a date within the likely time span of composition.
Below I set out a list of the historical events which modern scholarship has suggested is referred to in the sonnet, together with the line which contains the reference.
It is important however to separate the question of the potential historical reference points, which may or may not be dateable, from the wider question of what the poem is attempting to say.
The first quatrain, taken in the context of what follows, seems to suggest that the prognostications of doom that the poet’s fears and the spirit of the world had prompted were entirely wrong. They have wrongly suggested that the poet’s love is circumscribed by time and death, whereas he now knows it to be everlasting. This is confirmed in the second quatrain by the descriptions of failure and error of the augurs in giving misleading and false predictions, for the dooms and catastrophes that they foretold have turned out instead to be times of peace and tranquility, and a quickening of love. Death has been conquered, despite the prognostications of soothsayers, and the rapacity of Time, and the beloved youth, through the force of this verse, will outlive the monuments of all kings and princes, however opulent they may be.
POSSIBLE HISTORICAL REFERENCES
5. The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,
See the note on this line below, where I argue for the date 1605, and the lunar eclipse in October of that year. Other dates and events suggested are as follows.
1. 1595. The year of another lunar eclipse. I have not opted for this date because none of the other references, to peace, to crowning and to the balmy time, none of these are congruent to that or even to the following year. The moon was said to be mortal because it died every lunar month.
2. 1595-6. The year of Elizabeth’s grand climacteric, when she was 63. Being the product of two mystic numbers, seven and nine, such a year in a person’s life was thought to be supremely critical. (See commentaries on Sonnet 63 and Sonnet 81). The identification of Elizabeth with the moon, or Diana, was a commonplace of the courtly and literary flattery of the time, so it is easy to accept that the mortal moon could have referred to her. However it is unclear why a grand climacteric year should be referred to as an eclipse, and the subsequent references to peace etc. do not seem to be appropriate .
3. 1599. Elizabeth was rumoured to be seriously ill, but survived her illness.
4. 1603. The year of Elizabeth’s death. This requires us to accept that hath her eclipse endured means ‘has suffered her own death’, a possible interpretation, but by no means certain. The other events referred to follow on from her death.
5. 1605. The year of a lunar eclipse in October. The subsequent events referred to are still equally valid if we accept this slightly later date.
7. Incertainties now crown themselves assured,
The incertainties are probably those which relate to James I, Elizabeth’s successor. James VI of Scotland was never acknowledged by Elizabeth as heir to the throne. There were at least 12 other contenders, and the possibility of civil war loomed. In the event the transition from Elizabeth I to James I (James VI of Scotland became James I of England and Scotland) ran smoothly, and there was widespread rejoicing. The use of the word crowned helps to fix the reference more securely as relevant to a king. James acceded to the throne in March 1603, and had a modest coronation on 25th July 1603, but there was a severe outbreak of the plague in London, causing the king and court to leave. His ceremonial entry into London, which was done on a grand scale, did not take place till the spring of 1604. It is probable that this sonnet post dates the triumphal entry, since the new reign would hardly have the opportunity to show itself in its true colours before the court was re-established in the capital.
8. And peace proclaims olives of endless age.
James I boasted of the peace he had initiated and secured on his accession to the English throne. He ended the war with Spain, which had lasted, albeit sporadically, for the previous twenty years. The Peace terms were agreed in late 1604.
9. Now with the drops of this most balmy time,
The imagery is essentially that of a plant being refreshed by the rain, but balm was a rich unguent used at the coronation to anoint the monarch, and Shakespeare in Richard II cites it as symbolic of the sacred person of the king.
Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king. R2.III.2.54-5.
In the history plays, it seems, for Shakespeare, balm is associated with kingship. On the other hand it is worth noting that for the only two other uses of the word balmy in the corpus the word does not have this meaning, but conveys the more usual sense of ‘soft, fragrant, soothing, delicious’. More significant is perhaps the fact that these two occurrences are found in Othello, a play which is thought to have been written in 1604.
I’ll smell thee on the tree.
Oh balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword! Oth.V.2.16
To have their balmy slumbers waked with strife. Oth.II.2.259.
Its use here could therefore pertain as much to the soft and pleasant enjoyment of peacetime pursuits, as to the political achievement of peace with all nations which James claims to have effected.
10. My love looks fresh,
The two main contenders for the title of the beloved youth had reasons for rejoicing when James ascended the throne. Southampton was released by the king from the tower on 10 April 1603, as one of the first acts of his accession. And Pembroke was installed as a Knight of the Garter on 25 June 1603.
For further information on all these points of dating, see JK pp.313-19 and KDJ Intro. pp.21-4. (See General notes for these refs.)
The 1609 Quarto Version
NOt mine owne feares,nor the prophetick ſoule,
Of the wide world,dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the leaſe of my true loue controule,
Suppoſde as forfeit to a confin’d doome.
The mortall Moone hath her eclipſe indur’de,
And the ſad Augurs mock their owne preſage,
Incertenties now crowne them-ſelues aſſur’de,
And peace proclaimes Oliues of endleſſe age.
Now with the drops of this moſt balmie time,
My loue lookes freſh,and death to me ſubſcribes,
Since ſpight of him Ile liue in this poore rime,
While he inſults ore dull and ſpeachleſſe tribes.
And thou in this ſhalt find thy monument,
When tyrants creſts and tombs of braſſe are ſpent.
1. Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Not ……. nor = neither …….nor. The verb occurs in line 3, i.e. can control. ‘Neither my own fears, nor the world’s soul, can control the duration of my love’.
the prophetic soul of the wide world = the conscious soul of the world, as expressed by human thought, understanding and intuition at large. From the times of the earliest Ionian philosophers, the question was debated as to whether or not the universe had a soul. Later, Plato considered the question in the Timaeus. The phraseology here seems to be biblical, reminiscent of darkness being upon the face of the deep, and the spirit of God moving upon the face of the waters. (Gen.1.2.)
2. Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,
dreaming on things to come – this can apply both to mine own fears and to the prophetic soul of the wide world. Both of them have the potential to foretell the future.
dreaming = musing on, prognosticating. Shakespeare uses ‘dreamer’ in the sense of ‘soothsayer’ in Julius Caesar:
A soothsayer bids you beware the Ides of march.
He is a dreamer; Let us leave him. Pass. JC.I.2.19, 24.
3. Can yet the lease of my true love control,
yet – the meaning of this is uncertain. It could have a temporal significance, meaning ‘at this stage in our existence’, or it could mean ‘up till now’, implying that the future power of such fears and predictions is still in doubt. Compare for example
Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath
Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty:
Thou art not conquered; beauty’s ensign yet
Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks, RJ.V.3.92-5
the lease = the tenure, the possession of. Essentially it is a legal term, defining the conditions by which the lessee holds a property. A lover possesses the beloved according to the conditions that time allows, since both parties are mortal, and their love cannot last forever, at least in the purely material context which Time defines. For the spiritual elements of love, which here are perhaps being set against its temporal and predictable aspects, see sonnet 116 and others:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments… etc.
control = restrict, restrain, manage. Possibly also refute, rebuke, as in The Tempest:
The Duke of Milan
And his more braver daughter could control thee Tem.I.2.440-1.
However the most common use of the word in Shakespeare is with its usual modern meaning of ‘to hold sway over, exercise power or authority over; to dominate, command’ (OED.4). It is found in 12 instances in the plays (4 times as a noun), and twice in The Rape of Lucrece. Most famous perhaps is Othello’s despairing cry:
But oh vain boast! Who can control his Fate? Oth.V.2.265,
where its meaning seems to be self-evident. Here we should perhaps paraphrase the line as ‘are yet (not) able to restrict my hold on my true love, or restrict his hold on life itself’.
4. Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.
Supposed – the antecedent could be mine own fears, the prophetic soul of the wide world, the lease of my true love, or simply my true love. The most likely, and the most satisfactory both in sense and grammatically, is the lease of my true love, since it is spatially the closest. forfeit to a confined doom. This latter phrase, though superficially transparent, and perhaps paraphraseable as ‘liable to surrender due to the harsh conditions of destiny’, is elusive. A forfeit is a penal fine, or penalty for failure in a contractual obligation. Doom probably here means ‘fate, destiny’, and confined implies imprisonment, or restriction of freedom in some way. a confined doom could be a destiny which threatens restrictions, a harsh and punitive destiny.
5. The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,
mortal moon – If taken literally as referring to the moon, the implication is that it is mortal because it dies each month. The moon that returns is a new moon. If taken as referring to Elizabeth, then the mortality refererred to is her’s.
her eclipse – i.e. the eclipse of the mortal moon. Most recent editors, most notably KDJ and JK, see this as a reference to Queen Elizabeth’s death in 1603. It is worth noting however that there was a partial lunar eclipse on Oct 17 1605. Eclipses of heavenly bodies attracted far more attention from the fortune tellers and sad prophets than many other earthly events. This was partly because they were highly visible and spectacular, compared with political and social crises, which often were obscured by hearsay evidence, mis-reported, and, worst of all for the soothsayers, entirely unpredictable. Paradoxically it was the predictability of eclipses which made them such a fruitful stimulus of prophetic pronouncements. A superstitious population was readily led to believe in the imminence of all manner of calamities and catastrophes, all the more so when one considers that a single year’s bad harvest could lead to famine, at the worst, and serious price rises in staple foodstuffs at the least. Such eventualities could usually be pointed to somewhere in the world nearby, and the fortune tellers, quacks and soothsayers no doubt claimed credit for having foreseen them.
The line therefore could be a direct reference to the lunar eclipse of 1605, and the poem would be slightly later than the 1604 date espoused by JK and KDJ. The meaning of endured in this case would not have to be stretched to mean ‘died’, as it has to be if we take it as referential to the death of Elizabeth. The more natural meaning seems to be ‘the mortal moon has endured and survived her own eclipse, and the foolish prophets etc.’
Setting the date of composition forward to 1605 does of course extend the overall period in which the sonnets were probably written. No doubt further revision could have continued right up until the date of publication in 1609. (See the introductory note). The references to other events in the lines below would still be the same if the poem were composed in 1605. Since the peace with Spain was only concluded in August 1604, it would be relatively fresh in the memory, especially as England had technically been at war with Spain for twenty years prior to that.
6. And the sad augurs mock their own presage;
the sad augurs = the sad prophets and astrologers. An augur was an ancient Roman official, or priest, who had the duty of deciding if the omens for a battle, expedition etc. were favourable or unfavourable. sad = grave, serious, portentous. It is also possible that they were mournful at the failure of their own predictions.
mock their own presage = laugh at their own prophecies, which have not been fulfilled. Or, perhaps, their mere continued existence mocks them, since many were predicted to be destroyed in the general catastrophe.
7. Incertainties now crown themselves assured,
‘The uncertain outcome of various (critical) situations is now known, and they have turned out favourably’.
Strictly speaking, incertainties cannot themselves become certain, but there is an implication here that the events which hung on a knife edge are now duly resolved, and that all is well. The use of the word ‘crown’ is suggestive of coronations, and it is now thought that the incertainty of the succession after Elizabeth was a matter of such serious concern that it was at the forefront of the minds of many. (See the historical notes above). This would date the sonnet to late 1603 or post 1603.
8. And peace proclaims olives of endless age.
olives = olive branches, olive trees. The imagery is essentially that of a proclamation, perhaps by a herald, of a declaration of peace, or a settlement of peace terms. Here the object declared is not peace itself, but the symbol of peace, the olive. The association of the olive with peace is an ancient tradition. (See Genesis 7.11, where the dove returns to Noah with an olive twig, as a sign that the deluge was past). In the ancient world olives were an essential commodity, but olive trees required at least nine years to establish themselves. This could only be done in times of peace. Marauding armies would frequently hack down olive trees in order to cause maximum damage to the places they had invaded. Hence production of olives was a sign of peace and stability.
9. Now with the drops of this most balmy time,
the drops of this most balmy time – in a general sense this refers to a time of growth and regeneration, caused by the invigorating warm rains of spring. But balm was also used in the anointing of a monarch, so the indirect reference is probably to the balmy time after the accession of James I to the throne, more specifically to the time after his triumphal entry into London in 1604. (See the historical notes above). Shakespeare uses the adjectival balmy on only two other occasions, in the sense of fragrant, delightful, intoxicating, in Othello. (See above).
10. My love looks fresh, and Death to me subscribes,
(See the historical notes above). Aside from the historical associations which have pre-occupied commentators, there is the ordinary sense in which this phrase may be understood, that is, ‘my love for the youth rejuvenates itself, even after a time of lassitude and decay. Both he, and my love for him, (one and the same thing), are eternally fresh’.
Death to me subscribes = death consents to allow my prerogative of loving on my terms. The meaning has to be inferred from the context. The root meaning is to append one’s name to the bottom of a document, as a testimony and witness to the contents. By extension in Shakespeare it comes to mean to submit, or admit, or yield to (some fact or authority), to acquiesce (OED. 7-9, with examples mostly from Shakespeare). For example:
For Hector in his blaze of wrath subscribes
To tender objects, but he in heat of action
Is more vindicative than jealous love TC.IV.5.105-7.
where Hector is compared to Troilus (the he of line 2.). The meaning seems to be ‘yields to, is subject to’. There are 15 uses of subscribe in the plays, of varying shades of meaning, and two of subscibes.
Onions gives these meanings: 1.) Sign (one’s name) LLL.I.1.19; put one down for R2.I.4.50. 2.) Admit, acknowledge, assent to MM.II.4.89; etc.; (intr.) admit one’s inferiority or error 1H6.II.4.44. 3. Surrender, yield KL.I.2.24; (intr.) yield, give in (to feelings of pity) KL.III.7.65. Also ‘subscribe for’ and ‘subscribe to’ with similar meanings.
11. Since, spite of him, I’ll live in this poor rhyme,
spite of = in spite of.
this poor rhyme – this is conventional modesty, in which the poet denigrates his own worth. rhyme = verse, poetry (not necessarily rhymed).
Note that the poet here speaks of his own immortality. Perhaps because his verse is ‘poor rhyme’ he does not wish it to be immediately associated with the young man.
12. While he insults o’er dull and speechless tribes:
insults = tramples over, or on; triumphs over. The Latin word, insultare, to which I believe the poet here makes reference, was often used in the context of dancing upon and trampling over the graves of fallen enemies, as the ultimate gesture of contempt. Speechless tribes would have no language available to them with which to write immortal verse. It is probable that travellers brought back tales from the New World, or from China and the Far East, of tribes who were illiterate and possibly appearing to communicate only by animal sounds.
13. And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
in this = in this my verse.
thy monument – as in 60, 63, 65 etc. The thought goes back at least as far as Horace:
Exegi monumentum aere perennius
I have built a monument more lasting than bronze. See additional notes to Sonnet 64.
14. When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent.
tyrants’ crests – the plumes on the helmet of tyrants, hence, figuratively, a tyrant’s glory. Also, the coats of arms of tyrants, which were symbols of power while they lived, and adorned their tombs after they had died.
tombs of brass – the brass monuments on tombs were a common feature of church furniture of the time.
are spent = are wasted away, consumed, destroyed by time.
My next post: Tuesday night/Wednesday morning
Our next play will be “The Merchant of Venice.” I think I’m going to wait, though, until my Thursday evening/Friday morning post to give the introduction for that — we just finished two major history plays, and I think a little break might be in order — Tuesday night’s post will be something fun.
Enjoy the sonnet.