“O, never say that I was false of heart,/Though absence seem’d my flame to qualify.”

William Shakespeare

Sonnet #109

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d–yTNrdVMc

SONNET 109

O, never say that I was false of heart,
Though absence seem’d my flame to qualify.
As easy might I from myself depart
As from my soul, which in thy breast doth lie:
That is my home of love: if I have ranged,
Like him that travels I return again,
Just to the time, not with the time exchanged,
So that myself bring water for my stain.
Never believe, though in my nature reign’d
All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood,
That it could so preposterously be stain’d,
To leave for nothing all thy sum of good;
For nothing this wide universe I call,
Save thou, my rose; in it thou art my all.

SONNET 109             PARAPHRASE

O, never say that I was false of heart,    O, do not say that I was untrue,

Though absence seem’d my flame to qualify.      Though absence from you seemed to make my love less warm.

As easy might I from myself depart        I could as easily depart from myself

As from my soul, which in thy breast doth lie:     As from my soul, which lies in your breast;

That is my home of love: if I have ranged,          That is my love’s home: If I have wandered,

Like him that travels I return again,        Like a traveller, I return home again,

Just to the time, not with the time exchanged,     I arrive punctual to the time but I do not change with the time,

So that myself bring water for my stain.             So that I myself bring water to wash away my stain*.

Never believe, though in my nature reign’d         Never believe, even if in my nature there reigns

All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood,          Every type of sensuality,

That it could so preposterously be stain’d,         That my nature could be so preposterously lustful,

To leave for nothing all thy sum of good;            To give up all your goodness;

For nothing this wide universe I call,      For I call the whole universe nothing,

Save thou, my rose; in it thou art my all.             Except you, my rose; in this universe you are my everything.

ANALYSIS

[Line 8]* The poet’s “stain” is his unfaithfulness to the young man.

We can sense here a confidence and independence in the tone — a tone found only in a few of the Sonnets. The poet reveals that his feelings toward his friend have cooled during his time away from London, likely during a tour with his acting company, the Chamberlain’s Men (around 1594). His confession that in his nature “reign’d/All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood” (9-10), illustrates that his passions have no doubt been aroused by other acquaintances. This becomes even more apparent if we read Sonnet 110, in which the poet admits that his infidelities fulfilled a need to reclaim his youth: “These blenches gave my heart another youth” (7). The theme continues throughout Sonnets 111-120, and the poet uses many terms for the same crime: “stain”, “frailties” (109); “offences” (110); “harmful deeds”, “infection” (111); “shames” (112); “diseased” (118); “transgression” (120); etc. Many scholars believe that Shakespeare’s relationship with his dear friend (likely the Earl of Southampton ) is more than platonic and few sonnets lend credibility to this argument more so than 109-120. Although the poet freely admits his “stain”, he insists that through his errors the love he feels for his “rose” has been strengthened: “Never believe…That it could so preposterously be stain’d/ To leave for nothing all thy sum of good” (11-2). Sonnet 109 is an apology of sorts, but the poet in no way begs for forgiveness. What we find instead is “tender praise finely contrived, perhaps as a valediction” (Winifred Nowottny. In New Essays on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, New York: AMS, 1976, [66]).

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z_E4TQQzBeQ

O! never say that I was false of heart,
Though absence seemed my flame to qualify,
As easy might I from my self depart
As from my soul which in thy breast doth lie:
That is my home of love: if I have ranged,
Like him that travels, I return again;
Just to the time, not with the time exchanged,
So that myself bring water for my stain.
Never believe though in my nature reigned,
All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood,
That it could so preposterously be stained,
To leave for nothing all thy sum of good;
For nothing this wide universe I call,
Save thou, my rose, in it thou art my all.

After a period of separation the poet asserts his undying loyalty to the youth. However, he cannot deny that his standards have slipped somewhat, and that he has ranged abroad and tasted other fruit. His guilt is such that he has to acknowledge the stain on the purity of his pure love, which he undertakes to cleanse with tears. The argument in his defence seems to be that all his extraneous attachments have been entirely superficial, for it would be impossible for him to separate himself from his beloved, since they are one, and that no one in the universe, not even the universe itself, could match the sum of beauty and goodness which he beholds and clings to in the wonderful boy, whom he likens once again to a rose, the most perfect flower in creation.

The final couplet, in its totality of commitment and devotion, equals anything the poet has yet said to the beloved youth, and bears testimony to the immortality of his love.

For comments on and description of the rose, in Gerard’s Herbal, first published in 1597, and therefore contemporary with the Sonnets, see end of page.

The sonnet seems to spring from an accusation of unfaithfulness. An accusation which the poet denies, using a certain amount of sophistry in the process. He does not deny that he has had other loves, he merely claims that they were nothing in comparison with the great joy of loving what is everything to him, his all, his universe, his rose. Unfortunately these are the excuses of the philanderer throughout the ages, and the formulae of repentance ring even more hollowly than the formulae of prayer repeated in the previous sonnet. However the game of loving declarations and exchanges must be played over once more, and poetry will make it seem true. And despite the apparent cynicism of some of the arguments, the greater preponderance of the sonnet is devoted to reestablishing the rapport and idealism of the initial love when first they met. The sincerity and devotion of the last two lines redeems the otherwise lame excuses in the eyes of all lovers.

It is worth pointing out that the separation and ‘ranging’ here described could have arisen as a result of the youth’s absence, rather than any enforced or wilful wandering of the poet. If the Earl of Southampton was the favoured youth, the estrangement could have been caused by his imprisonment in the Tower of London, after the Essex rebellion in 1601, an imprisonment from which he was not released until the accession of James I to the throne. Such confinement would obviously remove him from contact with his friends, and they would thus have the freedom to roam ‘here and there’ without excuses having to be made. On Southampton’s release the charge of unfaithfulness would then have to be defended, if the former rapture of love was to be renewed.

The 1609 Quarto Version

ONeuer ay that I was falſe of heart,
Though abſence ſeem’d my flame to quallifie,
As eaſie might I from my ſelfe depart,
As from my ſoule which in thy breſt doth lye:
That is my home of loue,if I haue rang’d,
Like him that trauels I returne againe,
Iuſt to the time,not with the time exchang’d,
So that my ſelfe bring water for my ſtaine,
Neuer beleeue though in my nature raign’d
All frailties that beſiege all kindes of blood,
That it could ſo prepoſterouſlie be ſtain’d,
To leaue for nothing all thy ſumme of good :
For nothing this wide Vniuerſe I call,
Saue thou my Roſe,in it thou art my all.

Commentary

1. O! never say that I was false of heart,

The poet responds to a real or imaginary accusation of betrayal.

2. Though absence seemed my flame to qualify,

absence = the separation (absence) of me from you, or you from me. Because of the comparison with ‘him that travels’ in line 6 below, we tend to think of the separation as being caused by the poet’s peregrinations and occupations elsewhere.
my flame
= my passion, my love.
to qualify
= to reduce, to diminish; to dilute. As in Hamlet
Love is begun by Time:
And Time qualifies the spark and fire of it.
Ham.IV.7.114

3. As easy might I from my self depart

As easy might I = it would be as easy for me to etc. …….. as it would be to etc.

4. As from my soul which in thy breast doth lie:

my soul which in thy breast doth lie – The mutual interchangeability of hearts and minds has been used often in the sonnets, and was already a common theme of love poetry.

Lines 3-4: = ‘It would be as easy for me to separate myself from myself as it would be for me to separate myself from you (my true self), i.e., it would be impossible’.

5. That is my home of love: if I have ranged,

my home of love – the beloved place to which I always return; my base; my essential being; the core of love, which is my starting and ending point.
ranged
= wandered, (a euphemism for promiscuity).

6. Like him that travels, I return again;

like him that travels – the phrase may be taken (promiscuously) with what proceeds and what follows.

7. Just to the time, not with the time exchanged,

Just to the time = exactly on time, in accordance with expectation;
not with the time exchanged
= not altered by the changed circumstances.

8. So that myself bring water for my stain.

my stain – Christian doctrine regards sin as staining the immortal soul, a stain which may be washed away with repentance, or the tears thereof. Holy water was also efficacious.

9. Never believe though in my nature reigned,

Even if it were the case that in my nature such and such follies reigned supreme, you must never bring yourself to believe that etc., etc. There is a possibility of sexual innuendo in nature, reigned, all, frailties, nothing, preposterous, stained. Nothing for example was frequently used as a euphemism for female genitalia. (See SB pp.352-3).

10. All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood,

frailties = dispositions to sin, weaknesses of the flesh.
all kinds of blood
= all types of character, all temperaments. With a suggestion also of family, kinship, line of descent. Base blood would be considered to have baser desires than blood of a noble line. The implications in the following sonnets, 111 & 112, of the poet’s baser social connections might well be relevant here. blood could also mean ‘animal passions, carnality, or a tendency to such.’ (See Onions 2,3).

11. That it could so preposterously be stained,

it = my nature (line 9).
preposterously
= unnaturally, irrationally; perversely; absurdly. OED 2. From the Latin root, praeposterus, reverse, back to front, perverted, arse-backwards. A similar use in Othello:
For nature so preposterously to err,
Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense,
Sans witchcraft could not.
Oth.I.3.61-3.

be stained – see the note to stain in line 8.

12. To leave for nothing all thy sum of good;

for nothing – i.e. for the unworthy rivals for your love, who are nothing in comparison to you. all thy sum of good = the totality of you, which is all goodness; all the many aspects of your goodness.

13. For nothing this wide universe I call,

The implication is that the entire universe is as nothing compared to the beloved, even though, paradoxically, he is a part of that universe. In this case, the part is greater than the sum of all the parts.
universe
– used only once elsewhere in Shakespeare:
Now entertain conjecture of a time
When creeping murmur and the poring dark
Fills the wide vessel of the universe.
H5.IV.Prol.1-3.

He uses universal more frequently, 14 times in all, viz. AC (2), AYL, H5 (3), JC, LLL, Mac, MV, RJ, TC (2), WT. For what it is worth, eight of the 14 uses occur in the plays written between 1596 and 1602.

14. Save thou, my rose, in it thou art my all.

my rose – From as early as Sonnet 1 the rose, as the exemplar of all that is beautiful, has been presented as the most fitting symbol and simile of the youth. I give below an extract from Gerard’s Herbal, which gives some idea of the special place that the rose occupied in Elizabethan thought.

The totality of devotion which the concluding couplet implies seems to sweep aside all the apparent sophistry of the preceding arguments. It is as if the poet has grown weary of them, he turns away from them, and says effectively ‘What does it matter? Since you are my universe nothing that I have done can take me from you, or can have the slightest effect on our relationship’.

 

Additional notes

An extract from Gerard’s Herbal, A History of Plants, published in 1597.    
  OF ROSES The kindes.

The Plant of Roses, though it be a shrub full of prickles, yet it had bin more fit and convenient to have placed it with the most glorious floures of the world, than to insert the same here among base and thorny shrubs: for the Rose doth deserve the chief and prime place among all floures whatsoever; being not only esteemed for his beauty, vertues, and his fragrant and odoriferous smell; but also because it is the honor and ornament of our English Scepter, as by the conjunction appeareth, in the uniting of those two most Royall Houses of Lancaster and Yorke. Which pleasant floures deserve the chiefest place in crownes and garlands, as Anacreon Thius, a most antient Greeke Poet affirmes in those Verses of a Rose, beginning thus:

   

The Rose is the honour and beauty of floures,
The Rose in the care and love of the Spring:
The Rose is the pleasure of th’heavenly Pow’rs.
The Boy of faire Venus, Cythera’s Darling,
Doth wrap his head round with garlands of Rose,
When to the dances of the Graces he goes.

Augerius Busbequius speaking of the estimation and honor of the Rose, reporteth, That the Turks can by no means endure to see the leaves of Roses fall to the ground, because some of them have dreamed, that the first or most antient Rose did spring out of the bloud of Venus: and others of the Mahumetans say that it sprang of the sweat of Mahumet.
But there are many kindes of Roses, differing either in the bignesse of the floures, or the plant it selfe, roughnesse or smoothnesse, or in the multitude or fewnesse of the flours, or else in colour and smell; for divers of them are high and tall, others short and low, some have five leaves, others very many.

(I omit the following: a description of the various types of rose, the white, the red, the common damask rose, the Rosa Provincialis minor, the rose without prickles, and the Holland or Province rose. Then a description of their places and times of flowering.)

The Vertues
The distilled water of Roses is good for the strengthening of the heart, and refreshing of the spirits, and likewise for all things that require a gentle cooling.
The same being put in junketting dishes, cakes, sauces, and many other pleasant things, giveth a fine and delectable taste.
It mitigateth the paine of the eies proceeding of a hot cause, bringeth sleep, which also the fresh roses themselves provoke through their sweet and pleasant smell.
Of like vertue also are the leaves of these preserved in Sugar, especially if they be onely bruised with the hands, and diligently rempered with Sugar, and so heat at the fire rather than boyled.

The Temperature and Vertues of the parts

The conserve of Roses, as well as that which is crude and raw, as that which is made by ebullition or boiling, taken in the morning fasting, and last at night, strengthneth the heart, and taketh away the shaking and trembling thereof, and in a word is the most familiar thing to be used for the purposes aforesaid, and is thus made:
Take Roses at your pleasure, put them to boyle in faire water, having regard to the quantity; for if you have many Roses you may take more water; if fewer, the lesse water will serve: the which you shall boyle at the least three or foure houres, even as you would boile a piece of meate, untill in the eating they be very tender, at which time the Roses will lose their colour, that you would think your labour lost, and the thing spoiled. But proceed, for though the Roses have lost their colour, the water hath gotten the tincture thereof; then shall you adde unto one pound of Roses, foure pound of fine sugar in pure pouder, and so according to the rest of the Roses. Thus shall you let them boyle gently after the sugar is put thereto, continually stirring it with a wooden Spatula untill it be cold, wherof one pound weight is worth six pound of the crude or raw conserve, as well for the vertues and goodnesse in taste, as also for the beautiful colour.
The making of the crude or raw conserve is very well known, as also Sugar roset, and divers other pretty things made of Roses and Sugar, which are impertent to our history, because I intend neither to make therof an Apothecaries shop, nor a Sugar-Bakers storehouse, leaving the rest for our cunning confectioners.

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My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning:  An introduction to Henry IV, Part Two

Enjoy.

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2 Responses to “O, never say that I was false of heart,/Though absence seem’d my flame to qualify.”

  1. GGG says:

    This is one of those sonnets that makes me sense the real person behind the poetry, asking forgiveness for a transgression. Not Shakespeare the super-human, but a real man with flaws.

    Sometimes I wonder about interpreting every sonnet under the structure of “the love of the youth.”

    THis part is really out on a limb: I could see Shakespeare writing this to Anne Hathaway! You know: “Yes, I know I’ve strayed while I’ve been in London, but I always come back to Stratford….” For a different interpretation of Anne–not the harridan most portray–try Germaine Greer’s “Shakespeare’s Wife.” She defends the bequest of the infamous “second-best bed”!

    P.S. I am halfway through Henry IV Part One; sorry to miss the comments, but hope to be back on track for Part Two.

    • GGG: I agree that the sonnet seems to be one of Shakespeare’s more revealing, more openly personal. Not to worry though, not every sonnet falls under the structure of the ‘love for the youth.’ Soon enough, we’ll be getting to the grouping that seems to be written for the infamous “Dark Lady.”

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