“Were ‘t aught to me I bore the canopy,/With my extern the outward honouring,/Or laid great bases for eternity,/Which prove more short than waste or ruining?”

William Shakespeare

Sonnet #125

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SONNET 125

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=le1OvIqDf0cWere ‘t aught to me I bore the canopy,

With my extern the outward honouring,
Or laid great bases for eternity,
Which proves more short than waste or ruining?
Have I not seen dwellers on form and favour
Lose all, and more, by paying too much rent,
For compound sweet forgoing simple savour,
Pitiful thrivers, in their gazing spent?
No, let me be obsequious in thy heart,
And take thou my oblation, poor but free,
Which is not mix’d with seconds, knows no art,
But mutual render, only me for thee.
Hence, thou suborn’d informer! a true soul
When most impeach’d stands least in thy control.

This is effectively the final sonnet to the youth, the next one being a sort of envoi or farewell sonnet. It is linked closely to the two preceding ones, and echoes their ideas. Critics have also picked out two closely related texts which seem to have a bearing on this sonnet. Part of the first scene of Othello contains many verbal echoes. The following words and phrases are relevant: second, forms and visages of duty, thrive, obsequious, outward, extern. The full extract is printed at the end of the page. The second text is the Communion Service from The Book of Common Prayer, (1559) of which the portions significant in this context are printed below. (A link is also given to the complete text).

It is always difficult to dissect the relationship between any two written works. Here we would expect the sonnet to resemble closely the Othello extract and the Communion Service to be only a distant cousin. In fact the opposite seems to be the case, for the harsh dictums of Iago are of a Machiavellian cynicism and are a total rejection of the doctrine of the Eucharist. Whereas the Communion Service reaches right to the heart of the themes of the sonnet. So it is not a matter of the use of similar words that is relevant, but what those words seek to convey. We may perhaps most profitably use the Othello resemblance as a pointer to the date of the sonnet. Other than extern, the words themselves are not uncommon. It is the combined use of all of them in both sonnet and play which is unusual. One may therefore hesitantly suspect a proximity in date of composition of the two pieces. Since Othello is fairly reliably dated to circa 1604, and many commentators have thought that the references to the canopy and the smiling pomp of the previous sonnet may be remembrances of the coronation procession of James I, which took place on March 15th 1604, we may conjecture that post that date, say 1604/5, is the most probable date of composition. As one of the most densely worded and richly allusive of all the sonnets, we should rightly expect it to be of a later date anyway, and these small pointers help to confirm that impression.

Further details of the links with the thoughts expressed in parts of the Communion Service are given in the appropriate notes below, especially in those for lines 8, 10, 11 and 12.

Two further points may be mentioned. The first is the problem of the suborned informer, who suddenly and unexpectedly makes his appearance in the final couplet. There is no unanimity of agreement as to whom or what it refers, whether to a real assailant, or a shadow image, or the youth himself, or Time the great enemy of all. Perhaps all of these possibilities were intended, and I certainly do not propose to adjudicate on the issue. Readers must make up their own minds on the reasons or implications of the sudden introduction of this strange figure in a couplet which can seem to be unrelated to the remainder of the poem.

Secondly there is the question of the contrast between the Latinate words which are so predominant throughout and their Anglo Saxon counterparts. The contrast is between compound sweet and simple savour, and reaches its apogee in the Latinate oblation opposed to poor but free, and me for thee. HV for example makes much of these contrasts. The truest love is also the least adulterated with foreign admixtures and can only be expressed in native language, and not through imported words. Such perhaps is one of the messages of the sonnet. It is possible to read into it also, (although HV does not), a statement of faith in the ideals of the English reformation, and a rejection of the Latin mumbo jumbo of the Roman Church and the Catholic mass. Shakespeare could thus be indirectly showing his loyalty to the crown and to the articles of the Anglican faith. This may be one of the undercurrents of meaning with which the poem abounds. However the politics of religion at that time were so complex, and religious loyalties so much twisted into a knot through the rival claims of patriotism and conscience, that I have no doubt that it would be possible to prove also that the poem demonstrates exactly the opposite. The Latinate words occur in the Tridentine Mass and the echoes could well be from that, rather than from the Anglican Communion service, which itself derives from the Mass.  (See the Introductory Notes for further discussion of these points.)  Readers again must decide this matter according to their own consciences and inclinations.

The 1609 Quarto Version

WEr’t ought to me I bore the canopy,
With my extern the outward honoring,
Or layd great baſes for eternity,
Which proues more ſhort then waſt or ruining?
Haue I not ſeene dwellers on forme and fauor
Loſe all,and more by paying too much rent
For compound ſweet;Forgoing ſimple ſauor,
Pittiful thriuors in their gazing ſpent.
Noe,let me be obſequious in thy heart,
And take thou my oblacion,poore but free,
Which is not mixt with ſeconds,knows no art,
But mutuall render onely me for thee.
Hence,thou ſubborndI nformer, a trew ſoule
When moſt impeacht,ſtands leaſt in thy controule.

Commentary

1. Were’t aught to me I bore the canopy,

Were’t aught to me = Is it of any consequence to me? Does it matter to me? Would it be (have been) of benefit to me? The ought of Q is a variant spelling of aught.
I bore = that I bore, that I could have borne, that I might (in the future) bear. The context does not make it clear whether this is a future or past event referred to, or if the speaker did actually participate in a procession. The tone of the sonnet however, and that of the two preceding ones, implies that he did not and would not involve himself in such ceremonials, which are nothing in comparison with true love. Or that if he did, it touched only his external person and meant nothing to his heart.
canopy = a baldaquin carried on poles in a procession, to protect and give shade to some illustrious person. The use of the suggests that some particular event is being referred to, possibly the coronation procession of James I on 15 March 1604. Shakespeare, as a leading member of the King’s Men, as his acting company was then called, was granted four yards of red cloth for use in this procession. No doubt this would have been for the manufacture of some rich garment. However we do not know if he did or did not take part in the ceremony. The previous sonnet, It suffers not in smiling pomp, could possibly refer to the same event, since one of the meanings of the word pomp is ‘procession’. (OED.2.) Being selected as one of the canopy bearers was a great honour for an aristocrat. See the illustration opposite for an example. A canopy was also held over the consecrated host in processions, such as on the feast of Corpus Christi.
bore
= carried. The tense of the verb is uncertain. It could be past tense, or it could imply ‘that I might at some time carry it in the future’.

2. With my extern the outward honouring,

With my presence (i.e. the external part of me) doing honour to a public persona (who can be known only by outward show).

3. Or laid great bases for eternity,

great bases = vast foundations (such as might be used for pyramids). However, since the speaker is hardly in a position to be involved in such undertakings, the reference is perhaps symbolic. He would not desire to do so, even if it were possible. Or perhaps he refers obliquely to his own poetry, which will live on when Tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent. Possibly he no longer asserts this, concerned only to prove that his love alone is eternal, and not his poetry.
for eternity
= to last for all eternity.

4. Which proves more short than waste or ruining?

Which – the antecedent is probably the laying of great bases for eternity, or the bases themselves.
proves
= turns out to be. This can be either a singular or plural verb.
more short than waste or ruining
= shorter lived than if they were the immediate objects of Time’s destruction and ruination. The construction is elliptical, and one has to interpret it according to its more obvious purport, and in terms of the words waste and ruining Thus ‘(It would be of no import if) I involved myself in great projects, which are often more short lived than waste and ruin themselves’.

5. Have I not seen dwellers on form and favour

Have I not seen – a rhetorical question equivalent to ‘Surely it is well known that etc.’
dwellers
= those who insist upon, those who live according to the rules of etc.
form and favour
= the appurtenances of ceremony; the formalities of the court, and its rewards. The obsequiousness due to great ones, and the favours bestowed by them.

6. Lose all and more by paying too much rent

all and more – that there cannot be more than all does not seem to have bothered Shakespeare. Compare:
For whether beauty, birth, or wealth, or wit,
Or any of these all, or all, or more,
37
Commentators suggest that it might refer to losing all that one has, and, in addition, getting into debt. However it is not necessary to insist on a rigid interpretation. The excessive loss of all and more points to complete ruin for the devotee of the favours of the great.
paying too much rent
= laying out too great a commitment. The phrase is metaphorical. Although it could refer primarily to financial ruin, it indicates the total ruin of the person so engaged in the transitory and false pursuit of ambition. The rent they are paying is their devotion to such a cause.

7. For compound sweet, forgoing simple savour,

Giving up (forgoing) the simple delights (of true love) in favour of the complex rewards of political preferment. The metaphor is from medicine, where simples referred to unmixed herbal remedies, compounds to mixtures of several substances, or possibly it is a metaphor from cooking. Both compound and sweet may be taken as nouns or adjectives. Taking the former as the adjective the phrase means ‘an elaborate and complex sweet dish’. Compare also:
‘He may turn many a rare esteemed physician into shame and blushing: for whereas they, with infinite compounds and fair promises, do carry men to death the furthest way about; he with a few simples preserves himself and family to the most lengthened sufferance of nature’.
John Stephens Essays and Characters, A Shepherd 1615.
savour
= taste, flavour. I suspect also that there is a punning reference to ‘our Savior’, mentioned many times in the Communion service. It is spelt savor in Q. See the note to line 10 below.

8. Pitiful thrivers, in their gazing spent?

Pitiful thrivers = superficially successful go-getters who in reality should be pitied; wretched and miserable time servers who put on a veneer of success.
In their gazing spent
= who waste their time and energies in gaping at what others do. One of the echoes from the communion service. See below for the full text, and the note to oblation, line 10. The gazers in the Communion Service are castigated as sinful malingerers who are making a mockery of truth.

9. No; let me be obsequious in thy heart,

No – see the note to line 1 of Sonnet 123.
Obsequious in thy heart
= dutiful, serving you silently, devoted to you inwardly. The word is from the Latin obsequor, to accommodate oneself to the will of another, to comply with, yield to, submit to.

10. And take thou my oblation, poor but free,

take thou = receive (this gift)
oblation
= offering, gift. From the supine of the Latin irregular verb fero, I bear. This is a religious term, used in the Communion service of the Anglican church, of which there seem to be echoes in this sonnet. (See the second extract below). The only other occasion on which Shakespeare uses the word is in A Lover’s Complaint.

Lo, all these trophies of affections hot,
Of pensived and subdued desires the tender,
Nature hath charged me that I hoard them not,
But yield them up where I myself must render,
That is, to you, my origin and ender;
For these, of force, must your oblations be,
Since I their altar, you enpatron me.
LC.218-224.

Clearly this extract has a lot in common with the present sonnet, for the youth is offering himself, his affections and desires, to the maid who is the object of his albeit temporary adoration. His desires are the oblations, and he offers them from himself as the altar. The thought is somewhat complex, especially with the word enpatron (for which OED only gives this example), but it seems that both here and in the sonnet the echoes of the communion service are unmistakable and would have been apparent to anyone alive in Elizabethan England, for all of whom church attendance on Sunday was compulsory. It is the combination of the words savour, gazing, oblation, pure, seconds, render, me for thee, altar, which call to mind the Last Supper, the table (altar), the love feast, the pure offering of oneself, the consecration, and the implied words ‘Read this in remembrance of me’, just as Christ said ‘Do this in remembrance of me’. The implied thought is ‘Just as The Son of God, our Saviour, offered up himself as an oblation to redeem mankind, so I offer myself to you, to remain with you for eternity. And just as at the last supper our Saviour broke bread and offered it to his disciples, enjoining them to continue the observance as a remembrance of him, so I render myself to you, that we may be eternally joined in the sacrament of love. As often as you read this poem you will be commemorating my love for you, which has no end’. SB is of the opinion that none of the references are sufficient to make a reader think of the Eucharist while reading the poem. This I would dispute, for there are simply too many of them to pass unnoticed, and the rarity of the word oblation is in itself enough to trigger the echoes in the minds of those familiar with the service. In any case one cannot expect so delicate a subject to be flaunted entirely openly, and conventions of the time would require that covert references at most be used in likening one’s love to that of Christ’s oblation of himself on the cross. There is only a thin dividing line between outright blasphemy and the mystic’s expressions of passionate love, although intrinsically there is nothing wrong with asserting that all human loves partake of the pattern of divine love, the love of God for the human race, and the particular manifestations of that love known to the Christian faith. But an open expression of such comparisons could easily be misinterpreted and could render its author the subject of intense scrutiny and imprisonment. Therefore such hints as have been noted are as much as we would expect in the political and religious circumstances of the time, but they are there nevertheless, and cannot be disregarded.

11. Which is not mixed with seconds, knows no art,

Which – refers to my oblation, the offering of my love.
seconds
= second rate material, impurities. Significantly, the word was used in the gradation of flour. OED gives an instance, dating from 1618, of its adjectival use to describe inferior bread, and one from 1577 describing the second extraction of honey. Occurence of the noun is not recorded for another century, other than this instance, which is glossed as ‘A quality (of bricks, flour, etc.) second and inferior to the best’ (OED.(a. & n.2). 5). The link with the purest wheat bread that conveniently may be gotten for the Eucharist should not be overlooked. There may also be a disclaiming (but nevertheless blasphemous) reference to the second person of the Trinity, God the Son, who redeemed both me and thee.
knows no art
= is not cunning or devious.

12. But mutual render, only me for thee.

render = rendering, offering (of each to the other). I.e. the only art (skill) that his love knows is that of the mutual exchange and mingling of loves, the rendering of one to the other. The word ‘render’ is used in the Communion service in the following: Dearly beloved, forasmuch as our duty is to render to Almighty God our heavenly Father most hearty thanks, for that he hath given his Son our Savior Jesus Christ, not only to die for us, but also to be our spiritual food and sustenance, … See the note to line 10 above.

13. Hence, thou suborned informer! a true soul

Hence = Get thee hence! In this context almost equivalent to ‘Get thee behind me Satan!’
suborned = bribed. An informer in Elizabethan or Jacobean times would be in the pay of the government. Walsingham built up an extensive intelligence service under Elizabeth. Informers could of course embellish the reality in order to gain greater credence. Those informed against were not necessarily guilty.
suborned informer – it is not known for certain to whom this refers, if indeed it is to a real person or to a mere abstraction. Some editors think it refers to the youth himself, others to an onlooker who has been misinforming the youth, while others think it harks back to Sonnet 123 and is a final challenge against Time, who attempts to distort and destroy the reality of love. Of the most recent editors, JK thinks it is a malicious onlooker; KDJ thinks that most probably it is Time itself; GBE either some specific individual or tale bearers generally; SB lists ‘a self-serving toady’ or the youth himself as possibilities. Seymour Smith is confident that it is the Friend himself, who is finally being reminded that the poet is not, and never has been, under his control. (Shakespeares Sonnets, 1973, p.175). It could refer in a general sense to the devil’s advocate who is always at hand to defeat idealism, and to all those who disbelieve in the power of love.  (See the Introductory Notes for further discussion of the suborned informer).

14. When most impeached stands least in thy control.

impeached = accused. It is often used in connection with accusations of treason, but can have a wider application, suggestive of any sin or crime. Shakespeare does not use the word much (about 10 times) and the following is typical:

I am disgraced, impeach’d and baffled here,
Pierced to the soul with slander’s venom’d spear,
The which no balm can cure but his heart-blood
Which breathed this poison.
R2.I.1.170-3.

stands least in thy control = is the least subject to you, is not in your power in any way.

Or, another take:

This sonnet’s message appears to be two-fold. First, the author is contemplating the fragility of life and the short life span of mankind’s ventures. Second, the author directly addresses a significant other, offering himself in exchange for the addressee, with no ulterior motives. In fact, sonnet “125 expresses unequivocally its preference for the simple”. Most likely, the addressee of this sonnet is the “Fair Youth” that is commonly featured throughout Shakespeare’s sonnets because it falls within the sequence of 1-126. Much like other sonnets from what scholars call the “Fair Youth” sequence, this one is apparently instructing the young man to consider his mortality and make the most of his life. In the final two lines, or couplet, the author suddenly addresses an unknown “subdued informer” and tells him or her that he is outside of their control.

Quatrain 1

The first quatrain introduces the reader to the author’s general argument of mankind’s endeavors. In the author’s opinion, earthly ventures such as carrying the “canopy”, which would have been placed on the head of a celebrity during a ceremony, or “great bases” to mean massive foundations, are meaningless because time and “ruining” destroy them. Booth also notes the author’s play on words in lines 3-4. By placing eternity at the end of line 3 and saying, “proves more short”, Shakespeare is highlighting the lack of timelessness in such endeavors. As aforementioned, this is a common theme of Shakespeare’s sonnets and this quatrain of Sonnet 125 reiterates the motif of mortality.

Quatrain 2

The second quatrain continues this theme on mankind’s pointless attempts. However, as the first quatrain started with broad and majestic endeavors, this quatrain begins to relate more to the common desires of mankind. In line 5, the quatrain starts by mentioning people’s obsessions with their “form and favor”, which should be understood as “outward appearance” and “the good will of superiors”. Next, in line 6, the quatrain addresses how people give up simpler pleasures in order to spend all of their resources “and more” on their foolish obsessions. This line hints that people often go into debt over their “pitiful” attempts at luxurious living.

Quatrain 3

The final quatrain offers the poem’s volta, or “turn in thought” (“volta” def. 1). This third section changes the focus from general reflection to a direct address of the “Fair Youth”. The author begins with a declaration that he will be “obsequious” and dutiful to the “Youth”. The speaker then asks the “Fair Youth” to accept his “oblation” or offer, which is free of both monetary obligations and underhanded motivations. Line 11 highlights that the promise is “without seconds”, or consisting of pure intentions. Booth also states that because the initial “h” was often dropped in Elizabethan English, this word may in fact mean heart and have a double entendre. Finally, Shakespeare reminds the “Youth” that his love is given freely in exchange for his.

Couplet

Like all sonnets, the final two lines form a couplet. These final two rhyming lines abruptly change the focus of the poem once again by addressing a new party called a “subdued informer”. While it is not clear who this “informer” is, many critics disagree on why the author chooses to end this sonnet by directly addressing them. For example, Vendler believes that the “informer is a third party that views “the speaker’s motives in cultivating the young man are mercenary”. However, according to another critic, Heather Ousby, the unknown character of the “subdued informer” is actually the “Fair Youth” himself. She argues that Shakespeare is purposefully taking a stern and direct approach because Shakespeare is approaching the end of the sequence. Regardless of the “informer’s” identity, this couplet offers a final and interesting turn to this sonnet.

Rhyme Scheme

Shakespearean sonnets, with few exceptions, follow a consistent fourteen line structure with three quatrains and a couplet, using iambic pentameter Often referred to as an “English sonnet” or “Shakespearean sonnet”, this type of poem uses the typical rhyme scheme of “a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g”. This poetic rhyme scheme finds it’s roots in the infamous Petrarchan sonnet form, but according to Raphael Lyne, Shakespeare’s sonnets are very different from Petrarchan sonnets, though no less emotionally complex and thematically profound.

According to Carol Thomas Neely, Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-1547) brought the Petrarchan sonnet to England and assimilated it into the English Renaissance culture by changing the traditional Italian rhyme scheme, “a-b-b-a-a-b-b-a” octet and the “c-d-e-c-d-e” sextet, to a more fitting English rhyme with three quatrains and a rhyme scheme of “a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f” with a final couplet, “g-g”.This form, in iambic pentameter, later became associated with Shakespeare, as a majority of Shakespeare’s sonnets follow this form with few exceptions.

As seen in Sonnet 125, the meter of the poem or the rhyme scheme is occasionally altered from the typical “a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g” structure. Sonnet 125 uses a varying rhyme scheme of a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-a-e-a, f-f, with “free” (line 10) and “thee” (line 12) corresponding to the rhyme of “canopy” in line 1 and “eternity” in line 3. There are many views as to why Shakespeare chose to vary the rhyme scheme in Sonnet 125.

Philip McGuire believes this type of free verse is meaningful. McGuire argues that Shakespeare, with his variation in verse, is claiming to not be a “dweller on form” (line 5) and “free” (line 10) from the repetitive form of the traditional “English sonnet”, adding to the symbolism contained in the lines.McGuire also states that the speaker of the sonnet exclaim’s that his “oblation” (line 10 ) to his beloved is “poor but free” (line 10) and “knows no art/, But mutual render, only me for thee” (lines 11-12) which directly pertains to the rhyme scheme, as rhyme in itself is “mutual render” (line 12), dependent on two separate words to exist. The speaker states that his art is “poor but free”, “poor” in a sense that it is missing one of the perfect seven rhymes found in typical sonnet structure, but has only six, an imperfect structure missing an important piece, alluding to the mindset of the speaker in his loss of the Fair Youth’s affections, directly corresponding to the “mutual render” embodied in the rhyme scheme and the “mutual render” he feels towards his beloved. In effect, the atypical character of the “mutual render” binding the a rhymes of sonnet 125 is a literal testimony of the selfless generosity that the speaker ascribes to the “mutual render” he and his beloved share – “only me for thee”.

Helen Hennessy Vendler agrees that Shakespeare’s variation in verse is a deliberate emphasis on the symbolism and meaning to the speaker’s words. Vendler comments on the intention of the rhyme scheme, claiming that Shakespeare as a poet is conscious of grammatical and syntactic possibility as “ingredients of invention” and he “routinely, but not idly, varies tense, mood, subject-position, and clause-patterns in order to make conceptual or rhetorical points”. Vendler acknowledges Shakespeare’s art within words and claims that any variation to the rhyme scheme is intended to add purpose to the poem itself.

Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells also argue that varying rhyme scheme is intensional but is not necessarily premeditated to attach further symbolism to the speaker’s words. Rather, states Edmondson and Wells, the altered rhyme scheme, if not only for the literal symbolism contained in the lines, is meant to keep the mind of the reader engaged. To go further, Edmondson and Wells believe that the variation of the rhyme mirrors the fluctuation of the poet’s emotions and thoughts as he writes, or the emotional uncertainty of the speaker, conveyed to the reader through the abnormal rhyme pattern.

Symbolism, Character Identity, and Tone

Sonnet 125 carries a great deal of symbolic language, but the purpose and structure of a sonnet do not allow nor require detailed explanation of the meaning of this language. Due to the ambiguous nature of Shakespeare’s words, this sonnet can be understood in a variety of ways. A number of scholars have examined Sonnet 125 and come away with different conclusions about its message. The number of characters identified by scholars ranges between two and four depending on how the language throughout this particular sonnet and the entire sonnet cycle is interpreted. As the number of characters fluctuates, the meanings assigned to each action within the sonnet take on new meaning.

According to Thomas M. Greene, Sonnet 125 contrasts the true values of grand external gestures in opposition to simple acts of inward devotion as a means of attaining the affections of the Friend. The First Quatrain sets out the argument that the Speaker could perform grand external gestures such as the bearing of a ceremonial canopy or the building of some great monument, but that these actions cannot outlast ruination. The idea being that these actions are fleeting and are therefore of little value to either the Speaker or the Friend.

Greene recognizes the “great bases” of line 3 to be a manor house which carry over into his understanding of the Second Quatrain. According to Greene, this “manor house is faintly sustained by “ruining”, “dwellers”, “rent”, and the possible allusion to compound and simple interest”. This economic terminology transforms the actions of the suitors into a sort of currency that is spent too quickly. In line 7, the compound sweet is seen by Greene as an artificial confection or overwrought style of poetry in great use by the other suitors who are themselves poets. It is a reference to Sonnet 76 in “which the poet reproached himself for omitting it from his own verse”. The symbolism behind dwellers and rent is meant to show that a large number of people are offering grand gestures of affection with nothing to show for it in the end. There is no returned investment when you rent a property, because the owner receives and retains all of the expense you put into it. Greene puts a great deal of meaning to the closing line of the Second Quatrain. According to Greene, the word “spent” means bankrupted, exhausted, and failed while also referring to being “drained of semen”. He sums this up by adding, “Unsuccessful entrepreneurs, with only the groundworks built of their mansion of love, the failure of their misguided, formalist generosity is symbolized by the suitors’ symbolic distance from their prize, observable but not touchable”. The suitors are “pittifull thrivors” who have expended so much to win affection only to find themselves wanting.

In the Third Quatrain, Greene recognizes the shift from the overt actions of the other suitors toward the inverted and humble actions of the Speaker. The Speaker wishes to be seen as dutiful and devout by the Friend. To do so, the Third Quatrain employs language that evokes thoughts of a religious servant who makes sacrifice. According to Greene, “In this secularized sacrament, the dutiful poet freely makes an offering intended to manifest the inwardness and simplicity of his own devotion, knowing, or thinking that he knows, that his oblation will win him the unmediated, inner reciprocity which is his goal”.Greene adds that the “unformulated implication of the work as a whole seems to be that expense is never truly recuperated”.Though the Speaker is seeking a relationship of reciprocity through means not employed by the other suitors, he still uses the art of poetry to make his case for the affection of the Friend. Greene sees this as the wedge between the Speaker and the object of his affection. He says, “Language is condemned to be compound; poetry is art; it shapes and forms and distorts; it introduces inequalities, like the inequality between an offering and an exchange, or the inequality between a secular offering and the sacramental body of Christ”.Thus, the Speaker has created a distance between himself and the Friend by creating these sonnets.

In the Couplet, Greene determines that the “informer” is not someone who slanders the Speaker, but that the voice within himself is the enemy. By giving his actions form through poetry, the Speaker has joined up with the other failed suitors in paying rent for which he gets no return.

Ronald Levao agrees with Thomas M. Greene’s understanding that the Speaker replaces “superficial pomp, external loyalty, and possibly the “art” of poetry itself” with “pure simplicity and single-minded, quasi-religious devotion” in order to receive “mutual render”.He does disagree with Greene’s summation of the informer from line 13. Levao sees the informer as some unnamed person who has broken the mood of Sonnet 125 by bringing forth accusations against the Speaker. This changes the meaning of the sonnet for Levao. He sees it as “not a defiance of Time or court gossip nor even a reproach to the young man for spurning the proffered mutuality, but the poet’s final attempt to revive his commitment”.

Heather Ousby points out that the identity of the “subbornd Informer” has proved especially contentious for critics. She points to several interpretations of the informer which include the Friend, some sort of spy, and “an abstract force such as jealousy”. In her interpretation of the Sonnet, Ousby settles on the idea that the informer represents the Friend. She bases this thought on the various meanings of the word “suborn” during this time period. Rather than spying, informing could also be seen as inspiring and thus it would refer to the inspiration for the sonnet. Likewise, the term suborn meant corruption in loyalty which the Speaker accuses the Friend of in other sonnets.Ousby is making a case for eliminating the informer as some third party, much like Greene. The difference is that Ousby uses the subtraction of this would-be character to shift the tone of the sonnet. She agrees that the first two quatrains concern how the “dwellers on form and favor are destroyed by that humiliating process” of giving unreciprocated affection. She sees the third quatrain as a plea to the Friend or as a directive to both of them. The couplet, however, becomes a means of stating the Speaker’s independence from the Friend due to his “poor but free” oblations which mean a lot but cost so little. For Ousby, the Speaker seems to be separating himself from a disloyal patron who demeans his work.

C.R.B. Combellack openly challenges Ousby’s interpretation of the Informer’s identity. He feels that since, “Shakespeare’s objections to false accusations against him are the very subject matter of the poem, an Informer who lays information against another is particularly apropos in the poem”. Combellack subscribes to the idea that there are four characters represented in Sonnet 125: the Speaker, the Friend, the Informer, and the Suborner. He believes that the actions of the first quatrain were accusations leveled against Shakespeare as the Speaker. For Combellack, Shakespeare becomes the canopy-bearer as a means of advancement toward fame and fortune. In the second quatrain, Shakespeare shows how those who participate in these grand gestures often pay too much and lose a great deal only to have their gestures be seen as empty.Combellack sees the third quatrain as the offer of genuine love to the Friend, “uncomplicated by any secondary thought of self-interest, in return for love”. The couplet then changes tone once more as Combellack views it. He sees it as Shakespeare defending himself against gossip by pointing out how “outrageously untrue gossip” could not possibly be believed by his Friend.There is more hope in Combellack’s interpretation of Sonnet 125, because he sees the altruism of the love offered by Shakespeare and how vehemently he denies the rumors against him.

———————

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning – an introduction to our next play, Julius Caesar.

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5 Responses to “Were ‘t aught to me I bore the canopy,/With my extern the outward honouring,/Or laid great bases for eternity,/Which prove more short than waste or ruining?”

  1. S. Bucay says:

    Hello,
    The Signet edition of the Sonnets says: “Which proves more short than waste or ruining?” instead of “Which prove more short than waste or ruining?” Any comments? Thank you much!

  2. GGG says:

    A new film of Julius Caesar:
    http://www.mfah.org/films/caesar-must-die/

    My take on the sonnet: maybe the reason for the religious language is more a continuation of the commentary on “simplicity” as exemplified by Jesus’ manner, i.e. not influenced by wordly pomp, rather than a secretly blasphemous linking of the love of the friends to the communion service.

    I vote for the suborned informer as being the Friend, and that the poem is a version of “accept me as I am, not as you want me to be.”

    The fun of reading Shakespeare is that there are so many interpretations (as referenced above), that an amateur like me can feel ok about taking a stab at it.

    The commentary referred to a link to the 1559 BCP but I didn’t see one, so googled it. This form as it was slightly modernized through the years would be familiar to anyone whose Episcopal/Anglican church uses the 1928 prayer book or Rite I of the modern prayer book. The modern version used in most churches today is much simpler and doesn’t use the word oblation. I grew up in an Episcopalian church with the 1928 prayer book (used till 1979 I think) and I believe that the early exposure to this rich language is what has always drawn me to Shakespeare!

    From the 1559 Book of Common Prayer, Communion service:
    ALMIGHTY God our heavenly father whiche of thy tender rnercye, diddest give thine onely Sonne Jesus Christ, to suffer death upon the Crosse for our redeption, who made ther (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a ful, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the synnes of the whole worlde, and didde institute, and in his holy gospel commaunde us to continue a perpetual memory of that his precious deathe, untyll his comminge againe: Heare us O merciful father, we besech the, and graunt that we receivyng these thy creatures of breade and wine, accordinge to thy sonne our saviour Jesu Christes holy institution, in remembrauce of his death and passion, may be partakers of his moste blessed body and bloude, who in the same night that he was betraied, toke bread, and when he had geven thankes, he brake it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: Take, eate, this is my bodie, which is geven for you. Doe this in remembraunce of me. Likewise after supper he toke the cuppe, and when he had geven thankes, he gave it to them, saying: Drinke ye all of this, for this is my bloude of the new Testament, whiche is shedde for you and for many, for remission of sinnes: doe this as oft as ye shall drinke it in remembraunce of me.

    • Mahood says:

      You’re right GGG, the language of Cranmer’s 1559 Book of Common Prayer is fantastic – I have a ‘modern’ version of it and it’s hopeless: not a patch on the original. Must try and pick up a copy of the 1559 version.

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