“So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,/And, Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.”

Shakespeare Sonnet #146

Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
[Why feed’st] these rebel powers that thee array?
Why dost thou pine within, and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? is this thy body’s end?
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And, Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.


CXLVI. In this Sonnet, which apparently stands alone, the poet reflects on the folly of bestowing excessive care on the body, the soul’s outer covering and ministering servant. In conclusion, he expresses the resolution to attain immortality, by nourishing the soul at the body’s expense.

1. The centre of my sinful earth. The soul is here spoken of as a “centre,” encompassed by “sinful earth.” “Turn back, dull earth, and find thy centre out,” Romeo and Juliet, Act ii. sc. i, line 2,has been justly compared; but here “centre” has a somewhat different meaning.

2. [Why feed’st]. “Feed’st” is used in i. 6. In Q. the first three lines of this Sonnet stand thus:

Poore soule the center of my sinfull earth,
My sinfull earth these rebbell powres that thee array,
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth.

It is manifest that the second line as thus given is wrong, but how it is to be corrected is a matter concerning which the opinions of critics have very greatly varied. The general scope of the Sonnet must be taken into account. The principal subject is manifestly the feeding of the body and soul; and the conclusion come to is, that the latter, and not the former, is to be fed. The emendation, “Why feed’st,” is thus suitable. Moreover, the “my” of the first line and the “why” commencing alike the second and third lines may have been the cause of confusion and error. Then, too, there is a verse of Southwell’s “Content and Ritche” which Shakespeare may have had in view:

Spare diett is my fare,
My clothes more fitt than fine;
I knowe I feede and cloth a foe,
That pampred would repine
(Grosart’s Reprint in Fuller Worthies’ Library, p. 74).

These rebel powers. An excellently illustrative passage is to be found in Lucrece, lines 719-723, where the rebellion of Tarquin’s fleshly lusts is spoken of:

His soul’s fair temple is defac’d,
To whose weak ruins muster troops of cares
To ask the spotted princess how she fares.
She says, her subjects with foul insurrection
Have battered down her consecrated wall,” &c.

Array. Clothe, bedeck. The late Dr. Ingleby maintained “that ‘array’ in this Sonnet means ill-treat or bring into evil condition” (Shakespeare: the Man and the Book, Pt. I. p. 166). But the context seems to preclude this meaning here, whatever might be the possible sense of “array” in another connection.


Sonnet 146, which William Shakespeare addresses to his soul, his “sinful earth”, is a pleading appeal to himself to value inner qualities and satisfaction rather than outward appearance. Line 1 indicates the main idea by first showing that the poor soul exists on the Earth. However, the words “poor” and “sinful” shows the sorrow of sadness and depression towards the soul.Despite the complication in metaphor, the soul is considering Earth as an unethical and bad place because humans are mortal beings. Lines 3-6 question why he places so much energy and value into outward appearance (which may be considered as social or physical) by using the metaphor of a house gaudily decorated and painted but having nothing short of famine within. :Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,

The person is being questioned on why show importance towards life if death will apparently start and constantly go on. Line 4 is a metaphor comparing our bodies to outside walls. Line 4 explains that we focus and concentrate on our bodies and life than we do on death.

Painting thy outward walls so costly gay? The theme the poem therefore teaches us is simply that the afterlife is fare more important than now. Life isn’t infinite and we should prepare and focus on our death even more.

Lines 7-14 reason that inner enrichment is much more important because the body is ultimately subservient to the soul, and is far more transient. The ending couplet proposes even though death “feeds” on mortal bodies, the soul will be eternal and therefore is victorious.

So shalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men,

And death once dead, there’s no more dying then.

The sonnet is notable for its uncharacteristically religious tone and call for moral richness, whereas most sonnets treasure earthly qualities of beauty and love. In its vocabulary and vocative address to the soul the sonnet invites comparison with Psalm 146.

Although Michael West has persuasively argued that this sonnet is indebted to the medieval genre of poetic dialogues between soul and body the extent to which the sonnet actually presents conventional Christian arguments about the relationship between body and soul is a matter of considerable critical debate. John Crowe Ransom counters an older tradition of reading the sonnet in straightforward Christian terms by making the general observation that the “divine terms which the soul buys are not particularly Christian: there are few words in the poem that would directly indicate a conventional religious dogma.”  B.C. Southam makes an effort to build on Ransom’s passing remark in a more developed argument about the sonnet which seeks to show that Shakespeare’s speaker is inspired more by a “humanist” philosophy that ironically undermines a rigidly Christian “rigorous asceticism which glorifies the life of the body at the expense of the vitality and richness of sensuous experience.”  Southam’s argument for an ironically humanist poem is countered, in turn, by Charles Huttar, who attempts to bring the poem back into alignment with a certain Christian worldview: for example, Huttar claims that “these rebel powers” that “array” the soul in line 2 refer not to “the physical being” or body but rather to the lower powers of the soul itself, the passions or affections. Understood in this way, the sentiment of the poem appears in accord with a certain Christian tradition that rejects “extreme asceticism.”

However, in a long discussion in his edition of the sonnets, Stephen Booth critiques both Southam and Huttar as engaging in “oversimplification.”  Booth tries to split the difference between these critical perspectives: “It is as unreasonable and unprofitable to argue that Sonnet 146 does not espouse an orthodox Christian position on the relative value of mortal and immortal considerations as it is to deny that the poem generates the ideational static that Ransom and Southam point out.” In Booth’s view, conventional Christian ideas and images “coexist” with seemingly contradictory un-Christian ideas and images: “the incompatible elements, points of view, and responses . . . do not undergo synthesis.” For Booth, Sonnet 146 contains multiple, sometimes conflicting, elements that cannot and should not be reduced to a singular, univocal argument about body and soul.


Various moralistic tracts from Mediaeval times onwards lamented the way the soul was neglected in favour of the body, and there was a long tradition of dialogues held between the two. It is probable that the debate goes back to ancient times and to Stoic beliefs, for Stoicism despised worldly and material goods in favour of the spiritual life, and Neo-Platonism elevated the soul to a status well above that of the body.

However this sonnet derives probably from a more homely tradition and relies more upon the moral opprobrium heaped upon extravagant displays of wealth by writers with a puritanical or jealous cast of mind, and perhaps also on sermons delivered from the pulpits.

I set out below two extracts from contemporary authors which give the flavour of the criticism levelled against the society of the time.

It is said that this is one of Shakespeare’s profoundly religious sonnets, almost the only religious one. Profoundly meditative might be a better description, since it nowhere mentions God, although it certainly considers the threat of impending death. Within the sonneteering tradition there had also developed a tradition of renunciation. The lover, tired of endlessly battering at the impregnable walls of the beloved’s chastity, might as a final protest retire to the contemplative and religious life. To a certain extent the germ of this trend had been sown by Dante and Petrarch. Sidney comes close to it on occasion, as for example in 47
Virtue awake, beauty but beauty is;
I may, I must, I can, I will, I do
Leave following that, which it is gain to miss.
Let her go!
A&S.47. After Astrophil and Stella it seems he may have turned his attention to sacred verse, as did Donne and Drummond of Hawthornden, after a youth of sowing much wild oats and other rakishness. Therefore we should perhaps be attuned to seeing this sonnet set within the tradition of renunciation. For although it has the melancholy of the contemplation of mortality, it could be in the nature of a memento mori to the extravagant mistress and her frivolous ways, rather than a reminder to the speaker himself. One only has to read the first line slightly differently, as addressing the beloved, and the whole poem becomes an imprecation against her and a warning that she is knocking at the gates of death. In many ways that would be a more satisfactory interpretation, because Shakespeare always seems to have disapproved of the disguise that clothing gives, in that it hides what the true being is who resides within. Hence Lear’s great tirade against clothing in his rage and madness during the storm as he looks at Edgar’s nakedness:
Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! here’s three on’s are sophisticated! Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! come unbutton here.

[Tearing off his clothes] KL.III.4.101-8.

It therefore seems slightly odd that he, the poet, should find himself painting his own outward walls so costly gay when he has railed against it so much in others. It would also fit in with such poems as Drayton’s sonnet 8 which I print below, together with a sonnet from Fidessa, which echoes some of Shakespeare’s phrases, as well as the well known sonnet by Sidney ‘Leave me o Love, which reachest but to dust’. Of course the memento mori theme is universal, and I do not wish to divert readers too much from what is probably the standard interpretation of the sonnet as a contemplation of the neglect of spiritual values, and the innate triviality of our lives in the face of an ever present mortality. That is mostly its value to modern readers, but the Renaissance audience, familiar with such themes, might have been more inclined to see as its background the love of a fair woman who would not yield, even though her life was hastening to old decay.


From David West:

Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,

Feeding these rebel powers that thee array,

Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,

Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?                 4

Why so large cost, having so short a lease,

Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?

Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,

Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body’s end?                8

Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,

And let that pine to aggravate thy store.

Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross.

Within be fed, without be rich no more.                   12

So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,

And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.

Poor soul, why feed besiegers and starve yourself

     while painting your outside walls?

Why spend on a crumbling house with a short lease,

     for worms to inherit your extravagance?

Body is a servant. Starve it, feed yourself, and sell your rubbing time

    to buy a divine contract. Don’t lavish money on your outside.

You’ll feed on death, and when it’s dead there’ll be no more dying.


1-4  ‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes’ is part of the burial service in the Book of Common Prayer. ‘Sinful earth’ is the body, and the soul is at its centre. In line 2 it becomes a city besieged, arrayed, by a rebel army, the body. ‘Arrayed’ never means besieged, but armies do march from Ireland ‘in proud array’ in Henry VI 4.2.28, and the word is used in a military sense elsewhere in Shakespeare. The metaphor is kept alive when the defenders are feeding their besiegers and starving themselves while painting their outside walls.

Line 2 contains what C.J. Sisson (1956) describes as ‘the prize crux of the Sonnets.’ The Quarto reads:

Poore soule the center of my sinfull earth,

My sinfull earth these rebbell powres that thee array

This text produces a line of 12 syllables and has received many emendations, 100 of which are listed by Ingram and Redpath (1978, 358-9, in a ‘reduced list of possible readings’). Most of them involve a past participle. Burrow (2002) mentions ‘Fool’d by, Starv’d by, Guyll’d by,’ and prints ‘Spoiled by,’ but none of these contributes to the argument or the imagery, and the last clashes with it if lines 2 and 3 involve siege. When a city is under siege, it is not yet spoiled or despoiled. The military metaphor and the vigorous homiletic tone would be better served by an imperative like ‘Resist’ or ‘Defy,’ but the most persuasive emendation is ‘Feeding,’ conjectured by Sebastian Evans in 1753 and printed by Vendler (1997) without acknowledgment. The word nicely heightens the absurd behavior of the besieged soul, and tunes in to the feeding and starving metaphor of lines 7-8, 10 and 12-13, and notably line 3, ‘Feeding rebels, why do you starve yourself?’

5-8  Line 5 glides from the walls of a besieged city to the walls of a crumbling house held on a short lease. Why does soul squander money on it (‘fading’ stays with the painting metaphor in line 4) and neglect himself? Will worms inherit all this extravagance and eat up the body which is in soul’s charge? There are contractual terms in every line, ‘so large cost,’ ‘so short a lease,’ ‘spend,’ ‘inheritors of this excess,’ ‘thy charge.’

In Elizabethan England a mansion is often just a house. ‘In my Father’s house there are many mansions,’ says Jesus in John 14: 2, in domo Patris mei mansiones multae sunt, and the mansio at Vindolanda is a hotel. Jesus is not promising luxury accommodations, but lodgings, living quarters. It is foolishness to indulge in costly redecoration of decaying accommodation when all this extravagance will be eaten by worms. In line 8 ‘is this thy body’s end?,’ if ‘end’ means finish, is a good, indignant question – ‘Is this what all your body will come to?’ But if ‘end’ means finish, is a good, indignant question – ‘Is this what all your body will come to?’ But if ‘end’ means also purpose, the question si double-edged – ‘Is this what the body is for, to be cosseted at great expense to feed worms?’

9-12  After the harangue in four rhetorical questions comes the command addressed to soul., not to let the servant live at his master’s expense, but to allow him to pine, waste away, in order to increase his master’s stock, in order to ‘aggravate thy store.’ ‘To aggravate’ is to increase, as always in Shakespeare except at Henry IV 2, 4.158, where Mistress Quickly, whose command of English is precarious, is trying to calm Pistol down, and asks him to aggravate his choler. ‘Pine’ in 10 harks back to ‘pine within and suffer dearth’ in 3, and the feeding metaphor surfaces again in 1-8 and 12 and 13. In the middle of the metaphor, line 11 moves to buying and selling as soul is commanded to sell of the time it devotes to the dross, which will not be a deal for a few short hours but for eternity. Then soul within would be fed, and body no longer rich.

The end looks back to the beginning in line 1 ‘perhaps “Poor soul” implied a position of detached superiority from which the user benevolently but casually condescends’ (Booth 1977). But now the former poverty of the soul and wealth of the body are reversed. The body will no longer be rich, and the soul no longer poor.

13-14  ‘So shalt thou feed on Death’ has what Vendler calls ‘the future tense of religious promise,’ citing the words of Jesus to the malefactor on his cross on Calvary, ‘To day shalt thou be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:43). Death feeds on men, but, if the soul feeds, it feeds on death. ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’ (1 Corinthians 15: 54) and, as St. John says in Revelation 21: 4, ‘There shall be no more death.’ Shakespeare says the same with the eloquence of polyptoton in ‘Death…Death…dead…dying,’ and the force of the colloquial in ‘there’s no more dying them.’ John Donne is more formal in Holy Sonnets 10, ‘And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.’ These are exultant cries. This opinion should be checked against Vendler’s view quoted below:

‘The gloominess of this sonnet has little of the radiance of Christian hope. Buy terms divine the speaker says, but, (as Booth notes) the divine is infinite and has no terms (limits). The divine is quickly obscured by the Dantesque linked rapacity of the couplet. Death once dead is an encouraging remark rather than a prophecy. Certainly once death is dead, there’s no more dying; but will feeding on death by starving the body kill him?’

There are signs of a drift toward religion in Sonnets 141 and 14s. Sonnet 144 is concerned with angels, spirits, temptation, and corruption, and uses religious terms to set up a debate on S’s experience of love. Now the clash of body and soul makes 146 the only purely religious sonnet in the collection. There is no direct mention of the young man or the Black Lady, but when he commands his soul to take control over his body there can be no doubt how this fits into the plot of the Sonnets. The failure of his love for the youth, the shame of his lust for the Black Lady and his bitterness at her treatment of him (129) have driven him to religion.

The poem has a dynamic – one question in the first quatrain, three in the second, five commands in the third, and the triumphant vision in the final couplet.

The Metaphors

One metaphor frequently merges into another in the Sonnets. The first four lines are particularly iridescent. In line 1 the man is the planet Earth with soul as its centre, and earth is also flesh: in 2-3 soul is a starving city feedings its besiegers and painting the outside of its walls; in 4 it is a foolish tenant painting the outside of a building leased on a short-term contract, and there may also be a glimpse of cosmetics; in ‘array’ in line 2 and ‘costly gay’ in 4-5 he is a spendthrift in gaudy, expensive clothes; in 7-8 worms are seen as heirs of the property and the feeding is literal; in 9-10 body is a servant wasting the wealth of a master who has been neglecting his possessions, his ‘store’ of valuables, and soul is advised to reclaim what the servant has taken in; in 11 soul is a trader urged to strike a good bargain; in 12 feeding recurs and ‘rich’ activates the metaphor of poverty which began with the first word. In every line in the first 12, except 2 and 3, there is at least one commercial term.”


And finally:

Sonnet 146

Shakespeare Sonnet 146

POore ſoule the center of my ſinfull earth,
My ſinfull earth theſe rebbell powres that thee array,                         ??
Why doſt thou pine within and ſuffer dearth
Painting thy outward walls ſo coſtlie gay?
Why ſo large coſt hauing ſo ſhort a leaſe,
Doſt thou vpon thy fading manſion ſpend?
Shall wormes inheritors of this exceſſe,
Eate vp thy charge? is this thy bodies end?
Then ſoule liue thou vpon thy ſeruants loſſe,
And let that pine to aggrauat thy ſtore;
Buy tearmes diuine in ſelling houres of droſſe:
Within be fed, without be rich no more,
So ſhalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men,
And death once dead, ther’s no more dying then.

Although Sonnet 146 has often been presented as a poem in the long tradition of verse depicting “A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body,” the sonnet in fact bears little resemblance to a dialogue and is more a meditation, in which the soul only is interrogated about its relationship to the body. It argues throughout that the soul must curtail the exigencies of the flesh. The opening “Poore soule” was a familiar address, compare Donne’s epithetical, “Poore intricated soule.” 1 The soul is posited as “the centre of my sinfull earth,” where earth is that out of which the body is shaped (Gen. 2.7) and to which it must return. (The Committal in the Book of Common Prayer’s “Order for the Burial of the Dead” contained the words, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”) An equally available verse was Wisd. 9.15, the basis of many poetic laments about the soul and heaviness, “a corruptible body is heauy vnto the soule, and the earthy mansion kepeth downe that vnderstandyng that museth vpon many thynges” (BB). The heaviness will feature later in “aggrauat thy store.” That the soul is the centre of the earthly human inhabiting all his parts as the earth rests geocentrically was a stock conceit: Donne among other preachers declares, “Man is but earth; Tis true; but earth is the centre. That man that dwells vpon himselfe . . rests in his true centre.” 2 Both Shakespeare and Donne have in mind the earthly man, who is the descendant of Adam: “The first man [is] of the earth, earthy: the seconde man [is] the Lorde from heauen. As is the earthy, suche [are] they that are earthy: And as is the heauenly, such [are] they also that are heauenly” (1 Cor. 15.45-46; BB).

The repetition of “My sinfull earth” at the start of line 2 is evidently a manuscript or compositor’s slip, for which various speculative and unsatisfactory emendations have been proposed. It is best left as it is, the repetition being noted, even if it results in a hexameter line. The “rebell powres that thee array” are fleshly urges that refuse to submit (“rebell”) to the soul’s authority and are consequent upon original sin. Although “array” suggests ranks in which an army is arrayed, it primarily intends the material with which the soul is clad (compare 2 Cor. 5.2, “sygh we, desiryng to be clothed with our house whiche is from heauen,” with its note, “when we depart hence, we shall not remaine naked, hauing once cast off the couering of this body, but we shall take our bodies againe, which shall put on as it were an other garment besides” [GV]).

The soul is asked, “Why dost thou pine within,” why does it languish or waste away? Why does it “suffer dearth” or ‘scarcity,’ reminiscent of the “dearth which we do nowe most iustly suffer for our iniquitie” of the Book of Common Prayer’s “Litany,” while at the same time “Painting thy outward walls so costlie gay?” Its “outward walls” are the body, which it colours (so giving life), although “Painting” and “gay” also hint at a cosmetic external, and, given the flesh’s transience, an action not well spent (“costlie”). Since the body, the soul’s earthy “mansion” (see Wisd. 9.15 above), has been awarded so brief a lease (“so short a lease”) and its condition and colour are always “fading,” why should the soul spend any cost upon it? 3 Attending to the body’s needs, an “excesse” the meditator remonstrates, is to spend unwisely, because it will benefit only “wormes” as they eat up “thy charge,” the body, whose care is entrusted to the soul. The question, “is this thy bodies end?” that it be eaten by worms, requires a positive response, since according to Job, “My fleshe is clothed with wormes and dust of the earth” (7.5; BB), and the body’s inheritance is the worm, “And though after my skinne the [wormes] destroy this body” (19.26; BB).

The soul should feed upon the body’s gradual dissolution (“thy seruants losse;” that the master of the mansion should live on the losings of his servant would not be thought natural). The body should decline, so that the soul can become substantial or weighty (“pine to aggrauat thy store;” “aggrauat” retains its Latinate sense  ‘add weight to’ and recalls the “corruptible body [that] is heauy vnto the soule” of Wisd. 9.15 above). In contrast to its earlier “so short a lease” the soul must “Buy tearmes diuine,” where the term of the lease is eternal, “an house . . eternall in the heauens” (2 Cor. 5.1; GV). The cost of the eternal lease will come through “selling houres of drosse;” “drosse” is what remains after the purifying fire, similar to the “firie triall” of 1 Pet. 4.12, whose purpose the Geneva Version explains is “to purge vs of our drosse and make vs perfite.” The soul must be fed “Within” and not find riches “without.” So it will “feed on death,” which customarily “feeds on men.” The locus biblicus of death’s defeat is 1 Cor. 15, “Death is swalowed vp into victorie. O death where is thy stynge? O hell where is thy victorie? The stynge of death [is] sinne” (4-6; BB; the Geneva Version has “O graue where is thy victorie?”). Death is thus outsmarted by the soul (“And death once dead”) and “ther’s no more dying then,” either ‘therefore’ or ‘at the end of time,’ when death will finally be defeated (see Rev. 21.4, “and there shalbe no more death”). The claim was often made, for example, Donne’s Holy Sonnet 6.14, “Death thou shalt die.”

My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning – an introduction to our next play, Henry VIII (All is True)

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1 Response to “So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,/And, Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.”

  1. GGG says:

    Hmmm, interesting sonnet. Seems like the key question is whether this is addressed to himself or to another, or to Everyman. When i first read it, I thought it fit into the sonnets where Shakespeare is berating his lover for his/her shallowness or duplicity. Then the commentary said it stands alone and is a Christian commentary.

    Later on in the commentary there is the quote (not sure who is the author): …the standard interpretation of the sonnet as a contemplation of the neglect of spiritual values, and the innate triviality of our lives in the face of an ever present mortality. That is mostly its value to modern readers, but the Renaissance audience, familiar with such themes, might have been more inclined to see as its background the love of a fair woman who would not yield, even though her life was hastening to old decay.

    So does this mean that as a result of our reading of so much Shakespeare, I have developed Renaissance Reading Glasses? (Sounds like something from Harry Potter, which I’m sure would be useful for Muggles.)

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