Stupid Sonnet 91

It’s been awhile since we’ve done a sonnet analysis, and given my hunt for wedding content I was cruising through potential candidates this weekend and bookmarked #91 for further investigation.  Looks like a good one, until stupid Shakespeare goes and messes it up for me at the end.  Note that, as in previous efforts, this is all off the top of my head.  I know that I’ve got experts in the audience who will correct me if I go too far astray.

Some glory in their birth, some in their skill,
Some in their wealth, some in their body’s force,
Some in their garments, though new-fangled ill,
Some in their hawks and hounds, some in their horse;
And every humor hath his adjunct pleasure,
Wherein it finds a joy above the rest,
But these particulars are not my measure,
All these I better in one general best.
Thy love is better than high birth to me,
Richer than wealth, prouder than garments’ cost,
Of more delight than hawks or horses be;
And having thee, of all men’s pride I boast:
Wretched in this alone, that thou mayst take
All this away, and me most wretched make.

At first glance this looks like it would make a fine reading.  The repetition, in particular, makes it easy to follow.  Some people’s pride comes from their family name (their birth), some from what they can do (skill), some in their wealth, some their strength…and so on.  And then comes the nice turn, “I can do one better than none of you can beat — the fact that she loves me is worth more to me than all those things.”

If he’d stopped right there I’d say, “Cut! Print it!” and move on to the cake.  But dear Shakespeare with his insecurities doesn’t let me off easy by sticking in the last bit – “What makes me most miserable is the fear that she might take that away.”  Curse you, Shakespeare!  Currrrrssssse yooooooouuuu!

I leave it to Carl and anyone else who wants to join to fill us in on where 91 fits in the story and why it ends on what, as far as I can tell, is an absolute bummer note.  I mean, is it supposed to be a compliment? Like, “The worst thing in the world would be if I didn’t have you?” sort of thing? I suppose in a different context that might sound nicer, but here it just seems like he shoots down his whole argument.  It’s one thing to have something better than everybody else has, but to then freely admit that your biggest fear is losing it? The dude with a hawk and a horse can always go buy more hawks and horses, or make more money to buy new clothes. But poor Shakespeare’s admittedly screwed.

7 thoughts on “Stupid Sonnet 91

  1. Wealth is power. Greater than any power (hence importance or view of wealth) over the speaker, is the power of the wealth given to him/her by the beloved. I think it's a simple admission of the magnitude of the wealth given–greater than all things listed above it, and all things period–that nothing else matters nearly as much. So, the extent of the wealth given to the speaker is so complete, the only one who has the power (and it's complete power relevant and equal to the wealth) to remove it is the beloved, for the beloved is the only one with the power to bestow such great wealth in the first place. "I hope this is as 'forever' in your eyes as it is in mine." That's the positive aspect I get from the ending couplet.

  2. I read Sonnet 91 as the first of a remarkable triple sonnet. The diction of all three is, as I note in my book "simple and direct." Here are 92 and 93:
    But do thy worst to steal thy self away,
    For term of life thou art assured mine,
    And life no longer than thy love will stay,
    For it depends upon that love of thine.
    Then need I not to fear the worst of wrongs,
    When in the least of them my life hath end.
    I see, a better state to me belongs
    Than that, which on thy humor doth depend.
    Thou canst not vex me with inconstant mind,
    Since that my life on thy revolt doth lie,
    Oh what a happy title do I find,
    Happy to have thy love, happy to die!
    But what's so blessed fair that fears no blot,
    Thou mayst be false, and yet I know it not.

    So shall I live, supposing thou art true,
    Like a deceived husband, so love's face,
    May still seem love to me, thou alter'd new:
    Thy looks with me, thy heart in other place.
    For there can live no hatred in thine eye,
    Therefore in that I cannot know thy change,
    In many's looks, the false heart's history
    Is writ in moods and frowns and wrinkles strange.
    But heaven in thy creation did decree,
    That in thy face sweet love should ever dwell,
    What e'er thy thoughts, or thy heart's workings be,
    Thy looks should nothing thence, but sweetness tell.
    How like Eve's apple doth thy beauty grow,
    If thy sweet virtue answer not thy show.

    From my comments:
    "Shakespeare recapitulates the sonnet structure in the composition of this trio The three quatrains of the sonnet are echoed by the three connected poems. The change in thought from one quatrain to another is reflected in the change with each couplet, introducing a new idea for the next sonnet. In the final sonnet, the couplet assumes the usual role of summation, in this case, for the entire composition of forty-two lines.
    "The same confusion about tense that Booth notes in Sonnet 89 and 90 occurs here. However, read as a triple sonnet, these suggest more the possibility of faithlessness than the fait accompli They then become somewhat more innocent but with a stong sense of foreboding."


  3. But Carl, in layman's terms? I appreciate (and expected 😉 ) the quote from the book, now how would you explain the sonnet to someone at, say, a wedding? The bride and groom choose #91 as a reading, and the guests are mingling at the reception. "I'd never heard that one before," says a guest, "I wonder what that was from?" How do you respond?

    I like the way JM summarized with "I hope this is as forever in your eyes as it is in mine." People can understand that. I think Carl's gonna lose em at "recapitulates". 🙂

  4. This is where I think we might we hearken back to the thread on "context" in the sonnets.
    Or…if you will, recapitulate…:)

  5. The point is an interesting one. I think that we can cover the sonnets on a wide variety of levels. On the one hand there's "What was Shakespeare trying to accomplish? In the whole body of work, why did he do this here and that over there, and how do they relate? What patterns does he reuse, and why, and when and why does he stray from them?"

    But I think that completely separate from that is the idea you folks put forth about sonnets as "little scenes" (was that the term?) and how you can just take one and treat it like its own little thing, and craft a meaning to suit it.

    In the latter style you can say "Here's what that last line means to me", while in the former you're more forced to say "That last line only makes sense if you continue on to the first line of the next one."

    Note I am deliberately leaving out the "sonnets as autobiographical" context 🙂

  6. Right. I think it's all in the delivery. That ending couplet can be said in such a hopeful key that it will mesh with the rest of the sonnet fine. "The only thing that could make me sad (wretched) is if you took it away–how lucky I am that that's all there is. " type of delivery.

  7. Forgive me, I was trying not to make my post too long. As Horace said:
    "I strive to be concise,
    And grow obscure."

    The major point I was trying to make is that I would resist explaining Sonnet 91 on its own, not because we must take it in the context of the rest of The Sonnets, but because it is not a complete poem. It would be like trying to interpret the first 10 lines of Sonnet 29. You would miss the whole point. You cannot understand Sonnet 91 without reading Sonnets 92 and 93. The three of them make one poem. Read them all together and you will see what I mean. Then read them separately and you will see that they are each incomplete. So if someone reads 91 at a wedding and asks me what it means, I would say, "read the rest of the poem–92 and 93."

    91 says, "You mean so much to me, I fear that you might take it all away." 92 says, "But why should I fear that? If you take away your love, I shall die, and I should rather die than live without you. But what if you deceive me and I do not know it?" 93 says, "In that case, I would be just like so many deceived husbands, for your face hides all ill thoughts and shows only beauty and love. What a terrible thing it would be if your beauty were so like Eve's apple and you were not as virtuous as you appear to be!"

    This trio is a late appearance in the Sonnet series and so has some ambiguities of tone. Here is where interpretation comes in to play. I have laid out the statements baldly, but they can be "played" as "scenes" in any number of ways. They can be gentle, anxious, reproachful, scornful, even angry. Nothing is implied by the words. The context is really a blank slate when we read these three sonnets on their own. In the context of a wedding, they might even seem like a sermon. Were it not for the fact that the speaker of the sonnets is addressing the beloved, the content might be appropriate for a minister speaking at a wedding ceremony, might it not?

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