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Shakespeare Sonnet 110

Updated on November 15, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, the real "Shakespeare"

The De Vere Society is dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford
The De Vere Society is dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 110

In sonnet 110, the speaker presents his drama in a somber, confessional mode. He is evaluating the results of his behavior, as he rummages through his mental forest, trying to determine what he must prune out in order to grow in his true nature and attitudes.

The speaker is reaffirming that he remains dedicated to truth and love. As he offers the confession that he has been behaving in an unseemly manner, he now begins his declaration that he, henceforth, will reject that inappropriate behavior because, in fact, he detests that kind of debauchery.

The speaker has realized that he has been allowing himself to become too much identified with the material, physical level of existence. And he knows well that his gift for creating insightful verse will be negatively affected if he continues in that vain. Thus, the speaker waxes exceptionally philosophical as well as confessional as he vows to make amends to his muse, emissary and earthly representative of his divine Creator, Who has bestowed on him the amazing talent for creating dramatic discourse.

Sonnet 110

Alas! ’tis true I have gone here and there
And made myself a motley to the view,
Gor’d mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new;
Most true it is that I have look’d on truth
Askance and strangely; but, by all above,
These blenches gave my heart another youth,
And worse essays prov’d thee my best of love.
Now all is done, save what shall have no end:
Mine appetite I never more will grind
On newer proof, to try an older friend,
A god in love, to whom I am confin’d.
Then give me welcome, next my heaven the best,
Even to thy pure and most most loving breast.

Reading of Sonnet 110

Commentary

As he once again addresses his muse, the speaker is now confessing that he has been behaving in ways that contradict and therefore impede his progress on his creative path of dedication to truth and love.

First Quatrain: Admission of Debauchery

Alas! ’tis true I have gone here and there
And made myself a motley to the view,
Gor’d mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new;

In the first quatrain of sonnet 110, the speaker admits—"Alas! ‘tis true"—that he has "gone here and there" in debauchery that left himself looking disheveled and miserable. He has been guilty of acting against his own better judgment.

The speaker confesses that has "sold cheap what is most dear," causing himself to regret his indefensible choices. All of his wretched behavior "made old offences of affections news." He has made enemies of those who would have gladly been his friends, had he not selfishly spoiled the relationships.

The speaker attempts to elucidate before his own mind and that of his muse certain behaviors which he now realizes can lead him astray from his cherished goals. He must lay out all the offenses in order to determine the best path to take in order to walk away from them and eliminate their negative influence on his ability to remain focused on his main interests of beauty, love, and truth.

Second Quatrain: Avowed Allegiance to Truth and Beauty

Most true it is that I have look’d on truth
Askance and strangely; but, by all above,
These blenches gave my heart another youth,
And worse essays prov’d thee my best of love.

Still in the confession mode, the speaker then admits worse behavior when he "look’d on truth / Askance and strangely." In many sonnets, the speaker has avowed his allegiance to what is true and beautiful, so this admission takes a remarkable amount of courage.

The speaker is facing down demons, as he works to become closer to his ideals. He confesses to his muse as a religious devotee confesses to a spiritual leader or to the Divine Reality. Fortunately, he can report that his former confrontation and engagement with wickedness helped him return to an earlier innocence. The more he was tempted by evil the more he realized that his soul, his own spark of the Divine as represented by the muse, contained his "best of love."

As the speaker continues his struggles against his profane nature, he becomes more and more aware of the evil that prompts humankind to evade their spiritual natures. Because he now disdains—even hates—his earlier bad acts, he becomes painfully aggressive in his determination to overcome all the trials and tribulations that might again hurl him into the realm of spiritual negativity.

Third Quatrain: Turning Attention to Truth

Now all is done, save what shall have no end:
Mine appetite I never more will grind
On newer proof, to try an older friend,
A god in love, to whom I am confin’d.

The speaker then asserts that he has now experienced all that is necessary to make him understand that some behavior is unacceptable and that he is now pointing his attention solely to the eternal. He has no need to live by physical desires alone—"Mine appetite I never more will grind."

Instead of looking for satisfaction in physical endeavors, henceforth the speaker will remain focused on his "older friend / A god in love, to whom I am confin’d." He observes that his own muse—his talent, his own soul—represents what is infinite and eternal, not sense pleasures and the debauchery of the world which serve only to keep him hide bound and focused on the physical plane of being.

The duality, through which humankind must ever maneuver, has trapped the speaker as it traps all thinking beings. He is fortunate enough to have the brain-power with which to discriminate and determine the behaviors that will lead him to his cherished goals, rather than land him in the pit of degradation and misery.

The Couplet: Profound Realization

Then give me welcome, next my heaven the best,
Even to thy pure and most most loving breast.

The speaker, after his profound confession and realization, commands his muse to accept his declaration and hereafter keep him securely attached "to thy pure and most most loving breast." He repeats the superlative, "most," to emphasize his awareness of the trust he places in the love of his Divine Muse.

This deep-thinking speaker comprehends that the efficacy of the spiritual level of reality offers the better path to a comforting and prosperous life compared to the physical and mental levels, where the duality of trials and tribulation of the world remain in command, and he cherishes his relationship with the Eternal, demanding that that relationship remain a close one.

The nature of this speaker's discourse might be likened to a prayer, somewhat secularized with his muse holding the sacred place of the Divine Beloved. Readers have watched this speaker as he has become more interiorized in his creativity. He loves his talent, and desperately wishes to enhance its power; thus it is that he has determined to explore, find, and grow closer to the source of his gifts.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Source

A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence

Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare." For example, Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poets has opined:

Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Traditionally classified as "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Three Problematic Sonnets: 108, 126, 99

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy." Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

Sonnet 99 might be considered somewhat problematic: it features 15 lines instead of the traditional 14 sonnet lines. It accomplishes this task by converting the opening quatrain into a cinquain, with an altered rime scheme from ABAB to ABABA. The rest of the sonnet follows the regular rime, rhythm, and function of the traditional sonnet.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.

Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.

In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.

Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."

Do You Have a Favorite Shakespeare Sonnet?

Of the following widely anthologized sonnets, which one do you most enjoy?

See results

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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