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Shakespeare Sonnet 117

Updated on September 20, 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 real "Shakespeare" | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 117

The speaker in sonnet 117 is once again facing his muse. Apparently, he has been keeping company with "unknown minds," and he now must ask for forgiveness. Such carousing has led to his failing to fulfill his duty to his art.

Naturally, it would be to his muse that the speaker must apologize and then beg forgiveness; however, the speaker is well aware that his muse is only another name for his own soul. And he remains well aware that his talent and all creative ability emanate from his soul—that spark of the Divine that informs his being.

As the speaker often bases his little dramas on an imagined split between himself and his muse/talent, the likelihood arises that the poet has been composing the three themed sections of the sonnet sequence in tandem. He goes off carousing with the "Dark Lady," takes on a certain amount to lackadaisical guilt, and then comes begging forgiveness from his muse/talent/soul/artist-self. He possibly even deems the time he is spending trying to convince the "young man" in the "Marriage Sonnets" sequence to marry less well employed, and thus is including that time in his lamenting his wasted hours.

Sonnet 117

Accuse me thus: that I have scanted all
Wherein I should your great deserts repay,
Forgot upon your dearest love to call,
Whereto all bonds do tie me day by day;
That I have frequent been with unknown minds,
And given to time your own dear-purchas’d right;
That I have hoisted sail to all the winds
Which should transport me farthest from your sight.
Book both my wilfulness and errors down,
And on just proof surmise accumulate;
Bring me within the level of your frown,
But shoot not at me in your waken’d hate;
Since my appeal says I did strive to prove
The constancy and virtue of your love.

A rough paraphrase of sonnet 117 might sound something like the following:

Go ahead and find fault with me because I have been avoiding everything that I owe for the great gifts you afford me. I have become unmindful of your special affection even though I am bound to you eternally. I have been carousing with certain vacant minded folks when I should have been giving my time to you. I have sailed off into faraway places where I fail to catch a glimpse of you. So go ahead write down my list of trespasses add them up as you prove my infidelity. Screw up you face against me, but please do not hate me. I have assure you that I have always tried to confirm that I continue to seek only love and other virtues.

Reading of Sonnet 117

Commentary

The speaker is now addressing his muse, as he often does. He speaks partly in jest as he feigns begging forgiveness for neglecting his art after having wasted time carousing with minds that do not offer him the necessary challenges he needs. Could those "unknown minds" include the young man in the "Marriage Sonnets" sequence and the filthy woman in the "Dark Lady" sequence?

First Quatrain: Confronting the Muse

Accuse me thus: that I have scanted all
Wherein I should your great deserts repay,
Forgot upon your dearest love to call,
Whereto all bonds do tie me day by day;

In the first quatrain of sonnet 117, the speaker once again is addressing his muse in a confrontational tone. Yet as he seems to be accosting his muse, he is, in reality, dressing down himself for his failure "upon your dearest love to call." Every time this speaker allows himself to put space between himself and his duty to his muse, he feels the necessity of confronting those lapses. As any reader of the sonnets has experienced many times, this speaker’s whole being is so bound up with his writing and creating art that he disdains any time spent that does not in some way contribute to his all consuming passion.

This speaker reveals time and again that truth, beauty, and love are of greatest importance to him. He has dedicated himself to crafting a world in which those qualities live and breathe. Thus, after each time he finds himself averting his gaze into activities that attend upon mediocre events (and even to people whose motives he deems incompatible with his own), he will be found seeking redemption from his muse-self, not always promising to improve but at least to show that he is aware of his lapse.

Second Quatrain: Lamenting Wasted Time

That I have frequent been with unknown minds,
And given to time your own dear-purchas’d right;
That I have hoisted sail to all the winds
Which should transport me farthest from your sight.

The obsession continues with this speaker lamenting that he has spent time with "unknown minds," that is, minds that are foreign to his own soul nature and by extension to that of the muse. Through cavorting with those unknown minds, he has averted his attention away from his true purpose in his own estimation. When he "transport[s] [himself] farthest from [her] sight," he leaves his most sacred duties and suffers deeply the anguish of guilt.

The speaker in this regard then seeks out his muse as a religious devotee would seek out a spiritual leader for advice or confession. His muse behaves as his anchor as well as his inspiration; she has the power to absolve his transgressions, but this power comes solely through the speaker/artist’s ability to create his salvation in art. The complexity of his relationship with his muse remains a unique achievement with this speaker/poet.

When the speaker of this themed section of sonnets, which focus on his writing, decries having cavorted with those "unknown minds," it is likely he has in mind the central figure of the next themed section of sonnets focusing on the "Dark Lady." She certainly qualifies as an "unknown" or incompatible mind—one that would likely be deemed a waste of his time, as well as a waste of his bodily fluids. It is also therefore likely that the poet was composing this section of poems at the same time he was composing the "Dark Lady" section. With that contemporaneous activity in mind, the two sets of sonnets inform each other quiet well.

Third Quatrain: Evidence of Misdeeds

Book both my wilfulness and errors down,
And on just proof surmise accumulate;
Bring me within the level of your frown,
But shoot not at me in your waken’d hate;

As the speaker continues his little drama regarding his lapses and errors, he uplifts the nature and value of his muse, contrasting her importance with all other engagements. He will allow himself the space to generate his dramas in order to improve both his ability to concentrate and focus on each issue. That he will always dedicate himself to the chosen qualities of art for the sake of truth and beauty becomes a fixture and guiding element determining the special status of each sonnet's dramatic features.

Exaggerating his guilt, the speaker begs his muse to write down his errors and his proclivities for them; then, she may offer evidence of his misdeeds, and he admits that they are substantial. He then commands her only to frown at him but not to hate him. Using legalese to court the muse's favor, he continues his plea in the couplet.

The Couplet: The Reality of Virtuousness

Since my appeal says I did strive to prove
The constancy and virtue of your love.

The speaker declares that he deserves clemency because he always attempts follow the virtuous path of love as provided so generously by his beloved muse. He deems his faithfulness, as he returns to her again and again, makes him worthy of her appreciative forgiveness. He considers his relation with his muse-talent to remain a two-way street. While he knows his sins and failures are significant and many, he still keeps within his mental grasp the reality of his virtuous muse. And he is convinced that his relationship with his muse can, in fact, assist in his transcendence of all errors, despite their gravity and number.

As the speaker is cleverly laying out in abundance his folly and the gravity of his ability to exhibit depravity of behavior in the "Dark Lady" sequence, he straddles the line between good and evil in his little dramas, suggesting full well that he will eventually come squarely down on the side that leads him in his desired direction to his ultimate goal of truth and beauty.

Henry V - Derek Jacobi - Prologue - O! For A Muse Of Fire - Kenneth Branagh 1989

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."

The De Vere Society

Dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford
Dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford | Source

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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