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Shakespeare Sonnet 41: "Those pretty wrongs that liberty commits"

Updated on May 7, 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 41

The speaker in sonnet 41 does an about face regarding his unity with his poetic creations. As he dramatizes the nature of genuine poetic qualities, he contrasts them with the mere pouring on of decoration. Because the speaker's only interests are the genuine stuff of poetry, he now reasserts his unity with his poetry. He has made it clear that his only duty is to produce genuine art. This speaker thus assures his readers that he would never afford himself mere "poetic license," which would result only in fabrication and even folly.

Sonnet 41

Those pretty wrongs that liberty commits
When I am sometimes absent from thy heart,
Thy beauty and thy years full well befits,
For still temptation follows where thou art.
Gentle thou art, and therefore to be won,
Beauteous thou art, therefore to be assail’d;
And when a woman woos, what woman’s son
Will sourly leave her till she have prevail’d?
Ay me! but yet thou mightst my seat forbear,
And chide thy beauty and thy straying youth,
Who lead thee in their riot even there
Where thou art forc’d to break a twofold truth;—
Hers, by thy beauty tempting her to thee,
Thine, by thy beauty being false to me.

Reading of Shakespeare Sonnet 41

Commentary

In sonnet 41, the speaker addresses his poem, dramatizing the differences between true poetic qualities and license to create. He also declares his unity with his art.

First Quatrain: The Loveliness of Intent

Those pretty wrongs that liberty commits
When I am sometimes absent from thy heart,
Thy beauty and thy years full well befits,
For still temptation follows where thou art.

In sonnet 41, the speaker addresses the poem again: sometimes when the poet/speaker is not practicing his art, his thoughts commit "pretty wrongs." The musing speaker does not completely specify the wrongs, but the point is that even when he is "absent from [the poem’s] heart," its loveliness of intent follows him.

Most poets and artists find themselves from time to time asserting that they are always looking for something that will contribute to their next creation. Practicing aestheticism tempts the artist to anything the artist may deem beautiful. This speaker hints that he is not a beginning poet but has for many years been allured by art’s aesthetic temptations.

Second Quatrain: Most Attractive Qualities

Gentle thou art, and therefore to be won,
Beauteous thou art, therefore to be assail’d;
And when a woman woos, what woman’s son
Will sourly leave her till she have prevail’d?

The speaker then reveals the qualities that most attract him—gentleness and beauty. He insists that any mother’s son would do the same. The gentle and beautiful slope of art wins the artist’s heart. It is as natural as night following day.

If the speaker tried to resist such temptation, it would cause him to feel bitter. His life would sour until he returned again to his God-given attractions and practiced his in-born talent. This talented speaker can prevail only in following his intuition that leads him always back to his love of creating his art, his poems.

Third Quatrain: Poem Over Poet

Ay me! but yet thou mightst my seat forbear,
And chide thy beauty and thy straying youth,
Who lead thee in their riot even there
Where thou art forc’d to break a twofold truth;—

However, the speaker then addresses the notion that the poem might garner more attention than the poet. The beauty and the "straying youth" of the poem might seem to "chide" the speaker or even the poem itself; thus, such a chiding would count as one of the "pretty wrongs that liberty commits."

However, the speaker insists that the poem is forced to tell the truth, even as it appears to "break a twofold truth." The speaker asserts that whoever would "lead thee in their riot even there" is the one who would cause the muse to break with truth, but the twofold truth is delayed until the couplet.

The Couplet: The Poem's Proper Condition

Hers, by thy beauty tempting her to thee,
Thine, by thy beauty being false to me.

If the muse breaks truth with the poem, her beauty would tempt the speaker to address the necessary correction to bring the poem back to its proper condition, and if the beauty is merely superficial, the poem would not only be untruthful to itself, but it would also prove false to the speaker. The speaker has on every occasion convinced the reader that he could never allow such an atrocity; therefore, the unity of poet and poem is recaptured.

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."

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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