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Shakespeare Sonnet 67: "Ah! wherefore with infection should he live"

Updated on June 4, 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 67

The speaker in Shakespeare sonnet 67 addresses the Cosmic Presence. He wants to underscore the incongruity of such a perfect talent as his existing in such a flawed world. This creative and talented speaker may seem somewhat arrogant, yet he knows that his talent comes from the Perfect Eternal. Arrogance and truth may sometimes seem to remain in the eye of the beholder, but the outcome always justifies the one on the side of genuine truth.

Poets in every age have decried the presence of their inferiors. While true poets delight in those of equal or superior talent, they cringe at the poetasters who offer only a "shadow" art. In four rhetorical questions, the speaker offers a spate of lucid criticism that describes vividly the annoyance rendered by the presence of the inferior spewings of literary charlatans and poetasters.

Sonnet 67

Ah! wherefore with infection should he live
And with his presence grace impiety,
That sin by him advantage should achieve,
And lace itself with his society?
Why should false painting imitate his cheek,
And steel dead seeming of his living hue?
Why should poor beauty indirectly seek
Roses of shadow, since his rose is true?
Why should he live, now Nature bankrupt is,
Beggar’d of blood to blush through lively veins?
For she hath no exchequer now but his,
And, proud of many, lives upon his gains.
O! him she stores, to show what wealth she had
In days long since, before these last so bad.

Reading of Sonnet 67

Commentary

The speaker in sonnet 67 bases his little drama on four rhetorical questions.

First Quatrain: Why Are Poetasters Permitted a Voice?

Ah! wherefore with infection should he live
And with his presence grace impiety,
That sin by him advantage should achieve,
And lace itself with his society?

The speaker poses his initial question: why should it be that this perfect being exist in a flawed, degenerate world? The presence of this talent "grace[s] impiety," and when "sin" associates itself with that talent, it gains "advantage."

Within this question, the reader can infer a range of possible reasons why the poetasters are permitted by the Vast Cosmic Artist. Without the contrast of skillful vs clumsy, good art would not be visible or appreciated. Also, the competitive spirit winnows out the wheat from the shaft.

Second Quatrain: Reckoning with the Dualities

Why should false painting imitate his cheek,
And steel dead seeming of his living hue?
Why should poor beauty indirectly seek
Roses of shadow, since his rose is true?

The speaker then asks, Why are those with less talents be able to copy from him? Why should lesser poets be able to emulate his style, when he alone has the authentic style?

Although the speaker is annoyed that lesser lights are able to spark a flicker because of him, his question still reveals the drama that ensues from the dualities. On the earth plane of existence, the dualities are always a fact to be reckoned with.

Third Quatrain: The Result of Dead Parroting

Why should he live, now Nature bankrupt is,
Beggar’d of blood to blush through lively veins?
For she hath no exchequer now but his,
And, proud of many, lives upon his gains.

The speaker then asks the question, Why should this speaker even bother to care that others cause cataclysm with their dead parroting? The speaker understands well that the poetasters and fakers will ever remain with us, spewing out their doggerel and dreck.

And even as this talented speaker remains justifiably pleased and proud of his own creations and the talent that has helped him create them, he sculpts his criticism with an eye on the fact that he is actually injured by these charlatans and poetasters.

The Couplet: True Art Will Always Conquer Bad Art

O! him she stores, to show what wealth she had
In days long since, before these last so bad.

In the couplet, the speaker offers his answer: Nature depends on the true poet, the one of talent, and as long as the genuinely talented offer plenty of their creations, Nature can encompass the non-talented as well. Nature will always be able to point to the true poet to "show what wealth she had." Even though art may degenerate through the activity of poetasters, true art will always be available as long as the true poet creates.

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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