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Shakespeare Sonnet 9: “Is it for fear to wet a widow’s eye”

Updated on April 28, 2018
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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.

The Real Shakespeare - Edward de Vere

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Introduction and Text of Sonnet 9

The older and supposedly wise speaker is now querying the lad about another likely reason for the young man's remaining single: does he perhaps fear enrolling of some poor woman as a member of the widowhood? Of course, the speaker knows this is not true. He is merely conjuring up every accusations that he can hurl at the lad as he tries to influence the young man's behavior.

The speaker's dramas keep getting more and more stark as he seems to grow more and more desperate to have the young man marry and produce beautiful offspring. It seems that no accusation is too severe. Appealing to the young man's vanity seems to get him nowhere, so he decided to appeal to the lad's sense of shame. No young man would want to be accused of committing murder like a common misanthrope.

Sonnet 9

Is it for fear to wet a widow's eye,
That thou consum'st thy self in single life?
Ah! if thou issueless shalt hap to die,
The world will wail thee like a makeless wife;
The world will be thy widow and still weep
That thou no form of thee hast left behind,
When every private widow well may keep
By children's eyes, her husband's shape in mind:
Look! what an unthrift in the world doth spend
Shifts but his place, for still the world enjoys it;
But beauty's waste hath in the world an end,
And kept unused the user so destroys it.
No love toward others in that bosom sits
That on himself such murd'rous shame commits.

Reading of Sonnet 9

Commentary

In Sonnet 9, the speaker queries the young man about another possible reason for his remaining single: does he fear leaving some poor woman a widow?

First Quatrain: A Blunt Question

Is it for fear to wet a widow's eye,
That thou consum'st thy self in single life?
Ah! if thou issueless shalt hap to die,
The world will wail thee like a makeless wife;

In the first quatrain, the speaker bluntly puts the question to the young man: "Is it for fear to wet a widow's eye / That thou consum'st thyself in single life?" The speaker goes on approaching the subject from every angle, as he chides the young lad for not taking a wife.

The notion now is crossing the speaker's mind that the young man may not want to take the chance of leaving behind a crying widow. The speaker has usual is creating a solid straw man to allow the young man to watch him strike it down.

But the speaker's spin on such a fear is that if the young man dies "issueless," that is, without offspring, he will make the whole world sad crying for him, not just a poor woman who would then be without a mate upon his death. Thus, the speaker wants the young man to think in broader terms than just one family.

Second Quatrain: Mourning the Loss of a Generation

The world will be thy widow and still weep
That thou no form of thee hast left behind,
When every private widow well may keep
By children's eyes, her husband's shape in mind:

The speaker frames his claim quite clearly as he repeats: "The world will be thy widow, and still weep / That thou no form of thee hast left behind." If the young man died, the world would not only mourn his loss, but it would also mourn that fact that such a fine, human specimen left behind no beautiful issue.

If, however, the young man takes the advice of his elder, upon his possible demise, his widow would have their beautiful children who allow her to remember and and enjoy the pleasing appearance of her spouse. The speaker hopes again to play on the sympathy of the young man, while offering him logical possibilities to consider. The young man's single life is found wanting in every way in the eyes of this speaker, who might be considered meddling in affairs which are none of his business.

Third Quatrain: Urging with Logic

Look! what an unthrift in the world doth spend
Shifts but his place, for still the world enjoys it;
But beauty's waste hath in the world an end,
And kept unused the user so destroys it.

In the third quatrain, the speaker offers another logical argument to support his urging the young man to marry and produce offspring. When a spendthrift extravagantly squanders his money on things he does not need, he does not really do any damage in the world; he moves things around a bit. The money and the material things still belong to world.

But when one wastes one's beauty, one wastes something of value, and its value is precious because it will end. If one does not pass on one's beauty and pleasing qualities by siring pleasing offspring, he simply destroys that beauty. The speaker plays on the vanity as well as the sympathy of the young man, as he uses his powers of persuasion.

Couplet: Misanthropic Selfishness

No love toward others in that bosom sits
That on himself such murd'rous shame commits.

In the couplet, the speaker hurls a stark but exaggerated notion: that the young man's behavior is boarding on misanthropy. The speaker frankly opines that the young man could not possibly possess a loving heart and affection toward his fellow human beings, if he is so selfish as to waste his beauty and pleasing qualities on himself, while failing to father the next generation of beauty and pleasing qualities. The speaker accuses the young man of committing a "murderous shame"—an exaggeration aimed at stirring the lad to action.

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 poet's 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.

Two Problematic Sonnets: 108 and 126

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.

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."

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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