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Shakespeare's Sonnets
With Summaries and Annotations
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1-25     26-50     51-75     76-101    102-127     128-154
..C Compiled by Michael J. Cummings... 2003, 2008, 2013

Sonnet 102 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man

My love is strengthened, though more weak in seeming;

I love not less, though less the show appear;
That love is merchandized, whose rich esteeming,
The owner's tongue doth publish every where.
Our love was new, and then but in the spring,
When I was wont to greet it with my lays;
As Philomel in summer's front doth sing,
And stops his pipe in growth of riper days:
Not that the summer is less pleasant now
Than when her mournful hymns did hush the night,
But that wild music burthens every bough,
And sweets grown common lose their dear delight.
   Therefore like her, I sometime hold my tongue:
   Because I would not dull you with my song.

Notes

Philomel: Another name for a nightingale. Philomel is derived from the name Philomela. In Greek mythology. Philomela was a princess of Athens. Her sister, Procne, was married to King Tereus of Thrace. Not satisfied with only one of the sisters, Tereus lusted after Philomela and one day raped her. To prevent her from revealing his crime, he cut out her tongue. However, Philomel embroidered a tapestry depicting his brutality and showed it to her sister. The two women then plotted against Tereus  and ended up serving him his son, Itys, in a stew. When Tereus discovers what they did, he chases them with an axe. The gods then turn Philomela into a nightingale and Procne into a swallow.
pipe: Vocal organ (syrinx) of birds. Birds sing by vibrating the membranes of the syrinx.
burthens: Burdens; weighs down.
sweets . . . common: Songs heard too often.
sometime: Sometimes.

Meaning

My love is stronger, although it may seem weaker. I love you no less than before, although I do not make a public display of my love. A person cheapens love when he publicizes his affection for another. Our love was new, just in its spring, when I decided to express it in my poetry. Compare me to a nightingale. The nightingale sings at the beginning of summer, then stops as the summer wears on. It's not that the passing summer has become less pleasant than it was earlier. But there comes a time when so many birds fill the air with their singing that their song becomes repetitive and tedious. Therefore, like that first nightingale that stops singing when so many other birds take up its song, I sometimes put my pen down to avoid boring you with an endless flow of poetic lines.

Sonnet 103 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man

Alack! what poverty my Muse brings forth,
That having such a scope to show her pride,
The argument all bare is of more worth
Than when it hath my added praise beside!
O! blame me not, if I no more can write!
Look in your glass, and there appears a face
That over-goes my blunt invention quite,
Dulling my lines, and doing me disgrace.
Were it not sinful then, striving to mend,
To mar the subject that before was well?
For to no other pass my verses tend
Than of your graces and your gifts to tell;
   And more, much more, than in my verse can sit,
   Your own glass shows you when you look in it.

Notes

Alack: alas, an interjection expressing dismay.
Muse: Creativity. In Greek mythology, a goddess of poetry.
scope: Wide range of the young man's qualities.
argument . . . bare: Verse without words.
glass: Mirror.
over-goes: Exceeds; is superior to.
blunt invention: Lack of creativity.
sinful: Wrong; mistaken.

Meaning

Alas, I can't find the right words to express my feelings even though I have so much to inspire me. If I wrote nothing at all, the blank page would sound better than the words of praise I am putting on it. Please don't blame me if I trouble writing more about you. Look in your mirror and you will see a face that is superior to my ability to describe it. Compared with it, my lines are dull. I am disgraced. Isn't it wrong to try to mend my words when they only end up marring my subject? You and your qualities are the only topic I want to write about. But you reveal more, much more, than I am capable of capturing in words.

Sonnet 104 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,  
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers' pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turn'd
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burn'd,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Steal from his figure and no pace perceived;
Ah! yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand,
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion and mine eye may be deceived:
......For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred;
.....Ere you were born was beauty's summer dead.

Notes

when . . . eyed: When first I saw you.
Three . . . cold: Three years.
pride: Leaves.
green: Young.
dial-hand: Hand of a sun dial or clock.
no . . . perceived: Time seems to be standing still
hath motion: Continues to age.
thou . . . unbred: All of you who have not yet been born.

Meaning

In my eyes, you can never be old, for you look the same now as you did when I first saw you. You still retain your beauty. Since that time, three cold winters have shaken the leaves of three summers off the trees, and three beautiful springs have turned into the yellow color of autumn. During those three years, the fresh fragrance of three Aprils burned away in the hot sun of three Junes. Yet still you are young, unchanged. The hand of the clock may be stealing your beauty, but hand must be moving very slowly because I perceive no change in you. Your sweet complexion still looks the same, even though it is aging, but I realize time may be deceiving my eye. In fear that I am being deceived, I urge you who have yet to be born, all of you of future generations, to pay attention to this observation: You cannot grow up to be truly beautiful, because beauty—which has been fully and supremely realized in the young man I am writing about—will die when he dies. In him, beauty has used itself up. 

Sonnet 105 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Let not my love be called idolatry,
Nor my beloved as an idol show,
Since all alike my songs and praises be
To one, of one, still such, and ever so.
Kind is my love to-day, to-morrow kind,
Still constant in a wondrous excellence;
Therefore my verse to constancy confined,
One thing expressing, leaves out difference.
Fair, kind, and true, is all my argument,
Fair, kind, and true, varying to other words;
And in this change is my invention spent,
Three themes in one, which wondrous scope affords.
   Fair, kind, and true, have often lived alone,
   Which three till now, never kept seat in one.

Notes

songs: Poems; verses.
all  . . . songs: All my songs.
constant: Faithful; consistent.
leaves . . . difference: Leaves out other subjects, focusing only on constancy.
argument: Topic; what I am writing about.
varying . . . words: Using various words to point out that the young man is fair, kind, and true.
invention: creativity.

Meaning

People should not describe my preoccupation with the young man as idolatry. Nor should they call the young man himself an idol. There are many idols, representations of many gods. But all my poems and praises are addressed to one person. My affection for him is always kind and always will be. Because it is a constant love, my verses are and always will be constant and will always focus on one subject
the qualities of beauty, kindness, and faithfulness, which characterize our relationshipnever digressing to focus on other things. Those three qualities unite in the young man.

Sonnet 106 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

When in the chronicle of wasted time
I see descriptions of the fairest wights,
And beauty making beautiful old rhyme,
In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights,
Then, in the blazon of sweet beauty's best,
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,
I see their antique pen would have expressed
Even such a beauty as you master now.
So all their praises are but prophecies
Of this our time, all you prefiguring;
And for they looked but with divining eyes,
They had not skill enough your worth to sing:
   For we, which now behold these present days,
   Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.

Notes

chronicle: historical account.
wasted time: Spent time; the past.
wights: Persons; human beings.
beauty . . . rhyme: The beauty of the wights makes the poetry beautiful.
blazon: description.
All . . . prefiguring: All the praises of the authors could be applied to you.
They . . . sing: They lacked the skill to use words that describing your superior appearance.

Meaning

When I read books about the past, I see descriptions of the fairest human beings. These descriptions make the old rhymes in the books beautiful. I note the praise of dead ladies and handsome knights. In these descriptions of hands, feet, lips, eyes, and brows, I realize that the pens of the authors would have praised you (the young man) if they were living today. In fact, all their praises are prophecies—that is, they are descriptions of you. However, these authors lacked the skill to do you justice. Today, it is the same. We authors see you but lack the skill to describe you adequately.

Sonnet 107
(Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.
The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,
And the sad augurs mock their own presage;
Incertainties now crown themselves assured,
And peace proclaims olives of endless age.
Now with the drops of this most balmy time,
My love looks fresh, and Death to me subscribes,
Since, spite of him, I'll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o'er dull and speechless tribes:
   And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
   When tyrants' crests and tombs of brass are spent.

Notes

Can . . . control: Can control how long my true love will last.
confined doom: Grave; tomb.
augurs: Omens.
presage: Prediction; prophecy.
Incertainties: Uncertainties.
olives: An olive branch was a symbol of peace.

Meaning

Neither my own fears about the future nor the visions of prophets can affect the duration of my love for you (the young man)—a love which supposedly will end when I am confined to a grave. It is true that everything around us is mortal, even the moon. It is also true that uncertainty governs future events. However, my love for you will not die; in a world of uncertainty, the immortality of my love is the only certainty. This love will live forever through this poem that I am writing (“I'll live in this poor rhyme,” line 11), and even death will salute me as an equal. Consequently, the memory of you will also live on, for the sonnet will stand as a monument to you long after tyrants die and tombs of brass decay. 

Sonnet 108 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

What's in the brain that ink may character
Which hath not figured to thee my true spirit?
What's new to speak, what now to register,
That may express my love, or thy dear merit?
Nothing, sweet boy; but yet, like prayers divine,
I must each day say o'er the very same;
Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine,
Even as when first I hallowed thy fair name.
So that eternal love in love's fresh case,
Weighs not the dust and injury of age,
Nor gives to necessary wrinkles place,
But makes antiquity for aye his page;
   Finding the first conceit of love there bred,
   Where time and outward form would show it dead.

Notes

that . . . character: That I may write in my verses.
say . . . same: Ask the same questions.
hallowed: Honored; revered.
So that . . . age: So that I could immortalize my love for you, making it immune to ravages of time.
But . . . page: But makes time his servant.
conceit: Poetic expression.

Meaning

What's left in my brain to say about you? What new words can I use to express my love and your merit? There aren't any. Yet each day I must consider these questions, regarding no old topic as old. When I first wrote about you, each topic was new and fresh. Now, it's as if each topic is still new, for eternal love is always fresh. It does not suffer “the dust and injury of age” (line 10). Nor does it take on wrinkles as time passes. The first poetic expression of love has not withered even though time would say it is dead.

Sonnet 109 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

O! never say that I was false of heart,
Though absence seemed my flame to qualify,
As easy might I from my self depart
As from my soul which in thy breast doth lie:
That is my home of love: if I have ranged,
Like him that travels, I return again;
Just to the time, not with the time exchanged,
So that myself bring water for my stain.
Never believe though in my nature reigned,
All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood,
That it could so preposterously be stained,
To leave for nothing all thy sum of good;
   For nothing this wide universe I call,
   Save thou, my rose, in it thou art my all.

Notes

absence . . . qualify: Absence from you seemed to suggest that I betrayed my feelings for you or lessened them in some way.
Just to the time: At the right time; at the appropriate time; at the appointed time.
not . . . exchanged: Not changed in my feelings toward you.
So that . . . stain: The speaker brings water to wash away his misdeeds. In other words, he is apologetic and repentant.
All . . . blood: All kinds of sinful behavior exhibited by people of every nationality, creed, social standing, etc.
For nothing . . . my all: I don't call anything in this universe my rose except you.

Meaning

Don't say that I was false to you. True, my absence from you seemed to suggest that I forgot about you. But it would be as easy for me to abandon you as it would be for me to abandon myself. My soul lies within you. You are my home. If I have gone away for a time, like a traveler, I now return at the appropriate time. But time has not changed my feelings toward you. If I have offended you by being way, I apologize. However, never believe that while I was away I gave in to wanton impulses that tempt all human beings. In all the universe, only you merit all my attention.

Sonnet 110 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Alas! 'tis true, I have gone here and there,
And made my self a motley to the view,
Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new;
Most true it is, that I have looked on truth
Askance and strangely; but, by all above,
These blenches gave my heart another youth,
And worse essays proved thee my best of love.
Now all is done, have 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 confined.
   Then give me welcome, next my heaven the best,
   Even to thy pure and most most loving breast.

Notes

Motley: Colorful attire of a court jester. Here, the speaker uses motley to mean court jester.
Made . . . new: With new friends, I committed the same offenses I was guilty of in the past.
I have . . . strangely: I have failed to appreciate the value of our true friendship.
These blenches: These retreats from our friendship.
Essays . . . love: Activities with others that did not measure up to the high quality of the speaker's relationship with the young man.
Mine . . . grind: I will never again give in to my baser instincts.

Meaning

Alas, it is tue that I have gone here and there and made a fool of myself, done things I knew were wrong, sold valuable possessions for a few coins, and committed—with new friends--the same misdeeds that I was guilty of in the past. During these times, I neglected my allegiance to you. But all of these experiences gave me new insights that made me realize how important you are to me. Now I am done with my wayward revelry and will never again take part in it. Instead, I turn to my old friend, you, to whom I am attached. So, welcome me back to your pure and loving friendship, which is next best thing to heaven.


Sonnet 111 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

O! for my sake do you with Fortune chide,
The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
That did not better for my life provide
Than public means which public manners breeds.
Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,
And almost thence my nature is subdued
To what it works in, like the dyer's hand:
Pity me, then, and wish I were renewed;
Whilst, like a willing patient, I will drink
Potions of eisel 'gainst my strong infection;
No bitterness that I will bitter think,
Nor double penance, to correct correction.
   Pity me then, dear friend, and I assure ye,
   Even that your pity is enough to cure me.

Fortune: Allusion to Fortuna, the ancient Roman goddess of luck (good and bad).
public means: Working in the theatre.
brand: Shady reputation.
my nature . . . hand: Takes on the hue of what it immerses itself in; takes on the characteristics of what surrounds it. The speaker compares the audiences for which he performs to a dye that colors him. In other words, the audiences stain him with their corrupt behavior and views.
eisel: Vinegar.

For my sake, you reprimand the goddess of fortune for steering me into a profession with a questionable reputation, the theatre. This profession requires me to appear before audiences that corrupt my morals and manners. As a result my good name suffers, for I have become like those base audiences. It is as if I dipped my soul in polluted dye. Pity me and wish me to be cleansed of my sins and renewed. For my part, I will do penance, and I will drink a healing balm to rid me of my afflictions. If it is bitter, I will drink it as if it is not bitter. If my penance is difficult, I will not complain. So, again, pity me, dear friend. Your pity will be enough to cure me.

Sonnet 112 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Your love and pity doth the impression fill,
Which vulgar scandal stamped upon my brow;
For what care I who calls me well or ill,
So you o'er-green my bad, my good allow?
You are my all-the-world, and I must strive
To know my shames and praises from your tongue;
None else to me, nor I to none alive,
That my steeled sense or changes right or wrong.
In so profound abysm I throw all care
Of others' voices, that my adder's sense
To critic and to flatterer stopped are.
Mark how with my neglect I do dispense:
   You are so strongly in my purpose bred,
   That all the world besides methinks y'are dead.

o'er-green: Cover over, like growing grass; hide.
all-the-world: Everything.
None . . . alive: I will not listen to anyone else but you.
abysm: Pit, abyss.
adder's sense: Awareness of the opinions of others.
Mark . . . dispense: I will no longer neglect you.

Your concern for me helps ease the pain of a scandal that ensnared me. Really, though, what do I care who calls me good or bad when you are covering up the offenses I committed and allowing everyone to see the good in me. But, because you are all the world to me, I am willing to hear from your own tongue what I do wrong and what I do right. I don't want to talk with anyone else about my failings and successes. I will throw the observations of others in a deep abyss. I will pay no attention to their criticism or praise. No longer will I neglect our friendship. Because of my heightened attention to you, you will be dead to the rest of the world.

Sonnet 113 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Since I left you, mine eye is in my mind;
And that which governs me to go about
Doth part his function and is partly blind,
Seems seeing, but effectually is out;
For it no form delivers to the heart
Of bird, of flower, or shape which it doth latch:
Of his quick objects hath the mind no part,
Nor his own vision holds what it doth catch;
For if it see the rud'st or gentlest sight,
The most sweet favour or deformed'st creature,
The mountain or the sea, the day or night,
The crow, or dove, it shapes them to your feature.
   Incapable of more, replete with you,
   My most true mind thus maketh mine eye untrue.

Notes

mine . . . mind: My thoughts influence and distort what my eyes see.
that . . . me: My mind, my intellect; my brain.
Seems . . . out: I seem to see, but my vision is out of order.
latch: Take an interest in.
My  . . . mind: My faithfulness to you; my thoughts of you.

Meaning

After I left you, your image completely dominated my thoughts. In fact, it even changed my perception of the world. For example, when my eyes beheld a bird, a flower, or an interesting shape, my vision delivered it to my brain as an image of you. Now, whatever I see—a crude, gentle, or sweet thing; a deformed creature, the mountain or the sea, the day or the night, a crow or a dove—takes on your features. I am incapable of seeing anything but any image of you. Although I am true to you, my eyes are untrue to me.

Sonnet 114 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Or whether doth my mind, being crowned with you,
Drink up the monarch's plague, this flattery?
Or whether shall I say, mine eye saith true,
And that your love taught it this alchemy,
To make of monsters and things indigest
Such cherubins as your sweet self resemble,
Creating every bad a perfect best,
As fast as objects to his beams assemble?
O! 'tis the first, 'tis flattery in my seeing,
And my great mind most kingly drinks it up:
Mine eye well knows what with his gust is 'greeing,
And to his palate doth prepare the cup:
   If it be poisoned, 'tis the lesser sin
   That mine eye loves it and doth first begin.

Notes

alchemy: Magic; trick.
cherubins: cherubs, cherubim. A cherub was a winged heavenly creature (angel), often depicted as an innocent child with chubby cheeks.
As fast . . . assemble: As fast as my eye can fix its gazes upon objects.
'tis the first: The first reason given (lines 1 and 2).
what . . . 'greeing: What is agreeable to his (the eye's) taste.

Meaning

Perhaps my mind is dazed from the flattery of being crowned with thoughts about you. Its confusion would explain why all the images I see are attractive ones resembling you in form. Or perhaps my eyes, betwitched by your affection, are tricking my my mind into interpreting images incorrectly. Whatever the case, thinking about you makes my mind picture monstrous and unwholesome images as angelic sights resembling you in their features. Everything bad in the images I see becomes good—perfect, in fact. My mind drinks up the flattery of these images, as a king drinks up the flattery he hears around him. My eye well knows that I like pleasing images and readily fixes on them. If they are poisoned with falsehood, my eye—like my mind—consumes them anyway, for it enjoys their taste.

Sonnet 115 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Those lines that I before have writ do lie,
Even those that said I could not love you dearer:
Yet then my judgment knew no reason why
My most full flame should afterwards burn clearer.
But reckoning Time, whose million'd accidents
Creep in 'twixt vows, and change decrees of kings,
Tan sacred beauty, blunt the sharp'st intents,
Divert strong minds to the course of altering things;
Alas! why, fearing of Time's tyranny,
Might I not then say, 'Now I love you best,'
When I was certain o'er incertainty,
Crowning the present, doubting of the rest?
   Love is a babe, then might I not say so,
   To give full growth to that which still doth grow?

Notes

reckoning: Taking into account.
million'd: Millions of.
accidents: (1) Unexpected turn of events; (2) forces that change the quality of something.
'twixt: Between.
Tan: Turn into leather; turn a smooth face into an aging, wrinkled face.

Meaning

The sonnets I previously wrote about you lie, even those that said I could not love you with more intensity. However, I was not aware when I wrote the sonnets that my love for you could grow. But I was aware that my love could diminish. After all, time is powerful. It can lay events before us that make us renounce promises we made. Moreover, it can change the decrees of kings, take away a person's beauty, dull the passions, and cause great thinkers to alter their views. Therefore, it was only natural back then (when I worried that time might weaken my love) for me to say, “Now I love you best.” I now realize that love is a baby. When this baby is still growing, its capacity to love also grows. Thus, I was wrong to say that “I could not love you dearer.”


Sonnet 116 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)
 
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,1
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark 2
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,3
Whose worth's 4 unknown, although his height5 be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, 6 though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
.....If this be error and upon me proved,
.....I never writ, nor no man ever loved

Notes

1... Let me . . . finds: When two people bond intellectually (platonically), they should not allow impediments (problems, personal flaws, etc.) to come between them. Love is not love if impediments separate them.
2...bends . . . remove: Weakens or succumbs to these impediments in response to an offense by the other person (remover).
3...That looks . . . bark: Metaphor comparing the constancy of real love during difficult times to the constancy of a star that guides ships (barks).
4...worth's: Worth is. Worth here refers to the composition or substance of the star.
5...height: Position in the sky; distance from earth.
6...Love's . . . fool: Love does not lessen or change over time.

Meaning

The message of this sonnet is simple and straightforward: If a person discovers impediments hampering his relationship with another person, he should not alter his love for that person. On the contrary, his love should remain fixed and constant, like a star that guides ships in a storm. In addition, his love should remain strong even when youth passes—in fact, “even to the edge of doom.”

Sonnet 117 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

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-purchased 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 wakened hate;
   Since my appeal says I did strive to prove
   The constancy and virtue of your love.

Notes

scanted: Neglected; gave inadequate attention to.
whereto: To which (referring to your love, line 3).
unknown minds: Strangers; people I know little about.
given . . . right: Spent time on other pursuits that I should have spent with you.
surmise accumulate: Reach conclusions about where I have been and with whom.

Meaning

You can accuse me of neglecting our friendship and spending time with others, including people I don't know very well. I have traveled far and wide with all types of people, all the while forgetting about you. Note down these offenses that I committed or any offenses that you imagine I committed. Then summon me to meet with you face to face. But don't condemn me summarily, for I did all these things to test the strength of your love for me.

Sonnet 118
(Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Like as, to make our appetites more keen,
With eager compounds we our palate urge;
As, to prevent our maladies unseen,
We sicken to shun sickness when we purge;
Even so, being full of your ne'er-cloying sweetness,
To bitter sauces did I frame my feeding;
And, sick of welfare, found a kind of meetness
To be diseased, ere that there was true needing.
Thus policy in love, to anticipate
The ills that were not, grew to faults assured,
And brought to medicine a healthful state
Which, rank of goodness, would by ill be cured;
   But thence I learn and find the lesson true,
   Drugs poison him that so fell sick of you.

Notes

compounds: Seasonings.
We . . . purge: We make ourselves sick, by purging, in order to remain healthy.
bitter sauces: Bad company.
meetness: Satisfaction.
ere: Before.
grew . . . assured: Began to like and keep company with my “bitter” friends.
Which . . . cured: Illness cannot cure goodness.

Meaning

We season our food to make it more appealing to the palate. Sometimes, to prevent illness, we rid our body of digested impurities by purging our bowels. While I was full of your sweetness—which is never too rich or otherwise unagreeable and thus never requiring purging—I decided to try bitter sauces to make myself sick. These bitter sauces were other people. I wanted to be sick of them, not you. Being sick of their bitterness would make me more appreciative of your sweetness. Bit my strategy backfired. First, there were no ills in our relationship that would cause me to take such action. By I turned them into ills with my behavior and to taste of bitterness. I didn't realize it at the time, but our relationship did not require me to take such extreme measures; it was already healthful. Besides, goodness has no need of being cured by illness. I have learned a lesson. My use of bitter remedies to test the sweetness of our relationship poisoned me. 

Sonnet 119 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

What potions have I drunk of Siren tears,
Distilled from limbecks foul as hell within,
Applying fears to hopes, and hopes to fears,
Still losing when I saw myself to win!
What wretched errors hath my heart committed,
Whilst it hath thought itself so blessed never!
How have mine eyes out of their spheres been fitted,
In the distraction of this madding fever!
O benefit of ill! now I find true
That better is by evil still made better;
And ruined love, when it is built anew,
Grows fairer than at first, more strong, far greater.
   So I return rebuked to my content,
   And gain by ill thrice more than I have spent.

Notes

Siren: In Greek mythology, any of a group of sea nymphs on an island that sang a song so beautiful that it seduced sailors to turn their ships toward the island. The ships crashed on rocks. If there were survivors, they listened to the sirens until they starved to death.
limbeck: Alembic, a device used to distill liquids.
madding: frenzied.

Meaning

The speaker acknowledges that he has engaged in unseemly activities. He attempts to mitigate the gravity of his offenses by saying that he was not himself, that he was in the throes of a disorienting fever. He then says he is a better man for his experiences because he has learned from his mistakes. He says:
I have drunk evil thinking it was good—just as the sailors of ancient times drank in the deadly song of the Sirens, thinking it was good. The evil potion that I drank,  distilled in foul vessels, caused me to fear what I hoped for—and hope for what I feared. I was a mess, losing what I desired when I thought I would win it. I made serious mistakes at a time when I thought I was supremely blessed. And my eyes deceived me in my state of disorientation. But good can come from evil. Namely, love ruined by bad behavior can be rebuilt if one is willing to learn from his errors. Now I return to you, chastened by mistakes. Because I have learned from my blunders, I am three times better than I was before.

Sonnet 120 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

That you were once unkind befriends me now,
And for that sorrow, which I then did feel,
Needs must I under my transgression bow,
Unless my nerves were brass or hammered steel.
For if you were by my unkindness shaken,
As I by yours, you've passed a hell of time;
And I, a tyrant, have no leisure taken
To weigh how once I suffered in your crime.
O! that our night of woe might have remembered
My deepest sense, how hard true sorrow hits,
And soon to you, as you to me, then tendered
The humble salve, which wounded bosoms fits!
   But that your trespass now becomes a fee;
   Mine ransoms yours, and yours must ransom me.

Notes

Lines 1-6: Apparently the speaker and his friend exchanged harsh words of criticism.
leisure: Time.
might have remembered: Helped me to remember.
My  . . . sense: In my deepest feelings.
tendered: Offered.
salve: Apology.
But that  . . . me: Our offenses neutralize each other.

Meaning

You were once unkind to me. But that unkindness now spurs me to acknowledge my transgressions toward you. I would need brass or steel nerves not to feel guilty about my wrongful behavior. If you were as upset about my offenses as I was by yours, you have passed through a hell. After your unkindness toward me, I failed to take time to consider its full effect on me. I wish now that the bad feelings resulting from our falling out had prompted us to make amends sooner. However, consider that your trespass against me—and mine against you—have balanced each other out.


Sonnet 121 (Observations of the Speaker)

'Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed,
When not to be receives reproach of being;
And the just pleasure lost, which is so deemed
Not by our feeling, but by others' seeing:
For why should others' false adulterate eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?
Or on my frailties why are frailer spies,
Which in their wills count bad what I think good?
No, I am that I am, and they that level
At my abuses reckon up their own:
I may be straight though they themselves be bevel;
By their rank thoughts, my deeds must not be shown;
   Unless this general evil they maintain,
   All men are bad and in their badness reign.

Notes

'Tis . . . esteemed: It's better to be morally corrupt than to be falsely accused of being morally corrupt.
not to be . . . being: People accuse me of offenses that I did not commit.
just . . . lost: The pleasure of being morally upright is lost.
Give . . . to: Call attention to; point out; notice.
sportive: Amorous; playful.
reckon up: Reveal; exhibit; betray.

Meaning

It's better to be a corrupt person than an upright person whom the morally debased perceive as corrupt. Normally, we take pride in our upright activity. However, when the morally debased think that our activity is corrupt, our pride is lost and we become upset. But why should corrupt people get to judge us in the first place? Why should they have a right to evaluate my frailties when they themselves are frailer morally than I am? Why should they have a right to regard my behavior as bad when I think it is good? I am what I am. Those who describe my behavior as bad are really calling attention to their own vile behavior. I am straight; they are the ones who are twisted. They should not evaluate me by making known their own rank thoughts—unless they believe that all men are bad and reign in their badness.

Sonnet 122 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Thy gift, thy tables, are within my brain
Full charactered with lasting memory,
Which shall above that idle rank remain,
Beyond all date, even to eternity:
Or, at the least, so long as brain and heart
Have faculty by nature to subsist;
Till each to razed oblivion yield his part
Of thee, thy record never can be missed.
That poor retention could not so much hold,
Nor need I tallies thy dear love to score;
Therefore to give them from me was I bold,
To trust those tables that receive thee more:
   To keep an adjunct to remember thee
   Were to import forgetfulness in me.

Notes

tables . . . brain: The tablet, or notebook, you gave me already exists in my brain, in a manner of speaking. It is the invisible thought process that records my feelings.
Full . . . memory: Filled in with words written into my memory.
idle rank: Other memories, which are unimportant and trivial compared with the memories of the young man.
razed oblivion: Death.
retention: The tablet intended for a written acount.
adjunct: Aid, such as the tablet.

Meaning

I have in my mind a book like the tablet you gave me as a gift. In this book (my memory, actually), I have written verses about you that will outlast the tablet. In fact, I will remember the verses forever—or at least as long as my heart and brain survive before oblivion stops them from functioning. That poor tablet could not hold what my mind can retain. Besides, I have no need to write in it an account of my love for you. Therefore, I gave the tablet away, deciding to rely on my memories of you. To keep the tablet to record my thoughts about you is to suggest that I am forgetful when it comes to you. (The ending implies that the young man means so much to the speaker that the latter cannot forget about him.)

Sonnet 123 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change:
Thy pyramids built up with newer might
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange;
They are but dressings of a former sight.
Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire
What thou dost foist upon us that is old;
And rather make them born to our desire
Than think that we before have heard them told.
Thy registers and thee I both defy,
Not wondering at the present nor the past,
For thy records and what we see doth lie,
Made more or less by thy continual haste.
   This I do vow and this shall ever be;
   I will be true despite thy scythe and thee.

Notes

No, Time: The speaker addresses Time, using two figures of speech: apostrophe and personification.
pyramids . . . might: The pyramids of Egypt used as a metaphor for new buildings in London.
dressings: New versions.
dates: Years on earth.
born . . . desire: Seem new to pique our desire to see something exotic and unusual.
registers: Historical records or accounts.

Meaning

No, Time, you shall not boast that I am aging even though I see new buildings (new versions of the pyramids, line 2) going up all around me. I do not think them anything unusual or novel. They are just imitations of older structures. Because we humans have a relatively short lifespan, we tend to admire the ancient relics that you hand down to us. You make us think that they were intended for us. The fact is, though, that we have heard all the old stories about them. I defy your historical registers and you yourself, and I am not at all in awe of your works. Here's why: they lie. They do not tell us the truth about the passage of time but instead offer idealized or false images of history. Your works are not really all that important; what is important is love. That is the constant in this changing world. I therefore vow that I will always tell the real truth, about love, in spite of your machinations.


Sonnet 124 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

If my dear love were but the child of state,
It might for Fortune's bastard be unfathered,
As subject to Time's love or to Time's hate,
Weeds among weeds, or flowers with flowers gathered.
No, it was builded far from accident;
It suffers not in smiling pomp, nor falls
Under the blow of thralled discontent,
Whereto th' inviting time our fashion calls:
It fears not policy, that heretic,
Which works on leases of short-number'd hours,
But all alone stands hugely politic,
That it nor grows with heat, nor drowns with showers.
   To this I witness call the fools of time,
   Which die for goodness, who have lived for crime.

Notes

subject . . . hate: Subject to whatever is in or out of fashion at the moment.
builded: Built.
It suffers . . . pomp: It is not influenced by the high and mighty.
nor falls  . . .  discontent: Is not forced by someone.
policy: Rules; etiquette; social or political manipulation.
stands . . . politic: Is true to itself; makes its own rules.

Meaning

If my love for you came about by happenstance—as if it were the child of an unmarried man and woman and thus a bastard without the privileges of a legitimate child—it might be discarded as unworthy. As a ward of the state, it then would be subject to the whims of circumstances, perhaps despised one moment like a lowly weed or loved in another moment like a beautiful flower. But my love for you was no accident. It does not depend on approving smiles; it is not forced. Moreover, it is not afraid of the political or social manipulation of people who come and go with the wind. Rather, my love stands alone, independent of the rules of others, as a constant that neither grows nor dwindles with the passions of the moment. I swear that what I am saying is true, calling as witnesses the fools who lived a corrupt life but repented at the moment of death.

Comment

What the speaker is saying here is that his love is constant and not subject to the whims of external circumstances or influences.

Sonnet 125 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Were't aught to me I bore the canopy,
With my extern the outward honouring,
Or laid great bases for eternity,
Which proves more short than waste or ruining?
Have I not seen dwellers on form and favour
Lose all and more by paying too much rent
For compound sweet, forgoing simple savour,
Pitiful thrivers, in their gazing spent?
No; let me be obsequious in thy heart,
And take thou my oblation, poor but free,
Which is not mixed with seconds, knows no art,
But mutual render, only me for thee.
   Hence, thou suborned informer! a true soul
   When most impeached stands least in thy control.

aught: Anything.
canopy: Cloth covering held with poles over a monarch or another important person.
With . . . honouring: With my presence (that is, with my external appearance, or extern) gaining the approval of onlookers and the dignitary beneath the canopy because of the service I am performing.
compound sweet: That which is elaborate and ornate, such as furniture, clothing, and even a writing style.
let . . . heart: Let me demonstrate my love for you privately, by appealing to your heart, rather than bearing a canopy over you or erecting a monument to you.
oblation: Offered love.
Which . . . seconds: Which is pure.

Would it mean anything to me if I had the privilege of helping to carry the canopy of a king or queen during a procession? Would it be an honor to erect monuments intended to last forever even though they eventually decay and crumble? (The implied meaning of the opening lines is that the speaker frowns on performing services for the sole purpose of gaining favor. He may even be downplaying his own verses if “great bases” refers to his sonnets as poetic structures that do not last. At any rate, carrying a canopy or erecting a monument is not the way to gain the favor, or love, of a person. Instead, the speaker says, the right way to win the love or approval of another is to use simplicity and honesty. Grand gestures put on for show won't do.) Have I not seen social climbers who lose everything when they reject the simple life in attempts to satisfy their appetites for wealth, power, and prestige? (The social climbers here are those who wish to ingratiate themselves with the young man through insincere behavior and pretended loyalty.) As for me, I am sincere in my love for you; let me be a humble lodger in your heart. Accept my worship, poor but freely given. It is undiluted and simple—you for me and me for you. Whoever lies about me, saying otherwise, is not to be believed. A true soul that stands accused is least vulnerable to the control of an accuser.)

Sonnet 126 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
Dost hold Time's fickle glass, his sickle, hour;
Who hast by waning grown, and therein showest
Thy lovers withering, as thy sweet self growest.
If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,
As thou goest onwards still will pluck thee back,
She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill
May time disgrace and wretched minutes kill.
Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure!
She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure:
Her audit (though delayed) answered must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.
     ( . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . )
    
( . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . )

Comment

Sonnet 126 is not really a sonnet. It has only twelve lines, not fourteen. Moreover, unlike the other poems in the collection, it contains six couplets. A couplet is a pair of rhyming lines. The other poems generally contain lines that rhyme alternately--line 1 with line 3, line 2 with line 4, and so on. The poem is the last in the collection to be addressed to the young man.

Notes

glass: Mirror.
sickle: The image of a sickle (agricultural tool with a semicircular blade designed to cut grain) associates time with death—the Grim Reaper who uses a sickle to harvest humans.
waning grown: Oxymoron in which the young man enhances his appearance as his age advances.
wrack: Ruin; destruction.
minion: (1) Favored person; darling; (2) servant; subordinate.
quietus: Settlement of a debt.

Meaning

My lovely boy, you hold power over Time himself—his mirror, his hour. In fact, you have improved with age while others around you wither with the passing years. Nature, in effect, has kept you youthful and, in so doing, has embarrassed Time. Of course, Nature will eventually be called on to make things right--that is, she must advance your age and write wrinkles on your face. The way she’ll pay her debt to Time is with you.

Sonnet 127 (Observations About the Dark Lady)

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty's name;
But now is black beauty's successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame:
For since each hand hath put on Nature's power,
Fairing the foul with Art's false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress' eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland'ring creation with a false esteem:
   Yet so they mourn becoming of their woe,
   That every tongue says beauty should look so.

Notes

fair: Beautiful; attractive.
And  . . . shame: Women today bastardize their appearance with makeup in order to call themselves beautiful.
Fairing the foul: Making the ugly beautiful.
bower: A woman's bedroom or private chamber.
Sland'ring . . . esteem: Putting on makeup to alter a plain or ugly face.

Meaning

There was a time when a dark complexion was not considered beautiful. Even when a woman with such a complexion was beautiful, people refused to acknowledge her beauty. Today, a dark complexion is admired. However, light complexions no longer fare so well because so many who have them use cosmetics to put on a false face that profanes nature and disgraces its wearer. My mistress, a dark lady, has raven eyes that seem to mourn for plain or ugly women who try to make themselves beautiful with artificial means. Her mourning eyes are so becoming that people now say everyone should look like her.