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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 76 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Why is my verse so barren of new pride,
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods, and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth, and where they did proceed?
O! know sweet love I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;
So all my best is dressing old words new,
Spending again what is already spent:
   For as the sun is daily new and old,
   So is my love still telling what is told.

Notes

new pride: New subject matter and new ways of writing.
compounds strange: Peculiar or unusual writing styles or techniques.
invention: Creativity.
noted weed: Familiar clothing; familiar appearance.
argument: Subject.

Meaning

Why is my verse always the same, varying or changing little over time and never exhibiting new methods and techniques? Why do I always express my creativity in the same old clothing (weed, line 6)
so much so that every word almost shouts my name, informing people who wrote the poem? The reason is you. My love for you is always fresh and new, even though I use old words to describe it. In fact, my love is like the sun—always bringing a new day even though it is as old as the universe. So it is that I continue to write about a bright sun—my love for you.

Sonnet 77 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear,
Thy dial how thy precious minutes waste;
The vacant leaves thy mind's imprint will bear,
And of this book, this learning mayst thou taste.
The wrinkles which thy glass will truly show
Of mouthed graves will give thee memory;
Thou by thy dial's shady stealth mayst know
Time's thievish progress to eternity.
Look what thy memory cannot contain,
Commit to these waste blanks, and thou shalt find
Those children nursed, delivered from thy brain,
To take a new acquaintance of thy mind.
   These offices, so oft as thou wilt look,
   Shall profit thee and much enrich thy book.

Notes

glass: Mirror.
dial: Clock.
vacant leaves: Blank pages in a diary or notebook.
mouthed: Open.

Mirror

Your mirror will show you how you age, your clock will show you the time you waste, and the blank pages in your diary will display the words expressing your thoughts on these and other subjects. The diary will teach you about life. For example, the words you write about the aging image in the mirror will call up thoughts of gaping graves and remind you of your mortality. As you note down how you spend your hours and days, you will learn how relentless thievish time is in his march toward eternity. Be sure to write down the thoughts that you are unlikely to remember. Thoughts are the children of your mind. When you review these thoughts years later, they will give you insights you didn't see the first time. Observing your changing image, taking note of how you spend your time, and writing down your thoughts will all profit you and enrich your time on earth.

Sonnet 78 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

So oft have I invoked thee for my Muse,
And found such fair assistance in my verse
As every alien pen hath got my use
And under thee their poesy disperse.
Thine eyes, that taught the dumb on high to sing
And heavy ignorance aloft to fly,
Have added feathers to the learned's wing
And given grace a double majesty.
Yet be most proud of that which I compile,
Whose influence is thine, and born of thee:
In others' works thou dost but mend the style,
And arts with thy sweet graces graced be;
   But thou art all my art, and dost advance
   As high as learning, my rude ignorance.

Notes

Muse: Inspiration.
every . . . pen: Every other writer.
poesy: Poetry.
disperse: Distribute.

Meaning

Often I have called upon you to inspire my poetry. On such occasions, your inspiration has worked so well that other poets who read my writing are imitating my verse and showing it around. Your dazzling eyes have taught ignorant and mediocre writers to compose soaring poetry. Moreover, they have earned praise for learned writers, giving their verse a double majesty. Yet be proudest of the verse I write—born of you and inspired by you. In the works of other writers, you simply mend their mistakes and add grace where there is none. But, since you are everything in my verse, you advance my rude ignorance to the highest level.

Sonnet 79 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man as a Complaint About the Rival Poet)
 
Whilst I alone did call upon thy aid,
My verse alone had all thy gentle grace,
But now my gracious numbers are decay'd ,
And my sick Muse doth give another place
I grant, sweet love, thy lovely argument
Deserves the travail of a worthier pen,
Yet what of thee thy poet doth invent
He robs thee of and pays it thee again.
He lends thee virtue and he stole that word
From thy behavior; beauty doth he give
And found it in thy cheek; he can afford
No praise to thee but what in thee doth live.
......Then thank him not for that which he doth say,
......Since what he owes thee thou thyself dost pay.

Notes

Whilst . . . aid: When only I wrote about you.
numbers: Poems.
sick Muse: Flagging, overtaxed creativity.
argument: Excellent qualities that "argue" for attention.
travail: Writing, poetry; the work of writing poetry.
Yet . . . invent:
Whatever quality this other poet writes about.

Meaning

When only I wrote about you, mine was the only poetry that extolled your gentle virtues. However, now that I have worn myself out praising you in verse, another poet has taken my place and is writing his own poems about you. Of course, I realize that your lovely qualities deserve the attention of another poet. Yet all he seems to do is reflect your virtues in words—that is, he takes your good qualities, then simply gives them back to you. He doesn't really interpret you creatively; he merely repeats what is already written in your behavior or in your cheek. Thus, you don't owe him any thanks for what he writes about you. In fact, he owes you thanks for what you are giving him.

Sonnet 80 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

O! how I faint when I of you do write,
Knowing a better spirit doth use your name,
And in the praise thereof spends all his might,
To make me tongue-tied speaking of your fame.
But since your worth, wide as the ocean is,
The humble as the proudest sail doth bear,
My saucy bark, inferior far to his,
On your broad main doth wilfully appear.
Your shallowest help will hold me up afloat,
Whilst he upon your soundless deep doth ride;
Or, being wracked, I am a worthless boat,
He of tall building, and of goodly pride:
   Then if he thrive and I be cast away,
   The worst was this, my love was my decay.

Notes

better spirit: The rival poet.
bark: Small sailing vessel.
main: Open sea.
soundless: One of the meanings of the verb sound is to measure the depth of water by dropping down a line with a weight attached. In this sonnet, soundless, an adjective, means that the water is so deep that the depth cannot be measured.
wracked: Wrecked.

Meaning

When I write, I become upset after I consider that a better poet spends all his energy in praise of you in order to outdo me. (The speaker is probably being ironic—or even sarcastic—when he refers to the rival poet as a “better spirit.” Other sonnets, such as 82, clearly indicate that the speaker believes his writing—all things considered—is superior to that of other poets.) Your worth is as wide as an ocean. But because both the humblest and proudest sails can navigate that ocean, I have steered my small sailing ship—far inferior to the other poet's—onto your open sea. Your inspiration will help me stay afloat while he rides on your deepest water. If I am shipwrecked, my boat will be worthless. And if his large and seaworthy ship thrives and I be cast away, the worst you can say about me was that I went down because of my love for you.

Sonnet 81 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)
 
Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten;
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men's eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o'er-read,
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
......You still shall live—such virtue hath my pen—
......Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

Notes

Or you . . . rotten: S
o that you will live on in my words when I am dead.
hence: The epitaph. You will be remembered by my poetry, which will serve as your epitaph.
Which . . .  o'er-read: Future generations will read about you.
tongues to be: Future generations.

Meaning

The speaker says his poetry about the young man will immortalize the youth. It will serve as an epitaph that future generations will read and talk about. Although the speaker himself will lie in a humble grave, forgotten, the young man will "lie" in a memorial of fame constructed by the speaker's poetry. After everyone in the world of the speaker and the young man is dead, the young man will continue to live in the speaker's words. (Shakespeare, of course, was right about one thing: He did immortalize the young man. But he was wrong about another: that he himself, as author of the sonnets, would be forgotten.)

Sonnet 82 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

I grant thou wert not married to my Muse,
And therefore mayst without attaint o'erlook
The dedicated words which writers use
Of their fair subject, blessing every book.
Thou art as fair in knowledge as in hue,
Finding thy worth a limit past my praise;
And therefore art enforced to seek anew
Some fresher stamp of the time-bettering days.
And do so, love; yet when they have devised,
What strained touches rhetoric can lend,
Thou truly fair, wert truly sympathized
In true plain words, by thy true-telling friend;
   And their gross painting might be better used
   Where cheeks need blood; in thee it is abused.

Notes

Muse: Poems; verses.
attaint: Rebuke; taint or stain.
o'erlook: Look over; peruse.
fair subject: The young man.
Some . . . stamp: Poetry of new writers.
sympathized: Depicted.
true . . . friend: The speaker.
painting: Metaphor comparing writing to painting.

Meaning

Because you are not married to my sonnet collection, you may of course look over what other poets write about you. I will not fault you for doing so. You are a fair subject for them, blessing every book they write. Since you are as knowledgeable as you are attractive, I find that your overall worth is beyond the praise I can give it. For this reason, you seek out poems about you by other writers. By all means, do so. I don't mind. But after you browse through their fancy, stylized verses, you will come to realize that the plain words of my poetry—words that truthfully and accurately portray your outstanding qualities—are superior to their bombastic and flamboyant words. They should be writing about inferior people who need to be dressed up with words. But their use of excessively ornate and flowery language to describe you is unnecessary and out of place.

Sonnet 83 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

I never saw that you did painting need,
And therefore to your fair no painting set;
I found, or thought I found, you did exceed
The barren tender of a poet's debt:
And therefore have I slept in your report,
That you yourself, being extant, well might show
How far a modern quill doth come too short,
Speaking of worth, what worth in you doth grow.
This silence for my sin you did impute,
Which shall be most my glory being dumb;
For I impair not beauty being mute,
When others would give life, and bring a tomb.
   There lives more life in one of your fair eyes
   Than both your poets can in praise devise.

Notes

painting: Writing that is excessively ornate; writing that is overembellished.
The barren . . . debt: The meager resources that a writer would use to pay his debt to you—that is, his obligation to acknowledge your excellence. Here, the speaker uses a business metaphor, money (tender, line 4), to represent the talent or ability of a poet.
slept . . . report: Stopped writing about you.
being extant: Being outstanding. Extant today means alive or surviving, but in Shakespeare's time it could also mean standing out.
quill: Writer. Substitution of quill for writer constitutes a figure of speech called metonymy.
dumb: Inactive in writing about you.
mute: Same as dumb.
both . . . poets: Shakespeare and the rival poet.

Meaning

I never found that you needed a lavish verbal portrait that attempted to glorify you. Therefore, none was written. I found—or thought I found—that your excellent qualities exceeded a poet's talent to capture them in words. Consequently, I ceased writing about them. Consider that you yourself stand as a living portrait that shows how meager are a poet's verses that depict you. Speaking of your worth, I wish to point out that yours continues to grow. But my worth seems to have diminished, since you consider my silence—that is, my decision to stop writing about you—an offense. I don't see it that way. I think my silence is prudent; by writing nothing, I do no harm to your image. Other poets who try to bring you to life end up placing you in a tomb. (As I said before, your outstanding qualities are beyond the ability of a writer to describe them. Thus, any attempt to depict them damages your image.) There is more life in one of your eyes than either I or the
rival poet can adequately represent in words.)

Sonnet 84 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Who is it that says most, which can say more,
Than this rich praise, that you alone, are you,
In whose confine immured is the store
Which should example where your equal grew?
Lean penury within that pen doth dwell
That to his subject lends not some small glory;
But he that writes of you, if he can tell
That you are you, so dignifies his story.
Let him but copy what in you is writ,
Not making worse what nature made so clear,
And such a counterpart shall fame his wit,
Making his style admired every where.
   You to your beauteous blessings add a curse,
   Being fond on praise, which makes your praises worse.

Notes

In whose . . . is: In whose person is contained.
penury: Poverty of words; lack of creativity.
fame: Make famous.

Meaning

Who writes most often that you alone are without equal? Who can say more than this rich praise I give you? In you are so many excellent qualities that only you can be compared to yourself. It is a poor writer who cannot glorify his subject at least in some small way. But you glorify any writer—no matter his talent or lack of it—who merely writes that you are you. Let him simply copy what is already written in you and, if he copies accurately, he shall become famous. Everyone will admire his style. There is a problem, though. Because you love the praise you get, writers lavish so much flattery on you that they worsen their writing and distort their portraits of you.

Sonnet 85
(Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

My tongue-tied Muse in manners holds her still,
While comments of your praise richly compiled,
Reserve thy character with golden quill,
And precious phrase by all the Muses filed.
I think good thoughts, whilst others write good words,
And like unlettered clerk still cry 'Amen'
To every hymn that able spirit affords,
In polished form of well-refined pen.
Hearing you praised, I say ''tis so, 'tis true,'
And to the most of praise add something more;
But that is in my thought, whose love to you,
Though words come hindmost, holds his rank before.
   Then others, for the breath of words respect,
   Me for my dumb thoughts, speaking in effect.

Notes

Muse: In Greek mythology, a goddess who inspired poets. There were nine muses in all, each overseeing a specific activity or discipline. Besides inspiring poets and other writers, the muses inspired musicians, astronomers, choreographers, historians, and others involved in the arts and sciences.
unlettered: Having a meager education; deficient in reading and writing.
hindmost: Last; of secondary importance.
dumb: Silent; unexpressed.

Meaning

While the Muse that inspires my poetry remains mute, others praise you in richly adorned verses, writing glowing descriptions of you. I think good thoughts about you while others write down their thoughts and cry amen after every poem they complete in polished form. Noting their praise, I say, “ 'tis so, 'tis true.” To my critique of their verses praising you, I add an additional comment. But that comment remains in my thoughts, whose love for you ranks higher than words. Other writers place words first. My silent thoughts speak for me.

Sonnet 86 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Was it the proud full sail of his great verse,
Bound for the prize of all too precious you,
That did my ripe thoughts in my brain inhearse,
Making their tomb the womb wherein they grew?
Was it his spirit, by spirits taught to write
Above a mortal pitch, that struck me dead?
No, neither he, nor his compeers by night
Giving him aid, my verse astonished.
He, nor that affable familiar ghost
Which nightly gulls him with intelligence,
As victors of my silence cannot boast;
I was not sick of any fear from thence:
   But when your countenance filled up his line,
   Then lacked I matter; that enfeebled mine.

Notes

proud . . . verse: Metaphor comparing seemingly good poetry to a sail that has caught wind.
inhearse: Kill; bury; entomb.
Was it . . . dead: Was it his gifted writing, which must have been taught to him by the ghosts of dead writers, that caused me to cease writing about you?
compeers by night: Ghostly associates.
gulls: Deceives; tricks.
countenance: Approval; commendation.

Meaning

Was it the rival poet's proud verse, written for and about you, that buried my thoughts in a tomb in my brain, a tomb that was once a womb that gave birth to the thoughts? Was it his spirit, which the ghosts of poets past taught to write with superhuman skill, that struck me silent in the first place? No, neither he nor those ghosts stifled my verse. No, neither he nor a ghost that nightly visits him can take credit for silencing me. I was not afraid of them. But when you made known your approval (countenance, line 13) of his verse, then I went silent. Your approval enfeebled me.

Sonnet 87 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know'st thy estimate,
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.
Thy self thou gavest, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me to whom thou gav'st it else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgement making.
   Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter,
   In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.

Notes

dear: Valuable; expensive; of great worth.
charter: Details, like those in a legal agreement.
determinate: Ended; severed.
fair gift: The young man's gift of himself to the speaker.
patent: Inclination.
misprision: Failure to recognize the value of something.

Meaning

Farewell! You come at too high a price for me to continue to possess you. It is likely that you know your worth, which gives you the right and the wherewithal to go your own way. The bonds that tied you to me are severed. I have no right to your company, no claim on you. Therefore, the gift you gave me, yourself, is no longer mine. Originally, you befriended me when you were not aware of your worth—or simply made a mistake in associating with me. Now you are free and independent of me. I must say, though, that when you were with me it was as if I was in a wonderful dream that flattered my ego. For a time, I was a king. Then I awakened to reality.

Sonnet 88 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

When thou shalt be disposed to set me light,
And place my merit in the eye of scorn,
Upon thy side, against myself I'll fight,
And prove thee virtuous, though thou art forsworn.
With mine own weakness being best acquainted,
Upon thy part I can set down a story
Of faults concealed, wherein I am attainted;
That thou in losing me shalt win much glory:
And I by this will be a gainer too;
For bending all my loving thoughts on thee,
The injuries that to myself I do,
Doing thee vantage, double-vantage me.
   Such is my love, to thee I so belong,
   That for thy right, myself will bear all wrong.

Notes

set . . . light: Focus attention on me; discuss me in public; criticize me in public.
forsworn: broken a promise or promises.
attainted: Tainted; tarnished.

Meaning

When you part from me and subject me to the eye of public scorn, I shall fight against myself and prove you virtuous even though you have broken promises to me. For my own part, I have weaknesses and faults that tarnish my reputation. Therefore, in separating from me, people will think better of you. I too will gain, however, for I will then focus all my thoughts on you while doing injuries to myself. These injuries will make me appear even more despicable and you, by comparison, more admirable. And whatever benefits you benefits me doubly. Such is my love for you that I will bear all wrong for your sake.

Sonnet 89
(Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Say that thou didst forsake me for some fault,
And I will comment upon that offence:
Speak of my lameness, and I straight will halt,
Against thy reasons making no defence.
Thou canst not, love, disgrace me half so ill,
To set a form upon desired change,
As I'll myself disgrace; knowing thy will,
I will acquaintance strangle, and look strange;
Be absent from thy walks; and in my tongue
Thy sweet beloved name no more shall dwell,
Lest I, too much profane, should do it wrong,
And haply of our old acquaintance tell.
   For thee, against my self I'll vow debate,
   For I must ne'er love him whom thou dost hate.

Notes

halt: Limp; hobble along.

acquaintance strangle: End our friendship.

Meaning

Suppose you renounced me and told others you did so because of a fault of mine. For your sake, I would pretend to have that fault. For example, if you told others that I was lame, I would begin to limp. I would not defend myself but accept any disgrace you impose on me. Moreover, I would not do anything to rekindle our friendship. I would cease taking walks with you and would not even utter your name out of fear that doing so would cause you embarrassment. I would not love myself if you did not.

Sonnet 90 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

Then hate me when thou wilt; if ever, now;
Now, while the world is bent my deeds to cross,
Join with the spite of fortune, make me bow,
And do not drop in for an after-loss:
Ah! do not, when my heart hath 'scaped this sorrow,
Come in the rearward of a conquered woe;
Give not a windy night a rainy morrow,
To linger out a purposed overthrow.
If thou wilt leave me, do not leave me last,
When other petty griefs have done their spite,
But in the onset come: so shall I taste
At first the very worst of fortune's might;
   And other strains of woe, which now seem woe,
   Compared with loss of thee, will not seem so.

Notes

the world . . . cross: The world is giving me a hard time.
when . . . sorrow: When I have gotten over the loss of your friendship.
windy . . . morrow: In a twin metaphor, the speaker compares himself to a windy night and a rainy tomorrow.

Meaning

Hate me when you wish. In fact, break off our friendship now, at a time when the world is at odds with me. Join in with everyone else who is against me. After I have accepted the loss of your friendship, do not come to see me anymore. But do not wait; cut off your relationship with me now. Other griefs that come my way will then seem petty compared to the grief of losing your friendship.

Sonnet 91 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)  

Some glory in their birth, some in their skill,
Some in their wealth, some in their bodies’ force,
Some in their garments, though new-fangled ill,
Some in their hawks and hounds, some in their horse;
And every humour hath his adjunct pleasure,
Wherein it finds a joy above the rest.
But these particulars are not my measure;
All these I better in one general best.
Thy love is better than high birth to me,
Richer than wealth, prouder than garments’ cost,
Of more delight than hawks or horses be;
And having thee, of all men’s pride I boast.
   Wretched in this alone, that thou mayst take
   All this away, and me most wretched make.

Notes

Some in their: Repetition of this phrase in the first four lines constitutes a figure of speech known as anaphora.
birth: Social status.
garments . . . ill: New clothes that are garish and tawdry.
humour: caprice; notion; impulse; whim.

Meaning

Some men glory in having a prestigious family name. Others glory in special talents—or perhaps their wealth or physical strength. Still others take great pride in wearing the latest fashions, even though sometimes they choose horrid apparel. And there are all sorts of other things that command the attention of men. As for me, I prize your love above all else. It is better than horses and hawks and all the other pursuits and pleasures. However, if you choose to ignore me, I will become woeful and desolate.

Sonnet 92 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

But do thy worst to steal thyself away,
For term of life thou art assured mine;
And life no longer than thy love will stay,
For it depends upon that love of thine.
Then need I not to fear the worst of wrongs,
When in the least of them my life hath end.
I see a better state to me belongs
Than that which on thy humour doth depend:
Thou canst not vex me with inconstant mind,
Since that my life on thy revolt doth lie.
O what a happy title do I find,
Happy to have thy love, happy to die!
   But what's so blessed-fair that fears no blot?
   Thou mayst be false, and yet I know it not.

Notes

it: My life; the length of my life.
need I . . . end: I need not worry about the worst way you can offend me, for the least way would end my life.
humour: Mood; attitude toward me.
inconstant: Changing; faithless.

Meaning

Do your worst to avoid me, but I regard you as mine for life. However, if your love for me ends, my life ends. But there is an advantage in this outcome: if I am dead, I will no longer worry about whether you will abandon me. Therefore, I am in a good state of mind; I don't fret over whether or not you decide to maintain or end our friendship. I am happy to have your love when you give it, and I am happy to die when you don't give it. And what if you are false to me without my knowledge? I say this: How could I worry about a situation of which I have no knowledge?


Sonnet 93 (Addressed to the Unidentified Young Man)

So shall I live, supposing thou art true,
Like a deceived husband; so love's face
May still seem love to me, though altered new;
Thy looks with me, thy heart in other place:
For there can live no hatred in thine eye,
Therefore in that I cannot know thy change.
In many's looks, the false heart's history
Is writ in moods, and frowns, and wrinkles strange.
But heaven in thy creation did decree
That in thy face sweet love should ever dwell;
Whate'er thy thoughts, or thy heart's workings be,
Thy looks should nothing thence, but sweetness tell.
   How like Eve's apple doth thy beauty grow,
   If thy sweet virtue answer not thy show!

Notes

true: Faithful
in that . . . change: I cannot tell from looking into your eyes whether your attitude toward me has changed.
many's looks: Many persons' looks.
should . . . thence: Your face would not give away anything from those places (the mind and the heart).

Meaning

I  will carry on with life under the assumption that you are remaining a faithful friend. But if you are deceiving me the way an unfaithful wife deceives her husband—pretending to look upon me with love while your heart is with another person—I will have no way of knowing about your unfaithfulness. True, a false heart's deceptive behavior is often given away by moods and frowns and strange wrinkles. In your case, however, affection always appears on your face. Whatever you are thinking or feeling will be unknown to me. You will be like Eve's apple: beautiful on the oustide but corrupted on the inside.

Sonnet 94 (Observations of the Speaker)

They that have power to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;
They rightly do inherit heaven's graces,
And husband nature's riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others, but stewards of their excellence.
The summer's flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself, it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
   For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
   Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds.

Notes

hurt: Injure emotionally.
none: No hurtful deed.
do not . . . show: Do not engage in wanton behavior.
moving others: Arousing desire in others.
husband: Manage.

Meaning

There are people with exceptionally good looks who have the power to hurt the feelings of others but refuse to do so. Even though their admirers desire to be intimate with them, these extraordinary specimens avoid untoward liaisons and remain chaste, keeping their emotions under control. Such people are the ones who earn heaven's smiles, the ones who refuse to cheapen themselves by spending their natural treasures to obtain momentary sexual gratification. They discipline themselves; they own themselves. Compare them to a summer flower that is sweet to all who behold it. In modesty, it keeps its place, perfuming the air while it lives, then withers and dies. But if that flower were to bow to the advances of a weed, it would become like the weed—base, undignified. Good things turn bad when they choose to do bad things. A lily that willingly associates with a weed soon festers with infection. Eventually, it becomes worse than the weed.

Sonnet 95 (Addressed to the Young Man)

How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame
Which, like a canker in the fragrant rose,
Doth spot the beauty of thy budding name!
O! in what sweets dost thou thy sins enclose.
That tongue that tells the story of thy days,
Making lascivious comments on thy sport,
Cannot dispraise, but in a kind of praise;
Naming thy name blesses an ill report.
O! what a mansion have those vices got
Which for their habitation chose out thee,
Where beauty's veil doth cover every blot
And all things turns to fair that eyes can see!
   Take heed, dear heart, of this large privilege;
   The hardest knife ill-used doth lose his edge.

Notes

canker: Plant disease that causes lesions.
sport: Behavior.
O . . . thee: Metaphor comparing the young man to a mansion and his sins to the residents.
beauty's veil: Metaphor comparing the young man's good looks to a veil that covers ugliness, or sin.

Meaning

I have been hearing stories about your sinful behavior, which infects you the way a disease infects a rose. The teller of these tales makes your shame appear sweet and fragrant, as if your sins carried the scent of a rose. The mere mention of your name “blesses an ill report” (line 8) about your vices, which have taken up residence in the mansion of your being. Your beautiful exterior, like the splendid exterior of a fine house, hides ugliness within. Be careful. You cannot sustain a sterling reputation forever. Eventually, like the fine edge of an ill-used knife, the fine edge of your reputation will eventually become dull. Your good name will suffer.

Sonnet 96 (Addressed to the Young Man)

Some say thy fault is youth, some wantonness;
Some say thy grace is youth and gentle sport;
Both grace and faults are lov'd of more and less:
Thou mak'st faults graces that to thee resort.
As on the finger of a throned queen
The basest jewel will be well esteem'd,
So are those errors that in thee are seen
To truths translated, and for true things deem'd.
How many lambs might the stern wolf betray,
If like a lamb he could his looks translate!
How many gazers mightst thou lead away,
If thou wouldst use the strength of all thy state!
   But do not so, I love thee in such sort,
   As thou being mine, mine is thy good report.

Notes

Thou . . . graces: You have the ability to make your faults seem like good qualities.
errors . . . translated: Your sins are viewed by others as virtues.
gazers: Admirers.

Meaning

Some blame your youth for your behavior. Others say you simply have loose morals. Still others observe that your youth and your behavior are, together, appealing and winsome. Thus, your good qualities and faults—faults which you have the ability to turn into seeming graces—both receive the approval of many people. But your reprehensible behavior is like the least valuable gem on one of the rings on the fingers of a queen: The other jewels—the finer ones—make the base jewel seem better than it is. Oh, how many lambs could the wolf snatch away if it disguised itself as a lamb? How many of your admirers could you lead astray if you used your charms to tempt them? But do not do so. I hold such affection for you that whatever taints your reputation taints mine as well.

Sonnet 97 (Addressed to the Young Man)

How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
What old December's bareness everywhere!
And yet this time removed was summer's time;
The teeming autumn, big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burden of the prime,
Like widow'd wombs after their lords' decease:
Yet this abundant issue seemed to me
But hope of orphans, and unfathered fruit;
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And, thou away, the very birds are mute:
   Or, if they sing, 'tis with so dull a cheer,
   That leaves look pale, dreading the winter's near.

Notes

What freezings . . . everywhere: The repetition of what constitutes a figure of speech called anaphora.
autumn . . . increase: Metaphor comparing autumn to a pregnant woman.
issue: Offspring; harvest.

Meaning

My absence from you has been like a winter. When I am with you, life is such a pleasure; time passes quickly. My time away from you has been cold and dark and bare, like December. Oddly, though, my absence from you took place in the summer. When autumn arrived, it was big and rich, like a pregnant woman; it bore a harvest as a widow whose husband had died months before. The offsrping—the fruits and vegetables and other issue—thus were pitiful orphans. Or at least they seemed so to me because of the emptiness I felt in being away from you and because of the shining summer of your presence. When you are away, even the birds around me go silent. Of if they sing at all, their tune is so dull and lifeless that the leaves lose their color in dread of approaching winter.

Sonnet 98 (Addressed to the Young Man)

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leapt with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue,
Could make me any summer's story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:
Nor did I wonder at the lily's white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
   Yet seemed it winter still, and you away,
   As with your shadow I with these did play.

Notes

pied: Having patches of two or more colors.
Saturn: In Roman mythology, the god of agriculture.
lays: Songs.
vermilion: Vivid red.

Meaning

I have been absent from you in the spring, when many-colored April—dressed in all his finery—put a spirit of youth in everything. Even the god Saturn laughed and leaped with the joy of the season. But neither the songs of the birds nor the sweet smell of the flowers could lift my spirits. Nor could the whiteness of the lily or the vivid redness of the rose. To be sure, these flowers were figures of delight. However, they were patterned after you. And because you were absent from me—making spring seem like winter—I was sad. Nevertheless, I played with them as if they were your shadow.

Sonnet 99 (Addressed to the Young Man)

The forward violet thus did I chide:
Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy sweet that smells,
If not from my love's breath? The purple pride
Which on thy soft cheek for complexion dwells
In my love's veins thou hast too grossly dy'd.
The lily I condemned for thy hand,
And buds of marjoram had stol'n thy hair;
The roses fearfully on thorns did stand,
One blushing shame, another white despair;
A third, nor red nor white, had stol'n of both,
And to his robbery had annexed thy breath;
But, for his theft, in pride of all his growth
A vengeful canker eat him up to death.
   More flowers I noted, yet I none could see,
   But sweet, or colour it had stol'n from thee.

Notes

whence: From where; from what place.
cheek: Petals.
canker: Plant disease.

Meaning

I scolded a brazen violet for stealing its sweet smell from your breath and for stealing its purple color from your veins. I also reprimanded a lily for stealing the hue of your hand and chided marjoram buds for stealing the appearance and fragrance of your hair. One rose took red from you; another, white; and a third took red and white, as well as your breath. For his crime, a vengeful disease consumed him. I noted that other flowers all stole a color or a fragrance from you.

Sonnet 100 (Addressed to the Muse That Inspires Shakespeare)

Where art thou, Muse, that thou forget'st so long
To speak of that which gives thee all thy might?
Spend'st thou thy fury on some worthless song,
Darkening thy power to lend base subjects light?
Return, forgetful Muse, and straight redeem
In gentle numbers time so idly spent;
Sing to the ear that doth thy lays esteem
And gives thy pen both skill and argument.
Rise, resty Muse, my love's sweet face survey,
If Time have any wrinkle graven there;
If any, be a satire to decay,
And make Time's spoils despised every where.
......Give my love fame faster than Time wastes life;
......So thou prevent'st his scythe and crooked knife.
  
Notes

Muse: In Greek mythology, a goddess who inspired poets.
that which gives thee all thy might: The young man's good qualities.
Darkening . . . light: Lowering yourself by focusing on unworthy subjects.
numbers: Poems; verses.
Sing . . . esteem: Provide the inspiration that I need to write beautiful poems (lays) about the young man.
skill and argument: Worthy and meaningful words that you inspire.

If any . . .decay: If there are wrinkles, ridicule them.
make . . . where. Make everyone hate time. :

Meaning
.
Shakespeare has apparently been experiencing writer’s block or some other problem hindering him from producing new poems about the young man. So, in this sonnet, he asks the Muse for new enthusiasm, new ideas, so that he may continue to extol the virtues of the young man. A Muse was a Greek goddess. There were nine of them in all. It was believed that they infused poets, painters, and other artists with the fire of creativity. Shakespeare, of course, did not believe in goddesses. He was simply using the word Muse as a metaphor for the intellectual stimulation required to write a good poem. Since ancient times, writers have used Muse in this way. In modern America, we call upon the metaphorical "Uncle Sam" to protect us against enemies or "Lady Luck" to bring us good fortune in a gambling casino. And, we also call upon the "Muse" to inspire us to write a good essay for English 101.

Sonnet 101

O truant Muse, what shall be thy amends
For thy neglect of truth in beauty dyed?
Both truth and beauty on my love depends;
So dost thou too, and therein dignified.
Make answer, Muse: wilt thou not haply say
'Truth needs no colour, with his colour fix'd;
Beauty no pencil, beauty's truth to lay;
But best is best, if never intermix'd?'
Because he needs no praise, wilt thou be dumb?
Excuse not silence so; for't lies in thee
To make him much outlive a gilded tomb,
And to bhee praised of ages yet to be.
   Then do thy office, Muse; I teach thee how
   To make him seem long hence as he shows now.

Notes

truant: Neglectful; absent; uninspiring.
truth . . . dyed: Reference to the young man, in whose beauty truth resides (is dyed).
truth . . . depends: Since truth and beauty display themselves in the young man, they depend on him.
So dost . . .  dignified: You depend on him too, for you use his good qualities to inspire poetry. This process dignifies you.
will thou . . . colour fix'd: You will probably try to escape your duty of inspiring poets like me by saying that truth does not require fancy words to describe it when beauty already speaks the truth about itself. Further description would be superfluous; no description is necessary.
But best . . . intermix'd: Why should you mix your descriptions, you make ask, with the descriptions that naturally radiate from him?
Excuse . . . tomb: But your silence on this matter won't do. You have an obligation as a muse to glorify him in a way that makes him live on in the minds of people long after he is dead and buried.
Then do . . . Muse: Then do your job, Muse; inspire poets to immortalize him with their words.

Meaning

The poet continues to address the muse. Specifically, he lectures her for not inspiring him with suitable words to describe the young man's qualities. She may maintain that these qualities radiate from him and, therefore, do not require description. But that explanation is simply an excuse for her silence. The Muse has a duty to do all she can to make sure that words are penned that will glorify the young man for ages to come.
  .