William Shakespeare – Sonnet 117
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.
On a superficial level this sonnet commences a sequence which defends the poet against the charge of unfaithfulness and disloyalty, an accusation which harks back to sonnets 109 – 113, which have already dealt with the themes of betrayal and separation. But on a wider level one must look back also to those groups of sonnets which reflect on the youth’s own lack of truth, and detail the poet’s tortured reactions to his faithlessness. Sonnets 33-6 deal with the topics of separation and disloyalty, 40-42 with that of betrayal by the youth, 66-70 with worthlessness and inward corruption, 87-98 with merits and demerits, abandonment and separation, and 105 deals with constancy. All these themes are recalled in this poem, and the verbal and ideational links to other sonnets are especially rich. It is perhaps no accident that sonnet 87
Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing
is exactly fifty away from this sonnet, as if to mark a definite period of time in which the mirror has swung round. For this group of sonnets running from 117-121 does in a sense mirror the earlier groups in which the youth appeared to be at fault for his fickleness and lack of truth. Here it is the poet who must make excuse and find sophistical reasons for his apparent desertion of the beloved, rather than the beloved who has to be excused and justified.
As with all the other sonnets, although we are free to speculate, it is impossible to fix on any specific action or inaction as the cause of the descriptions of misdemeanours here listed. The charge sheet promises to be detailed, specific and accurate, as befitting a legal deposition, but when examined it is found to be very large in scope but short on facts. A phrase such as ‘hoisted sail to all the winds’ admits an interpretation of all manner of profligacy, sexual and otherwise, but it is so general that one can never be sure entirely what it means, or that the poet is confessing to anything at all. Nevertheless, when taken with the following sonnets, it seems that some philandering on the part of the poet has been advanced as the justification for the youth no longer keeping faith, even though the initial cause of separation of the two may have been something entirely different (a natural growing apart, imprisonment of the youth etc.). It is possible also that this section links in with the dark lady sequence, where the poet becomes infatuated with a woman, a cause which might well be cited in a divorce court when drawing up an affidavit. But the history of this love, whoever and whatever was involved, must inevitably remain forever in the mists of speculation.
The praise of constancy and virtue in the youth, as in Sonnets 53 and 105 also suggests that there is perhaps some allegorical significance in this sonnet, since these are more religious qualities than secular ones, nor does the youth particularly shine in them anyway. Perhaps the poet is hinting at straying in matters of faith and is glad to report his return to the true fold at last. (See the Introductory Notes).
The 1609 Quarto Version
ACcuſe me thus,that I haue ſcanted all,
Wherein I ſhould your great deſerts repay,
Forgot vpon your deareſt loue to call,
Whereto al bonds do tie me day by day,
That I haue frequent binne with vnknown mindes,
And giuen to time your owne deare purchaſ’d right,
That I haue hoyſted ſaile to al the windes
Which ſhould tranſport me fartheſt from your ſight.
Booke both my wilfulneſſe and errors downe,
And on iuſt proofe ſurmiſe,accumilate,
Bring me within the leuel of your frowne,
But ſhoote not at me in your wakened hate :
Since my appeale ſaies I did ſtriue to prooue
The conſtancy and virtue of your loue.
1. Accuse me thus: that I have scanted all,Accuse me thus = ‘Set out the list of the charges against me in the following way’. The sonnet is composed in a legalistic framework, inviting the beloved to set out the charges which might be laid against the poet in a court of law, a list of his various misdemeanours.
have scanted all = have been neglectful of all opportunities, have been mean, careless and sparing in all matters relating to etc. As GBE mentions, all could be used adverbially, giving the meaning ‘I have been totally neglectful of etc.’.2. Wherein I should your great deserts repay,Wherein I should = by which I might
your great deserts – the deserts of the youth have been hymned by the poet many times already in many sonnets, even though the word itself describing the youth’s qualities is only used here and in 17. Of the three other uses of the word in the sonnets, two relate to the poet’s own lack of desert, and one to the general concept of desert in humanity at large (66). However the persistent tone of praise and adoration awakens immediately the consciousness of the youth’s superabundant qualities whenever a word like ‘deserts’ occurs, even though we are by now aware how flawed those qualities might be. SB mentions that this word, in its two senses of ‘deserving qualities’ and ‘abandonment’ encapsulates the theme of this sonnet. What are the true deserts of each, and who, in the course of their mutual love, has deserted whom?
repay – in the sense that love is a mutual giving and receiving the deserts of the beloved must be recompensed by a comparable repayment by the lover, in this case by giving his time, his attention, his devotion, his wholehearted commitment, as a repayment for the great gift of himself that the beloved gives. But it appears that the poet admits he has neglected to give the due recompense.3. Forgot upon your dearest love to call,Forgot = have forgotten.
dearest = most precious, most costly, most intimate, most secret.
to call (upon) – the phrase is ambiguous, because it suggests not only the importunate demands that a lover might make (including those of sexual fulfilment) upon his beloved, but also the more prosaic act of calling in on him, as a daily visit, for example, to see that he is well.4. Whereto all bonds do tie me day by day;Whereto = to which.
all bonds = all the commitments to which lovers are bound by oaths and declarations of love. Suggestive also of the marriage bond, the vow and commitment which ties man and wife together in perpetuity. Compare also Sonnet 87:
My bonds in thee are all determinate
and see the introductory note above.
day by day = every day, without exception. Evocative also of the eternal unchangeability of love described in the previous sonnet. But perhaps also with a secondary suggestion of wearisome repetition and boredom, as in
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time Mac.V.5.19-21.5. That I have frequent been with unknown minds,
This quatrain continues the list of accusations which the poet admits that the youth might be justified in making.
I have frequent been = I have been familiar with, have often visited, have regarded as my cronies.
unknown minds = strangers, those whose purposes are unknown, and therefore suspect; worthless people, the riff-raff; perhaps heretics or those of other faiths is also suggested here. Unknown minds were particularly dangerous in matters of religion. 6. And given to time your own dear-purchased right;The implication of this line seems to be that time, which by rights should have been spent with the beloved, has been squandered fruitlessly on trivial pursuits.
given to time = devoted to worthless, time-wasting occupations.
your own dear purchased right = the right you have to dictate to me my actions, purchased at the cost of giving yourself to me (a gift which is beyond estimation).7. That I have hoisted sail to all the windshoisted sail – a metaphor from shipping and the nautical world. Sail is hoisted (lifted up high on the mast) so as to catch the wind and drive the ship onward. Here the idea of hoisting sail to catch any and every wind which might blow suggests that the writer is profligate in bestowing his company on all who are around, regardless of their worth.8. Which should transport me farthest from your sight.The result of which is to remove me far away from you.
should = would.
This line modifies all the winds of the previous line. The poet’s willingness to be a ship tossed by all the winds is now restricted to only those winds which carry him away from his beloved, perhaps an even more damaging admission than that of being free and easy with one’s person in all company.9. Book both my wilfulness and errors down,
Book …. down = record, note down, enter in the list of my itemized faults.
wilfulness = a disposition to be headstrong; stubborn and determined penchant for sin; lustfulness; cantankerousness. Wilfulness was often set down as a sin pertaining especially to women, as in the anonymous ballad A wilful wife, which is of the opinion that a wilful wife cannot be reformed and brings misery to man.
There is no man whose wisdom can
Reform a wilful wife:
But only GOD, who made the rod
For our unthrifty life.
Let us therefore, cry out and roar,
And make to GOD request:
That he redress this wilfulness
And set our hearts at rest.
Wherefore good wives! amend your lives
And we will do the same;
And keep not still that naughty will
That hath so evil a name.
The use of the term here perhaps helps to confirm that the errors and faults listed are the source of a quasi-matrimonial discord, and reinforces the idea of a marriage of true minds which is being wrenched asunder.
errors = mistakes, crimes, heresies. Clearly an echo of the word from the previous sonnet where it has overtones of religious heresy. Deliberately to reject divine truth (in this case the truth that the youth alone in all creation is the only object worthy of love) was the sin against the Holy Ghost, for which no salvation or forgiveness was possible.10. And on just proof surmise accumulate;just proof = exact, incontrovertible proof of my sins; fair and legally just proof.
surmise – Q’s comma suggests that this word could be intended as an imperative of the verb ‘to surmise’. I.e. ‘surmise and accumulate further evidences of my disloyalty’. The normally accepted punctuation however invites one to take it as the object of accumulate – ‘Heap up further evidence of my treachery in addition to the proofs you already have’. The word surmise, whether a noun or verb, has primarily a legal meaning. OED 1 gives “to submit as a charge or information, allege formally”, for the verb, and “A formal allegation or information; spec. in Eccl. Law, the allegation in the libel”, for the noun (OED 1.) The more general sense of ‘imagined or conjectured possibility’ , or ‘to imagine, conjecture, speculate’ is also found in Shakespeare. See Onions.11. Bring me within the level of your frown,A metaphor from archery, or shooting with guns. To level is ‘to take aim, to level the sight with the target’. Hence ‘Show your disapproval by directing your frown upon me’. A frown was the traditional expression of disdain shown by the beloved as a sign of her disapproval of the importunate lover.12. But shoot not at me in your wakened hate;‘Do not deliberately and coldly fire the arrows (or shot) of your hatred upon me’. The contrast is between the fearsomeness of the weapon of hatred, compared with the more gentle reproof of a frown, or between simply taking aim compared with the fatal and final act of actually releasing the projectile.13. Since my appeal says I did strive to proveSince my appeal – the legal metaphor continues. The poet will appeal against the charges on the grounds that etc. etc.
I did strive to prove = I made every effort to put to the test. See also the note on prove in the previous sonnet, 116.14. The constancy and virtue of your love.constancy – reminiscent of sonnet 105 :
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,
virtue = power, reality, essence, truth.
The end rhyming words of this couplet are the same as that of the previous sonnet. Although the more cynical tone and incipient sophistry of this sonnet separates it from sonnet 116, the many verbal echoes between the two are perhaps to be viewed as a summons to the youth to show beyond all doubt that his love is of the kind that will ‘bear it out even to the edge of doom’. Since he has accused the poet of straying, he must himself demonstrate that his own love has that ideal quality that lifts it above the level of all ordinary human experience to the level of the divine, such that it justifies the sacrifice of everything on the part of the beloved, so that the two may be as one, and give nothing else to time but their own dear, perfect selves.