William Shakespeare – Sonnet 125

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.

This is effectively the final sonnet to the youth, the next one being a sort of envoi or farewell sonnet. It is linked closely to the two preceding ones, and echoes their ideas. Critics have also picked out two closely related texts which seem to have a bearing on this sonnet. Part of the first scene of Othello contains many verbal echoes. The following words and phrases are relevant: secondforms and visages of duty, thrive, obsequious, outward, extern. The full extract is printed at the end of the page. The second text is the Communion Service from The Book of Common Prayer, (1559) of which the portions significant in this context are printed below. (A link is also given to the complete text).

It is always difficult to dissect the relationship between any two written works. Here we would expect the sonnet to resemble closely the Othello extract and the Communion Service to be only a distant cousin. In fact the opposite seems to be the case, for the harsh dictums of Iago are of a Machiavellian cynicism and are a total rejection of the doctrine of the Eucharist. Whereas the Communion Service reaches right to the heart of the themes of the sonnet. So it is not a matter of the use of similar words that is relevant, but what those words seek to convey. We may perhaps most profitably use the Othello resemblance as a pointer to the date of the sonnet. Other than extern, the words themselves are not uncommon. It is the combined use of all of them in both sonnet and play which is unusual. One may therefore hesitantly suspect a proximity in date of composition of the two pieces. Since Othello is fairly reliably dated to circa 1604, and many commentators have thought that the references to the canopy and the smiling pomp of the previous sonnet may be remembrances of the coronation procession of James I, which took place on March 15th 1604, we may conjecture that post that date, say 1604/5, is the most probable date of composition. As one of the most densely worded and richly allusive of all the sonnets, we should rightly expect it to be of a later date anyway, and these small pointers help to confirm that impression.

Further details of the links with the thoughts expressed in parts of the Communion Service are given in the appropriate notes below, especially in those for lines 8, 10, 11 and 12.

Two further points may be mentioned. The first is the problem of the suborned informer, who suddenly and unexpectedly makes his appearance in the final couplet. There is no unanimity of agreement as to whom or what it refers, whether to a real assailant, or a shadow image, or the youth himself, or Time the great enemy of all. Perhaps all of these possibilities were intended, and I certainly do not propose to adjudicate on the issue. Readers must make up their own minds on the reasons or implications of the sudden introduction of this strange figure in a couplet which can seem to be unrelated to the remainder of the poem.

Secondly there is the question of the contrast between the Latinate words which are so predominant throughout and their Anglo Saxon counterparts. The contrast is between compound sweet and simple savour, and reaches its apogee in the Latinate oblation opposed to poor but free, and me for thee. HV for example makes much of these contrasts. The truest love is also the least adulterated with foreign admixtures and can only be expressed in native language, and not through imported words. Such perhaps is one of the messages of the sonnet. It is possible to read into it also, (although HV does not), a statement of faith in the ideals of the English reformation, and a rejection of the Latin mumbo jumbo of the Roman Church and the Catholic mass. Shakespeare could thus be indirectly showing his loyalty to the crown and to the articles of the Anglican faith. This may be one of the undercurrents of meaning with which the poem abounds. However the politics of religion at that time were so complex, and religious loyalties so much twisted into a knot through the rival claims of patriotism and conscience, that I have no doubt that it would be possible to prove also that the poem demonstrates exactly the opposite. The Latinate words occur in the Tridentine Mass and the echoes could well be from that, rather than from the Anglican Communion service, which itself derives from the Mass.  (See the Introductory Notes for further discussion of these points.)  Readers again must decide this matter according to their own consciences and inclinations.

The 1609 Quarto Version

WEr’t ought to me I bore the canopy,
With my extern the outward honoring,
Or layd great baſes for eternity,
Which proues more ſhort then waſt or ruining?
Haue I not ſeene dwellers on forme and fauor
Loſe all,and more by paying too much rent
For compound ſweet;Forgoing ſimple ſauor,
Pittiful thriuors in their gazing ſpent.
Noe,let me be obſequious in thy heart,
And take thou my oblacion,poore but free,
Which is not mixt with ſeconds,knows no art,
But mutuall render onely me for thee.
   Hence,thou ſubborndI nformer, a trew ſoule
   When moſt impeacht,ſtands leaſt in thy controule.


1. Were’t aught to me I bore the canopy,Were’t aught to me = Is it of any consequence to me? Does it matter to me? Would it be (have been) of benefit to me? The ought of Q is a variant spelling of aught.
I bore = that I bore, that I could have borne, that I might (in the future) bear. The context does not make it clear whether this is a future or past event referred to, or if the speaker did actually participate in a procession. The tone of the sonnet however, and that of the two preceding ones, implies that he did not and would not involve himself in such ceremonials, which are nothing in comparison with true love. Or that if he did, it touched only his external person and meant nothing to his heart.
canopy = a baldaquin carried on poles in a procession, to protect and give shade to some illustrious person. The use of the suggests that some particular event is being referred to, possibly the coronation procession of James I on 15 March 1604. Shakespeare, as a leading member of the King’s Men, as his acting company was then called, was granted four yards of red cloth for use in this procession. No doubt this would have been for the manufacture of some rich garment. However we do not know if he did or did not take part in the ceremony. The previous sonnet, It suffers not in smiling pomp, could possibly refer to the same event, since one of the meanings of the word pomp is ‘procession’. (OED.2.) Being selected as one of the canopy bearers was a great honour for an aristocrat. See the illustration opposite for an example. A canopy was also held over the consecrated host in processions, such as on the feast of Corpus Christi.
 = carried. The tense of the verb is uncertain. It could be past tense, or it could imply ‘that I might at some time carry it in the future’.2. With my extern the outward honouring,With my presence (i.e. the external part of me) doing honour to a public persona (who can be known only by outward show).3. Or laid great bases for eternity,great bases = vast foundations (such as might be used for pyramids). However, since the speaker is hardly in a position to be involved in such undertakings, the reference is perhaps symbolic. He would not desire to do so, even if it were possible. Or perhaps he refers obliquely to his own poetry, which will live on when Tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent. Possibly he no longer asserts this, concerned only to prove that his love alone is eternal, and not his poetry.
for eternity
 = to last for all eternity.
4. Which proves more short than waste or ruining?Which – the antecedent is probably the laying of great bases for eternity, or the bases themselves.
 = turns out to be. This can be either a singular or plural verb.
more short than waste or ruining
 = shorter lived than if they were the immediate objects of Time’s destruction and ruination. The construction is elliptical, and one has to interpret it according to its more obvious purport, and in terms of the words waste and ruining Thus ‘(It would be of no import if) I involved myself in great projects, which are often more short lived than waste and ruin themselves’.5. Have I not seen dwellers on form and favourHave I not seen – a rhetorical question equivalent to ‘Surely it is well known that etc.’
 = those who insist upon, those who live according to the rules of etc.
form and favour
 = the appurtenances of ceremony; the formalities of the court, and its rewards. The obsequiousness due to great ones, and the favours bestowed by them.6. Lose all and more by paying too much rentall and more – that there cannot be more than all does not seem to have bothered Shakespeare. Compare:
For whether beauty, birth, or wealth, or wit,
Or any of these all, or all, or more,
Commentators suggest that it might refer to losing all that one has, and, in addition, getting into debt. However it is not necessary to insist on a rigid interpretation. The excessive loss of all and more points to complete ruin for the devotee of the favours of the great.
paying too much rent
 = laying out too great a commitment. The phrase is metaphorical. Although it could refer primarily to financial ruin, it indicates the total ruin of the person so engaged in the transitory and false pursuit of ambition. The rent they are paying is their devotion to such a cause.7. For compound sweet, forgoing simple savour,Giving up (forgoing) the simple delights (of true love) in favour of the complex rewards of political preferment. The metaphor is from medicine, where simples referred to unmixed herbal remedies, compounds to mixtures of several substances, or possibly it is a metaphor from cooking. Both compound and sweet may be taken as nouns or adjectives. Taking the former as the adjective the phrase means ‘an elaborate and complex sweet dish’. Compare also:
‘He may turn many a rare esteemed physician into shame and blushing: for whereas they, with infinite compounds and fair promises, do carry men to death the furthest way about; he with a few simples preserves himself and family to the most lengthened sufferance of nature’.
John Stephens Essays and Characters, A Shepherd 1615.
= taste, flavour. I suspect also that there is a punning reference to ‘our Savior’, mentioned many times in the Communion service. It is spelt savor in Q. See the note to line 10 below.8. Pitiful thrivers, in their gazing spent?Pitiful thrivers = superficially successful go-getters who in reality should be pitied; wretched and miserable time servers who put on a veneer of success.
In their gazing spent
 = who waste their time and energies in gaping at what others do. One of the echoes from the communion service. See below for the full text, and the note to oblation, line 10. The gazers in the Communion Service are castigated as sinful malingerers who are making a mockery of truth.9. No; let me be obsequious in thy heart,No – see the note to line 1 of Sonnet 123.
Obsequious in thy heart 
= dutiful, serving you silently, devoted to you inwardly. The word is from the Latin obsequor, to accommodate oneself to the will of another, to comply with, yield to, submit to.10. And take thou my oblation, poor but free,take thou = receive (this gift)
 = offering, gift. From the supine of the Latin irregular verb fero, I bear. This is a religious term, used in the Communion service of the Anglican church, of which there seem to be echoes in this sonnet. (See the second extract below). The only other occasion on which Shakespeare uses the word is in A Lover’s Complaint.

Lo, all these trophies of affections hot,
Of pensived and subdued desires the tender,
Nature hath charged me that I hoard them not,
But yield them up where I myself must render,
That is, to you, my origin and ender;
For these, of force, must your oblations be,
Since I their altar, you enpatron me.

Clearly this extract has a lot in common with the present sonnet, for the youth is offering himself, his affections and desires, to the maid who is the object of his albeit temporary adoration. His desires are the oblations, and he offers them from himself as the altar. The thought is somewhat complex, especially with the word enpatron (for which OED only gives this example), but it seems that both here and in the sonnet the echoes of the communion service are unmistakable and would have been apparent to anyone alive in Elizabethan England, for all of whom church attendance on Sunday was compulsory. It is the combination of the words savour, gazing, oblation, pure, seconds, render, me for thee, altar, which call to mind the Last Supper, the table (altar), the love feast, the pure offering of oneself, the consecration, and the implied words ‘Read this in remembrance of me’, just as Christ said ‘Do this in remembrance of me’. The implied thought is ‘Just as The Son of God, our Saviour, offered up himself as an oblation to redeem mankind, so I offer myself to you, to remain with you for eternity. And just as at the last supper our Saviour broke bread and offered it to his disciples, enjoining them to continue the observance as a remembrance of him, so I render myself to you, that we may be eternally joined in the sacrament of love. As often as you read this poem you will be commemorating my love for you, which has no end’. SB is of the opinion that none of the references are sufficient to make a reader think of the Eucharist while reading the poem. This I would dispute, for there are simply too many of them to pass unnoticed, and the rarity of the word oblation is in itself enough to trigger the echoes in the minds of those familiar with the service. In any case one cannot expect so delicate a subject to be flaunted entirely openly, and conventions of the time would require that covert references at most be used in likening one’s love to that of Christ’s oblation of himself on the cross. There is only a thin dividing line between outright blasphemy and the mystic’s expressions of passionate love, although intrinsically there is nothing wrong with asserting that all human loves partake of the pattern of divine love, the love of God for the human race, and the particular manifestations of that love known to the Christian faith. But an open expression of such comparisons could easily be misinterpreted and could render its author the subject of intense scrutiny and imprisonment. Therefore such hints as have been noted are as much as we would expect in the political and religious circumstances of the time, but they are there nevertheless, and cannot be disregarded.11. Which is not mixed with seconds, knows no art,Which – refers to my oblation, the offering of my love.
 = second rate material, impurities. Significantly, the word was used in the gradation of flour. OED gives an instance, dating from 1618, of its adjectival use to describe inferior bread, and one from 1577 describing the second extraction of honey. Occurence of the noun is not recorded for another century, other than this instance, which is glossed as ‘A quality (of bricks, flour, etc.) second and inferior to the best’ (OED.(a. & n.2). 5). The link with the purest wheat bread that conveniently may be gotten for the Eucharist should not be overlooked. There may also be a disclaiming (but nevertheless blasphemous) reference to the second person of the Trinity, God the Son, who redeemed both me and thee.
knows no art
 = is not cunning or devious.12. But mutual render, only me for thee.render = rendering, offering (of each to the other). I.e. the only art (skill) that his love knows is that of the mutual exchange and mingling of loves, the rendering of one to the other. The word ‘render’ is used in the Communion service in the following: Dearly beloved, forasmuch as our duty is to render to Almighty God our heavenly Father most hearty thanks, for that he hath given his Son our Savior Jesus Christ, not only to die for us, but also to be our spiritual food and sustenance, … See the note to line 10 above.13. Hence, thou suborned informer! a true soul

Hence = Get thee hence! In this context almost equivalent to ‘Get thee behind me Satan!’
suborned = bribed. An informer in Elizabethan or Jacobean times would be in the pay of the government. Walsingham built up an extensive intelligence service under Elizabeth. Informers could of course embellish the reality in order to gain greater credence. Those informed against were not necessarily guilty.
suborned informer – it is not known for certain to whom this refers, if indeed it is to a real person or to a mere abstraction. Some editors think it refers to the youth himself, others to an onlooker who has been misinforming the youth, while others think it harks back to Sonnet 123 and is a final challenge against Time, who attempts to distort and destroy the reality of love. Of the most recent editors, JK thinks it is a malicious onlooker; KDJ thinks that most probably it is Time itself; GBE either some specific individual or tale bearers generally; SB lists ‘a self-serving toady’ or the youth himself as possibilities. Seymour Smith is confident that it is the Friend himself, who is finally being reminded that the poet is not, and never has been, under his control. (Shakespeares Sonnets, 1973, p.175). It could refer in a general sense to the devil’s advocate who is always at hand to defeat idealism, and to all those who disbelieve in the power of love.  (See the Introductory Notes for further discussion of the suborned informer).14. When most impeached stands least in thy control.impeached = accused. It is often used in connection with accusations of treason, but can have a wider application, suggestive of any sin or crime. Shakespeare does not use the word much (about 10 times) and the following is typical:

I am disgraced, impeach’d and baffled here,
Pierced to the soul with slander’s venom’d spear,
The which no balm can cure but his heart-blood
Which breathed this poison. 

stands least in thy control = is the least subject to you, is not in your power in any way.


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