Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
… … … these rebel powers that thee array
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body’s end?
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
So shall thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.
Various moralistic tracts from Mediaeval times onwards lamented the way the soul was neglected in favour of the body, and there was a long tradition of dialogues held between the two. It is probable that the debate goes back to ancient times and to Stoic beliefs, for Stoicism despised worldly and material goods in favour of the spiritual life, and Neo-Platonism elevated the soul to a status well above that of the body.
However this sonnet derives probably from a more homely tradition and relies more upon the moral opprobrium heaped upon extravagant displays of wealth by writers with a puritanical or jealous cast of mind, and perhaps also on sermons delivered from the pulpits.
I set out below two extracts from contemporary authors which give the flavour of the criticism levelled against the society of the time.
It is said that this is one of Shakespeare’s profoundly religious sonnets, almost the only religious one. Profoundly meditative might be a better description, since it nowhere mentions God, although it certainly considers the threat of impending death. Within the sonneteering tradition there had also developed a tradition of renunciation. The lover, tired of endlessly battering at the impregnable walls of the beloved’s chastity, might as a final protest retire to the contemplative and religious life. To a certain extent the germ of this trend had been sown by Dante and Petrarch. Sidney comes close to it on occasion, as for example in 47
Virtue awake, beauty but beauty is;
I may, I must, I can, I will, I do
Leave following that, which it is gain to miss.
Let her go! A&S.47. After Astrophil and Stella it seems he may have turned his attention to sacred verse, as did Donne and Drummond of Hawthornden, after a youth of sowing much wild oats and other rakishness. Therefore we should perhaps be attuned to seeing this sonnet set within the tradition of renunciation. For although it has the melancholy of the contemplation of mortality, it could be in the nature of a memento mori to the extravagant mistress and her frivolous ways, rather than a reminder to the speaker himself. One only has to read the first line slightly differently, as addressing the beloved, and the whole poem becomes an imprecation against her and a warning that she is knocking at the gates of death. In many ways that would be a more satisfactory interpretation, because Shakespeare always seems to have disapproved of the disguise that clothing gives, in that it hides what the true being is who resides within. Hence Lear’s great tirade against clothing in his rage and madness during the storm as he looks at Edgar’s nakedness:
Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! here’s three on’s are sophisticated! Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings! come unbutton here.
[Tearing off his clothes] KL.III.4.101-8.
It therefore seems slightly odd that he, the poet, should find himself painting his own outward walls so costly gay when he has railed against it so much in others. It would also fit in with such poems as Drayton’s sonnet 8 which I print below, together with a sonnet from Fidessa, which echoes some of Shakespeare’s phrases, as well as the well known sonnet by Sidney ‘Leave me o Love, which reachest but to dust’. Of course the memento mori theme is universal, and I do not wish to divert readers too much from what is probably the standard interpretation of the sonnet as a contemplation of the neglect of spiritual values, and the innate triviality of our lives in the face of an ever present mortality. That is mostly its value to modern readers, but the Renaissance audience, familiar with such themes, might have been more inclined to see as its background the love of a fair woman who would not yield, even though her life was hastening to old decay.
Extracts from Harrison and Nashe
Oh how much cost is bestowed nowadays upon our bodies, and how little upon our souls! How many suits of apparel hath the one, and how little furniture hath the other! How long time is asked in decking up of the first, and how little space left wherein to feed the latter!………….
Some lusty courtiers also and gentlemen of courage do wear either rings of gold, stones, or pearl in their ears, whereby they imagine the workmanship of God to be a little amended. But herein they rather disgrace than adorn their persons, as by their niceness in apparel, for which I say most nations do not unjustly deride us, as also for that we do seem to imitate all nations round about us, wherein we be like to the polypus or chameleon; and thereunto bestow most cost upon our arses, and much more than upon all the rest of our bodies, as women do upon their heads and shoulders.
William Harrison, Description of England 1587. 2nd Ed.
We here in London, what for dressing ourselves, following our worldly affairs, dining, supping, and keeping company, have no leisure, not only not to watch against sin, but not so much as once to think of sin. In bed, wives must question their husbands about housekeeping, and providing for their children and family. No service must God expect of us, but a little in Lent, and in sickness and adversity. Our gorgeous attire we make not to serve him, but to serve the flesh. ………….
One thing it is for a man to lift himself to God, another thing to lift up himself against God. In pranking up our carcasses too proudly, we lift up our flesh against God. In lifting up our flesh, we depress our spirits. London, lay off thy gorgeous attire, and cast down thyself before God in contrition and prayer, lest he cast thee down in His indignation into hell fire. …………..
Oh, what is beauty more than a wind blown bladder, that it should forget whereto it is born? It is the food of cloying concupiscence, living; and the substance of the most noisome infection, being dead. The mothers of the justest men are not freed from corruption, the mothers of kings and emperors are not freed from corruption. No gorgeous attire (man or woman) hast thou in this world, but the wedding garment of faith. Thy winding sheet shall see thee in none of thy silks and shining robes ; to show they are not of God, when thou goest to God, thou shalt lay them all off. Then shalt thou restore to every creature what thou hast robbed him of. All the leases which dust let out to life, at the day of death shall be returned into his hands.
Thomas Nashe Christs Teares over Ierusalem 1593.
Both these extracts are taken from The Cambridge Anthologies, Life in Shakespeare’s England. Compiled by J. D. Wilson. 1911.
There’s nothing grieve me, but that Age should haste,
That in my days I may not see thee old!
That where those two clear sparkling eyes are placed,
Only two loopholes then I might behold!
That lovely archèd ivory-polished Brow
Defaced with wrinkles, that I might but see!
Thy dainty Hair, so curled and crispèd now,
Like grizzled moss upon some agèd tree!
Thy Cheek, now flush with roses, sunk and lean!
Thy Lips, with age as any wafer thin!
Thy pearly Teeth, out of thy head so clean,
That when thou feed’st thy Nose shall touch thy Chin!
These Lines that now scornst, which should delight thee:
Then would I make thee read but to despite thee!
M.Drayton Idea Sonn. 8 (1619).
Well may my soul, immortal and divine,
That is imprisoned in a lump of clay,
Breathe out laments until this body pine,
That from her takes her pleasures all away.
Pine then thou loathèd prison of my life!
Untoward subject of the least aggrievance!
O let me die! Mortality is rife!
Death comes by wounds, by sickness, care and chance.
O earth, the time will come when I’ll resume thee,
And in thy bosom make my resting place;
Then do not unto hardest sentence doom me!
Yield, yield betimes! I must and will have grace!
Richly shalt thou be entombed! since for thy grave,
Fidessa, fair Fidessa! thou shalt have.
B. Griffin Fidessa Sonnet 28 (1596).
Leave me, O Love, which reachest but to dust!
And thou, my mind! aspire to higher things!
Grow rich in that which never taketh rust!
Whatever fades, but fading pleasure brings.
Draw in thy beams and humble all thy might
To that sweet yoke, where lasting freedoms be!
Which breaks the clouds and opens forth the light
That doth both shine and give us sight to see.
O take fast hold! Let that light be thy guide!
In this small course which birth gives out to death:
And think how evil becometh him to slide,
Who seeketh heaven, and comes of heavenly breath!
Then farewell world! Thy uttermost I see!
Eternal Love, maintain thy love in me!
P. Sidney. Sonnets and Translations.
Splendidis longum valedico nugis
I bid a long farewell to all that bright nothingness.
The 1609 Quarto Version
POore ſoule the center of my ſinfull earth,
My ſinfull earth theſe rebbell powres that thee array,
Why doſt thou pine within and ſuffer dearth
Painting thy outward walls ſo coſtlie gay?
Why ſo large coſt hauing ſo ſhort a leaſe,
Doſt thou vpon thy fading manſion ſpend?
Shall wormes inheritors of this exceſſe,
Eate vp thy charge?is this thy bodies end?
Then ſoule liue thou vpon thy ſeruants loſſe,
And let that pine to aggrauat thy ſtore;
Buy tearmes diuine in ſelling houres of droſſe:
Within be fed, without be rich no more,
So ſhalt thou feed on death,that feeds on men,
And death once dead,ther’s no more dying then.
1. Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
Poor soul – usually taken as the poet addressing his own soul in its wretchedness. Hence the poem becomes a meditation on mortality, and is one of the most famous contemptus mundi (disgust with the world) poems ever written. See for example Sidney’s poem above ‘Leave me o love, which reachest but to dust’.
the centre of my sinful earth = the core of my being. The centre was the point to which all heavy objects tended to gravitate, and was thus a sort of guiding principle of the universe. The poet is metaphorically comparing his soul to this. The soul is that which rules and directs his body, his little earth. Compare also:
If circumstances lead me, I will find
Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed
Within the centre. Ham.II.2.156-8.
For the soul as the ruler of the body, compare
……………………….I do betray
My nobler part to my gross body’s treason;
My soul doth tell my body that he may
Triumph in love; 151.
But as the following lines show, the relationship between body and soul, and between these two and passion, emotion and reason is not at all clear.
As mentioned in the introductory note, it is possible to interpret these lines in a different sense, for the beloved could be the poor soul addressed, as she was and is the centre of the poet’s sinful earth, just as she was the centre of his sinful loving in sonnet 142
Love is my sin and thy dear virtue hate,
Hate of my sin, grounded on sinful loving:
Poor soul can be used of any being whom one pities, indeed of any wretched creature, as in the ‘Willow’ song in Othello:
The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
Sing all a green willow: Oth.IV.3.39-40.
The poet here pities his love, because he sees her mortality, and realises that he must eventually leave her.
2. … … … these rebel powers that thee array
(???) – Q repeats my sinful earth from the previous line, a fairly obvious error. Many emendations have been proposed, such as Foiled by these, Fenced by these, Rebuke these, Fool’d by those, Starv’d by the. Any choice is partially irrational, but I marginally prefer Feeding these which is adopted by KDJ and HV, since it reflects the later imagery of death eating men, and also echoes Harrison’s How long time is asked in decking up of the first, and how little space left wherein to feed the latter!…………. (See above).
rebel powers – there is some uncertainty as to what these are, possibly the passions, possibly the body and its parts, possibly the glitter and showiness of clothing and riches, possibly the love of these things. But it seems that, whatever they are, they are besieging the soul, and also, paradoxically, adorning it.
array = clothe, cover; disfigure, dirty, defile, (OED.10.c); marshal (for battle). The latter meaning is somewhat awkward, but seems to be demanded by the context. The soul is betrayed by rebel powers which, hiding within the body, undermine it (the soul), seek to do battle with it and at the same time adorn it with the gaiety of cosmetics and clothing.
3. Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
pine = languish, waste away.
within = within the body, within the citadel.
suffer dearth = endure famine and starvation. The soul remains unfed because all the efforts of reason and passion are devoted to satisfying the body.
4. Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Painting = decorating. The walls of a town were often decorated with flags, bunting and other material hangings. In time of siege it might have been used as a ploy to show that there were no shortages, so as to dismay the enemy. However the imagery here merges into that of cosmetic adornment of the face and limbs, and sumptuous clothing. (See the extract from Nashe above, which also contains the following: Scandalous and shameful is it, that not any in thee [i.e. England] (fishermen and husbandmen set aside) but live above their ability and birth; that the outward habit (which in other countries is the only distinction of honour) should yield in thee no distinction of persons….) Compare also the passage from Harrison, which emphasises the cost. The outward walls of a person are figuratively their skin, face and limbs, but the word is used to make the contrast between outer show and inner worth, as in Sonnet 16:
Which this, Time’s pencil, or my pupil pen,
Neither in inward worth nor outward fair,
Can make you live yourself in eyes of men. 16.
and in 46:
As thus; mine eye’s due is thy outward part,
And my heart’s right thy inward love of heart. 46
where the contrast is between the outward beauty, plus the riches that the clothing and outer decoration of the body can show, and the inner worth of the person.
………………………………I do not think
So fair an outward and such stuff within
Endows a man but he. Cym.I.1.22-4.
The praise is of Posthumus Leonatus, who is both handsome and of a fine character. Sidney also uses outward when describing Cupid residing in his mistress:
Playing and shining in each outward part:
But, fool, seekst not to get into her heart. A&S.11.
so costly gay = so bright and cheerful, at so great a cost.
5. Why so large cost, having so short a lease,so large cost = such vast expense (on clothing etc.)
having so short a lease – the body was leased from Nature by the soul, but the leasehold was short. As in :
So should that beauty which you hold in lease
Find no determination: 13
See also the Nashe extract above, but especially
All the leases which dust let out to life, at the day of death shall be returned into his hands. (i.e. into God’s hands).
The uncertainty of life was much more of a factor in determining one’s thoughts than it is in the modern Western world. Life expectancy was about half what it is today. At any time the plague, or smallpox, or other incurable diseases could take one off. Mostly the reasons were unknown and certainly beyond anyone’s control. Shakespeare himself lost his son Hamnet, and his brother Edmund died while he was in London. Stories of sudden death were common, and wealth did not necessarily improve one’s chances of survival. The wife of Philip of Spain, Maria, was reported to have died as a result of imprudently eating a lemon shortly after childbirth. Perhaps it was because of the uncertainties of life, rather than in despite of them, that extravagances and rich attire were so apparent, since it was considered important to have a good time while one could, and tomorrow might be too late.6. Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?thy fading mansion = your body, which houses the soul. It is fading because it is growing old, as a building ages and goes gradually to rack and ruin. Compare:
Her house is sacked, her quiet interrupted,
Her mansion battered by the enemy,
Her sacred temple spotted, spoiled, corrupted. Luc.1170-2. describing Lucrece’s soul and body after the rape.7. Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,worms, inheritors – the worms which ate up the buried corpses in the churchyards. A similar usage in:
Be not self-will’d, for thou art much too fair
To be death’s conquest and make worms thine heir. Sonn.6.
The worms inherited the corpse and all its finery, since they had sole use of it in the grave. Compare from Nashe (see above):
It (i.e. beauty) is the food of cloying concupiscence, living; and the substance of the most noisome infection, being dead.
this excess = this extravagance, this excessive expenditure on your body.8. Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body’s end?thy charge = your (the soul’s) cost; the thing which is put in your charge, i.e. your body; your burden (the thing you are laden (charged) with).9. Then soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,Then soul = If that is the case, my soul, (or thy soul), that the body is to be eaten by worms, then etc.
thy servant’s loss = whatever the body (the soul’s servant) is deprived of. I.e. take revenue from the body and give it to the soul. Do not waste your money on material things, food and clothing, but spend it on divine things, prayers, masses etc.10. And let that pine to aggravate thy store;let that pine = allow your body (that) to waste away, long for food, desire.
to = in order to.
aggravate = aggrandise, make heavier, more substantial. From the Latin gravare, to make heavy, with the prefix ad (to). Possibly with suggestions of ‘aggrieve’ (see the sonnet from Fidessa above), or ‘the grave’. But the line could be interpreted in a number of different ways, especially as the application of aggravate in this context could suggest that the store is being damaged, or burdened, rather than being advantageously added to.11. Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;terms divine = what we might nowadays call ‘futures’, but in this case bought on the heavenly market. There is possibly a reference to the selling of indulgences, one of the practices of the 15th century Church which provoked the Reformation. For certain sums of money dispensations stamped with a holy seal could be bought which gave absolution from sins, and redemption from the pains of purgatory. Forgiveness was only granted on certain terms and conditions, of which the chief one was actually paying the required money. One could even buy indulgences for the dead, to free them from their suffering in purgatory. Belief in their efficacy was widespread. The papacy had more or less taken to itself alone the right to grant indulgences, since the fiscal implications were enormous, but it would grant to other clerics permission to sell them to raise money for specific purposes. The scheme was used by the Church to bring in revenue.
However it must be admitted that OED does not support this meaning of the word. The usual interpretation of the phrase divine terms is that it refers to ‘heavenly time’, ‘ages spent in contemplation of the divine’, based on the meaning of term as duration, length of time (OED.4.a.). Shakespeare most frequently uses terms to mean ‘conditions of an agreement’, as in:
What treason were it to the ransack’d queen,
Disgrace to your great worths and shame to me,
Now to deliver her possession up
On terms of base compulsion! TC.II.2.15–3.
or ‘expressions, words’, as in :
Taffeta phrases, silken terms precise LLL.V.2.405.
The implied meaning of terms divine is therefore ‘agreements with god’ or ‘promises from god’, which presumably are bought with prayer, penance and meditation on divine beauty.
hours of dross = hours spent in unworthy pursuits. dross was technically an impure scum scraped off from the surface in the smelting of metals, but was generally used of any impure or worthless matter. As in :
A golden mind stoops not to shows of dross;
I’ll then nor give nor hazard aught for lead. MV.II.7.20-1.12. Within be fed, without be rich no more:Feed your inner self, and do not waste spiritual effort on enriching the body with trash.13. So shall thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,So = by doing this, i.e. by following a rule of life which pays attention to spiritual rather than bodily needs.
feed on Death which feeds on men – Death was the great devourer of all things, and had no pity. The poet claims that by adopting spiritual values the tables are turned, and the soul will thereby feed on Death, whereas, before, Death was destroying it. Technically however the soul was supposed to be immortal, but Death here probably stands in place of eternal damnation, and in any case the line echoes many passages from the Bible, both the Old and the New Testaments. E.g.
Like sheep they are laid in the grave; death shall feed on them; and the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning; and their beauty shall consume in the grave from their dwelling. But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave: for he shall receive me. Selah. Be not thou afraid when one is made rich, when the glory of his house is increased; For when he dieth he shall carry nothing away: his glory shall not descend after him. Ps.49.15-17.14. And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.Again many biblical passages and religious ideas are invoked:
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. When this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? 1Corr.15.52-5.
It is noticeable that the sonnet, for all its religious connotations, does not in fact give much practical advice of what to do in the face of death, other than to buy terms divine, and to ‘be fed within’, which are such vague directives as to be almost useless. In many ways the poem is more easily read as a tirade against rich clothing and extravagance and against his mistress who is enslaved to them, offering her advice about her eternal salvation and enjoining her to change her ways. (See the introductory note) .