William Shakespeare – Sonnet 25

Let those who are in favour with their stars
Of public honour and proud titles boast,
Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars
Unlook’d for joy in that I honour most.
Great princes’ favourites their fair leaves spread
But as the marigold at the sun’s eye,
And in themselves their pride lies buried,
For at a frown they in their glory die.
The painful warrior famoused for fight,
After a thousand victories once foiled,
Is from the book of honour razed quite,
And all the rest forgot for which he toiled:
   Then happy I, that love and am beloved,
     Where I may not remove nor be removed.

The poet reflects on the vagaries of fortune, and how those who enjoy high estate and public favour are at the mercy of the power of princes. Even the most famous warriors and leaders can suddenly fall into disfavour, especially if fortune turns against them, for then all their former victories are forgotten, and spiteful oblivion erases their name from the roll of honour.

But, says the poet, my condition is much more blessed, for I live in the heart of my beloved, and I cannot be moved from that seat, nor he from me.

One of the interests of this sonnet is that the mention of the warrior famoused for fight in l.9 might be linked to a historical person, such as Sir Francis Drake d.1596, the Earl of Essex (beheaded 1601), Sir Walter Raleigh, (in disgrace c. 1602), the Earl of Southampton (imprisoned in 1601 for his part in the Essex rebellion). But as there are so many potential candidates, the greater probability is that it is a general reference based on stories from North’s Plutarch, or from Homer, where the mythical thousand victories might be more plausible.

The 1609 Quarto Version

LEt thoſe who are in fauor with their ſtars,
Of publike honour and proud titles boſt,
Whilſt I whome fortune of ſuch tryumph bars
Vnlookt for ioy in that I honour moſt;
Great Princes fauorites their fair leaues ſpread,
But as the Marygold at the ſuns eye,
And in them-ſelues their pride lies buried,
For at a frowne they in their glory die.
The painefull warrier famoſed for worth,
After a thouſand victories once foild,
Is from the booke of honour raſed quite,
And all the reſt forgot for which he toild:
   Then happy I that loue and am beloued
   Where I may not remoue,nor be remoued.


1. Let those who are in favour with their starsTo be in favour with one’s stars = to enjoy success and good fortune. There was a widespread belief in the influence of the stars on human fortunes. Nevertheless others preferrred a more humanist and rational approach. Compare for example Cassius’ words to Brutus in Julius Caesar:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves that we are underlings. 
JC.I.2.140-1.2. Of public honour and proud titles boast,proud titles = titles which engender pride in the holders; aristocratic titles; high government posts.
boast = exult in, derive glory from.3. Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph barstriumph is equivalent to glory, and has a military connotation, derived from Roman triumphal processions led by successful generals in the Republican era of Rome. There is presumably also a suggestion that humble birth bars the poet from taking on high public office. See also 111.4. Unlook’d for joy in that I honour most.Unlook’d for = unseen, unnoticed; In contrast to those in the public eye; perhaps also unexpectedly;
joy in = take delight in, enjoy;
that I honour most = that to which I attach most value and respect, viz my love for you.5. Great princes’ favourites their fair leaves spreadGreat princes – the reference is to potentates in general, ancient and modern, male and female. The fate of the favourites of such was proverbial – they were all subject to the wheel of fortune. Here Shakespeare describes them as flowers enjoying a few brief days of sunshine. A few years later he wrote of Wolsey’s downfall under Henry VIII. (See the full text below). There are a number of verbal parallels between it and this sonnet.6. But as the marigold at the sun’s eye,As if they were marigolds in the sunlight. The sun’s eye is the sun itself, but of course with a glance at kingly authority. Cf.: Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines 18.5 and 7.1-8.7. And in themselves their pride lies buried,pride = glory, vanity. The marigold, which was thought of as an ephemeral flower, lives only for itself, just as prince’s favourites do. Hence their pride is buried within them.8. For at a frown they in their glory die.A frown from a prince could mean the end of all honour and preferment. Compare the song from Cymbeline:
Fear no more the frown o’ the great,
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke
… Cym.IV.2.265-6.9. The painful warrior famoused for fight,painful = subject to pain, bruised, wounded.
famoused = famous, renowned; made famous.
fight: Q gives worth which some editors retain. If the rhyme scheme is to be maintained there is a misprint, either here or in line11.10. After a thousand victories once foiled,A thousand victories seems unlikely in modern warfare. Ajax and other Greek and Trojan warriors might have boasted of as many. It probably just stands here for a large number.11. Is from the book of honour razed quite,razed quite = completely erased, obliterated. With a suggestion of total destruction, as in razing a city to the ground. The book of honour is a metaphor which encompasses all those who throughout history have earned fame for brave deeds and accomplishments in war, their names therefore being recorded in the halls of fame.12. And all the rest forgot for which he toiled:forgot = forgotten.13. Then happy I, that love and am beloved,The contrast is between the fortunate poet, who loves and is beloved (the mutual status of their love is here stated in an unadorned manner for the first time), and the prince’s favourite whose life depends on fortune’s wheel.14.   Where I may not remove nor be removed.

From where I may not absent myself, or be removed by others. An echo of the more famous:

…………..Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:

Additional notes

The Speech of Wolsey on his downfall. From Henry VIII.

 So farewell to the little good you bear me.
Farewell! a long farewell, to all my greatness!
This is the state of man: to-day he puts forth
 The tender leaves of hopes; to-morrow blossoms,
And bears his blushing honours thick upon him;
The third day comes a frost, a killing frost,
And, when he thinks, good easy man, full surely
His greatness is a-ripening, nips his root,
And then he falls, as I do. I have ventured,
Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders,
This many summers in a sea of glory,
But far beyond my depth: my high-blown pride
At length broke under me and now has left me,
Weary and old with service, to the mercy
Of a rude stream, that must for ever hide me.
Vain pomp and glory of this world, I hate ye:
I feel my heart new open’d. O, how wretched
Is that poor man that hangs on princes’ favours!
There is, betwixt that smile we would aspire to,
That sweet aspect of princes, and their ruin,
More pangs and fears than wars or women have:
And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer,
Never to hope again. H8.III.2. 350-72.


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