William Shakespeare – Sonnet 67
Ah! wherefore with infection should he live,
And with his presence grace impiety,
That sin by him advantage should achieve,
And lace itself with his society?
Why should false painting imitate his cheek,
And steal dead seeming of his living hue?
Why should poor beauty indirectly seek
Roses of shadow, since his rose is true?
Why should he live, now Nature bankrupt is,
Beggared of blood to blush through lively veins?
For she hath no exchequer now but his,
And proud of many, lives upon his gains.
O! him she stores, to show what wealth she had
In days long since, before these last so bad.
The poet protests that his beloved should not be allowed to sanction the evils of the age simply because he is alive and, by the presence of his beauty, helps to prop up a corrupt society. Others imitate his beauty vainly by using cosmetics. But there is little left in the world that is worthwhile, for Nature has given all that is glorious to the beloved boy, and is now bankrupt of stock, save what she can borrow back again.
But why should he live to endure all this. The only justification seems to be that Nature keeps him as an exemplar, desirous of showing the present age and those to come, all the wealth which was at her command in days long past, before this present age which has degenerated so much into perfidy and mockery.
This sonnet is odd in that it presents the youth as the distant ‘he’, rather than ‘dear my love’ or ‘my sweet love’ and other such expressions of endearment. It comes almost as a shock, as if one were suddenly to start addressing one’s partner of many years as ‘her indoors’. In fact the sonnet does not appear to lose any of its content if we change the he for you and his for your throughout. One of the rhymes is lost, but other than that no great harm is done. The only difference is in the change of tone.
Ah! wherefore with infection should you live,
And with your presence grace impiety,
That sin by you advantage should achieve
And lace itself with your society?
Why should false painting imitate your cheek
And steal dead seeing of your living hue?
Why should poor beauty indirectly seek
Roses of shadow, since your rose is true?
Why should you live, now Nature bankrupt is,
Beggar’d of blood to blush through lively veins?
For she hath no exchequer now but your’s,
And, proud of many, lives upon your gains.
O,you she stores, to show what wealth she had
In days long since, before these last so bad.
It is quite a problem to decide why Shakespeare has introduced the change at this juncture, especially as sonnets 66-70 form a fairly compact interrelated group, in which the corruption and hypocrisy of the world is discussed together with the beloved’s links to that corruption. It seems as if a third party has been introduced, a fictitious disinterested observer who wishes to make comments and analyse the situation. Having heard the poet’s laments in 66, he breaks in with his own interjections. Why indeed should the lovely youth continue to live in the midst of all this filth and corruption, being tainted by it and perhaps, (God forbid!) adding to it some infection of his own making. The third party continues in this vein for two sonnets, 67 and 68, discussing the youth in his presence perhaps, and finding philosophic reasons for his special relationship with Nature the creator and preserver. Then the poet returns with his own contribution, referring back to the other commentator’s thoughts in such lines as But those same tongues that give thee so thine own.
By using this device the poet puts upon another’s shoulders the main part of the burden of criticising the youth, and the times, which are characterised as almost ridiculously degenerate. The castigation of cosmetics and use of wigs, a castigation which could be targeted against the ageing queen, who had many headpieces made from other’s hair, he thus avoids, leaving someone else to do the dirty work. He himself is free to go on loving, or, if he wishes, to add his own voice to the criticisms by way of elucidating and excusing them, rather than endorsing them. This he does in 69 and 70, in which the familiar form of address is once again used and the his/him approach is dropped.
The 1609 Quarto Version
AH wherefore with infection ſhould he liue,
And with his preſence grace impietie,
That ſinne by him aduantage ſhould atchiue,
And lace it ſelfe with his ſocietie ?
Why ſhould ſalſe painting immitate his cheeke,
And ſteale dead ſeeing of his liuing hew?
Why ſhoulde poore beautie indirectly ſeeke,
Roſes of ſhaddow,ſince his Roſe is true?
Why ſhould he liue,now nature banckrout is,
Beggerd of blood to bluſh through liuely vaines,
For ſhe hath no exchecker now but his,
And proud of many,liues vpon his gaines?
O him ſhe ſtores,to ſhow what welth ſhe had,
In daies long ſince,before theſe laſt so bad.
1. Ah! wherefore with infection should he live,wherefore = why, with what justification.
infection = sin, immorality, corruption. A reference to the evils detailed in the previous sonnet. There seem to be three or four (at least) nuances of interpretation to this question. 1. Why should he be forced to endure the indignity of living with this age? 2. Why should he tolerate it (i.e. let him spurn it, give it the boot.) 3. Why should fate be so unkind as to place him in this age, and not in another? 4. Why does he allow himself to be tainted with and participate in the sins of the age (his character is not all that it seems to be). The first three are predominant, but the development of the question gives rather more force to 4. It shows him living comfortably alongside sin.2. And with his presence grace impiety,And give a blessing to the evils of the age simply by living amongst them.3. That sin by him advantage should achieve,sin – equivalent to infection in line 1.
Advantage should achieve = should secure an advantageous position, should be given a boost, should be promoted.4. And lace itself with his society?
lace = embellish, adorn, (as one adorns garments with lace hems and edges). In the Elizabethan age lace was much valued. A lace collar of fine workmanship would be highly valued and wearing it was a means of showing off and declaring one’s wealth. (For elaborate lace collars see the portrait of Mary of Lorraine at the top of the page and the self portrait by the miniaturist Oliver above). Various sumptuary laws were passed in Elizabeth’s reign restricting the amount of money that could be spent on a ruff (a lace collar). The laws were usually ignored or circumvented.5. Why should false painting imitate his cheek,
false painting = cosmetics. Possibly portrait painting. The practice being castigated is that of artificially attempting to fake a beautiful face, using face painting, in order to copy the beauty of the youth on one’s own cheek. Portraiture seems to be less of a target than the vanity of self adornment.6. And steal dead seeming of his living hue?dead seeming – cosmetics are not a living reality. They steal the image of a living beauty (a living hue), but they themselves are dead substances. Hue = colour, appearance. See Sonnet 20.7. Why should poor beauty indirectly seekpoor = indifferent, second-rate, unfortunate (not blessed by good fortune).
indirectly seek = seek out by dubious means, or by means of an intermediary. These two lines (7,8) are obscure. There are neo-Platonic references to shadow and substance, as in 37, 43, 53. Poor beauties are presented as copies of the real thing, the ideal form of the rose itself, from which they have to borrow their characteristics. The youth is the absolute and true Rose, the Platonic abstract form of rose, on which all others are based. Hence what they achieve in their quest is limited and they are only roses of shadow, or have achieved such characteristics, but never the real thing.8. Roses of shadow, since his rose is true?his rose is true = he is the true, absolute and ideal rose, the Platonic form on which all others are based.9. Why should he live, now Nature bankrupt is,Why should he live – takes up the refrain of line 1, but the connection is not exactly clear. This whole quatrain is obscure and various emendations have been suggested for line 12. The implication here is that Nature has run out of supplies, and is no longer capable of creating beauteous things. Therefore, in the midst of this dereliction, the youth is subjected to unworthy constraints and degradations. Why should Nature force him to live and undergo such humiliation?10. Beggared of blood to blush through lively veins?Beggared = impoverished, made a beggar. Deprived of her stores (of blood). Presumably Nature is now only capable of creating bloodless people, those with no life in their veins. The times are so bad that no one alive today is anything but a bloodless shadow (apart from the beloved youth).11. For she hath no exchequer now but his,she = Nature;
exchequer = treasury, store of wealth.12. And proud of many, lives upon his gains.
The subject is still ‘Nature’, but the meaning of the line is not clear. Possibly ‘Nature, being proud of the many rich treasuries she has bountifully bestowed upon past ages, now has only the youth’s assets to distribute.’ The word gains is used by Shakespeare elsewhere in the sense of profit, rewards.
He hath disgraced me, and
hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, MV.III.1.46-8.
We thank thee, gentle Percy, for thy pains;
And to thy worth will add right worthy gains. R2.V.6.11-12.
Clarence still breathes; Edward still lives and reigns:
When they are gone, then must I count my gains. R3.I.1.161-2.
O well done! I commend your pains;
And every one shall share i’ the gains; Mac.IV.1.39-40.
Here I would interpret it to mean assets, or riches. Nature has nothing left but the riches of the youth to distribute to the rising generations. The idea is somewhat far-fetched, and the meaning is in any case dubious. Various emendations have been proposed, such as priv’d of many = deprived of many (things); priv’d of money = bankrupt.13. O! him she stores, to show what wealth she hadstores = keeps in store, keeps aside for future use. OED.2.a. gives : provide for the continuance or improvement of (a stock, race, breed). she refers to Nature.14. In days long since, before these last so bad.
before these last so bad = before these recent days and times which have been so appalling. The lament that times are degenerating dates back to at least as far as Hesiod, c.700BC, whose epic poem Works and Days described the gradual decline of the human race from the golden age into the age of Iron. One suspects that here Shakespeare is parodying the tedious complaint of the elderly that, in their day, life, customs, people, behaviour, were all much better. If it is not so, one might wonder if there is perhaps a specific reference here to harsh times, Southampton’s imprisonment for example, or plots against the Queen, or famine, or natural disasters. We shall never know, but it is a strange conclusion to a sonnet which deals with the supernatural glory of a youth that one should focus on the times which are, it seems, irremediably bad. To a certain extent the conclusion harmonises with the theme of 66, that everything in the world is evil, or subject to evil, but here, not only is the state of affairs evil, but all is worse than it has been before. Perhaps it is just a moment of despair, or perhaps the next few sonnets will resolve the problem.