William Shakespeare – Sonnet 69
Those parts of thee that the world’s eye doth view
Want nothing that the thought of hearts can mend;
All tongues, the voice of souls, give thee that due,
Uttering bare truth, even so as foes commend.
Thy outward thus with outward praise is crown’d;
But those same tongues, that give thee so thine own,
In other accents do this praise confound
By seeing farther than the eye hath shown.
They look into the beauty of thy mind,
And that in guess they measure by thy deeds;
Then, churls, their thoughts, although their eyes were kind,
To thy fair flower add the rank smell of weeds:
But why thy odour matcheth not thy show,
The soil is this, that thou dost common grow.
�A slight departure from the previous two sonnets, in that, although dealing with worldly impressions and public opinions, as though referring to the judgements made in 67 & 68, it is not so slavishly adulatory. It continues the argument of the youth’s great beauty, acknowledged by all, and then raises the question of his moral condition, hinting that all is far from what it seems superficially. The precise meaning of the conclusion is uncertain. It could be that he is criticised for resorting to harlots (common women), or because he is spending time in ale-houses in the company of common people. The meaning is probably ambiguous deliberately, and gives scope for both the youth and the common reader to interpret as either should think fit.
The 1609 Quarto Version
THoſe parts of thee that the worlds eye doth view,
Want nothing that the thought of hearts can mend:
All toungs(the voice of ſoules)giue thee that end,
Vttring bare truth,euen ſo as foes Commend.
Their outward thus with outward praiſe is crownd,
But thoſe ſame toungs that giue thee ſo thine owne,
In other accents doe this praiſe confound
By ſeeing farther then the eye hath ſhowne.
They looke into the beauty of thy mind,
And that in gueſſe they meaſure by thy deeds,
Then churls their thoughts(although their eies were kind)
To thy faire flower ad the rancke ſmell of weeds,
But why thy odor matcheth not thy ſhow,
The ſolye is this,that thou doeſt common grow.
1. Those parts of thee that the world’s eye doth viewthose parts of thee = your outward, visible appearance.
the world’s eye = public opinion, the common viewpoint.2. Want nothing that the thought of hearts can mend;want nothing = lack nothing, are not deficient in anything.
the thought of hearts = heartfelt thoughts, sincere and loving thoughts.
can mend = are (not) able to supply. Modern usage would be ‘lack nothing that cannot be supplied or put right’.3. All tongues, the voice of souls, give thee that due,All tongues = everyone, all who speak; everyone in all languages.
the voice of souls – in apposition to all tongues. The thought is probably wishful rather than a statement of fact. It could mean ‘in so far as they (the tongues) are the voice of souls’. Dissembling is so much a part of various characters in Shakespeare’s plays that it is not possible to credit him with the view that all speech is the direct utterance of the soul’s thoughts. The statement here encourages us to focus our attention on the inner worth of the man, in contrast to the outward appearance.
due – end in Q is thought to be a misprint which fails to preserve the rhyme. In Elizabethan secretary script d looks like e and u like n. (See SB p.253. n.3).4. Uttering bare truth, even so as foes commend.bare truth = unadorned truth, the plain facts.
even so as foes commend = even to the extent that enemies have to admit that it is so. Even enemies commend the speakers for giving a true account.5. Thy outward thus with outward praise is crown’d;Thy outward = your outward parts, the part of you that is visible (as distinct from your inner self). outward here functions as a noun. Its second use is adjectival (outward praise). The line contains an example of the frequent thy/their misprint.6. But those same tongues, that give thee so thine own,those same tongues – the speakers of line 3.
give thee so thine own – describe your outward aspect so faithfully. They are only returning to you what is your due. Cf. 37 & 38.7. In other accents do this praise confoundother accents – with additional hints, or suggestions. accents indicates a further use of speech to describe the youth, but lines 8-12 suggest that it is only in thought that they find fault with him.
confound = bring to nothing, undermine, confuse.8. By seeing farther than the eye hath shown.By seeing into the inward heart, which is not directly visible to the eye. The phrase farther than the eye hath shown encapsulates the idea that the eye, on seeing, can report (show) what it has seen.9. They look into the beauty of thy mind,They – presumably the people who possess the tongues and who have confounded the praise they first offered.10. And that in guess they measure by thy deeds;that = the beauty (or lack of it) of your mind.
in guess = by guessing. They look at your deeds and deduce from them what your mind is really like.11. Then, churls, their thoughts, although their eyes were kind,Then, churls, their thoughts – Q does not have the commas. churls could therefore refer to the speakers (tongues) of lines 3 & 6, or to the thoughts of this line. A churl was a boorish peasant, but the term could also be used pleasantly, as in And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding. (Sonn 1.) By attributing the churlish thoughts of denigrating the youth’s moral perfection to the perfidy of churlish men, the poet neatly avoids the reproach of being the one who casts the first stone.
Although their eyes were kind – despite the fact that they might be kindly disposed towards you; despite having praised your appearance.12. To thy fair flower add the rank smell of weeds:the rank smell of weeds – weeds were symbolic of rottenness and corruption, probably because they destroyed the labours of cultivation. OED 15a gives for ‘rank’ – of a strongly marked, violent, or virulent type; absolute, downright, gross. (Used to add force to terms implying the existence of bad qualities in a person or thing.) Shakespeare uses the term quite frequently, especially in Hamlet, to describe inner corruption.
Oh my offence is rank, it smells to heaven. HamIII.3.36.
It is often applied to weeds, having the sense of over luxuriance and excessive growth.
Crown’d with rank fumiter, and furrow weeds. KL IV.4.3.
Or it simply means foul and loathsome, (OED 14a) as:
Repent what’s past; avoid what is to come;
And do not spread the compost on the weeds,
To make them ranker. Ham.III.4.150-2.
Thou mixture rank, of midnight weeds collected,
With Hecate’s ban thrice blasted, thrice infected, Ham.III.2.251-2.
Finally, the line provides a link to the famous couplet of Sonnet 94
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
Composted weeds do not in fact smell more or less unpleasant than other decaying vegetable matter. Shakespeare’s use of weeds as metaphors of a festering body or soul springs partly from the awareness of the damage that weeds can do to an agrarian economy, and partly from the fact that some weeds have unpleasant smells. Black horehound (otherwise known as Stinking Roger), stinking chamomile, and stinking hellebore are relatively common. Nowadays, as the countryside is more and more enveloped by the city, they are valued as wild flowers rather than dismissed as weeds.13. But why thy odour matcheth not thy show,thy odour – figuratively, your reputation, your essence. In sonnet 54 the odour of the rose is equated with its inner, eternal qualities. The idea is given greater relevance by the prior mention of smells coming from weeds.14. The soil is this, that thou dost common grow.
soil – this is the usual emendation of Q’s solye. Editors explain it as deriving from the verb assoil, to solve, explain (OED.6.). Hence, ‘the explanation is this’. But there must also be a connection with its common meaning of ‘earth’, especially as the line continues with a mention of common, a word that brings in associations of common land, or land owned, tilled and pastured by villagers as a community . Soil can therefore here have the figurative meaning of ‘the basic stratum, the basic underlying reason (as to why thy odour matcheth not thy show)’. There is also the additional meaning of ‘taint, stain’, as in these lines from Troilus and Cressida:
But I would have the soil of her fair rape
Wiped off in honourable keeping her.TC.II.2.148-9.
The word common in its modern sense of low-class, vulgar (OED14b) only dates from the 19th century. Its usual meaning for Shakespeare is ‘public, widespread’, but often also with pejorative associations of baseness, depending on context, as in the following.
The earth can yield me but a common grave, Sonn.81
And sweets grown common lose their dear delight. Sonn102
Why should my heart think that a several plot
Which my heart knows the wide world’s common place?
You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men Cor.III-3.122-5. (Coriolanus shouting at the mob.)
…….should I, damn’d then,
Slaver with lips as common as the stairs
That mount the Capitol; Cym.I.6.103-5.
The imputations of unpleasantness in all of the above are quite strong. One should also remember that the adjective was applied to prostitutes, as in ‘common customer’ AWW.V.3.284, and ‘common house’, meaning a brothel. MM.II.1.41-3. It is possible that the youth is being accused of either resorting to prostitutes or becoming a male prostitute himself. If that was deemed to be too insulting the poet could always claim that he meant nothing of the sort, and had suggested only that the youth’s acquaintances were not as exalted as his social position required them to be.