William Shakespeare – Sonnet 92
But do thy worst to steal thyself away,
For term of life thou art assured mine;
And life no longer than thy love will stay,
For it depends upon that love of thine.
Then need I not to fear the worst of wrongs,
When in the least of them my life hath end.
I see a better state to me belongs
Than that which on thy humour doth depend:
Thou canst not vex me with inconstant mind,
Since that my life on thy revolt doth lie.
O what a happy title do I find,
Happy to have thy love, happy to die!
But what’s so blessed-fair that fears no blot?
Thou mayst be false, and yet I know it not.
This sonnet may be read as a piece of defensive sophistry against the threatened demise of love. The bold assertion that love will persist for the natural term of life, if not for all eternity, responds to a distant echo of the more famous Sonnet 116
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
But here there is no such confident defiance of time, for the beloved’s unfaithfulness is almost a foregone conclusion and is characterised by such unflattering descriptions as stealing away, the worst of wrongs, thy humour, inconstant mind, revolt, being false. The only escape is the mystical one of becoming one of the souls of the blest in some Avalon
‘Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly’.
But unfortunately this blessed paradise is shattered by the intruding consciousness of betrayal, a recognition of which has been smothered by the determined irrationality of the body of the poem, and the escape from pain achieved by sudden death. The concluding thought however seems to allow that even the bliss of heaven may be tainted by the memory of loss, and that there is no paradise anywhere in the universe.
SB (p.298) notes that Two Gentlemen of Verona V.4.108-20 employs many themes and words that also occur in this sonnet. The words common to both are love, blot, inconstant(cy), blest (blessed), happy. The thematic links are that Proteus is a flawed and feckless character who attempts to betray Julia, and the youth of the sonnets is a similar character. Also that the speakers envisage themselves to be blest and in heaven by being reunited with their loved ones.
However the agonised and despairing tone of this sonnet separates it somewhat from the easy solution that the denouement of TGV offers. There the lovers are reunited in bliss, here the rankling sense that something is seriously wrong continues.
The 1609 Quarto Version
BVt doe thy worſt to ſteale thy ſelfe away,
For tearme of life thou art aſſured mine,
And life no longer then thy loue will ſtay,
For it depends vpon that loue of thine.
Then need I not to feare the worſt of wrongs,
When in the leaſt of them my life hath end,
I ſee,a better ſtate to me belongs
Then that,which on thy humor doth depend.
Thou canſt not vex me with inconſtant minde,
Since that my life on thy reuolt doth lie,
Oh what a happy title do I find ,
Happy to haue thy loue,happy to die!
But whats ſo bleſſed faire that feares no blot,
Thou maiſt be falce, and yet I know it not.
1. But do thy worst to steal thyself away,This first line links to the concluding couplet of the previous sonnet, where it was suggested that the beloved might take all this away (i.e.his love). Here the situation of that happening is faced, with some sophistry, probably not intended to convince. The ‘taking away’ of the previous sonnet has become ‘stealing away’ in this one.
do thy worst – The phrase has almost the same meaning as its opposite, do thy best, but by this inversion the idea is conveyed that the action foreseen is a dubious and dishonest one.
steal thyself away – this conveys the meaning both of ‘slinking off’ and ‘removing something furtively, as a thief does’. Neither image is flattering to the beloved.2. For term of life thou art assured mine;term = the period of a contract. term of life is a phrase used in legal documents.
assured – apart from the standard meaning of ‘certain, confirmed’ there is more than a hint of legal terminology. assured could mean betrothed, or having submitted to a contract of marriage. As the following:
To conclude, this drudge, or diviner, laid claim to me, call’d me
Dromio; swore I was assured to her; CE.III.2.3. And life no longer than thy love will stay,When your love departs from me, my life will end. This could be a threat of suicide, or it could be a statement of what the poet feels must happen if he is deserted. Either way it has more than a hint of emotional blackmail. But see note to line 6 below.4. For it depends upon that love of thine.it depends upon = it (my life) is controlled by, is subject to, is sustained by etc.5. Then need I not to fear the worst of wrongs,Then need I not = therefore I do not need;
the worst of wrongs – from the context of this and the preceding two sonnets we know that this worst of wrongs is the cessation of love and the casting aside of his love by the youth.6. When in the least of them my life hath end.in the least of them = as a result of the least of wrongs. Having said above that the withdrawal of love, the worst of wrongs, will cause him to die, it now seems slightly puzzling that the least of wrongs will have the same effect. The poet may be turning his attention to, or even satirising, the parlance of lovers, according to which even the least frown is enough to kill. Compare Rosalind’s disclaimers to Orlando in As You Like It:
Ros. Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.
Orl. I would not have my right Rosalind of this mind, for I protest her frown might kill me.
Ros. By this hand, it will not kill a fly. AYL.IV.1.101-5.7. I see a better state to me belongsbetter state = the condition of being a blessed soul in heaven.8. Than that which on thy humour doth depend:humour = whim, caprice; temperament. The word is used in the previous sonnet also.
depend also links to the line above, the conclusion here being that the speaker’s current state of dependency is not all that desirable9. Thou canst not vex me with inconstant mind,vex = cause pain, trouble, harass;
inconstant mind = fickleness, faithlessness. There seems to be a verbal play on canst not and constant, one being an anagram of the other. Also perhaps a recall of sonnet 89, line 5,
Thou canst not, love, disgrace me half so ill,
which echoes this line.10. Since that my life on thy revolt doth lie.Since that = because;
revolt = turning away, betrayal.
doth lie = is dependent on.11. O what a happy title do I find,a happy title = a fortunate claim to possession (of you). ‘Title’ is a legal word, as in ‘title deeds’, ‘title to the throne’ etc. The phrase could also mean ‘pleasing name (that of being your lover)’.12. Happy to have thy love, happy to die!The threefold repetition of ‘happy’, as KDJ points out, helps to obliterate the memory of the double wretchedness of the previous sonnet. The poet will either enjoy the love of the youth, or if it is denied him, he will die and become one of the blessed saints in heaven. There is also a sexual innuendo which by its levity helps to alleviate the impending gloom, since to have = to possess carnally, and to die = to have an orgasm. Often the most heart rending sonnets are lightened by a submerged tone of ribaldry, as if the speaker is also prepared to laugh at himself and the situation. It is interesting to note that this is one of the rare places in which the Q text uses an exclamation mark!13. But what’s so blessed-fair that fears no blot?blessed-fair – abstract for concrete – ‘a person who is beautiful and fortunate, and blessed with all good things in life’; ‘anything that is fair and beautiful and blessed by heaven’.
blot = stain, blemish, moral fault; castigation for a moral failing. This is a word used relatively sparingly by Shakespeare. Nearly all the occurrences are in the early plays and poems. Of 37 places where blot or blots occurs, (mostly used as a noun), 6 are in the Rape of Lucrece, 4 in the sonnets, one in V&A, 24 from the earlier plays, and only two instances post dating 1600 (KL and Tim). I give below the three other examples from the sonnets. In the first it is used as a verb:
And dost him grace when clouds do blot the heaven: 28
So shall those blots that do with me remain 36
Where beauty’s veil doth cover every blot, 95
The use of this word possibly does provide some indication of date of composition. It is however a notoriously difficult task to date the sonnets, and no one has done so successfully. Scholarly conjecture tends to put them between 1593 and 1599. The possibility of later revision for the 1609 publication adds further uncertainty.14. Thou mayst be false, and yet I know it not.Thou mayst be false – noticeably the construction could apply to the future, present, or past. The speaker does not know whether he is, has been, or will be rejected.
and yet = nevertheless; and still (I am in ignorance).