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 Theme 8: Love and Courtship
< Poem 9: Sonnet XCIV (94): They that have pow'r to hurt >
sonnet, commentary, criticism, analysis, exegesis

<     William Shakespeare     > 

Portrait of Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton
Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton

Shake-speare’s Sonnets (1609, 45)
probably composed around 1604 (40)

They that have pow’r to hurt and will do none, 
That do not do the thing they most do show, 
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone, 
Unmovèd, cold, and to temptation slow, 
They rightly do inherit heav’n's graces 
And husband nature's riches from expense; 
They are the lords and owners of their faces, 
Others but stewards of their excellence. 
The summer's flower is to the summer sweet, 
Though to itself it only live and die, 
But if that flower with base infection meet, 
The basest weed outbraves his dignity: 
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds; 
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

 

Commentary

Despite the fact that this poem expresses considerable disillusionment, not to say bitterness, with regard to the object of the poet's affections, usually thought to be the super-rich, young and handsome Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (1573-1624), it achieves nevertheless a perfection in terms of the sonnet form which has rarely been equalled in the English language. Shakespeare developed a variant of the form normal for Petrarchan sonnets, with a rhyming couplet to end. It's possible to debate whether one or the other form is preferable, but what is certainly true is that the rhyming couplet demands a strong conclusion, strong in terms of its meaning, that is, because, otherwise, the effect is stupid. I think we can all agree that the final couplet here serves its purpose admirably.

The form of this sonnet is impeccable. It is split into octet and sestet with a change of subject between the two. We move from a detailed, perhaps tortuous analysis of the loved one's nature in the octet, to the summer's flower in the sestet, an image which dominates to the end. The lines are all of ten syllables (except for lines five and seven which have an extra syllable related to the feminine ending - graces, faces), and have five stresses. This regular rhythm gives to the progressing argument, by which the poet extrapolates his own emotion with regard to what is happening, a force and inevitability, as though the whole were driven by a powerful logic, which probably is not at all true, because the emotions expressed are rather turbulent, contorted, and the poet is seeking to understand something that is clearly painful, to excuse unacceptable conduct, to justify, to persuade, to cajole. But nothing can alter the terrible conclusion, stated in the most powerful terms. The arguments of the octet which the poet uses to try to justify the nature of the loved one fade into insignificance in the light of the invective of the final couplet.

A more detailed analysis of the sonnet reveals that it is split into three quatrains and the final couplet. The first quatrain concerns itself with the apparent paradox that the class of people who move others (to love) are actually people who themselves remain unmoved. We have to presume that the poet includes his loved one in this category of person, or rather that he only talks about this class of person in general because the loved one is an example. The use of 'hurt' is possibly the most surprising element. The poet is saying that the loved one is in the class of people who have the power to hurt, but do not exercise that power, and yet it is evident that the poet is hurt.

The second quatrain goes on to attempt a justification for this behaviour: the loved one does not respond to the poet's overtures because he is keeping his riches from being used up; his face, after all, belongs to him, others can lay no claim to own him, nor claim any right to lecture him on how to behave.

The third quatrain introduces the idea of the summer's flower which is an adornment to the summer, as the loved one is presumably an adornment to the court, though he does not perceive himself as such, he does not himself see his own beauty. But....we reach a clear break with the preceding ideas as a moral dimension introduces itself. The summer's flower is susceptible to infection, and the more beautiful the flower, the ranker the result.

I do not know whether lilies that fester do in fact smell worse than weeds. Given Shakespeare's knowledge of the nature, they probably do. But the meaning is clear: when those who are the most beautiful are tainted by odious actions, the effect is stronger than if the same thing happened to somebody 'ordinary'. Whether you agree or not, the fact is that it is very difficult to argue against poetry. One usually gives the impression of being a pedant.

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