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   William Shakespeare    

Elizabeth I, by Nicholas Hilliard

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poem, commentary, criticism, analysis, exegesis

Shake-speare’s Sonnets (1609, 45)

Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul 
Of the wide world, dreaming on things to come, 
Can yet the lease of my true love control, 
Suppos'd as forfeit to a confin'd doom. 
The mortal Moon hath her eclipse endur'd
And the sad augurs mock their own presage; 
Incertainties now crown themselves assur'd 
And peace proclaims olives of endless age. 
Now with the drops of this most balmy time 
My love looks fresh, and Death to me subscribes
Since spite of him I'll live in this poor rhyme, 
While he insults o'er dull and speechless tribes. 
And thou in this shalt find thy monument, 
When tyrants' crests and tombs of brass are spent.


The mortal moon : the allusion here is to Queen Elizabeth I, who was referenced in various ways in the poetry of the period as, for example, Diana (the Virgin Huntress associated with the Moon). She has just suffered her 'eclipse' ie she has just died (she died in 1603), at which point uncertainty as to who was to be her successor disappeared, since it was proclaimed that she had, on the point of death, indicated that James VI of Scotland was to be the man. This ended a great deal of uncertainty about who might succeed. A date of around 1604 for the composition of the poem accords well with lines 7 and 8, where incertainties 'crown' themselves assured, a neat reference to the coronation and succession of James I in 1603, and 'peace proclaims olives of endless age' which readily fits with the peace concluded in the Treaty of London with Spain celebrated in August 1604.
Olives : the olive branch is a symbol of peace.    
Subscribes : yields   Insults : from Latin ‘insultare’ to dance over, trample on or mock. The ‘speechless tribes’ have no verses to immortalise themselves in poetry.


The queen is dead, long live the king! James VI of Scotland has succeeded to the throne as James I of England, and the Earl of Southampton, the object of Shakespeare's attention in most of the sonnets, has been freed from prison, where previously he had been 'suppos'd forfeit to a confin'd doom'. He had been sentenced to death in 1601 for his part in the insurrection led by Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, but his sentence was commuted, and he spent the next three years until the death of the Queen in the Tower. One of the first acts of the new king was to release him, strongly suggesting that there had been contact between the Essex party and the King of Scotland prior to his accession to the throne of England.

There is here little of the passionate, sometimes tortured emotion found in the earlier sonnets. 'True love' is mentioned once, and the poet comments that 'my love looks fresh'. This perhaps implies some sort of reconciliation, possibly brought about by Southampton's misfortunes and Shakespeare's fidelity during those misfortunes. The calm flow and gentle rhythm of the sonnet reinforces the ideas of peace and contentment, and the traditional conceit of the final couplet, that the earl will find immortality in the poet's lines contributes to this mood.


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