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Shakespeare Sonnet 14: "Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck"

The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 14: "Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck"

In sonnet 14 from the thematic group, "The Marriage Sonnets," in the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, the speaker continues his mission of persuasion. This time he is contrasting the act of predicting the future by supernatural vs natural means. The speaker hopes that his ability to predict that future by natural means will be more persuasive with the young man, who is apparently quite vain about his appearance. By concentrating on the young man's eyes instead of the heavenly orbs, the speaker demonstrates the importance of the physical encasement to those future generations he is so compelled to herald.

Sonnet 14: "Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck"

Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck
And yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons’ quality;
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain, and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well,
By oft predict that I in heaven find:
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As ‘Truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert;’
Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
‘Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.’

Reading of Sonnet 14

Commentary

In this sonnet, the speaker is creating a contrast between himself and those who would seek to predict the future by astrology. Remaining more scientific, this clever speaker uses his powers of observation of those nearby phenomena to predict certain future events.

First Quatrain: Stars and the Future

Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck
And yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck,
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons’ quality;

In the first quatrain of the sonnet 14, "Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck," the speaker says he does not go by astrological star patterns to predict the future. The speaker does, however, have an understanding of astronomy, but still he cannot predict who will have good fortune or who will experience bad fortune. Nor can he say if life will be threatened by scourges or even if the weather may be pleasant. Though he may have some layman’s knowledge of the stars, he cannot use them to tell the future.

The speaker’s intention of focusing on the eyes of the young man has led him to approach the subject in a rather circuitous manner, by making much of his inability to use the heavenly orbs for prognostications. Likely he wishes to impart the notion that just because he cannot predict through the stars, nevertheless he can clearly grasp the information being conveyed to him through the young man’s facial expressions—especially the lad’s eyes.

Second Quatrain: Future Predictions

Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell,
Pointing to each his thunder, rain, and wind,
Or say with princes if it shall go well,
By oft predict that I in heaven find:

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The speaker continues to say that he cannot even predict the future happenings of the next few minutes; he has no idea whether the weather will include "thunder, rain, and wind." In addition, the speaker also cannot say how well the reign of certain princes may transpire. The stars do not speak to him of fortune or misfortune. The speaker implies that the stars in the heavens, while comparing favorably with the young man's beauty, are not the focus of the speaker, whose argument will remain grounded on earth.

Again, the speaker emphasizes what he is not going say before actually saying his piece. He seems to be keeping his main idea a mystery as he concocts his little drama. Likely, he is playing to the young man’s sense of curiosity. The lad will wonder just what the older advisor is up to now with all this I-cannot-predict-the-future razzmatazz.

Third Quatrain: Eyes Instead of Stars

But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive,
And, constant stars, in them I read such art
As ‘Truth and beauty shall together thrive,
If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert;’

Indeed, instead of from the heavenly stars, the speaker acquires his knowledge from the young man’s eyes; those eyes are "constant stars" that the speaker has no difficulty reading. And what the speaker reads in those eyes is a lovely commingling of two of the speaker’s favorite qualities—truth and beauty. The speaker then asserts that those qualities can remain complete only if placed in trust with the next generation. In fact, the truth and beauty that exist in the young man shall continue to "thrive,"only if the lad will not continue to store those qualities unused; however, if the young lad will change his mind about remaining single, and instead marry and produce a suitable heir who then can carry on those qualities of truth and beauty, those qualities will continue to thrive.

The Couplet: Natural Not Supernatural

Or else of thee this I prognosticate:
‘Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date.’

The speaker then does make a prediction that if the young man does not produce a pleasing son to carry on those worthwhile qualities, after the young man dies, so will those qualities: he declares and predicts that without suitable offspring as a place to invest those lovely qualities of truth and beauty, those features will be lost. Thus, the speaker’s purpose in sonnet 14 in explaining his lack of ability to predict the future by supernatural means is that he wants to underscore the importance of his being able to predict the future by completely natural means: if the young man dies without leaving an heir, all of the lad’s pleasant qualities will die with him.

Even though the speaker has taken a rather complicated path rambling through his little drama, he concludes with the simplicity of his goal. He simply wants to persuade the young man to marry and produce those beautiful heirs, and he will use whatever circuitous paths he deems necessary to accomplish that simple straight forward goal.

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on October 03, 2020:

Thank you, Lorna, for your feedback. Yes, the Shakespeare sonnets represent some of the best literary works ever written, in my opinion. And in many others' opinions as well, I guess, because they do continue to be studied and copies of them continue to sell. Trips down "memory lane" can definitely summon life's true pleasures!

Lorna Lamon on October 02, 2020:

I have always enjoyed the Sonnet's and this sonnet is particularly beautiful as it portrays the eternal nature of love. I studied Eng Lit at University and your article was a wonderful trip down memory lane.

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